In this interview by BIOLA AZEEZ, foremost lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Malam Yusuf Ali, speaks on the lingering crisis in the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and other issues of national importance.
These are not the best of times for the NBA. How did the association get here?
People, even members, tend to forget that the NBA is a professional body and not a political party. Even our members bring attitude of politicians into professional issues. Otherwise there should not be questions about who becomes the leader of a professional organisation. I think the Nigerian attitude is the problem that we have in the NBA.
Are you saying that politicians have infiltrated the NBA?
No. Not at all. I am just saying that we bring the attitude of politicians into the Bar. Of course, there are lawyers who are politicians. So, you can’t say they are not members. But the attitude of the average Nigerian politician is the problem that we have imported into the NBA. This fight to the finish on any issue, ethnicity, tribalism, these are the problems that have been plaguing Nigeria politics and politicians. We have allowed some of these things to make way into our profession.
How do you see Nigeria as a nation in the next 10 years if an association of intellectuals such as the NBA could be polarised along ethnic and tribal lines?
As if it is NBA alone. There is an ongoing crisis in the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). I think there is something wrong with us as a people. Things that others do seamlessly, we get tied up about them because we allow too many mundane issues to dictate issues that are purely meritorious. It is a thing that is afflicting so many professions – the pharmacists council, even your own journalism circle. I think it is a Nigerian problem.
What do you think the roles of past leaders, or elders, of the NBA should be in all this, towards restoring sanity in the association?
The roles of the elders should be to calm frayed nerves, appeal to all the sides, and elders should not take sides. They should be neutral if they want to find a solution to this. When we had a crisis in 1992 in Port Harcourt, it was because the elders remained substantially neutral that we were able to find solutions then; to come out of the morass. I think it is the same thing. Let me also tell you that it is normal, when you have an aggregate of many people, you are likely to have disagreements. The disagreements should not be ill-based; they should be based on principles and tangible things, not on frivolities.
Where do you belong in this NBA/New NBA matter? Are you for the North or for the South?
Number one, those who know me know that I don’t relate with people on the basis of whether they are Southerners or Northerners. That is why the last thing I know about an individual is where he comes from. I don’t ask you where you are from because where we are all from is not by our own choice. It is something thrown at us by God. So, that should not define our relationships as human beings – whether you are black or red, white or green. You never had a choice in how you came. You did not choose your father or your mother. You had no choice in what town you were born in. So, all that should not become the defining factors in our lives as a people.
On the (is it crisis now?) seeming misunderstanding in the NBA, I stand on the side of peace. I stand on the belief that the strength of the NBA is in the largeness of the members. I say that we should not do anything that will take away that strength. The forefathers of our profession had the vision of a united Nigeria. That is why we had a united Bar. And that is why when you are called to Bar, you are called to the Nigerian Bar, not Northern Bar, Southern Bar, Yoruba Bar, Urhobo Bar, Itsekiri Bar, or Kanuri Bar. The profession was to be fulcrum for the unity of our country. So, we should not lose that. We should not lose sight of it and we should not lose that very important role. That is why despite the fact that we have many campuses of the Nigerian Law School, everyone is called to the Nigerian Bar. And that is why the call to the Bar is central. It is to make a statement that we are all the same, notwithstanding where God and geography have decided to locate us. So, for me there is nothing like the new bar or old bar. It is just one Nigerian Bar Association. And as lawyers, we must cherish, keep and protect the Nigerian Bar Association. We would have challenges, it is normal. Challenges would come either in this form or that form. What is important is for all of us to have a rallying point, a united Bar.
What then do you say to those who have taken sides with either the NBA or the New NBA?
I will just appeal… Look, every time you have a disagreement with your wife, do you opt for divorce? No! You patch up; you make up. It is the same thing. If we form a new association every time we have a disagreement, then we become something like politicians. That is why I said we are behaving like politicians. It is Nigerian politicians that have that mentality. They disagree in one group, they form a splinter group. They disagree in the splinter group, they form another group. And that is why we have a proliferation of political parties. We should not behave like that. We should provide true leadership for Nigeria, whether politicians or non-politicians, because by virtue of our training, we should be leaders in the society. We should not lose sight of that.
There is this longstanding rivalry in the Bar between litigation lawyers and commercial/corporate lawyers. How do you see the rivalry being resolved in the interest of the association’s overall health?
There has been no rivalry. For me, when Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN) was president, what we just tried to do was to model the NBA along the line of the International Bar Association (IBA). In IBA, you have sections. It is for easy organisation and administration. When Olanipekun became the president, we formalised these sections system. We have the section on legal practice and business law. Other sections came later. I happen to be the pioneer chairman of section on legal practice. I held that position for two years, and even though there were pressures that I should continue, I didn’t, because by my own principle, two years is enough to serve an association and allow others, maybe more competent than you. It was supposed to be an opportunity to mentor our members and build specialisation so that we can compete with other lawyers from around the globe. So, there should not have been issue of rivalry there at all. For me, people have their choices. For those who are into core litigation, most of them have their eyes on becoming Senior Advocate of Nigeria. For those who are in the core business practice, they have their eyes on making millions in Dollars and other hard currencies. So, if you have chosen a path, where is the rivalry?
There is this notion that you big names in the legal profession are so domineering that you won’t allow the young to grow. Have you heard of that before, and what is your reaction to it?
I don’t think it is correct. In many of the big names’ offices, they groom and produce senior advocates and other successful lawyers. There is this argument I heard somewhere: that only SANs take all the big cases; that SANs don’t consult themselves; that is the clients that consult them. So, will I tell clients that don’t come to me because others are complaining? We are in a competitive market. We are running a capitalist system. It is like somebody selling gari complaining that somebody is selling more than she is selling. People go to those who would give them best of services. That is the point. That is why we should all aspire to be at the top of our game. Those you call big names, did they start big? We all started from nowhere, from scratch. If fortune has smiled on you, do you now deny God?
And you think children of these big names don’t find their ways to the top through influence?
Look at me for example, I am a son of nobody and God has used the profession to elevate me. Any other person could come that way too. And many people have come through that route.
Appointment as SAN and even appointment into the Bench appear to favour majorly children of the big names in the legal profession. Are you not concerned about the long-term implications of this on administration of justice in Nigeria?
I don’t even agree with you. How many senior advocates have produced children who are SANs? Very few of them. How many judges have produced children who are judges? Very, very few, compared to their total number. Are we saying those who are successful, their children should not be successful? No, please, as long as it is merit-based, and there are verifiable meritorious grounds. So, if God has given you money and your children, too, worked their way through and get money, is that an offence? It is the same thing. Of course, people know that I stand for merit, uprightness, transparency. That does not say that everything that has come has been perfect. No. There is no perfection in human affairs. You will have one or two issues. But the preponderance is in favour of people. My father was not a judge. There were no lawyers in my family before. And I know so many SANs who are children of farmers and low-level Nigerians. So, for every one person you count, whose father was influential and became SAN or judge, there are 99 others whose parents were nothing who also got to those statuses.
The CAMA law is causing a lot of ripples in religious circle. What do you see to that and what is your advice for the stakeholders?
We are a country ruled by law. There is rule of law in this country. If a law is passed and you think your rights have been infringed upon, challenge it in court. There is no point promising fire and brimstone. No. We are a country ruled by law. In the First Republic, the budget was passed not in accordance with the constitution. The old Bendel State went to court and challenged the Federal Government. That is how it should be. That is why we have the courts. It is not in the best interest of our country that every time you think something has been done against your interest or when a law has been passed, you start to make threats. No, that is not the right attitude. You don’t indulge in gangsterism and mob action. You go to court. That is my advice. Anybody who feels that the amended CAMA is against his or her interest or his or her group’s interest, the civilised thing to do is to go to court. That is my advice.
Inflation is on the increase in the country and people are complaining about some policies of the government. What do you make of this?
You see, that is why democracy is supposed to be a representative government. And that is why our legislators should make themselves available to their constituents so they can listen to them. That there is inflation in this country… Last time, they said it is about 12.6 per cent, which is very high. Given the harshness and economic misfortune which COVID-19 pandemic has brought upon all of us, I think the government would have to do more to provide palliatives, and not in terms of distributing rice and gari. I mean real palliatives in the sense of looking at the sectors and intervene decisively. For example, the poorest of the poor, look at the aged people, maybe from 60, 70 and above, and intervene in their affairs. This should not be difficult to identify. So, I believe quite honestly that the government has a lot to do in this and to first of all ensure that all the indices that produce inflation are reduced to the minimum and then at decisive point, intervene by giving succour to the underprivileged and the vulnerable. I think that is the way to go.
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