[TS COLUMNIST] Getting it Right: Lawyers & the Struggle for Bar Leadership in Nigeria by Stanley Ibe [OPEN]

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Nigerian Bar Association’s highly anticipated elections are due in another ten days. From July 27-28, eligible lawyers will get a chance to choose one of three senior advocates – Chief Arthur Obi-Okafor, Professor Ernest Ojukwu and Mr. Paul Usoro – to lead the association over the next two years. The fourth and youngest candidate – Mazi Afam Osigwe was controversially excluded from the polls by the Electoral Committee. Expectedly, he has expressed interest in contesting the Committee’s decision in court. This writer hopes he gets justice quicker than Chief Joe Kyari Gadzama, whose challenge of the 2016 election result is still before our courts.

The upcoming election is NBA’s second attempt at universal suffrage and electronic voting. The first attempt in 2016 delivered incumbent President, Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud, who rode to power on the promise of a “brave new bar.” Although the jury is not out on his administration’s performance, some colleagues will argue that they could have done better in the service of Nigeria, young lawyers and the profession in general.

With respect to Nigeria, the association has not been as proactive as it could be on the mindless violence and killings across the country. Given its pattern, the violence ravaging the middle belt has attracted the attention of citizens and non-citizens alike. While there are several conspiracy theories about what is going on in the region, it is not clear why the bar association has not done more than make speeches and pay a solidarity visit. With its access to the different arms and tiers of government, the NBA ought to be leading the demand for accountability and justice in the affected communities. It should also be possible to lead on systematic documentation of these killings in the context of the search for justice as well as violence prevention.

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Young lawyers confront significant challenges in their quest to practice law. Many are poorly remunerated and grossly under-appreciated. In a few cases, young lawyers have been badly treated for doing their jobs. As members of the association, young lawyers expect their association to stand-up for them – not just when they are ill-treated but also well ahead of that by, for example, insisting that its more senior members treat young lawyers better. The bar association could actually set an example by initiating programmes that encourage more young lawyers to aspire to leadership positions within the association with a view to contributing directly to issues that affect them.

The profession needs to do a better job of protecting its members. In a prior piece, I had argued that a fairly regular exchange between lawyers and the police, for instance, is long overdue to address the increasing episodes of police brutality, particularly of lawyers across the country. Perhaps we can begin with bilateral discussion between the leadership of the bar and the police to agree ground rules for engagement and sanctions for bad behavior on either side.

Whoever wins the 2018 election will have an uphill task. In an increasingly violent country, the bar association must raise the bar by playing a more proactive role in calling out government at all levels to take the primary purpose of government – welfare and security of citizens – more seriously.

Besides rising violence and its attendant consequences, the next leadership of the bar association has got to take a keen interest in the build up to the 2019 general elections for obvious reasons – Nigeria’s political leadership impacts its citizens, including lawyers in a profound way.

Within the bar association, the next leadership must finally end the fracture in one of its largest branches – Abuja. Allegedly triggered by dispute arising from the 2016 branch elections, the crisis in Abuja branch has festered for too long. As I write, there are two parallel executive committees of the branch. Although the preceding national leadership of the association allegedly dealt with the case by recognizing high-performing Ezenwa Anumnu as chair, the current administration thought otherwise. Regrettably, the branch is worse for it.

Still within the framework of internal challenges, the new leadership has got to find a way to address the perennial challenge of election management in the era of electronic voting. It is regrettable that ten days to the 2018 elections, the electoral committee has yet to demonstrate what lawyers can expect during the elections. There are many questions on the lips of lawyers – from the trivial to the significant – but few answers from the electoral committee. If eligible voters cannot find their names on the roll and the prescribed dispute resolution mechanism is not effective, the electoral committee needs to rethink its strategy. Indeed, the bar association has got to take another look at its electoral process to ensure that it is more transparent and less rancorous.

The bar must model its expectation of national politics and leadership within its ranks. We cannot hope to retain the trust and confidence of fellow Nigerians if they perceive that we struggle with the same or more significant challenges.

SEE ALSO: Governor Fayose finally breaks silence on Ekiti Election [READ]


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