‘MY STEWARDSHIP AS NBA PRESIDENT,’ BY USORO
BY EMEKA NWADIOKE
In what may pass as a self-assessment of his legacy as the 29th President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), MR. PAUL USORO SAN went down memory lane in an address to the association’s Annual General Meeting and scored his administration highly on several fronts.
Below is the full text of the address at the virtual meeting of the association held yesterday.
Address by NBA President, Paul Usoro (SAN) Delivered at the 2020 Virtual Annual General
My Distinguished Colleagues
1.1 It gives me great pleasure to welcome all of you to this 2020 Annual General Meeting (“AGM”) of our great Association. We thank the Almighty for today and for life. This AGM meeting is significant in many respects. To start with, this is our first-ever virtual NEC meeting, no thanks to the dreaded COVID-19 and it comes at the heels of our first-ever and most successful virtual Annual General Conference.
The 2020 Annual General Conference which also marked our 60th Anniversary of Conferencing had 25,544 registered attendees, 23,878 unique visitors with 222,906 page views. An uncountable global audience watched the Conference proceedings on Channels and CNBC Africa television channels. Our Branches were also inventive in taking the Conference literally to the grassroots: viewing centers were created for our members and other attendees.
1.2 In one sense, I can say that this is a welcome development because it affirms our transmutation, as an Association into the technology age where Conferences and meetings can be held despite our being in disparate locations and places. In these days that social distancing has not only joined our lexicon but is now the norm, it is gratifying and heartwarming that we could still hold our meetings and Conferences, whether General Meetings, NEC, or Committee meetings, without regard to the physical distance between our members. From that perspective, our 2020 AGM, just like our AGC signifies our triumph over COVID-19.
1.3 However, from a different perspective, most, if not all of us, miss the physical and social bonding and camaraderie that traditionally accompanies our AGC and AGMs. I recall with nostalgia, our 2019 AGC and AGM that was held in Lagos, with a record attendance of 12,000 delegates. That was a great moment to renew friendships and indeed build fresh relationships I particularly feel deprived of our usual physical and social bonding during our AGCs and AGMs given the fact that this would be the last AGC and AGM that I would be privileged to preside as your NBA President. My tenure as we are all aware comes to an end at the end of this meeting with the swearing-in of the incoming administration. I would have loved that we had this last Conference and General Meeting physically together and enjoy each other’s company and banters either in our brand-new Secretariat or in Port Harcourt where we had planned to host our AGC. Alas, that could not happen, given the pervading COVID-19 pandemic.
1.4 We must however thank God for His mercies and for life, for, as the graffiti on the back of our lorries reads, “many have gone”. During this interregnum, a number of our colleagues, both on the Bench and in the Bar have passed on. These include such eminent personages like Honorable (Dr.) Justice Adolphus Karibi-Whyte CFR, CON, retired Justice of the Supreme Court and mentor and role model to a number of us, Chief M A Ajomale, past Chairman of the Body of Benchers and Life Bencher, urbane gentleman and active and consistent Barman, Alhaji AGF Abdulrazak, SAN another past Chairman of the Body of Benchers and Life Bencher and one of the first, if not the first Senior Advocate of Nigeria from Northern Nigeria, my classmate, friend and renowned jurist, Honorable Justice Nonyerem Okoronkwo, JCA who will be committed to mother earth today, Alhaji Inuwa Abdulkadir, Life Bencher and another active and committed Barman, Honorable Justice Nasiru Ajanah, the Chief Judge of Kogi State and past Chairman of Okene Branch, Honorable Justice Jude Okeke, Judge of the Federal Capital Territory Judiciary and past Chairman of Abuja Branch. 1.5 There are sadly many more of our colleagues who passed on at this time. Not all were COVID-related passages; some passed on from old age and other ailments and we thank God for their lives. Others were cut down, some in their prime, by the devastating COVID-19. As at date, Nigeria has recorded 985 deaths from this dreaded Pandemic. We pray for the peaceful repose of all lives lost whether from COVID-19 or any other ailment or circumstance. In regard to our colleagues in particular, we must remember them fondly and pay them deserved tribute by continually refining and conducting our lives, our profession and our Association in a manner that not only honors their memories but also brings deserved adoration and respect to all of us.
2. Annual Scorecard
2.1 Governance Reforms – Finance Records and Prudence
One of my proudest achievements in the two years of my tenure as the NBA President has been the institutionalization of governance reforms, notably in the publication of Quarterly Financial Statements. We have been consistent in this regard in all the Quarters of my tenure and we have in that regard been transparent in the contents thereof and made full disclosures in regard to all our financial transactions. Let me make this very clear: I am ready, available and able to defend and justify all the expenditures that were made in my time.
And if evidence is required of our prudent management of the NBA funds, the evidence lies in the fact that I leave behind an aggregate of [ ] in the NBA’s Bar Practicing and Admin Accounts. In the history of the NBA, that has never happened. It is even more epochal when one considers that we inherited an aggregate liability of N908,423,094.00 and, as we leave, we leave behind a total of [ ] liabilities, the biggest of which is the Lagos State Government Land Charge of N397,794,423.00 in respect of the NBA’s Alao Aka-Bashorun House in Victoria Island, Lagos. That was an inherited debt and we have requested the Lagos State Government to either waive the entire amount or a substantial portion thereof and we are hopeful that we would be favored with a positive response.
2.2 National Secretariat
2.2.1 Another of my proudest achievements this year has been the completion of the construction work at our National Secretariat in Abuja. During the 2020 Q1 NEC meeting that was held on 12 March 2020, I informed members of the active resumption of the construction work and committed that we would be handing over a completed Secretariat building to the incoming administration. Even though COVID-19 slowed us down, I am pleased to inform our members at this AGM that we have kept to that commitment. We would very shortly watch video clips of the completed building. Ahead of that video, however, I would in this Address highlight a few of the salient completed features. We now have a ramp that would facilitate entry into the Secretariat by our physically challenged colleagues. That was not provided for in the initial design of the Secretariat; we saw the need for it and worked it into the construction completion plan.
2.2.2 We inherited one epileptically functioning lift that routinely trapped persons including some of our members during NEC meetings. It was always with anxiety that our members joined that lift. Now we have 3 (three) functional and efficient lifts with no record of anyone being trapped in recent months. The basement of our building that was always water-logged has now been converted into a beautiful, well designed and fully functional car park that can accommodate up to 50 vehicles. Construction work has been completed on all the floors of the building and we now have 5 (five) lettable floors that should earn the Association income.
2.2.3 The only significant outstanding work is the construction of a motorable access into the building. The city plan envisages the construction of an access road through an adjoining ravine, to the left of the building, facing the building from Muhammadu Buhari Way. That access road appears not to be in the immediate contemplation of the government. We have however approached the Abuja Municipal Area Council authorities for approval to construct a motorable access into the building from Muhammadu Buhari Way. Early indications suggest that our application would be favorably considered.
2.2.4 Some neighboring properties have secured similar approvals for themselves and constructed access into their property. We are hopeful that our application would be similarly granted. The envisaged access would lead directly to the Secretariat’s basement car park and would greatly enhance the value of the property, inter alia, for letting purposes. We are assured by our contractors that construction of the access would be completed within one month from the grant of approval by the Abuja Municipal Area Council and we have started the process which we expect the incoming administration to assiduously pursue to conclusion.
2.3 COVID-Related Relief Measures
2.3.1 The COVID-induced national lockdown has occasioned very severe economic reversals for Nigerians generally. In the wake of the pandemic and to reduce the spread of the disease, courts were shut down nationwide and that meant that, our colleagues who depend entirely on court practice for their earnings and livelihood were very adversely impacted thereby. Transaction lawyers and Solicitors were no less affected as there was a general slow-down in transactions and business activities generally. Some organizations including law firms had to reduce their workforces and, in some cases, compensation packages. The most vulnerable and the most impacted in our profession were our young lawyers some of whom lost their jobs or had their compensation packages slashed. To ameliorate their circumstances, we came up with two relief schemes for them.
2.3.2 First, we worked with LawPavilion to provide all young lawyers who had paid their 2020 Bar Practicing Fees as at 31 March 2020 one-year subscription of the LawPavilion bouquet of offerings. As we are all aware, the LawPavilion bouquet includes law reports, statutory enactments and all the Rules of Courts of the various courts of record in Nigeria, both Federal and States. In general terms, this is an invaluable resource for any and all lawyers. For a focused and ambitious young lawyer, in particular, the LawPavilion subscription should be and is a priceless resource, a significant empowerment tool and an assured route to self-development and professional realization. We do hope that it has and will continue to serve that purpose for all the beneficiaries of that scheme.
2.3.3 We also believed that a cash relief would be most helpful to our vulnerable young lawyers and, to this end, we constituted a Welfare Committee led by our most hard working and reliable member, Dr. Olawale Babalakin, SAN OFR. Dr. Babalakin lived up to his reputation; with his team, made up mostly of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, he worked our senior members and raised almost N100m. I truly cannot thank our Welfare Committee members and our senior colleague-donors enough for their generosity, self-sacrifice and support for this scheme.
2.3.4 The Welfare Committee recommended, and we accepted to distribute the relief funds to all young lawyers of 1-4 years Post-Call who had paid their 2020 Bar Practicing Fees as at 31 March 2020 at the rate of N10,000.00 to each beneficiary. Just last night, the bank accounts of the third set of [ ] beneficiaries were credited with their share of the relief funds bringing the total number of beneficiaries so far to [ ] young lawyers (i.e. with the addition of the first and second batches which together totaled [ ] beneficiaries). The expressed gratitude from most of the beneficiaries makes the effort worth the while. We have published, as part of this AGM documents, the full list of the beneficiaries of the Fund together with the full names of donors, including the NBA.
2.3.5 In talking about the COVID-related relief measures, I must pay tribute to our various branches and, for the second time, our senior members. Most branches organized relief materials and programs for our members and our senior colleagues made very generous contributions to these efforts. Some of these senior colleagues contributed both to the Branches’ efforts and the National Welfare Committee COVID-19 Relief fund. This show of love, amongst others, is the reason we have always sued for respect and acknowledgement for our senior colleagues. They play critical and invaluable roles in our lives and practice and we owe them a collective debt of gratitude. On our part and to assist the Branches the best we could, we promptly paid the traditional 10% of the 2020 Bar Practicing Fees to the Branches in April 2020. I am told that, the 10% payment, in the years that it had been made, has never been made that promptly from the National Secretariat. The expressed gratitude from our Branch Chairmen made the exercise most fulfilling for us.
2.4 Life Insurance
2.4.1 Still on welfare issues, albeit, not necessarily COVID-related, we have ensured that our life insurance scheme continues to work for our members. As at date, the total number of settled death benefits stand at 32. We owe a debt of gratitude to our most reliable insurance partner, Leadway Assurance Company Limited, and we feel gratified that we resumed the scheme during this administration. To be sure, these death benefits do not make up for the loss of our loved ones. However, it is always more devastating when the lost loved one is also the breadwinner of the family, nuclear and/or extended, or a contributor to the financial well-being of the family and other dependents. More often than not, life loses its meaning for the surviving members of the family in those circumstances and the future seems so very bleak. It is our hope that the payment of the death benefit of N1,000,000.00 to the beneficiaries of each of these our deceased members would help or has helped in cushioning the pains of the loss and restoring some hope to them.
2.5 Rule of Law – Virtual Court Hearing Practice Direction
2.5.1 In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NBA played very prominent and significant roles in relation to the administration of justice. Following the news of the community spread of the disease in Nigeria, we contemplated the vulnerability of our judicial officers and attendees of courts generally and met with the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honorable (Dr) Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, CFR to share our concerns and discuss the need for the shutdown of courts nationwide in order to stem the probability of our courts serving as vectors of the disease, with debilitating consequences mostly for our judicial officers and staff. We remain grateful that His Lordship, the CJN, took immediate action thereon and obviously saved lives thereby. 2.5.2 However, the prolonged closure of our courts also had a most destructive economic effect on our members and stakeholders in the justice sector generally. With the indefinite shutdown of our courts, the rule of law appeared to lie prostrate and almost lifeless. To remedy the situation, the Bar pushed the idea of virtual court proceedings into national consciousness and our representatives at the National Judicial Council (“NJC”) prepared and presented a Paper thereon to the Council which prompted the establishment of the NJC’s Ad-Hoc Committee on COVID-19 as it relates to justice administration. The NJC Committee was headed by Honorable (Mr.) Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivor, CFR JSC and had 3 (three) of our representatives as members – Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud, SAN OON, Damian D Dodo, SAN OFR and my humble self. I am pleased to inform our members that our representatives on the Committee did us proud; they played pivotal roles in the drafting and final publication of both the Committee’s Final Report and the Virtual Court Hearing Guidelines that was published by the CJN as the NJC Chairman.
2.5.3 Those Guidelines have been adapted and implemented by our various courts, with varying degrees of success. Perhaps, the 3 (three) greatest inhibiting factors to full-blown implementation of virtual proceedings in our courts are (a) skill and knowledge gap in relation to technology amongst our members and the judicial officers and staff; (b) technologically ill-equipped courtrooms; and (c) funding. These are however not insurmountable challenges; the pathways to resolution were mapped out and recommended by the NJC Committee in its final report and we look forward to implementation of those and related recommendations. However, the burden of pushing for those implementations and reforms still rest on the Bar given that we have a bounden duty to fight for the judiciary and the Rule of Law. Indeed, virtual court proceedings should be the precursor of a full-scale technological revamp of our justice administration and processes. The benefits of such a revamp are unquantifiable, and they go well beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. It is my hope that the succeeding administration will continue the relay race in that regard.
2.6 Incorporation and Filings at Corporate Affairs Commission (“CAC”) 2.6.1 The status of our filings at the CAC has been irregular and tardy over the years. Soon after the 2019 AGM, we filed our Annual Returns for the years 2017, 2018 and 2019 together with our Audited Accounts for those years. We also made the required statutory filings in regard to our new Trustees and the Nigerian Bar Association Constitution, 2015 (as amended) in the terms of and pursuant to the provisions of the Companies and Allied Matters Act, Cap C20, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004. Pursuant to our said filings, the NBA was issued with a new Incorporation Certificate on 20 November 2019 as an incorporated trustee with, amongst others, powers to sue and be sued in the name of its Trustees. We can now proudly state that our incorporation and filing status at the CAC are unassailable.
2.7 2020 NBA National Officers’ Elections
2.7.1 I must finally talk about our 2020 NBA National Officers’ Elections that were conducted on 29 and 30 July 2020. Whatever one may say about those elections, one thing that cannot be taken away from it is that, that was the first ever of our National Elections where everyone was turned into election monitors as well as electoral and returning officers, all rolled into one, from the comfort of our homes, using our various devices and tracking the ballot, right from the first vote up to the last. For most of our members and based on the comments I have received, this was an exhilarating experience in transparency. And it was fun. The transparency was unparalleled, and we are expecting that subsequent Bar elections will build on that quality of transparency.
3.1 This would be my last Address to the NBA NEC as President of the Nigerian Bar Association. It has been a great privilege and an honor to serve you in that capacity. I must in particular thank all the NEC members for the tremendous support that I have enjoyed from all of you this past two years. Without your stout support, I would not have served out my term, particularly with the attempted and failed coup by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (“EFCC”) under Ibrahim Magu at the inception of this administration, notably during our first NEC meeting. That coup attempt which was solely intended to take me out as the NBA President, and the sustained persecution before and after the failed putsch, was of course hatched and executed with the active connivance, support and urgings of some of our members.
3.2 The good news is, you all stood by me and foiled that coup because you knew me and did not believe the malicious lies and falsehoods that were told about me both by Ibrahim Magu’s EFCC and some of our conniving colleagues. You believed in me, trusted me and encouraged me. In those dark days, one of my very good friends and a member of this body, sent a message to me and said “don’t ever ever contemplate any weakness at all don’t bow never ever. Who born dem?”. By the way, pardon his language; he is a Warri-boy and he knows himself. Mena, you are special, and you may not know how much I appreciated (and still appreciate) your message and support. Thank you ever so much. God bless and keep you. Most of you sent similar messages of support and solidarity to me and these kept me strong, these kept me going and, together, we have achieved so much, notwithstanding those distractions. I remain eternally grateful to all of you and pray continually for God’s blessings, rewards and sustenance for you.
3.3 In point of fact, your support went beyond foiling the antics and attempted putsch of the Ibrahim Magu-led EFCC. You gave me your support in all the projects and reforms that we undertook in this administration. One of our lasting reforms has been in the governance structure for the Association. Like clockwork, we have published the NBA’s Quarterly accounts, every quarter, since the beginning of this administration, without fail. We have received resounding commendation from all of you for this. At this meeting, we will present for approval the Audited Accounts for the periods ended 31 December 2019, 30 June 2020 and 31 August 2020. We have also instituted workforce reforms in the National Secretariat which are on-going and would be continued by the succeeding administration. These reforms constitute the foundation for the institutionalization of our Association on which platform succeeding administrations will be able to function and focus on upbuilding and specific projects for the benefit of our members, profession and society at large.
3.4 I definitely cannot cover the field today in identifying and expressing gratitude to everyone who made my job easy as the President of the NBA and Chairman of NEC but I must close out by isolating and mentioning four classes of persons in this Address i.e. Past NBA Presidents and NBA Trustees, my fellow National Officers, Chairmen of NBA Branches and Mfon, my soulmate. I have enjoyed a very special relationship with all past NBA Presidents and NBA Trustees, a number of whom have, at different times attended our NEC meetings. I communicate with them regularly and update them constantly on our activities. They constitute my advisory council and a strong support base for me, and I thank all of them from the bottom of my heart. May God bless and continue to keep you for all of us.
3.5 My fellow National Officers have been most gracious and kind to me in these two years. This is perhaps one of the few NBA administrations that has not experienced any serious blow out or revolt amongst its national officers. A few minor skirmishes, yes, we have had those and those are not unusual in any family, even of two but there was no incident that commanded sustained national attention and/or concern amongst our members. Regardless, not once did I press on any of my colleagues on an assignment and they were not ready to oblige even when I was infamously stingy with expense approvals. Literally all of us were willing to sacrifice and make a success of this administration right from day one when we were sworn in and promptly discovered that we not only inherited an empty till but had huge financial liabilities to contend with. The Association indeed owes all my colleagues a debt of gratitude for all the sacrifices they have individually and collectively made in serving the Association. I personally owe them my debt of gratitude for the support I have enjoyed from them and for making our tenure a resounding success.
3.6 I have always had a very special relationship with my Branch Chairmen. We have a dedicated and exclusive platform on which we communicate, and I was quite active on that platform until recently when the demands of office became allconsuming and made my appearance thereat rather epileptic. Even then, I was only physically absent but emotionally still present at the platform. In recent weeks, I have remedied my absence at the platform. What can I really say about my Branch Chairmen? They were and are God’s special gift to me. They constitute my bastion of support. You trusted and believed in me. You did not believe in the lies about me. You staked your names with me. I thank God for all of you, past and present Chairmen of our Branches. The relationship that we forged is not and cannot be transient. It will survive my tenure as the NBA President. Please, feel free to reach me at any time. I know you would continue to be there for me, and I would also always be there for you and with you.
3.7 Just before I dwell on Mfon, let me express my heartfelt gratitude to my brothers and sisters who worked tirelessly to make our AGC the most successful Conference ever, starting with my brother Konyinsola Ajayi, SAN, George Etomi, my elder and most dependable brother, my dependable sisters, Oyinkansola BadejoOkusanya, Ayotola Jagun, my younger brother, Prince Akin Ajibola and so many others I cannot, for lack of space and time, mention now. Uncle George in particular was phenomenal. And, of course, Mfon. From the bottom of my heart, I thank all of you and I thank my sisters, Efe and Dupe, for loaning me Uncle George and Konyin for the duration of the TCCP assignment.
3.8 Finally, let me talk about Mfon, my soulmate and life partner. In my inaugural address, I had openly confessed that you complete me. In truth, I cannot tell your story today because we have a meeting to conduct and conclude. But I will, someday, God sparing our lives. Suffice for me to say that you have been my rock. In those moments when I was buffeted with all sorts of anxieties, doubts and fears and I could not share them with any other, you were there, with words of encouragement, advice and suggestions and also giving comfort. You fought some of my battles – real and imagined – on my behalf, without my prompting and, in instances, without my knowledge, some, at personal cost and danger to yourself. I could not have wished for a better partner and soulmate. My prayer is that God should continue to bless and keep you for me.
3.9 Some members have openly expressed concerns as to whether I would continue to be active and present in future NBA activities including NEC meetings after my tenure as NBA President. I thank all of you who have expressed and/or harbored those thoughts and concerns because they exemplify, in my humble opinion, how highly you think of me and my modest efforts in managing the affairs of our great Association. I wish to assure all of you and everyone else that I will continue to be a permanent fixture at NBA activities including our NEC meetings for as long as God spares my life. We owe a lot to our profession and I consider it my bounden duty to serve the Association in any capacity that I may be required to. Indeed, I look forward to our physical camaraderie and bonding at our NEC meetings, AGCs and AGMs, post-COVID, whenever it may please God for that to be. Once again, thank you, my distinguished colleagues for all you have done for me and with me and thank you for listening.
Long Live the Nigerian Bar Association.
Long Live the Federal Republic of Nigeria
Paul Usoro, SAN
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