The last has not or cannot be heard of the Nigerian Bar Association Annual General Conference 2022 (NBA-AGC 2022) held 19-26 August, 2022 at Nigeria’s ever bustling and most beloved city of Lagos for so many reasons.

In every ramification and qualification, it was a legacy conference because legacies live beyond timelines. The highlights of the Conference have been captured and re-captured in discourses in several publications and blogs by distinguished lawyers, attendees and public commentators. Sadly, it became a conference that witnessed the infamous and widely condemned ‘bag riot’ by some colleagues on the basis of delay in the delivery of conference bags by the Planning Committee.

By sheer idea of concept, coincidence and providence, and depending on one’s appreciation of the scenarios, the happenstances at the Conference will characterize passionate and emotional discussions about the event in times to come. It was a conference of big ideas. Nonetheless, there were basic issues that caused major concerns for participants, such as parking spaces, inadequacy of toilet facilities especially at night events – which could be genuinely associated with construction of the a mammoth conference village. Then there is the issue of ‘conference bag riot’.

Nevertheless, I humbly wish to focus on the positives and will state that the immediate past NBA Administration led by Mr. Olumide Akpata – working through the Technical Committee on Conference Planning (TCCP) and chaired by the tireless, brilliant and strategic Tobenna Erojikwe – undertook the most audacious and innovative Conference that will be remembered for a long time and mainly for very good reasons.

In my opinion, it was an excellent conference by key indicators. First is Content Delivery covering key subject matters. This most important factor – which no-one including the past administration’s most revered critics has faulted – should be the biggest value created by the Association in terms of intellectual gifting to attendees. The content covered issues on State of the Nation, Practice Development, Well Being of Lawyers, Social and Networking Skills, and Public Interest Issues across plenary and breakout sessions.

The Conference scored strong points on inclusiveness for the Association’s special class of members – lawyers with disability. For the first time, a session was dedicated to lawyers with disabilities and was solely anchored by the forum. Recommendations from that session are already influencing NBA’s drive towards enhanced practice for its members with special needs. Then there was a novel introduction of female soccer competition as part of the social programmes at the conference. It attracted major attention in pre-conference preparations which resulted in pooling of a huge winning prize from different sponsors. As a social change idea, one can say, if female lawyers can play football, who would not. We cannot underestimate the impact of that competition on female football development in the country. There was also the running of an efficient crèche to cater for nursing mothers who participated in the Conference. No one was left out!

But it all began with adoption of the audacious theme: Bold Transitions. At the unveiling of the theme, I was inclined to qualify the two-word theme ‘Bold Transitions’ as too brief. I thought it was too brief to evoke the consciousness that lies beneath it. I thought it sounded too ‘foreign’ in our local parlance and probably disconnected from our usual style of ever voluble and full-sentence styled themes in the nature of ‘The Trouble with Nigeria’ – which is almost defying conventional solutions. But it proved a masterpiece. For as many as the speakers were, from the opening ceremony down to the last technical session, the theme and its philosophy resonated and connected all through.

The Keynote Speaker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her famous address to the attendees and participants, re-echoed that justice is the foundation of peace, charging the citizenry to aspire and ignite change for greater good of the nation. The attendees and speakers – including five leading Nigerian political parties’ presidential candidates in the 2023 national elections – made references to the philosophy underlining the theme. The record of top presidential hopefuls’ attendance had never been witnessed even at national presidential debates before that event. The candidates’ participation brought enormous branding value that could translate to attitudinal change towards governance accountability. It was not necessarily a campaign outing. The event and the session reinforced NBA’s primary position or stake in civil society leadership in Nigeria. The Bar’s voice was loud and clear and its stand on charting the cause for a better Nigeria towered like both the immediate past NBA President Olumide Akpata and the incumbent Yakubu Maikyau, SAN who took over the mantle of leadership at the same conference.

Emanating from the conference, no one needs a further lecture to know and appreciate that our country, Nigeria can only change when we boldly engage in discourse on national issues that have been perennially undermined on crucibles of ethnic jingoism, lacklustre governance and leadership innovation, lack of access to or poor justice delivery, lawlessness and disorderliness, gender dis-empowerment, stunted economic development and all indices that promote personal, public liberty and egalitarianism. Nigeria is at a crossroad; from never before seen or experienced level of insecurity resulting in wanton death and destruction of properties to several other existential threats. The populace is left disgruntled and perplexed, and it was hoped that the Country would boldly transit from being an unsavoury society to a joyful and promising civic state. It was exciting to see every one agreeing that the Nigeria could not wait any longer for real change than now. No one can boldly say that Nigeria does not require a bold transition as a matter of urgency from being one of the worst countries to live in going by various global index reports, to one of the best places on earth by virtue of its human and material resource endowment. The optimism thus became the energy and impetus in the theme. Actions are borne out of innate beliefs and the NBA-AGC 2022 theme revived a national consciousness for change. That laid an example of how NBA can lead in thought development and engineer socio-philosophical interrogations. The theme captured the nation’s moment and that remains a legacy. Unfortunately, the conduct and procedure of the 2023 Federal and State Elections dashed the hopes of majority of Nigerians. We all witness the deluge of unfortunate and undesirable issues have become main outcomes of the election. While Nigerians hoped that Nigeria and its institutions would transit to real institutions that promote and protect democracy, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) fumbled with its greatest innovation in electoral procedure – the Bimodal Verification and Accreditation System (BVAS) and painfully Nigerians are saying that their votes did not count when it mattered most. How the institutional failure impacted on the entire process is now left for the Tribunal to determine. And it is not palatable that the unenviable duty is now on the Judiciary (a legal institution) to resolve outcomes of political rascality, civic disturbances and other institution’s incompetence. Nigeria is still transiting to what it should be but it is becoming too delayed and getting dangerous.

By the way, NBA-AGC 2022 reinforced the reality of NBA-AGC as the largest gathering of Lawyers anywhere in the world and this matters a lot. I remember that this very factual statement was enshrined in the consciousness of the NBA as regards the scope of its events and conferences during the tenure of Dr. Olisa Agbakoba SAN and Chief Lawal Rabana SAN as both the President and General Secretary of the NBA from 2006 to 2008. I remember that it was during the preparations for Ilorin AGC-2007 that the statement was coined and it has now gained deserved popularity. At the 2007 conference, the statement resonated in key note speeches as well as several technical presentations at that Conference and thereby ignited an indescribable feeling that somewhere in Africa, whenever the NBA gathers for its Annual Conference with lawyers from all over the world attending, the event becomes the largest gathering of lawyers anywhere in the world by sheer number of participants. This is a big deal for one of the leading Bar societies in the World. In fact, the International Bar Association (IBA) recognizes the influential participation of Nigerian Lawyers at its Annual Conferences for decades and their role in the workings of the Association and accords due respect to the Nigerian Bar. With over 13,000 lawyers converging in Lagos for a week, the AGC-2022 raised that ranking meritoriously, and that should be applauded. So when next members of NBA gather for the Annual General Conference, let us be conscious that we are participants and partakers in an epoch event that deserves the highest level of regard and conduct. We must bear in our consciousness the motivation that every conference is an agenda setting event for the Bar and the Bench as well as the society. The 2022 event gives credence to that reality and 2023 can be even better. Therefore, the ‘Discussions Must Continue’ until something changes!

In 2022, the Conference Venue was an audacious and innovative one. A lot of opinion have been offered on the suitability of the choice of venue. In spite of obvious hitches but I will state that the choice was pragmatic and innovative. Eko Atlantic City Project is one of the boldest and most critical real estate development in Nigeria and probably the whole of Africa at the last decade. Before our every eyes, a city literally emerged or is emerging from the shores of Atlantic Ocean with promises of world class infrastructure. Therefore, the choice of hosting the conference on any portion of the emerging paradise was a huge reputational bargain both for the NBA and the Host City of Lagos.

Apart from aligned-branding and marketing associated with the space which was justified by the unalloyed support of the Government of Lagos State – the primary stakeholder in the development project over the years to the NBA – it should be noted that the NBA through the TCCP constructed an entire conference village albeit temporarily. Even in face of hitches typical of such innovative venture, it was justified in terms of access and became one stop event center for major part of the conference apart from side events privately organized by diverse groups. The effort would satisfactorily serve as an audacious and innovative example that huge infrastructural projects for meeting events can be undertaken on both temporary and permanent basis. Whether the choice of venue is at the confines of Eko Atlantic City in Lagos, Obudu Cattle Ranch, the green fields of Riyom near Jos in Plateau State or Beautiful hills of Mambilla Plateau in Taraba, or our sublime but eroding capital city of Abuja, we can innovatively prepare to host large gatherings. There is an economic value to such events.

Nigeria has the potential to benefit from Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) tourism which are usually undertaken by large groups, and planned in various ways. From exclusive hosting spaces to social activities, ‘meetings industry’ is a plus to several economies of the world. Kigali in Rwanda has become the newest kid on the block amongst African destinations. Nigeria should be gearing towards that direction with its diverse eco-geographical locations. The African Bar Association (AfBA) held an event end of last year in Lilongwe Malawi and Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU) went to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. While the size of these two events cannot be compared to NBA-AGC, the economic value of developing infrastructure for meetings and tourisms cannot be undermined.

I recall a former President of the NBA stating that apart from Lagos and Abuja which may even struggle to cope as host cities for NBA-AGC as number of attendees grow in leaps and bounds in succession, no other city can easily host the event due to lack of facilities. We need to think differently as AGC has become one of the major events in the nation’s social and legal calendar. Therefore the idea of setting up the AGC 2022 conference village from a zero ground into magnificent tents and marquees can only be fathomed by geniuses and I am sure that the idea has been planted within the consciousness of the Eko Atlantic City developers, event planners and general public. I am sure that the stay by over 13,000 lawyers and by extension involvement of over 50,000 persons in daily activities inside and outside of the conference area contributed immensely to the Lagos Economy.

I also consider the Conference Information Management Strategy for the AGC 2022, as top notch. The publication of Conferencepedia (the E-Book/Programme on the Conference) will make the AGC 2022 go down as the most well publicized Conference ever. The regular and simple communication made participation for those who were physically present very simple and easy. For virtual participants, the conferencepedia brought the event home by presenting a vivid imagination of the Conference as if it were in a ‘metaverse’.

As an aside, the communication strategy of the TCCP personally anchored by the Chairman Mr. Tobenna Erojikwe was exemplary. It was a demonstration of the character of the immediate past administration which viewed information and communication as critical tools in people and event management. From NBA Publicity Desk anchored by the stylish and suave Dr. Rapulu Nduka to the TCCP team, the participants were all carried along from beginning till the end of the Conference. May be if those who participated in the unfortunate incident of the ‘bag riot’ had tarried a bit, they would have found solace in the straightforward explanation given by the organizers on the reasons for the delay in the distribution of the bags and avoided the unfortunate incident.

The AGC 2022 Conference Bags was of such a very high quality to evoke emotions but there was absolutely no fault on the part of the organizers that every registered participant should receive the same quality of bags, the delay of which was adduced as the prompter of the riotous behaviour by some colleagues. The information was out there about the dire efforts of the past National Executives led by the President himself and the Planning Committee to resolve the logistics hitch resulting from altruistic rejection of some substandard units of the bags that were supplied, but impatience got the better part of our aggrieved colleagues leading to a reaction that left a sour taste on the event. And it won’t be forgotten as much as it was also a legacy of that conference. It was therefore a good step that the present administration under Mr. Y. C. Maikyau SAN set up the Olawale Fapohunda SAN Committee to investigate the cause of the unfortunate incident. The Committee presented its report at the Birnin Kebbi NEC Meeting in March 2023 where it highlighted all issues and made critical recommendations towards ensuring that the Bar learns from that sad experience. There could be sanctions for the disorderly behavior but not entirely because the NBA is looking for scapegoats but in form of a compliance-reminder that all members of Bar must strive to be of conduct fit and proper as legal practitioners and members of the noble profession.

It is heartwarming that the AGC Planning Committee of 2022 has largely fulfilled its vow that every conferee would receive their true entitlements in terms of conference bags which has been distributed even at personal costs. The assurance that no-one would be deprived of that entitlement is in itself re-assuring and that is what the NBA stands for. NBA may still reconsider the relevance and how to deal with the all-important item of conference bags that causes such logistical nightmare at Conferences. My years at Bar Conferences show that Nigerian lawyers love their conference bags, mostly regarded as iconic and memorable conference item. AGC 2022 delivered rare a design and utility thus those who could not get theirs on time, lost all comportment hence the crises that ensued. Even those who registered but did not attend have been assured that they would receive their bags. Quite a good ending for the bags distribution, I would say!

In my opinion, the last has not been heard of the audacious and innovative NBA-AGC 2022 notwithstanding the very few short-comings which are lessons in their own right. The Tobenna Erojikwe Committee has been dissolved honourably and a new Committee inaugurated for the 2023 Conference in Abuja. It would be a conference worth expecting for several reasons; The 2023 Planning Committee is being chaired by the former General Secretary of NBA, former Chairman of NBA Abuja Branch, the vibrant Mazi Afam Osigwe SAN; would be held in the nation’s sublime but eroding capital that needs some ‘ginger’ from a high-end professional cum social gathering; and is being designed by the Committee to be seamless.

As we continue the demonstration of true allegiance to one great and unified NBA, the idea and motivation upon which NBA’s AGCs are conceived, designed and delivered should continue to be of remarkable and positive scores, for all its impacts would always count for something. The society is changing and our undertakings as legal practitioners and members of NBA shall continue to evolve to match societal developments and expectations. To achieve this, we need leaders for all seasons who are bold, courageous and innovative to cause positive change for our members and the society at large.

VICTOR AKAZUE NWAKASI is a legal practitioner and member of NBA Lagos Branch

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