One Year Anniversary: How Olumide Akpata is Repositioning the NBA – By Raymond Nkannebe
August 28, 2021, marked one year anniversary of Olumide Akpata’s historic swearing-in as the 30th President of the Nigerian Bar Association (“NBA”) after winning a popular victory in July of last year, in circumstances that would be talked about for a long time in the annals of the Association.
Given the circumstances of his emergence, and the somewhat fractious State of the Bar at the time, the weight of expectations thrust on the back of the new Bar Leadership meant that the performance of the Administration would not be adjudged by the rather pedestrian standards by which previous leadership of the Bar, had been assessed, namely the organization of at least, a decent Annual Conference; seamless processing of stamp and seal of Counsel; and occasional but half- hearted interventions in the public space, all of which had conduced to a marked disinterest of too many a Lawyer to Bar activities and a confidence crisis for the Association in the Court of public opinion.
But as it turned out, Olumide Akpata was fully prepared for a job he had taken several years to prepare for, and despite becoming the leader of the largest Bar in Africa at one of the most inauspicious times in our recent history, indexed by the Covid-19 pandemic which was soon to coincide with the #EndSars protests—two unprecedented events that would test particularly the Nigerian Bar Association’s commitment to its mandate of promoting the Rule of Law and acting as the bulwark of the civil liberties of the citizenry.
The Administration’s handling of the #EndSars protests, however, was the earliest signs that it had come to serve; not just Nigerian Lawyers, but also the Nigerian people who it may be remembered were fully invested in his campaigns as many saw in him an overdue breath of fresh air, and as a poster card of the clamor for younger leaders in Nigeria’s leadership dynamics.
For many Lawyers and Nigerians alike, those early signs have since materialized into deliverables that cut across the spectrum of the NBA’s mandate both to the Bar, and the society at large. Since the historic emergence of the Administration, the word on the street, is that the “NBA is back”. So it is that even the staunchest critics of the Administration have on more than one occasion, publicly conceded to the surpassing of their expectations by the Administration for whom it has been a busy day at the office since it came into the saddle.
The markers are so numerous that I myself, despite what some might attribute as proximity to the Administration, may not be able to set out in a single intervention such as the instant one, constrained by space. But suffice it to mention only but a few.
In a classic example of a Leader who understands that leadership is a public trust, and one which must be treated with the highest circumspection, I have watched with great admiration how the Administration has committed itself painfully to discharging the lofty promises made to Nigerian Lawyers in that four-pronged Campaign Manifesto that ran a gamut of, The Bar and its Members; the Bar and the Society; the Bar as an Institution; and the Future of the Bar.
On each of these broad mandates clearly delineated into specific action points, it would not be an exercise in exaggeration to say that the Administration has so far, creditably acquitted itself in what has been a very challenging year. At the risk of sounding too hypothetical, some context may suffice for our purposes here.
Certainly, one area the Administration has probably been most visible is in its commitment to the welfare of Lawyers irrespective of their standing at the Bar. The interventions on this score are legion. I will only identify a few of them.
Conscious of the stressed-induced nature of the Lawyer’s job oftentimes leading to sudden death, the Administration has since negotiated what is yet, the best health insurance package for Nigerian Lawyers which would see relatives of deceased Lawyers earning as much as Two Million Naira in insurance payouts at no cost to them, thanks to a strategic partnership with Leadway Assurance Plc. On another wicket, in a bid to address the perennial problem of remuneration of Lawyers as well as a standardization of fees and charges of Lawyers, the Administration, through the Remuneration Committee led by Anthony Nwaochie is currently in the final stages of that mandate which recently saw to the holding of an unprecedented Town Hall meeting by key stakeholders drawn from various areas of practice, with a view to articulating fine points that would form the frame of the proposition to be made to the National Executive Committee of the Bar, as a necessary step to the institutionalization of the outcome of the Committee’s work.
Another evidence of commitment to this broad mandate of welfare is the several interventions of the Administration to the epidemic of harassment of legal practitioners in the course of their work, particularly when interfacing with law enforcement agencies. That commitment recently led to the Memorandum of Partnership signed by the NBA, and the Leadership of the Nigerian Police Force on 4th August 2021 to stem the ugly trend. This intervention; the first of its kind in a long time, has no doubt restored the dignity that was once accorded to Lawyers in this country in the course of their duties particularly at law enforcement formations.
Yet, that is not all the administration is doing in terms of the welfare of members. Until he came on board, processing of seals and stamps which is central to the Lawyer’s everyday job with implications for his or her earnings was often something of a thug of war due to logistics challenges. The digitization of that process however by the Administration, has since faded those sad memories and what was until recently a herculean task, has suddenly become an effortless endeavor. For completion on this score; in keeping with that promise he made to members during the campaigns, 2 pack of stamps was delivered to every financially active member— another first in Bar Administration in Nigeria and a remarkable gesture of empathy towards many Lawyers who have grappled with a very difficult pandemic year.
There are obviously other interventions in this regard, but let me put the cap with the even more recent partnership between the NBA and the leading Legal Solutions Provider–Law Pavilion that would see different categories of Lawyers enjoy full access to legal resources ranging from case laws, primary and secondary legislations etc, for one year at very discounted rates. While that partnership which cost the Administration a whopping sixty million Naira is admittedly not the first of its kind, it is however the most inclusive as it captures every segment of Bar membership in keeping with the mantra of Making the Bar Work for All that launched the Administration into office. Whilst this has been greeted with few and far in-between criticisms, the popular Bar sentiment is that it is one that couldn’t have been more beneficial.
To tackle the problem of exclusion within the ranks of the profession and to give virtually all segments of the Bar a sense of belonging, Olumide Akpata secured the nod of the National Executive Committee (“NEC”) of the Association at its meeting held on 24th June, 2021 to establish three new fora targeted as specific categories of Lawyers. These include: Lawyers with Disability Forum; Corporate Counsel Forum; and Law Officers Forum. Again, for the first time in the history of the Association, selected Young Lawyers would now participate at the NEC meetings of the Association–the highest decision organ of the Bar. These inclusion-based interventions are no doubt, a fulfillment of that pledge to give each and every segment of the Bar, a place under the large umbrella of the Association so that they can have a strategic platform to articulate their peculiar interests as well as actively participate in Bar activities.
Another noticeable area of the Administration’s commitment to the welfare of members is the investment in human capital and capacity building and/or development of members particular the younger Lawyers. For a profession that is knowledge-based, it is probably the most impactful to members. Through the revitalized Institute of Continuing Legal Education (ICLE) led by the indefatigable Tobenna Erojikwe–a Senior Partner in a fast-rising Corporate-Commercial Law Practice, the Administration has offered bouquets of trainings and seminars on diverse areas of law practice from Aviation to Technology; Entertainment to Taxation; Civil Procedure to Appellate Brief Writing; just to name but a few. I have had to participate in some of these high skilled trainings ably delivered by arguably the best heads in the implicated areas of practice, and I can attest to how rewarding they have been. At the last count, no fewer than 20,000 members of the profession have taken the benefit of these programs to scale their capacity in areas where they’re deficient as part of the Mandatory Continuing Legal Education nominated by the Rules of Ethics.
While the Administration has been fully committed to its undeniable primary commitment to members, it has not lost sight of its equal commitment to the Society as mandated by the constitutive instruments of the Association. Whether in the area of improving the quality of Administration of Justice; Defending the integrity of the Judiciary; Promoting and Protecting Rule of Law and Human Rights; Law Reform initiatives; Public Interest Litigation and Advocacy; or Criminal Justice Reform Initiatives, the Olumide Akpata-led NBA has proven that it can walk and chew gum at the same time. Let me now attempt a brief explication of the interventions by the Administration on these subheads.
To tackle the issues attending Justice Administration in the country, it may be recalled that one of the earliest acts of the Administration was the appointment of a Justice Reforms Committee headed by Dr. Babatunde Ajibade; SAN the first runners-up at the election that produced the Akpata leadership. Beyond the obvious objectives of this Committee, as contained in its Terms of Reference, the choice of its leader was a deft move at uniting the Bar and a commendable act of magnanimity in victory. That Committee has since delivered its Report to the Association; and it may not be long before its fruits are being reaped.
The integrity of the judiciary is no doubt at the core of the legal profession. In this wise, it may also be recalled that the Administration inherited the crisis that then rocked the Cross River State Judiciary over the office of the Chief Judge of the State. However, it would take just a few months after taking the Oath of office for the Administration to intervene in the crisis and ultimately seeing that the cherished tradition of hierarchy within the Bar and the Bench sought to be upended by some reactionary interest in the State was restored. It would become one of the Administration’s earliest successes.
The Bar equally witnessed this commitment to the integrity of the Judiciary and the Rule of Law during the recent JUSUN strike that tested the resolve of the Administration. Despite criticisms from near and wide, Akpata stuck to his belief, and rightly so, that the financial autonomy of the judiciary was not negotiable if indeed we are to have a truly independent and effective judiciary. Despite the financial and emotional costs to members while the strike took its toll, he urged members to look beyond the desires of the present for the bigger interest of the justice Administration in the country. All of that was to pay off in the eventual resolution of the dispute with resounding success for judicial autonomy in Nigeria as being seen today in many states of the Federation. Of course, there are other interventions targeted at strengthening the integrity of the judiciary which may not be explored here, but let me just refer to the latest in this regard: the strong-worded statement, yesterday, on the gale of conflicting and confusing court orders in political cases as witnessed in Anambra, Kebbi, Cross River, Imo and elsewhere. That intervention coincides with a similar move by the Chief Justice of the Federation–Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed is an eloquent testimony of the pro-activeness of this Bar Leader who is committed to repositioning, not just the Nigerian Bar Association; but also restoring the Nigerian Lawyer to his full and hitherto, glorious stature.
The Administration is also very visible in the area of protection of Human Rights and Promoting the Rule of Law; even if it means dragging the authorities to Court for egregious abuse of power. Of course, many Nigerians would attest to the role played by the NBA during the #EndSars protests and beyond, to secure the release of lawful protesters arrested by law enforcement agencies through the empanelling of pro-bono desks across the 125 branches of the Association to assist in that regard. The commitment to human rights would culminate, last year, in the signing of a Memorandum of Partnership with the Tony Ojukwu-led Nigerian Human Rights Commission to collaborate in the areas of their mutual objectives—a partnership which has deepened the engagement of the NBA in human rights causes.
And if the Public Interest Litigation mandate of the Bar was an Idea of a fading past, that has since been restored through the Dr. Charles Mekwunye-led Public Interest Litigation Committee which is currently prosecuting at least two cases at the instance of the NBA namely, the unconstitutional extension of the tenure of the last Inspector General of Police, and the unconstitutional ban and/or suspension of Twitter by the Federal Government. Each of these cases with vistas of shaping our Constitutional Jurisprudence is currently at various stages of prosecution.
The Law Reform interventions of the Administration are also there for all to see. Long before the appointment of the Law Reform Committee led by Mohammed Dele Belgore, SAN the Administration had intervened through the Prof. Deji Adekunle SAN-led 7-Man Committee to draft the Police Service Commission (Repeal and Re-enactment) Bill, 2020 in partnership with the Office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives—the Rgt. Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila. That legislation which was necessitated by the ugly turn out of the #EndSARS protests last October has since passed the crucial Second Reading on the floor of the National Assembly.
The net result of these interventionist programs in the public domain is the renewed hope and confidence of many Nigerians in the Nigerian Bar Association as a bulwark of the civil liberties of the citizens which was until the coming of the Akpata leadership, a part of the Association’s lost heritage.
Beyond the Society, the Administration has also been taking bold steps to rebuild the NBA as a world-class Institution complete with the paraphernalia of a 21st century Bar Association. This entails streamlining the Association’s Administrative structure; Institutional and Regulatory Reforms in the Association; synergy with the Branches; strengthening the support of the Foras and Sections; upping the ante of professional discipline and ethics, and institutionalizing a whistleblowing mechanism as part of corporate governance drive. Conscious of the fact that these bold reforms would in many respects, warrant amendments to the extant Constitution of the Association, the Administration appointed the Constitution Review Committee led by Yussuf Asamah Kadiri SAN, with a mandate to aggregate Bar sentiments and propose amendments to the extant Constitution of the Association upon which these proposed Institutional reforms would be erected. That exercise which has since been completed now awaits the approval of the General Meeting of the Association for the proposals to be ratified.
In the area of strengthening of Branches, I must mention the various interventions of the Administration in resolving some of the most intractable Branch dislocations the Association has witnessed in recent years; from Jigawa to Kano; Ikeja to Oji River and elsewhere. Each of these Bar dislocations has since been addressed and in some of the Branches like Ikeja, substantive Executives duly elected have since been sworn in. In this wise, the resolution of the intractable crisis that upended the foundations of the popular ‘Unity Bar’ through the balkanization of the Branch at the last NEC meeting, probably deserves a notable mention. For a problem which had been kicked down the road like the proverbial can by previous Administrations, its bones have now been interred with the prospects of a new chapter in what would be the emerging Branches; a chapter which hopefully would be rooted in peace, harmony and leadership decorum; the lack of which sang the nunc dimitis for the ‘Unity Bar’.
While the Administration is comfort in addressing the current challenges of the Bar within the limited time available to it; it is also looking into the future perhaps in the knowledge that the best years of the Nigerian Bar Association is still ahead of it. Thus, in laying the foundation of the Bar of our collective aspiration, the Akpata-led NBA has been taking steps towards setting the stage for the attainment of a globalised Legal Practice through the deployment of technology in Law Practice in Nigeria; enlightenment on new and emerging Practice Areas; Review of the Rules of Professional Conduct and Legal Practitioners Act so as to align them with the demands of modern practice, amongst other ideas being explored.
It is therefore not surprising that in one year at the office, the mass of Nigerian Lawyers; with their sundry expectations having been matched and exceeded, are now seeking a tenure-elongation for the Akpata-led NBA. Across Bar Forums on social media and elsewhere, the Administration has received unprecedented praise for the great work it has done so far. While some say he’s the most proactive NBA President in recent history; others say he has raised the pedestal of Bar-leadership to never-seen heights. And for those who vigorously campaigned for him, his successes and transformative leadership so far, have been a source of vindication.
When the history of the Administration would be written, I like to think that many would attribute its success to Akpata’s understanding that the enormous work that sits on the desk of an NBA President cannot be discharged within a two-year cycle without the assistance of persons who share the visions of the President and are willing and ready to commit their scarce resources towards the actualization of same. This must-have led to his historic appointment of 20 Standing and Ad-hoc Committees tasked with various broad mandates of the Association on the 1st of March, 2021. These Committees which altogether comprise over 300 members include Judiciary Committee; Welfare Committee; Remuneration Committee; Digital NBA; Sports and Recreation Committee e.t.c. While some of the Committees are at various stages of their mandate as constituted in their Terms of Reference (ToR), others have since discharged theirs such as the Editorial Committee led by Prof. U.U. Chukwumaeze, SAN which next week, would be announcing the publication of Two Issues of the Nigerian Bar Journal which was last published in October 2017.
Yet, as laudable as the performance of the Administration has been, there is no gainsaying the fact that a lot still needs to done in terms of revamping the Nigerian Bar Association as an Institution that delivers maximum utility both to its members, and the society at large. Not surprisingly, Akpata, who clearly understands this fact, is giving no room for complacency which often precipitates failure; or declines performance. “Thank you all for your very kind words and good wishes! I am truly grateful! There is however so much yet to be done. So….we move!!!”, he wrote in a Whatsapp Group of close-associates, in response to felicitations from members on the actual date of the anniversary which has been deliberately made a low-key event in keeping with the austere times.
Of course, no one expects an NBA President to finish all the work that needs to be done within the two-year shelf-life of an NBA Presidency, but at the very minimum, the foundations upon which successive leaders of the Bar could build upon should be erected. This is one area prior leaders of the Bar have been found wanting with the greatest respect to them, but that story is about to be re-written by Olumide Akpata. And not a few persons have suggested that whoever succeeds him might struggle to fill his shoes. But time will tell.
Akpata’s trailblazing performance truly inspires hope for Nigeria’s future. In a country where leadership is often met with discontent from the masses, he has shown by force of example that a news story can be written in the Nigerian leadership paradigm. Surely, if he adopts the template of this stellar outing in national politics, we can expect a similar outcome. There has been at least one Bar Leader who went on to become the Governor of his State. Perhaps Olumide Akpata might repeat that feat sometime in the future. And when he does, he would find in his two-year leadership of the Bar unimpeachable evidence of his capacity to lead on a massive scale. How he caps this performance in the next one year would surely shape that future and the Jury, of course, is still out.
Raymond Nkannebe, Legal Practitioner and Program Coordinator of the Global Sustainable Youth Forum, writes from Lagos. He tweets @RayNkah.