A N5 million relief package funded by Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) presidential aspirant, Mr. Olumide Akpata and “his friends” and administered by the NBA Lagos Branch has raised a firestorm within the Bar, pitching many lawyers against their colleagues.

The fiery debate on the propriety of the palliatives was set off by a notice by NBA Lagos Branch Chairman, Mr. Yemi Akangbe when he urged “members of the Branch that genuinely need this support” to email him and other named branch Executive Committee members.

Akangbe had stated that he had been “inundated with calls from many of our members, clamouring for the Branch to devise means of ameliorating the untold hardship being experienced by some of our members in these trying times. Whilst the EXCO of the Branch was deliberating on how to provide immediate, practical support to members, incidentally, I received a phone call and later an email from Mr. Olumide Akpata regarding a welfare initiative that he and his friends had put together which could be of assistance to members of the Branch and valuable to the EXCO in achieving some of the Branch’s welfare objectives for this period.

“Mr. Akpata (together with some of his friends) via his email informed me that he had negotiated with Shoprite for the packaging of foodstuff worth about N5,000 a pack inclusive of amount to be paid for the delivery of the packs to the doorstep of lawyers in Lagos State and would be working with the Branches of the NBA in Lagos State, starting with our Branch . I understand that arrangements are in place for GoKada to handle the delivery aspect of the initiative.

“In order to kickstart this initiative, Mr. Olumide Akpata and his friends have made an initial donation of N5,000,000 to cover the 1st 1000 packs of food to be distributed to lawyers in Lagos State who need this support.”

Immediately the notice hit the chat rooms, several Bar Leaders pounced on the presidential aspirant, accusing him of exploiting the COVID-19 crisis to curry favour from potential voters in the forthcoming NBA National Elections. They argued that the palliative scheme was a form of ‘vote buying,’ adding that such should be discouraged.

But Apkata’s supporters quickly countered the flurry of criticisms, contending that it was done in bad faith. They stated that the palliatives are especially needed by young lawyers who are poorly paid, adding that this had become imperative in the absence of a similar scheme by the NBA leadership.

Opening the floodgate of criticisms, Mr. Olukayode Enitan SAN said: “This is very wrong! Mr. Olumide Akpata and his friends should have made their donation to the welfare account of their branch. This is purely self serving!”

In a series of online posts, leading human rights activist, Mr. Ebun-olu Adegboruwa SAN said: “It is time to sanction NBA officers who go about hobnobbing with candidates who have declared their interest in election. While there’s nothing wrong in addressing the welfare of young lawyers, no one should be allowed to prey on people’s economic condition for political gain. It is important to call the NBA officers to order immediately.”

In another post, the fiery human rights advocate said: “I actually support any initiative to assist young or even old lawyers who may be in need. But it should be well coordinated, through a fund that is transparent and not dependent on political gains. I object to candidates for NBA elections doling our money or other financial inducements to secure favour from lawyers. It is grossly unethical and should be discouraged.”

Indicating that the gesture may be tested through the fiery furnace of litigation, Adegboruwa said: “When the courts resume, it is a matter that should be looked into, whether any candidate who has declared interest in NBA elections should be involved in any such practice and if he is, what should be the consequence.” He has posted excerpts from the NBA Constitution to support his position especially Paragraph 2.3(g) of the 2nd Schedule to the NBA Constitution which provides that “The publication, printing or distribution of any campaign material, gifts and any form of souvenir whatsoever by a candidate or his supporter(s) is hereby prohibited and any candidate who contravenes this provision shall be disqualified from being voted for.”

Continuing, he said: “What I expect is a fund raising platform for lawyers to contribute funds jointly and then deploy it to assist other lawyers. In such situation, we should even reject donations from all NBA candidates. That’s the way to go.”

In a related post, Adegboruwa stated that “The normal thing is for the NBA Branch to set up a Welfare Fund for lawyers and ask well-meaning lawyers to contribute to that fund. Then we can also approach the Lagos State Government through the AG, for COVID 19 palliatives specifically for lawyers as a constituent group and I’m sure he’ll oblige. We belittle ourselves when we ask candidates for NBA elections to be doling our money in order to curry favour. It’s actually demeaning.”

Aligning with his position, one Babafemi Badejo said: “I associate myself with the position of Olu-Adegboruwa SAN. It is shameful that Lawyers are doing exactly what politicians are doing in running this country down. We should be better than politicians. We contribute a lot as a big Branch. The Branch, if deemed necessary, should provide support as it seems Abuja Branch is doing. Our Branch can also push the national level to engage our Government and push the leaders to address the problem for the nation. No, it doesn’t look good. Candidates should not be distributing largesse. Candidates should not become Donatus, as in our larger population.”

Mr. Sylvester Udemezue, a teacher at the Nigerian Law School and fiery supporter of NBA presidential aspirant, Dr. Babatunde Ajibade, SAN said: “Dr. Babatunde Ajibade, SAN is someone who is unquestionably committed to the welfare of the profession as a whole but he believes that the way to achieve prosperity for members of the profession is to address the challenges that have turned members of this once noble and prestigious profession into a group that now seeks and relies on handouts. Dr. Ajibade, SAN understands that some of these challenges are systemic and require long-term solutions and is therefore prepared to be part of any short-term solutions that will ameliorate the plight of the most vulnerable members of the profession. However, consistent with his principles, I think Dr. Ajibade does not believe that he or anyone for that matter should take political benefit of the dire situations of some of our colleagues.”

Critics of the scheme also dug up a statement made late last month by former NBA Chief Prosecutor, Mr. Jibrin Okutepa SAN captioned, “Vote buyers not fit to lead NBA.” In the statement, Okutepa said: “Money answers all things they say. But should the Bar election be commercialised? I think not. But the reality on the ground is that it is more costly to run for NBA elections than some conventional political offices in Nigeria,” adding, “Any aspirant that buys the consciences of lawyers to lead is not fit to lead the Bar. Why do we accept those who pay to get our votes? Are lawyers now cheap commodities to be bought for votes.” According to him: “We must avoid electing those with baggage. NBA members must go all out to elect leaders who can challenge violations of rule of law and due process with fear of any repercussions from any quarters. That is why the Tawo E. Tawo SAN led ECNBA (Electoral Committee of the NBA) must, this time, wield the big stick against any aspirant caught violating the rules of professional conduct in the legal profession in his or her aspirations to lead the Bar. We have paid enough lip services to discipline in our profession. Let those to lead us be above board.”

No sooner had his views hit the chat rooms than he was feasted upon by pro-Akpata commentators. One Mr. Ike Augustine said: “The candidate the distinguished learned silk supported in the last NBA election was involved in this act which he is now condemning. It’s still fresh in my memory. In fact, his candidate ran the most expensive campaign without any condemnation from the distinguished learned Silk.”

An ardent Akpata supporter, Mr. Ogaga Emoghwanre also pounced on the vocal Bar Leader, saying: “Please, quickly remind him of his role during the last national elections. His candidate was fully involved in the worst kind of vote buying in the history of the NBA, at the end they all lost with their chicanery. It’s unfortunate that he was taciturn then. Guess he was observing table manners; You are not allowed to speak while eating. Kettle calling pot black. Now he has rolled out his vuvuzela to cry fowl. Let him know that we know his antecedents and his orchestrated plans for 2022. It won’t work. Period!”

But the senior advocate quickly fought back, saying: “I deeply appreciate if you can be specific as to the role I played in vote buying in the last election. You should be specific. I have no regrets supporting Arthur Obi Okafor SAN. But I take very strong exceptions to your insinuations. I don’t know who you are but you must be careful in spreading falsehoods about my person.”

Turning to the criticisms, pro-Akpata supporters disparaged comments linking the gesture to vote-buying, arguing that it was driven by altruistic motive.

Taking on Adegboruwa, Emoghwanre said: “The first thing to do is to appreciate a kind gesture. Instead of calling it the name you just described it as. Perhaps, you didn’t avert your mind to the fact that he is working in collaboration with his branch and all the branches in Lagos. Appreciation is key, Sir. It comes before sentiment. This will assist you, Sir.”

According to Jibola Salvador, “Lawyers that need (the palliatives) may send their details to receive a care pack. This is not tied to any election or campaign, even though it will go a long way. Others are either critical of this because they were not the first to think of this or have not put action to their words. Olumide & friends may have paid for online courses, or organised webinars, but they thought it well to do this because they listen well to the plight of young and not well to do lawyers, to provide what is needed and basic for survival, food!!!”

Speaking in the same vein, Mr. Alfred Akinjo said: “Many Nigerians are currently begging on the streets for bread to feed their families. Many lawyers are also at the threshold of begging if not already begging to feed their families. The only thing that is holding them back is the fact that they are lawyers and would not want to be seen to be begging. And unfortunately their employers will not even let it cross their minds to ask how their employees are fairing (sic) at this trying moment and find a way to help. As far as they are concerned they have paid them their meagre salaries. What Olu has done is highly commendable and as many senior lawyers who God has blessed should key into his vision to assist. Lawyers should not go to the streets to beg for food to eat. We can’t wash our dirty linen in the public. God bless you Olu and all that joined you to do this for members of the bar.”

Arguing that the gesture was spurred by the lacuna created by the NBA leadership, one Eno Mbanugo said: “I see Mr. Olumide Akpata’s gift as a kind gesture. You must not vote for him after collecting. I was expecting NBA national to have come up with something like this, no matter how little, but they never did and that has given an opening for a caring member to take it up. Lawyers of repute will never vote for a person simply because of what they have eaten from him, they will vote for a person of their choice no matter the inducement. There is no need to pretend, there are young lawyers that some Seniors are paying N20,000 per month and this crisis having commenced before 31st of March, 2020, they may not have received their tiny N20,000 salary before the ‘stay at home’ order. So, my dear colleagues, please go for this if you need it.”

In a middle-of-the-road comment, a senior lawyer, Mr. Emeka Okwuosa said: “I agree that our young and budding lawyers need welfare support amidst corona virus pandemic. I also agree that the gesture by Olumide Akpata is highly commendable and appreciated. But against this backdrop from a moral and ethical perspective the other side also have a point – it raises a lot of issues including conflict of interest which we should look into – because Olumide is an aspiring candidate to head our umbrella body. We should try not to shoot down opinions but try to harmonise and marry the pros and cons for a better bar so that our professional body is not desecrated in any way. Both sides have a credible and salutary argument. But in future l suggest that aspirants to the NBA high office should be prohibited from such welfare packages. We don’t want their gesture to be interpreted as voting buying. NBA as an institution is sacred. Please let’s keep it that way. I spoke as a senior member of the bar and a concerned member of NBA. By the way Olumide Akpata is my good friend.”

There are strong indications that the last may not have been heard on the matter especially among the political camps and their supporters.

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