In the run in to the elections into national offices in the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in July 2012, a serving State Governor approached a group of trusted senior lawyers with a question: who in the among the contenders did they think he and his party could support? Asked why he, a non-lawyer and politician, was interested in taking sides in the NBA’s elections, the Governor replied: the NBA is too powerful to be allowed to decide its leadership all by itself.
At the end of that contest in 2012, I wrote that “the mechanisms for electing the leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) are out-dated, scandal-prone and liable to whimsical capture”, pointing out that they are “too dependent on government and the elections into leadership at the Bar were too prone to manipulation.” For four days from 14 July 2014, delegates from the various branches of the Bar gathered in Abuja to elect a new leadership. It was also an opportunity to show how the leadership selection processes at the Bar had evolved, if at all.
At the conclusion of a special conference in Abuja on 15 July 2014, the delegates elected Augustine Oyarekhua Alegeh, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) from the NBA’s Benin Branch, as the new President of the Association. Alegeh polled 691 votes to beat four other candidates for the leadership of the Bar. Three other Senior Advocates on the ballot, namely: Funke Adekoya, Dele Adesina, and Niyi Akintola, polled 370, 255 and 126 votes respectively. Osas Erhabor, former Chair of the Ilesha Branch of the Bar, polled 17 votes. In the ballot for Secretary-General of the Bar, Mazi Afam Osigwe of the Abuja Branch polled 684 votes to beat off the combined challenge of Steve Abar of the Jos Branch who polled 401 votes and Reuben James of the Kaduna Branch who polled 242 votes.
This was a very keen contest. A slate of five candidates on the ballot for the presidency of the Bar is unprecedented, surely not since the restoration of the NBA in 1998. At the turn of the millennium, the NBA instituted two measures designed to diminish the acrimony and sleights of hand that drove it into near-terminal crisis in Port-Harcourt in 1991. First, in place of universal suffrage for all lawyers, it instituted a delegate-based electoral system. Eligible delegates comprise the 13 elected officers of the Bar, all Senior Advocates of Nigeria, members of the Body of Benchers who are not serving or retired judicial officers, other members of the National Executive Council (NEC) of the NBA, and branch delegates. Each of the 109 branches of the NBA is entitled to send 10 delegates to the election. To account for disparities in the size of branches, branches with more than 100 members are entitled to one additional delegate for every 100 members. This system was designed to give branch delegates a decisive edge in determining who leads the Bar. It also makes the branch chairpersons beautiful brides and brokers of delegates and votes. In the just-concluded elections, there were 1,728 registered delegates. Some were unable to show up for the actual ballot.
Second, the Bar instituted an informal convention of rotating its Presidency among fields of aspirants confined in succession to the three historic regions of Nigeria at Independence – East, North, and Western regions. This began in 2000. In NBA-speak, this is called “inclusion”. Nigerians understand it more popularly as “zoning”. After two rounds of this rotation among the three regions, the position was to return on this occasion to the Western region. There was a snag though: the three zones invented by the Bar were in arrears of Nigeria’s contemporary political architecture. In 1963, the Mid-Western region was created from the Western Region. By 1967, Nigeria had become 12 States. By the turn of the Millennium, Nigeria’s 36 States were clustered into six, not three geo-political zones, supposedly designed to advance national equity and inclusion. NBA’s own inclusion policy based on three instead of six geo-political zones easily became fraught, fragile and controversial.
As with the wider politics of Nigeria, the convention of rotating the Presidency of the Bar in this way encouraged the emergence of regional, ethnic, and tribal bar forums. Many people considered the emergence of these ethnic and tribal Bar forums to be contrary to the declared commitment of the Bar to promoting the rule of law on a non-discriminatory basis. It was also seen as injecting narrow ethnic interests into what increasingly became a contest for the capture of the Bar as an influential professional group. Indeed, in 2012, a committee to review the system of leadership selection at the Bar chaired by Prince Lanke Odogiyan, a Life Bencher and former President of the NBA, had recommended the abolition of these sectional forums. The National Executive Committee of the NBA adopted the Odogiyan Committee Report but its recommendations remain shelved.
For their part, 13 Branches of the NBA from the former Mid-West region (now Delta and Edo States) had always protested the fact that this arrangement was inherently unfair to them. Although they were historically part of the Western Region, the branches in Delta and Edo states were excluded from the forum of NBA’s branches of the old Western Region where the preferred platform for organising was ethnically branded and called “Egbe Amofin”. In Yoruba language, this translates literally into “Group/Forum of people learned in law”.
A SHOWDOWN ON ZONING
The Mid-West Bar chose this most recent contest for the Presidency of the Bar as the moment for an electoral showdown on these claims of injustice. They could not have picked a better moment. According to the conventions of the Bar, the Presidency of the Bar for the two year period beginning 2014 was “zoned” to the old Western Region. Historically, South-West Nigeria produced the first lawyers in the country. It also has the highest concentration of lawyers. At the beginning of this election cycle, it comprised 23 branches. The Mid-West Bar had 13 Branches. If the South-West could produce one candidate, that person was guaranteed to be a winner. But it could not.
For these elections, the 23 branches of the South-West produced four candidates: Funke Adekoya from the Lagos, Dele Adesina from Ikeja, Niyi Akintola from Ibadan, and Osas Erhabor from Ilesa. Several and successive attempts by the leadership of the Egbe Amofin to “harmonise” the ambitions of the respective candidates proved frustrating and ultimately futile. Each of the candidates had good reasons for putting their ambitions in the laps of the electorate. Propelled by a sense of injustice meanwhile and by deftly exploiting the geo-political alliances with the branches in the States of the Niger Delta and of South-Eastern Nigeria, the Mid-West Bar rallied solidly behind the candidacy of Augustine Alegeh.
The numbers prove it. Together, the candidates from the South-West polled 768 votes, 77 votes more than Mr. Alegeh. Mr. Alegeh’s candidacy thus benefitted immensely from the uncharacteristically egalitarian outcome of the Egbe Amofin’s efforts to “harmonise” the ambitions of its members ahead of the vote.
A major reason given for the establishment of the delegate system for electing leadership at the NBA was to reduce costs and expense. If this was the intention, the NBA needs to urgently re-think its rationales. The delegate system has made the elections into offices in the NBA more not less expensive. Long before the election cycle began, candidates invested considerable resources in influencing the creation of new branches, emergence of branch chairmen and determining the composition of branch delegates. Candidates spent freely on the transport, accommodation and subsistence costs of their delegates.
Arguably, for the first time in the NBA’s history, some candidates deployed private jets as they rushed around the country canvassing for the delegate count to get them across the finish line. In these elections, money spoke very loudly. By some estimates, the NBA’s 2014 elections were the first in which the campaign expenditure easily crossed the One billion Naira mark.
Many people will wonder why leadership elections in any professional or civic association such as the NBA would be this expensive. Clearly, the NBA is not an ordinary organization. The President of the NBA has huge powers of patronage, with a privilege to nominate members into the boards of choice constitutional and statutory bodies.
Whether this is sufficient reason for excess of money sloshing around the NBA elections is a different matter. In its 2013 report, the NBA’s Committee on the Professionalization of the Secretariat complained about a disturbing “tendency of the Bar and its leadership sometimes to contract potentially problematic relationships with politically exposed persons (PEPs) who sometimes have partisan interests in compromising an independent Bar.” Quite clearly, the influence of outside money in this leadership contest makes this a clear, present and continuing worry.
OUT-DATED AND ARBITRARY PROCESSES
Defined by this landscape, the outcome of this ballot for the Presidency of the Bar was not entirely unpredictable. Yet, the manner in which the NBA conducts elections saddles the in-coming President with a moral burden from which he can, nevertheless, retrieve an agenda for reform and leadership.
The concerns first expressed about NBA’s leadership processes in 2012 remain unaddressed. If anything, these elections advertised them on a grand scale. The hallmark of democratic politics is that elections are governed by pre-determined rules designed to guarantee the credibility of outcomes, which are indeterminate. Within the NBA, however, there is ample reason to believe that the rules are indeterminate in order to facilitate outcomes that are designed to be pre-determined. This is not a criticism of any candidate. Rather it speaks to the failures of an Association whose methods and reputation are no longer of any concern to its leadership or membership and whose dominant governance mores now hew closely to the anything-goes predilection of Nigerian politics. This is tragic.
Many aspects of the just-concluded elections were deeply flawed. Arbitrariness defined the process. To begin with, the NBA’s branch network determines the outcome of the Association’s votes. In 2012, the NBA comprised 100 branches. In the run in to the 2014 ballot, at least nine new branches were created. When branches were last created in 2012, the NBA resolved that the new branches would not be deployed for election purposes. As such, they did not present any delegates to the 2012 elections. In a departure from this precedent, however, all the newly created branches in 2014 fielded delegates to the Special Conference. Although the rules for creating new branches in the NBA are very clear, the criteria for the creation of the new ones and their distribution across the country were unclear. Recollections also differ as to how some of the new branches were created. In the end, an impression may have been created that many of these new branches were primarily created to affect or tilt the electoral calculus with aforethought.
The Guidelines governing the elections gave the hand-picked Chairman of the NBA’s Electoral Committee plenipotentiary “powers” to fiddle with the rules as he deemed fit and to disqualify candidates on a whim. On the eve of the vote on14 July, the Committee did just that, disqualifying four candidates for different positions in circumstances that appeared opaque at the very best.
The list of eligible voters was unknown and undisclosed until the delegates converged in Abuja for the accreditation on 14 July, one day before the actual balloting. The best that the outgoing leadership of the Association offered in defence of this was that publication of the NBA’s Roll of voters is not provided for in the rules of the Association. In response to this, one can only hope that the leadership was mis-reported otherwise this would be considered evidence of bad faith or of lack of the capability to organize a credible ballot.
Balloting was to have ended by noon on 15 July. By this appointed time, however, none of the candidates knew or had access to the list of accredited voters. In effect, it was theoretically possible for voters to have been accredited after the official end of accreditation by 17:00 hours on 14 July. There were credible allegations that this may indeed have happened. It was impossible to verify these allegations before filing this report.
After voting was supposed to have ended, the Electoral Committee announced that they had accredited 1,481 voters, comprising 142 Senior Advocates; 36 Benchers; 68 co-opted members of the National Executive; and 1,235 branch delegates. This information was, however, provided, long after the fact and in circumstances which sadly leave the leadership of the Electoral Committee open to entirely avoidable allegations of fiddling with the list of accredited voters. The easy thing to have done was to ensure that all the candidates received copies of the list of eligible voters well ahead of time and of the list of accredited voters immediately after accreditation finished. It is indefensible that senior lawyers could justify a system that makes this possible.
HAIL MARY TO THE RAIN MAKER
This balloting took place in the middle of July, notoriously the heart of the rainy season in Nigeria. Yet, there were no arrangements for covered stands. If it had rained, there would have been no where for anyone to hide and the NBA would have struggled to organize anything. When I pointed this out to someone at the venue, she responded that the NBA must have visited a rain maker. You can imagine how reassured I was by the knowledge that our Bar is fully in tune with Nigeria’s community of shamans and voodoo practitioners.
Voting delegates travelled to Abuja on 13 July. 14 July was the date set aside for accreditation and final campaign orations. Voting, counting and declaration of results followed on 15 July. The NBA’s travelling voting parties began to disperse from Abuja on 16 July, having spent four days on a voting process that involved a highly educated electorate of a mere 1,728 voters. To call this antediluvian is to be charitable. As we say here though, they all travel with “journey mercies”.
Even more indefensible, therefore, than the rules and conditions under which the NBA conducts it elections is the fact that lawyers, supposedly the defenders of the rules of electoral democracy in Nigeria, could subject themselves to a leadership contest and ballot under these conditions.
Despite all these shortcomings – or may be because of them – the NBA has elected a new leadership that deserves a chance to prove that it realizes and relishes the challenges that confront the Bar and the wider country. The biggest of these challenges is a Bar devoid of civic credibility; lacking the moral authority to persuade anyone to its message of promoting the rule of law; in hock to paymasters with an investment in capturing its organs and institutions; and increasingly without a capacity to offer any value to its members. This is a terrible place for any entity to be, least of all the foremost professional association in the country.
In 2012, at the request of the outgoing Presidency of the NBA, I led a committee to review the professionalism of the NBA’s programming. The Committee’s report, submitted in January 2013, began: “[t]he NBA does not offer a clear value proposition to its members. The absence of a defining value proposition is an existential threat to the NBA and to the effectiveness of its Secretariat. If any other organization or entity can rise to offer to members of the NBA a unifying promise of professional growth or edge, the NBA as we know it could become history. To avoid this possibility, the leadership of the NBA must define a value proposition for our members and, in the Secretariat, evince a programming capability to ensure the realization of this promise.” These provide metrics by which the in-coming leadership of the NBA can measure progress in grappling with the many challenges that bedevil the Association. There is not much time to turn this around. If they fail, it is possible that this could be the last time the NBA would be voting as a unified and united body for its leadership. To the incoming leadership, congratulations are due; to the Bar, goodluck.
Odinkalu is a member of the National Executive Committee of the NBA and was a delegate to the just-concluded special delegate’s conference of the NBA.