Dr Babatunde Ajibade (SAN), a founding member of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Section on Business Law (SBL), is an advocate for a united bar and one of those contesting for the presidency of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA). In this interview with Yejide Gbenga-Ogundare, he talks about his ambition, plight of young lawyers and other issues.
Many young lawyers think the NBA only collects annual dues and organises the Bar conference without thinking of their welfare. What are your plans for them?
I think young lawyers must be the focus of the NBA going forward. They are the future of the profession and what the profession will be is a function of how much it invests in them. I have comprehensive plans to address issues relating to their welfare and advancement. This include issues of appropriate remuneration, conditions of service, payment of practising fees and branch dues, required statutory deductions and contributions, training and capacity development, enhanced use of technology, sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace, amongst others.
What are your thoughts on the zoning method adopted by the NBA for its elections?
Ordinarily, I would be against zoning and would urge that leadership should be based solely on merit. However, the reality of our geopolitical situation in Nigeria and the need to ensure that no section or group feels marginalised or excluded is what has made zoning a necessity.
Having said this, I don’t believe that zoning and the pursuit of leadership by merit are mutually exclusive. I believe that every zone and section in our country has the potential and capacity to produce leaders we will all be proud of. The challenge is to operate the zoning system in a manner that such leaders are allowed to emerge and are not suppressed by obscure and parochial arrangements that seek to impose the will of a few on the many.
What are your thoughts on this seeming ‘money for votes’ practice in the NBA?
I think this practice is abhorrent and demeaning for a profession that prides itself on being noble. I have been confronted with such demands since I made known my intention to run for the office of president of the NBA. I have consistently told those who have raised this with me that if the office is for sale, I don’t have the resources to buy it and would not buy it even if I did have such resources. The office is one of service and does not provide any “legitimate” opportunity for recompense. However, given the geography and demography of Nigeria and the fact that the NBA at present has 125 branches all over the country, there are unavoidable costs that come with running for national office. The NBA has tried to reduce these costs in recent times, but a lot more needs to be done in this regard.
Why should lawyers choose you above fellow contestants as president of the NBA?
I think lawyers should choose me over the other candidates for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I am the only one that combines the skills and practical knowledge of a solicitor and advocate, having been engaged in both transactional and litigation practice at relatively high levels. This puts me in a vantage position to understand and address the challenges encountered in both of these sides of legal practice in Nigeria.
Secondly, I neither belong to nor am I sponsored by any of the power blocks within the NBA. Thus, I have the ability to unite the bar and advance the cause of the legal profession with independence.
Thirdly, I am not beholden to the government and have made it a matter of personal choice and policy not to court government briefs, thus guaranteeing my independence. Besides, I cherish my good name, reputation and integrity and believe that these are critical qualities required for anybody seeking to lead the bar.
I will bring significant opportunities for international collaboration to the NBA, particularly the young lawyers, because of my involvement with international bodies such as the International Bar Association (IBA) where I am Co-Vice-Chair of the Africa Forum.
You are unable to secure the backing of the pan-Yoruba lawyers association, Egbe Amofin, for the 2020 NBA presidential election and you’ve faulted the process. Why?
The reason I have refused to be bound by the Egbe Amofin selection process is that it was obscure and lacking in objectivity or transparency. It failed to meet the basic tests of an acceptable selection process for a variety of reasons.
As far back as August 2019 and without any consultation with the generality of lawyers of Yoruba extraction, the de-facto leader of Egbe Amofin, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), had called a meeting at which it was declared that Deacon Dele Adesina (SAN) was Egbe Amofin’s preferred candidate for the NBA presidential election. In the face of protests at this attempt at imposition, this agenda was stepped down.
Your decision to run for president could split the southwest votes in favour of a non-Yoruba candidate, like in 2014. Some may see your candidature as a sabotage of the core South-west aspiration. What is your take on this?
I can assure you that my candidature is not designed to sabotage the South-West aspiration. After all, I am a Yoruba man too. Nothing would please me more than making the Yoruba race proud by winning the upcoming election and making significant and impactful contributions to the improvement of the Nigerian legal profession and its justice sector, for the benefit of all Nigerians.
In order to further establish my concern for and desire to protect the interest of the Yoruba race in the upcoming election and prevent a recurrence of what transpired in 2014 when my friend and brother, Austin Alegeh (SAN) from Edo State, defeated the three candidates from the South-West, I had recommended to Chief Olanipekun that it would be wise for us as Yorubas to reach an accommodation with our brothers from the mid-west such that we would rotate the zoned offices in the NBA between us on an agreed formula.
Indeed, I had taken it upon myself to visit Chief T. J. Onomigbo Okpoko (SAN) and other leaders of the mid-west Bar in Warri to discuss this issue, even before the meeting of Egbe Amofin held in Ibadan and they agreed that this was the sensible solution to the perennial competition between our two sub-zones.
They indicated their willingness to enter into such negotiations and I communicated this fact to Chief Olanipekun and to Deacon Adesina. However, presumably because of their focus on getting Egbe Amofin to adopt Deacon Adesina as its consensus candidate, they were unwilling to pursue this option. This is the only option that would have ensured that irrespective of the number of interested candidates from Yoruba land, we would end up with a Yoruba NBA president.
This is also the only option that would have ensured that the zoning provision in the NBA constitution did not become an avenue for denying the entire Bar of a choice in electing its leadership or a means of sacrificing merit on the altar of parochial considerations.
Irrespective of the failure to heed this call to protect the Yoruba interest by agreeing to this proposal, I am still reasonably confident that the 2014 situation will not happen again. The 2014 election was based on the delegates system, where the branch chairmen and their chosen delegates constituted an electoral college.
As a result of this, regional voting blocs and alliances had a significant impact on the outcome of the NBA’s elections and divisions within a region could adversely affect its candidates’ chances, as it occurred on that occasion. However, since the re-introduction of universal suffrage in 2016, and with all financial members of the NBA eligible to vote, the generality of the members of the NBA all over the country now have the opportunity to select whichever candidate they consider to be the best from a zone rather than be dictated to or bound by the purported choice of the zone.
In this regard, it is significant to note that those South-West branch chairmen who were constituted into the Egbe Amofin electoral college did not consult with the generality of their members in arriving at their adoption. It is also significant to note that there are branches of the NBA in the South-West whose chairmen were excluded from the entire process and whose members thus had no input into the purported adoption, either directly or indirectly.
It is instructive to note that the candidates that won the presidential elections in 2016 (North) and 2018 (East) were not the candidates adopted by their zonal groups.
Furthermore, in addition to my immodest belief that I deserve to be elected president of the NBA on merit, I believe there is also a general acceptance within the profession that it would be inequitable for Edo State, which produced the president when the presidency was last zoned to the west in 2014, to produce the president again in 2020.
It is for all these reasons that I don’t see my candidature as sabotaging the core south west’s aspirations. On the contrary, I am convinced that it’s my candidature that best secures the possibility of the south-west producing the NBA president in 2020, and god willing, this shall be the case.
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