The most important event in the calendar of the Nigerian Bar Association is its Annual General Conference and this year’s Conference is currently holding at the International Conference Centre in Abuja with the theme ‘Lawyers and National Development’. As lawyers converge in the nation’s capital. NBA President Mr. Augustine Alegeh SAN in a discourse with May Agbamuche-Mbu, Jude Igbanoi and Tobi Soniyi spoke about the achievements of his administration so far, his challenges as president of the umbrella body for lawyers, including his views on President Buhari’s anti-corruption crusade and other national issues.
Last year you were elected as the President of the Nigerian Bar Association. What have been your achievements so far? What are your future plans for the NBA?
I do not consider it appropriate to claim any achievements. It would seem like praise singing. I believe it is for members of the Nigerian Bar Association to determine if I have achieved anything after one year in office.
The only comment I would make is that I have applied myself wholeheartedly to my duties as President of the NBA and I have been most fortunate to have a formidable and committed team of National Officers and dedicated staff at the NBA Secretariat and all of us have worked as a team to serve the Bar.
Upon your assumption into office, what challenges did you experience and how did you surmount them?
The challenges we encountered were not serious. The previous administration had done a lot and laid a foundation upon which we just continued to work and develop. The differences in style may have challenged some persons but everyone adjusted seamlessly. The adjustment was easy because we are all focusing on moving the Bar forward.
Soon after you became President of the NBA, it was reported that a number of branches had serious crises these include Kaduna, Awka, Ilorin and some others, have you mediated in the crises in these branches?
The problems in these branches were essentially based on improper information and lack of adequate communication. The Bar is one family and resolving all the issues in the Branches was not difficult. We got all National Officers involved and had direct meetings with the involved Parties and we are pleased that all the issues have been resolved. Other issues spring up from time to time and we apply the same method in resolving them.
The NBA is traditionally boisterous in nature and full of strong wills. As the President and leader of the NBA responsible for contending with these bold and often dissenting voices how have you managed to resolve them?
The NBA is full of committed members whose interest in the Bar is high and whose views are strong and based on the information available to them. The way we have been able to handle the contending views is by having an open administration where information is easily available and decisions are taken openly and in the best interest of the Bar. We must also understand that you cannot satisfy every whim so once your decision is satisfactory to the majority you just have to understand that the minority are entitled to their views.
As part of your campaign for the NBA Presidency you promised to reform the delegate voting system to include electronic voting. What efforts are being made by your administration to make this promise a reality?
The promise to introduce electronic voting was one of the principal reasons for inaugurating a Constitution Review Committee and the New NBA Constitution would be voted on at this conference. The New Constitution has electronic voting and universal suffrage. The modalities for voting on the New Constitution have been well set out by the General Secretary in several publications and Notices to members of the NBA.
The current spate of insurgency and insecurity in Nigeria has become truly worrying. What is the NBA doing to assist legal practitioners who have been victims of insurgency? What are your suggestions on addressing the state of insecurity in the country?
The Boko Haram insurgency appears to be on its last legs. The NBA has given cash grants and support to members of the NBA impacted negatively by the Boko Haram insurgency.
The NBA has also taken note of the allegations of violation of human rights by the Nigerian Security forces. We cannot verify the claims so we are setting up Special Human Rights Inspection Teams in all our Branches in the North East to assist in conducting Human Rights Enlightenment Programmes and conducting spot checks to identify Human Rights Violations (if any). The Committees would be expected to send reports to the NBA National Secretariat to ensure that the reports can be escalated to the High Military Command.
What are your views on the approach being adopted by the Buhari administration in its fight against corruption?
The President must be commended for his principled stance against corruption. The careful pace at which the fight is currently being undertaken shows that a lot of thought and planning has gone into the fight and if the pace continues while still maintaining observance of the Rule of Law then there would be positive results.
Recently, the President set up an advisory committee on Anti-Corruption. Curiously no sitting or retired judge is a member of that committee. What is your opinion on this omission? What are your recommendations to the committee?
The composition of the Advisory Committee shows it was very well thought out. The fact that the Committee is populated by leading lights from the academia is indicative of the work the Committee is expected to do. It appears that the President has chosen people who would research sufficiently before advising him. The fact that the Judiciary is not represented does not in any way affect the Committee. We commend the President for putting the issue of corruption in the front burner and for selecting persons of impeccable qualities and proven record of hard work into the Advisory Committee.
In 2012 Lawyer and Public Advocate Femi Falana SAN was appointed Alternate Chairman to the Judiciary Committee of the NBA which he shortly declined because, among other reasons, he believed the NBA’s ‘Politics of Exclusion’ did not have the transparency or accountability that it ought to as an advocate of Democracy and the Rule of Law. Three years on what mechanisms is the NBA putting in place to ensure transparency, accountability and inclusion in its management?
The issue of transparency and accountability in the affairs of the NBA is an area that past administrations worked and improved upon. On our part, we have an open administration policy. We inform members of decisions and render accounts quarterly to NEC. In terms of ensuring inclusiveness, we set up The NBA Select Committee which is charged with the function of appointing members into Committees and ensuring age, gender and Branch balance in Committee appointments. We believe that there is room for improvement and we will do our best continually to improve.
In 2013 the Supreme Court, in ALADEJOBI v THE NIGERIAN BAR ASSOCIATION, declined jurisdiction in an appellate suit from the Legal Practitioners’ Disciplinary Committee (LPDC). This was on the basis that the Legal Practitioners’ Act 2004 stipulates the Appeal Committee of the Body of Benchers as the appellate tribunal for matters determined in the LPDC. However the NBA continues to seek recourse at the Supreme Court, but if the Supreme Court declines jurisdiction surely the Appeal Committee of the Body of Benchers is the correct appellate tribunal from the LPDC?
This issue is no longer topical. The problem apparently arose from the compilation of the Laws of Nigeria. The compilation missed out the provisions of the extant law and compiled the previous version of the Law. The Supreme Court in Aladejobi’s case applied the Law as compiled as that was the only Law before the Court at that time. This same position was followed in Akintokun’s case by the Supreme Court.
In the face of the Supreme Court Judgments, the LPDC stopped sitting in compliance with the judgments.
However, the position has now drastically changed. The former Attorney General of the Federation, who ordered the compilation of the Laws of Nigeria, issued a gazette wherein the correct version of the Legal Practitioners Act [LPA] 2004 is contained. This now represents the Law especially when it is appreciated that the parts of the Law missed out in the earlier compilation were never repealed. They remained valid laws even though missed out in the earlier compilation.
The extant Law as gazetted recognises the LPDC and it is based on this position of the Law that the LPDC resumed its sittings.
Finally, it must be understood that in most of these cases the NBA is a Respondent and not an Appellant.
There has been a general outcry against the flagrant disregard of the rules of professional conduct by many legal practitioners. What is your administration doing to restore the adherence to the rules of professional conduct by members of the Bar and the Bench?
We are committed to ensuring that all Lawyers are well aware of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners. We have uploaded the Rules on the NBA website [www.nigerianbar.org.ng] for easy accessibility by all Lawyers. We recently circulated soft copies to all Senior Advocates of Nigeria and every Conferee at the 2015 AGC will be given a copy as part of conference materials. We believe that knowledge of the Rules is critical to achieving compliance. We were alarmed by recent pronouncement by senior lawyers and even some leaders of the official Bar which motivated us to make copies available to all Lawyers.
On the flip side, we have increased the number of Investigating Panels and brought them closer to the Branches. This would ensure speedy investigation of allegations against lawyers. We have enlarged our Prosecuting Team at the LPDC to give the Team added efficiency and effectiveness. We have also added more senior lawyers to the team and the team is working very well,
The LPDC is also sitting more regularly and dealing speedily with disciplinary cases. The entire system is working well now but as in all things, there is room for improvement.
Apart from reducing the registration fee for the Annual General Conference. What mechanisms has your administration put in place to support young lawyers?
We are doing our best to improve standards in the entire profession and young lawyers are the major beneficiaries. The success of our stamp and seal policy would have the effect of making more work available for lawyers and the younger lawyers would benefit in many ways. Firstly, some work [affidavits, notices, letters etc.] will go directly to young lawyers. Secondly, it is hoped and expected that enhanced earnings for the more senior lawyers would give them the ability to increase the salaries and welfare packages of young lawyers.
Stakeholders in the legal profession have decried the standard of legal education in Nigeria? What efforts are being made by the NBA to support the Nigerian Law School and the Council of Legal Education in tackling this issue?
The challenges in legal education are constantly been worked on by all stakeholders in the legal profession. The NBA is contributing its quota to the development of legal education and we are in the process of introducing a mentorship programme for our law school students.
You advocated that every Nigerian lawyer should be computer literate by 2017. How can the NBA assist lawyers to attain this goal?
The need for every lawyer to be abreast of current technological trends cannot be overemphasised. What we are doing currently is to draw the attention of all lawyers to the need to be computer literate as the entire legal industry has gone digital. In Nigeria, the implementation of the Judiciary e-platform has reached a very advanced stage and very soon lawyers who are not equipped for the digitalisation of the Judiciary will have severe difficulties engaging in legal Practice in Nigeria.
On your assumption of office as NBA President you resolved to open the NBA National Secretariat in Abuja before the end of your tenure. Now the Auditorium is being roofed and the final floor also appears ready for Roofing. How did you manage this seemingly impossible feat?
The work on the NBA National Secretariat was started by Mr. Okey Wali, SAN, my immediate predecessor in office and as I am sure you are aware, he graciously agreed to chair the Building Committee which is overseeing the Building Project. This ensured a seamless transition and ensured that the project was not disrupted. The work done by the Building Committee that started the Project is also most commendable. It is the foundation they laid that we are currently building upon. We have a working understanding with the contractor Company and we have planned our finances in such a manner that we are able to keep the Project going. The Auditorium is currently roofed and we hope that the main building will be roofed before the end of the year. It is collaborative effort and grace from God that has made us reach this stage in the building Project. It is that same grace from God that would make it possible for us to complete the Project before July, 2016.
This year’s Annual General Conference is completely different from all the Association’s previous conferences, with an opening ceremony, including the Keynote Lecture on a Sunday instead of Monday which is traditionally set for such events. What informed this and the other radical changes? What should lawyers expect from the conference?
The Bar must change to meet the challenges of modern times. A Sunday evening opening ceremony ensures that the traffic of Mondays is cut out. It also ensures that we do not disrupt the work schedule of our invited Guests and speakers. Finally, it enables us to have three full show case sessions.
We have made most sessions interactive and we have enlarged the pool of resource persons to ensure that we get fresh ideas at the conference. We have two discussion sessions; one on Tuesday [9am], involving the Bar and the National Executive officers, Secretariat staff and NBA Statutory Reporters at the AGM and the second on Tuesday [2pm], between the Bar and the Inspector General of Police, Solomon Arase.
At this Conference we are also taking care of elder statesmen at the Bar. We have reached out to and invited several members who are 70 years and above and the NBA is fully responsible for their Registration, Transportation and Accommodation for the AGC.
You were reported to have stated that in future continuing legal education will be a requirement for obtaining Bar Practising Licence. What informed your position?
This is what is contained in the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners, 2007. I was not making new rules, just making it clear that going forward we will be applying the extant Rules. This is one of the reasons why we are making copies of the Rules available for all conferees.
Some senior advocates have expressed reservations over the implementation of the Stamp and Seal project. Some have said that there are unnecessary delays in collecting the seals. What arrangements are being made to ensure that these complaints are taken care of?
The production of the Stamps takes 48 hours from time of receipt of application at the NBA National Secretariat. There may be delays in getting the applications to the NBA National Secretariat but with subsequent orders there would be no such delay as Branch participation is severely reduced for subsequent orders. Some persons apparently, assumed that there was no legal backing for the Stamp Project but now that we are increasing circulation of the Rules of Professional Conduct, we believe the issue of the legal backing will be apparent to all.
The National Executive Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association, with your leadership, recently set up an Anonymous Committee of Whistleblowers who will go into Courts and report malfeasance and conduct that is considered corrupt. What protection can the NBA provide other Whistleblowers in the profession with evidence of corruption and malfeasance in the Court and at the Bar?
We have taken the view at the NBA that the best way to deal with indolence, lack of knowledge of the Law and corruption is by reviewing the decisions, rulings and judgments of any Judicial Officer who is alleged to have these vices which currently challenge our justice system. We have consequently, set up teams all over the Country to identify such judicial officers and embark on a review of their decisions. We appreciate the fact that judicial officers are human and cannot be without errors. We also appreciate the fact that Parties have recourse to appeal against such decisions. However, we have noticed a trend where corruption thrives because of technicalities. I can give a simple illustration. For example, where an Election Petitions Tribunal decides to go against the grain of the law and ignore laid down precedent. The Party involved may appeal and win on appeal but by the time the appeal is heard, determined in his favour and returned to the Tribunals for hearing and determination, the 180 days for determining the Petition may have run out. In effect, the Judicial Officer has despite the successful appeal robbed such a party of justice and caused damage to the judicial system. We would upon receipt of any such complaint file a Petition against the Judicial Officer and we know that the NJC under the current CJN has a zero tolerance policy and would exit such a judicial officer from the judiciary. We cannot continue to fold our hands while our justice system is being polluted by a handful of bad eggs.
We are also complimenting this by revving up our own NBA disciplinary system to also deal with lawyers involved directly or indirectly in cases of Professional misconduct and/or infamous conduct. Our present position in the NBA is that the conduct of lawyers in any field of endeavour that impact negatively on the legal profession falls under the disciplinary purview of the NBA.