Law Society Of Nigeria: How NBA Saved Splinter Group Leader, Kunle Ogunba, SAN In The Past
Another splinter group is again tasking the indivisibility of the Nigerian Bar Association, despite judicial affirmation that it is the association for lawyers in Nigeria, SUNDAY EJIKE writes.
About two years after it survived the last attempt to break it up, the Nigerian Bar Association, established in 1933 as a non-profit association of all lawyers admitted to the Bar in Nigeria, is again, struggling to sustain its indivisibility as another splinter group emerged from its rank, demanding independence.
Not even a well-received judgement of the Enugu State High Court of July 29, 2022, compelling the membership of the association for all lawyers called to the Bar in Nigeria, will stop the dissent emerging from the association.
Despite the pendency of the ruling, the Law Society of Nigeria (LSN), was announced into existence on October 30, about three months after the court ruling.
The group is led by a controversial Silk, Mr. Kunle Ogunba.
The new splinter group leader has an interesting history with the NBA and the justice sector.
On January 11, 2018, the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee withdrew the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria from him at its 129th Plenary Meeting. The body, after its investigation, said it upheld a petition against him by the Honeywell Group, alleging professional misconduct.
According to the statement released by Hadizatu Mustapha Esq, then Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court/Secretary of the Committee, the alleged misconduct included the institution of multiplicity of proceedings before different judges of the Federal High Court on the same subject with the deliberate aim of abusing the process of Court and derailing the course of Justice.
The Committee added that after a thorough investigation of the petition by the sub-committee it set up (at which the Respondent was given a fair hearing), it decided that the petition was meritorious.
Interestingly, it was the NBA which Ogunba now seeks to break up that rallied to his side, with a glimmer of hope by declaring him not guilty of the same allegations for which the LPPC, headed by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, convicted him.
NBA, in its August 5, 2016 response to Honeywell Group’s petition against Ogunba, signed by its then General Secretary Mazi Afam Osigwe, said it would not refer him to its Disciplinary Committee.
“We regret to inform you that a careful reading of the petition failed to disclose any alleged infraction of the Rules of Professional Conduct 2007 in respect of which Mr. Kunle Ogunba (SAN) could be called upon to offer an explanation.
“It is a principle of law that companies are separate legal entities capable of suing and being sued.
“Placing this principle side by side with your allegation of abuse of court process, we are satisfied the cases referred to as well as the court processes attached by your good-selves failed to show the existence of a case involving the same parties in respect of same facts and seeking same reliefs,” NBA had concluded.
LPPC’s sanction was, eventually lifted on 20th September 2018 with a proviso that the learned Silk should be of good and honourable conduct going forward.
Troubled waters again?
As if made for controversies, Ogunba, the restored Silk was back last year, before the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC) and the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) for alleged gross misconduct and unethical practices contrary to the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners 2007.
This time, it was SEPLAT, a leading independent indigenous oil and gas exploration and development company that tabled complaints before the two bodies, accusing Ogunba of violating Rules 1, 15, 24, 30 and 32 of the Rules of Professional Conduct 2007, urging sanctions against the senior advocate in line with paragraph 55 of the Rules of Professional Conduct.
SEPLAT, also accused Ogunba of instructing the invasion of No. 16A Temple Road, Ikoyi Lagos, housing its corporate offices, a rented property which also housed Samsung Heavy Industries Nigeria Limited, African Finance Corporation, and Arise Television.
It urged the LPPC to “immediately commence disciplinary action against Mr. Adekunle Babatunde Ogunba, SAN” over steps and actions it considered “unbecoming of a legal practitioner of his standing and constitute a danger of bringing disrepute to the legal profession, which is held so dear”.
SEPLAT equally alleged that having locked up its corporate office in a commando style, “the agents of Adekunle Ogunba served certain court processes on SEPLAT containing an Originating Summons, a Motion on Notice and interim ex parte Order in suit No FHC/L/CS/1588/2020”.
The suit is in respect of a loan obtained by Cardinal Drillings Services Limited from Diamond Bank (now Access Bank), which has fallen due and in respect of which Access Bank appointed the law firm of Kunle Ogunba & Associates Receiver/Manager, pursuant to a Deed of Debenture executed between Access bank and Cardinal Drilling.
SEPLAT also accused Ogunba of obtaining the said ex parte orders with “patently false” claims.
In the defence he put out, first reported by barristerng.com, the Senior Advocate said, “It is obvious that the petition (if any) is an attempt to blackmail me and avoid the payment of huge indebtedness of SEPLAT to Access Bank Plc and nothing more. SEPLAT is better advised to take steps to liquidate its debt rather than attempt to intimidate me, a lawyer merely doing my duties as such. Once again, I reiterate the fact that the petition has not been formally brought to my attention for a formal reaction.
“It is the stock in trade of these huge debtors to peddle petitions all around in a bid to avoid the payment of their debts. I was not there when they borrowed the funds and they have obviously targeted my person for the nuisance value rather (than) take steps to liquidate the debt. This particular debt was part of the huge debt overhang that sank the defunct Diamond Bank and they don’t mind if Access Bank goes under for their sake too”, he said.
Fighting a lost battle?
In announcing the NBA splinter group, its National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Douglas Ogbankwa, tagged it a “new sheriff in town.”
However, the body hit stormy waters after its convener and founding secretary, Richard Oma Ahonaruogho (SAN), disowned the executive as contained in the press statement announcing its establishment.
Ahonaruogho explained that the purported executive members of the LSN as announced were not known to the body.
As lawyers grapple with the newest development and internal discord, already ravaging the leadership of the splinter group, there is a concern within NBA that politicking may eventually lead to its future balkanization, though LSN looks set to go the way of its predecessors.
In August 2020, two lawyers, Nuhu Ibrahim and Abdulbasit Suleiman, announced the formation of the New Nigerian Bar Association (NNBA).
The aggrieved northern members of the NBA said they were pulling out of the association, following the withdrawal of the invitation to Nasir el-Rufai, governor of Kaduna, as a speaker at NBA’s conference in 2020.
The conveners, in a letter to the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN) on August 28, 2022, said the national executive council of the NBA “failed to take into consideration our national interests. We are pleased to inform you of the formation of a new Association of Lawyers as above captioned.
“The formation of the new Association has become imperative and expedient especially flowing from the activities, disposition and most recently, the decision of the Nigerian Bar Association-NEC which apparently failed to take into consideration our national interests and particularly do not promote the unity of our indissoluble country, Nigeria,” the letter read in part.
The decision to withdraw the governor of Kaduna state, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai’s invitation to speak at the Annual General Conference of the NBA, it will be recalled, was taken at the pre-Annual General Conference, National Executive Council, NEC, AGC-NEC of the association.
The duo claimed the NNBA members were in consultations with “very senior lawyers of Northern Nigeria extraction and those practising therein with a view to constituting the trustees and for purposes of fixing date for formal inauguration of the Association.”
The NNBA also claimed that the NBA offices were lopsided against Northern lawyers, among other grievances.
It noted in a statement that, “The New Nigerian Bar Association has been watching the activities of the NBA, an association we all looked forward to joining with high hopes before being called to the Nigerian Bar, forcing idiosyncrasies of few on the majority of its members especially in recent times.
“No wonder, NBA NEC, which is the highest decision-making organ of the Association failed to uphold the fundamental principles of fair hearing which in itself, is the fundamental aspect of Rule of Law, on the allegations against the Executive Governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai as were contained in a petition by Chidi Odinkalu Esq., a long time foe of His Excellency and a lawyer of eastern extraction.
“But the NBA failed to extend the same treatment to Southern invitees who were also petitioned and are also alleged to have committed similar or more human rights abuses than those alleged against Mallam el-Rufai.”
The conveners further argued that the membership of NBA is not mandatory, adding that Section 40 of the Constitution permits freedom of association.
“The New Nigerian Bar Association members, gleaning from the above Constitutional provision feel that their interests are no longer taken into consideration in major decisions of the NBA, hence the formation of this Association.
“A cursory chronicle of the membership composition of major organs of the NBA would reveal lopsided representation despite having large numbers of Lawyers from all parts of the country and especially Northern Nigeria who have diligently paid their Bar practicing fees and have distinguished themselves in the legal profession.
“The New Nigerian Bar Association feels that, Lawyers, as professionals like Doctors and Accountants, should have more than one Association regulated by the General Council of the Bar.”
“In fact, the NBA was established as an Incorporated Trustee by the Corporate Affairs Commission, CAC. It is no longer gainsaying that a group of Lawyers can freely join any lawful Association for the protection of their rights and interests as Lawyers and citizens of Nigeria pursuant to the above cited Section 40 of the Constitution. “Even Section 1 of the Legal Practitioners Act, which seemingly conscripted all Lawyers in Nigeria to Mandatory Membership of NBA is, for all intents and purposes, at loggerheads with Section 40 of the Constitution which makes the former null and void and of no effect whatsoever” they claimed.
After the initial buzz, the group faded out without much noise.
Lawyers speak, NBA mum
A constitutional lawyer, Onyechi Egwuonwu told The Jury that the Legal Practitioners Act 1975 (as amended) mentioned NBA as a professional body of lawyers in the country.
“See the Interpretation Section. The Law Society is unknown to the LPA. But note that the right to freedom of association is constitutionally guaranteed. The Supreme Court decision in FAWEHINMI V. NBA (NOS. 1 & 2) 2 NWLR (PT 105) 494 & 558 is the case law authority that the NBA has no statutory force”, he said.
Another lawyer, Amos Bature said the new association of lawyers will not stand, but wanted NBA to wade into the grievances of the splinter groups, to resolve the issues, in the interest of the legal profession and the country in general.
The leadership of the NBA is yet to officially respond to the emergence of the splinter body. The Jury however gathered that the NBA is not losing sleep over it.
A member of the current executive of the NBA, who did not want his name printed, said he would not comment on the issue, because, “it is not important”.
An Abuja-based lawyer (name withheld) told The Jury that the recent formation of the Law Society of Nigeria by the splinter group, was an act of defiance of the judgement of the Enugu State High Court, which declared membership of the NBA as compulsory for lawyers called to the Nigerian Bar and practising in the country.
The trial judge, R.O Odugu, delivering judgment in a suit filed about two years ago by an aggrieved lawyer, Ben Oloko, held that, it was compulsory for every lawyer called to the Nigerian Bar to become a member of the NBA and cited judicial precedents which he said were binding on him, in blocking attempts by lawyers to defect from the NBA.
He cited the judgements of the Court of Appeal in related cases such as Kehinde Vs NBA; Fawehinmi Vs NBA; and Chinwo Vs NBA, as precedents, noting “this court is not allowed to swim against the tide. The summary of the current position of the law as decided by superior courts is that membership of the Nigerian Bar Association is automatic upon being called to the Bar.”
The trial judge further noted that before one is called to the Bar, one must have paid the Bar practising fees for the year of call. The person must have also chosen a branch of the NBA to belong to.
“The new lawyer is expected to indicate the NBA branch he or she has chosen on the Supreme Court teller for payment of the practising fee and that, “Membership of the Nigerian Bar Association is a condition precedent to one being called to the Nigerian Bar”.
Body of post culled from Tribune