LANRE ADEWOLE peeps into the past to X-ray the impacts of the present on the future of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA).
If the election of Olumide Akpata as the 30th President of the Nigerian Bar Association is upheld amidst the controversies trailing it, he would be making history as the 16th Bar President without Silk when elected. Egbe Amofin (South West Lawyers’ Forum), representing the bloc of Yoruba lawyers, has rejected the outcome of the poll, describing the conduct as unconstitutional and the exercise itself as reeking of alleged corrupt practices to achieve a determined end by the outgoing leadership of President Paul Usoro, SAN.
The bloc, supporting one of the defeated Yoruba lawyers, Dele Adesina, SAN, had also threatened to found a parallel Bar Association of its own, if the anomalies pointed out in the conduct of the exercise aren’t fixed by the Body of Benchers and Board of Trustees of the association. The post-election communiqué of the bloc, signed by Steering Committee chairman, Chief Niyi Akintola, SAN and secretary Oluwole Akintayo, is unequivocally seeking the nullification of Akpata’s election and a repeat of the exercise with greater transparency.
However, the other Yoruba presidential candidate in the poll, Babatunde Ajibade, SAN, has congratulated the winner and said he is moving on. Ajibade was not the choice of the Yoruba bloc and had been accused of playing the spoiler for Adesina who has now, thrice, sought the NBA presidency unsuccessfully, having been prevailed on to step down for Rotimi Akeredolu in 2008 and being one of the Yoruba trio bested by Augustine Alegeh in 2014. Despite not supported by the Yoruba bloc, Ajibade still beat Adesina to the third position, casting a pall of doubt on the effectiveness of the Egbe and its role in giving a bloc support to candidates when it is the turn of the Western zone, to produce the association’s president.
In succession, Edo State, which is grouped alongside South-West in zoning of offices by the lawyers’ association, has twice snatched the presidency from core Yoruba, due to the inability of the Egbe Amofin to present a united front in choosing a candidate for other zones to back as is the practice since rotational zoning was adopted after the crisis of 1992 that lasted till 1998, robbing the association of three presidencies.
In the two successive elections lost by core Yorubaland to the Mid-West, in 2014 and now, Dele Adesina was always the preferred candidate, though the late Chief Bamidele Aiku and Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, had a running battle over his candidacy in 2014. Olanipekun, Adesina’s in-law, was stoutly for him, pointing out that Adesina would have had a smooth sail if not persuaded to step down for Akeredolu, now Ondo governor, in 2008, by the Egbe, considering Adesina’s mass appeal in the South-West then.
Akeredolu went in, unopposed, because the practice is that once the presidency-producing zone presents a consensus candidate, other zones namely, Northern and Eastern, must fall behind the candidate.
The two recent elections also mirror the 1989 scenario when another Benin lawyer, Charles Idehen, coasted to victory because two Yoruba lawyers, Aiku and Yinka Fayokun, wouldn’t agree to consensus. Same disunity almost cost Olanipekun his election when his challenger, Segun Onakoya, defied the Egbe’s endorsement only to run and lose.
Now, things aren’t only changing, they are falling apart. When Akintola, who incidentally is now leading the Adesina charge and Funke Adekoya SAN, won’t step down for Adesina then, the Egbe allowed all to go into the 2014 contest as a divided house and Alegeh from the Mid-West, simply profited from their disunity. The combined 751 votes of Adesina (370), Adekoya (255) and Akintola (126) far surpassed Alegeh’s 691 and South-West would have produced Okey Wali’s successor if a consensus had been agreed.
Aiku is gone now and Olanipekun appears the de facto Egbe leader which seems to soften the ground for Adesina this time as the bloc’s consensus candidate but not without a challenge from Dr. Ajibade.
Adekoya too was said to have vehemently stood against the Egbe and worked against its preferred candidate, possibly due to the bad blood of 2014 when she would not be favoured as the consensus candidate, despite being the most senior of the presidency-seeking trio. Adesina, Akintola and Olanipekun are now on the same side of the aisle, alongside the like of Femi Falana, who had hitherto not been prominent in NBA South-West politics, but whose support is always considered critical for effective mobilisation of the avant-garde young lawyers who have been pushing for revolutionary ideas and leadership. Now that Egbe Amofin, even in a semblance of greater unity, has been worst again by renegade minorities, is the bloc really relevant again in South West NBA?
Akpata’s election, apart from the condemnation trailing the polling, which professor of Law and former chairman of National Human Rights Commission, Chidi Odinkalu, slammed as a sham, is creating a lot of bubble, because of what is perceived as its neo-revolutionary implications. The last time a non-SAN occupied the office of NBA president was between 2005 and 2006 when Prince Lanke Odogiyon, then 1st Vice-President was shooed in to complete the tenure of Chief Bayo Ojo, SAN, the first NBA President from the North, following his appointment as Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice by President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Though Odogiyon was a beneficiary of a vacancy he should statutorily fill, there was still a muffled dissension as to why a non-Silk should lead senior advocates in a system where seniority is a major factor.
Before Akpata was Mr Osas Erhabor, an Ilesa-based attorney who challenged the Silk in the 2014 race, ending up with 17 votes to occupy the rear of the presidential contest.
But a seed had been sown. Six years after Erhabor’s unsuccessful attempts at rallying the Outer Bar against the Inner Bar, Olumide Akpata broke the ceiling again, after 31 years, to be elected president without being a titled lawyer, the last before him, being Idehen who also exploited a disunited South-West, to cart the trophy home to Benin.
Analysts have explained that the adopted virtual voting helped in torpedoing the Inner Bar, unlike the physical voting when juniors would have their seniors around them, guiding them to vote for their preferred candidates, at times under subtle threat.
Many senior lawyers also get to pay the annual dues of many young lawyers, which is a sine qua non to qualification to vote, a move seen by many insiders as vote buying.
If anything, Olumide is simply restoring the privilege non-SANs but well-applauded lawyers had enjoyed in being able to lead the association, which the Inner Bar, practically appropriated since sanity was restored in the association with the election of T.J Okpoko, SAN in 1988 after a six-year interregnum.
From Okpoko, to date, 11 SANs have been elected president and this was the seeming patrimony Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN, wanted preserved in his controversial clarion call to fellow Silk to crowd Akpata out of the race. His private letter to Okpoko, which was leaked, warning of a brewing mutiny by young lawyers, enraged the Outer Bar and incensed non-aligned members of the public. From the moment that letter became a public documents, Olumide became a social media sensation, attracting critical endorsements from weighty voices, including SANs who disagreed with Awomolo’s view. Young lawyers also took to the social media, lampooning the view that non-SANs are generally young lawyers.
The NBA Not-too-young-to-run had been born and the energy powered Akpata, born October 7, 1972, to a runaway victory, scoring 1583 more votes than his challengers’ total.
A fraudulent enterprise?
Egbe Amofin is crying blue murder. It alleged Akpata got close to 4,000 “dirty” votes. While this allegation, amongst others, would be for the appeal panel(s) to consider, one fact about the election is the huge differential in Akpata’s winning margin, (5563 votes) against Ajibade, who isn’t contesting the outcome and (5909 votes) against Adesina, Egbe’s candidate, one on hand, and the over 12,000 allegedly disenfranchised voters who couldn’t cast their votes, due to alleged deliberateness.
“At the time election results were purportedly declared, not less than 13,000 verified/accredited voters had not voted, they were precluded access to the link, yet the total number of verified/accredited voters was 29,000.
“The unlawful return of candidates as winners of the election notwithstanding the fact that the number of verified voters who were unlawfully disenfranchised was significant to affect the final outcome of the election. Despite the random criticism of INEC in the conduct of national elections, the Egbe Amofin believes that the national electoral umpire could and would not have returned any candidate under the circumstances that the NBA foisted on itself in the last election” Akintola›s statement alleged.
While fraud allegations have significantly trailed the NBA elections of 2016 and 2018, what is different this time is the threat by the South-West Forum to seek its relevance elsewhere. With Edo and Delta states grouped with the South-West as the Western Zone, despite the rest of the South-South states being grouped alongside East as the Eastern Zone, there is a prevalent thinking in core Yorubaland that the minority trouncing the majority every time, isn›t by accident or altogether down to the perceived disunity among Yoruba lawyers. There is a sense that the constant embarrassing defeats of Egbe›s consensus candidates are down to conspiracy and the Forum is now saying enough is enough.
Lawyers of Yoruba extraction, have dominated NBA since its official birth in 1933, producing the first six pre-independence presidents (known as chairmen then) in Christopher Sapara Williams (1900–1915), Sir Kitoyi Ajasa (1915–1937), Eric Olawale Moore (1937–1944), E.J. Alex Taylor a.k.a Cork of the Nigerian Bar (1944–1950), Sir Adeyemo Alakija (1950–1952) and Jubril Martin (1952–1959). Even at independence, it was still a Yoruba affair with Frederick Rotimi Williams between 1960 and 1968.
Incidentally too, 10 of 15 presidents before Akpata, who assumed the leadership of the Bar without being Silk, including some who never took Silk, were Yoruba, further cementing the historic participation of the race, now threatening to pull out of the Union. Akpata, with his election as a non-SAN President, is simply following, in the footsteps of Rotimi Williams, Peter Thomas, B.M Boyo, Richard Akinjide, Adebayo Ogunsanya, Mudiaga Odje, Nwakamma Okoro, B.O Benson, Adetunji Fadayiro, Bola Ajibola, Ebele Nwokoye, Alao Aka-Bashorun, Charles Idehen, Priscilla Kuye and Lanke Odogiyon.
A race to the past?
When General Ibrahim Babangida as the Head of State, appointed then NBA President, Clement Akpamgbo, SAN, as the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice in 1991, Priscilla Kuye, a non-SAN 1st Vice-President, stepped in as president. Her desire to seek re-election in 1992 at the Port Harcourt conference, facing off with Alhaji Bashir Dalhatu, Onakoya and Kanmi Ishola Osobu (Peoples’ Law), threw the association into a crisis, fuelled by the government of the day, amid court cases.
During this interregnum, only the branches were functional as there was no central leadership. The aftermath reform ended the idea of second term and birthed rotational presidency, which eventually paved the way for the North to produce its first president in Bayo Ojo from Kogi State in 2004. After Lanke’s adventure, the future looked all Silk, just like the past looked all non-Silk, until Akpata jolted the Inner Bar. Going by the tumultuous rejoicing in the Outer Bar over his election, the coup de grace, is possibly setting the tone for the future of the Bar, which is increasingly looking into the past.
But the fire and brimstone being threatened by the majority of Yoruba lawyers over the election that produced Akpata, 1992 also seems to be beckoning again. Is the NBA going the way of yesterdays, both glorious and otherwise? The answer is in the womb of time.
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