The principal issue that…arises is: Should the man not take a walk from his headship of the bar and attend to his trial? And how much reputational harm are we willing to inflict on such an exalted office as the presidency of the bar, on account of the interest of its current occupant?

The recent drama surrounding the person of the president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Paul Usoro (SAN) and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has once again brought to the fore the imperatives of fielding our very best (both in character and learning) into leadership positions. Not the least, the leadership of arguably the finest organisation of men.

When in the period leading to the conduct of the last NBA election, I wrote that, “In a decent country and a level headed bar, Paul Usoro would be standing trial for the alleged gratification of a trial judge, and not angling to lead the bar”, I was marked for elimination by supporters of the learned silk (whom it should be placed on record I hold in high esteem), for being actuated by ill will and on a campaign of calumny. Scores of commentators took turns to educate me on the principle of the presumption of innocence, and how no court of competent jurisdiction had convicted the man for the alleged compromise of the judicial process ─ a most egregious criminal conduct.

I tried to no success to point out to my dissenters that the issue at stake goes beyond the ambitions of the man, but rather the larger interest of the reputation of the office of the president of the bar association. I warned that members of the public who hold the legal profession in high esteem might be forced to reconsider their evaluation of us if they should learn that a senior member of the profession, fingered to have been involved in a judicial bribery scandal, is filing out to lead it. The possibility of his emerging victorious at the polls further fuelled my protestations. As I saw it at the time, it was going to be something of a taboo for such an individual with so much baggage to become the leader of the bar and I was equally convinced that that was too much a price for our noble profession to pay, as one man’s personal interest however highly placed, should not trump those of the larger population.

It was on this ideological note, that I recused myself from the support of his candidacy in order not to be a party to such unpardonable sacrilege. Here and now, the chickens have come home to roost. The allegations this time are however not related to the gratification of a judicial officer. It is something even more sinister. And quite disturbingly, some persons have drawn out their swords angling to defend the man in a fight to finish. They have also come with the preachments of an accused person’s presumption of innocence until proven guilty. They say the charge is the handiwork of disgruntled candidates who lost out in the last election, warts and all.

Now, no serious lawyer would contest the fact that Mr. Paul Usoro (SAN) is presumed innocent until proven guilty. That is a very fundamental principle in criminal jurisprudence that needs no demonstration. But I must quickly add that that is quite beside the point. The principal issue that, however, arises is: Should the man not take a walk from his headship of the bar and attend to his trial? And how much reputational harm are we willing to inflict on such an exalted office as the presidency of the bar, on account of the interest of its current occupant?

I have read Mr. Sylvester Udemezue’s well considered arguments, in which he fears the ugly precedent that may be set if the man is made to step aside and is eventually acquitted after the effluxion of his tenure? My one-off response to the erudite law teacher is: What if he is eventually convicted? And so since the probabilities are dicotyledonous, I do not think it is a gamble the profession should be willing to make. That would be a thought far too ill-considered. The greater path of honour therefore, would be for the embattled president to resign and allow time to vindicate him. The question of a possible acquittal in the circumstances at hand, does not, and should not arise. That will amount to inviting too much sentiment into the matter. The greater good here, and which we should all rally round to protect, irrespective of ideological differences, is the integrity of the office he occupies that is set to be desecrated and dragged into the mud. And I like to think that is what would obtain in a civilised clime.

In all these, one does not harbour any ill will for the eminent silk, but we lawyers like to carry ourselves with dignity. And that dignity must trickle from the top to the bottom. We cannot afford to be members of an organisation whose leadership is dragged to the court every other day on allegations bordering on a most salacious offence. It comes with lesser reputational implications, and it is even more dignifying that he stand his trial independently, than enlist all of us to bear his ‘cross’. That is the least that is demanded of him. And that is what I will do if I were to be in his shoes.

Looking back in retrospect, one discovers that all these needless controversies that the profession has been muddled up in, could have been avoided ab-initio. As far back as the period leading to the conduct of the recent NBA election, it was already in the public domain that the EFCC was investigating the man for the charges that are today lined up against him. That ought to have been a red-flag enough for the Professor Yadudu-led Electoral Commission of NBA (ECNBA) to disqualify him from participating in the election. Yes, anybody angling to lead a profession such as ours, should not, on any account, be fingered for any obnoxious criminal behaviour. Like Caesar’s wife, such a person must be beyond reproach at all times. Yet, what we saw was the disqualification of one of the candidates in circumstances that I understand are today the subjects of judicial inquiry.

It is rather unfortunate that our profession (whose nobility we like to flaunt), every other day, continues on a downward spiral. And we have all by errors of omission and commission contributed to these ugly manifestations that has reached its acme, with the ugly events of today. As the Igbo proverb put it, we have each brought ant infested firewood into our chambers, and today, we are treated to a reptilian groove.

But there is room for redemption nevertheless in all these. And that must start with a cathedral call on the beleaguered president to step aside and relinquish power to his subordinates, pending when he is acquitted. This is more so given the short life span of the office he occupies, when juxtaposed against the average lifespan of a criminal charge.

Having said that, I do not agree that our profession is under attack because of this charge. Lawyers for all their dignity do not enjoy the immunity from civil/criminal proceedings donated to the heads of the executive arm of government by the 1999 Constitution by the fact of their call. And the much touted client-attorney privilege is not to my limited knowledge of the law, an avenue to circumvent the provisions of the law enshrined in the Money Laundering Act. Equity after all, will not suffer a law to be used as an engine or cloak of fraud.

Raymond Nkannebe is a legal practitioner in Lagos.