NBA AND CHALLENGE OF LAW SOCIETY OF NIGERIA
LSN : IS NBA’S MONOPOLY UNDER THREAT?
By Abdulrasheed Ibrahim
This is another interesting period for the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) as recently a group of lawyers released a press statement saying they have founded a new lawyer association to be known as Law Society of Nigeria (LSN) and rolled out the names of their protem National Executive. In their own very words in a letter said to have been sent to the Chairman of the Body of Benchers: “The Law Society of Nigeria (LSN) was founded and registered as a national organization of Lawyers admitted to practice law in Nigeria. The LSN, with membership , spread all over Nigeria, exists to empower the legal profession with quality member service (high standards of learning , competence , and profession conduct) ; facilitates access to justice , maintain and advance the cause of justice ;and promote the rule of law…”
What came to mind immediately I saw the press release was the nature of politics in Nigeria which I once referred to as a “big comedy” .When I said that, not many people particularly the lawyers took me very serious. In stating what was in my mind after reading the LSN’s press release, I said “This reminds me of the nPDP when some PDP politicians fell out with GEJ, they ran to APC but today most of them are back in the PDP trying to send APC packing. In the wake of NBA Vs. El-Rufai’s disinvitation to the NBA conference, some lawyers threatened to form NNBA .Is their threat now coming to reality? The other day when Chief Akintola SAN talked about some lawyers that don’t know the geography of the court, I saw the handwriting on the wall that there is every likelihood of split in the NBA but I kept quite because I don’t want to be tagged “a prophet of doom”. Now, who says a writer is not a soothsayer!”
In all honesty, I may not belong to the same school of thought with Chief Niyi Akinola (SAN), but I always admire him for one thing. He is a very bold and fearless lawyer that does not hide his feelings. Not many lawyers today know that Chief Akintola has been a lawyer activist as far back as 70s when as a young lawyer, he was involved in what has become to be known as ‘AKINTOLA AFFAIRS” in the history of conflict between the Bar and the Bench, when he had a brush with a prominent member of the bench that later led to the NBA’s emergency NEC meeting of 6th November 1971 where the NBA protested the conviction of its member who was lawfully discharging his duty as counsel to his client. You can read the details in my article titled: HAS THE FRATERNITY BETWEEN THE BAR AND THE BENCH GONE ON FLIGHT? That was just to illustrate how bold and fearless Chief Akintola has been. Sometime in 2020, Chief Akintola expressed the view that Nigerian lawyers were free to break away from the NBA which generated a lot of controversies among lawyers the same way his recent view generated controversies when he referred to a former NBA President as a “boy”. Is LSN heeding the call of the Learned Silk?
Although the LSN is yet to be directly linked to Chief Niyi Akintola SAN, but LSN has said that: “As a Society of lawyers in Nigeria, called to the Nigerian Bar under auspices of the Body of Benchers, the Law Society and its members are subject to the authority of the Body of Benchers and other regulatory organs as established by the Legal Practitioners Act. We commit ourselves to work with the Body of Benchers to ensure quality legal service delivery.” What is yet to be cleared as at the time of writing this is my article was whether the Body of Benchers under the Chairmanship of Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, CFR, a former NBA President has endorsed or approved the emergence of LSN. Chief Akintola is a closed ally of Chief Olanipekun. Already a new twist or crack has appeared on the wall of LSN as shortly after the press release by the LSN said to be presently under the leadership of Mr. Kunle Ogunba, SAN as its protem President, another Learned Silk , Prince (Dr.) Richard Oma Ahonaruogho came up with a disclaimer that as the promoter of the LSN and founding Secretary, there was no executive appointed for the LSN. Apart from this, there is also the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC)’s angle to it that it has denied the registration of the LSN on the ground that its objectives are similar to that of the NBA.
From what looks like the mission statement of LSN, its formation is not intended to be like those other lawyer associations that go the path of regional affiliation like the Eastern Bar Forum, Arewa Lawyers Forum and the Egbe Amofin Odu’a whose impacts are always felt during the NBA national elections. LSN is also not intended to go the path of religious affiliation like National Association of Catholic Lawyers; Christian Lawyers Fellowship Association of Nigeria and Muslim Lawyers Association of Nigeria. LSN neither intends to go the path of feminist affiliation like FIDA Nigeria or AWLA Nigeria but rather wants to be on the same pedestal with the NBA. How LSN seeks to achieve this is going to be very interesting.
There is no doubt that for decades the NBA has been enjoying the great monopoly of the Nigerian Bar with all the goodies that go with it, whether the LSN will be able to pose a threat to the NBA’s existence is the question to be answered by the passage of time. There is this argument that has been raging for a very long time and that is whether by the constitutional right to Freedom of Association donated to all Nigerians including the lawyers; can a lawyer decide not to be a member of the NBA and to be bound by its rules and regulations? From the current position of law in Nigeria today, the NBA has been conferred with the title of MONOPOLY OF THE BAR by virtue of some reported cases. For instance the Court of Appeal has held in the case of NBA Vs. KEHINDE (2017) 11 NWLR 225 (Pt. 1576) that :
“The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) was established for the purpose of regulating the affairs and conduct of all legal practitioners in Nigeria and upon being called to the Nigerian Bar, there is automatic membership to the NBA on a lawyer…Hence, as long as one has elected to join and remain within the noble profession, he is a member and ought to comply with the directive of the Association”
Prior the above decision, the same Court of Appeal held in the case of CHINWO Vs. OWHONDA (2008) 3 NWLR (Pt. 1074) at 341 that :
“The Appellant was not compelled to take up the profession of law and its attendant compulsory membership of the Nigerian Bar Association. However, once he made the choice to study and practice law and thereby placing his name on the roll of honour of belonging to the profession, he stands bound by the internal rules and regulations of the Association. There would be therefore be no issue of a breach of the Constitution of the country if the rules demand of him, undivided loyalty”
One of the brick walls that will be met and contended with by the LSN is what the Court of Appeal called UNDIVIDED LOYALTY to the NBA. Honestly and I want to be proved wrong, if we WERE to be in a military set up , those Protem National Executive would by now be facing court martial or military tribunal for planning a “coup” against the “military regime” of the NBA .
For those who may want to argue basically on the provisions of the fundamental rights under the constitution, let me go a bit further on the position of the Court of Appeal in the case of CHINWO Vs. OWHONDA (supra) per DONGBAN-MENSEM, JCA (as then was) :
“I have only a few words of mine to add in declaring that this appeal is without merit. In the exercise of their constitutional rights (Sections 39 & 40) of freedom of thought, etc, and of freedom of assembly and association, individuals elect to and do subscribe to membership in associations which sometimes curtail their rights. The Appellant, while exercising his right, joined an honourable profession of formidable societal influence and relevance which of necessity has rules and regulations to guide his professional conduct and which along the line curtails some of his choices. The Appellant was not compelled to take up the profession of law and its attendant compulsory membership of the Nigerian Bar Association. However, once he made the choice to study and practice law and thereby placing his name on the roll of honour of belonging to the profession, he stands bound by the internal rules and regulations of the association. There would therefore be no issue of breach of the constitution of the country if the rules demand of him, undivided loyalty.”
Within my restricted knowledge of law, I am not aware of any decision of the Supreme Court that has tempered with this position of law. Therefore, I can say without fear of any contradiction that the new Law Society of Nigeria (LSN) cannot swim in the same swimming pool with the NBA. But I must rightly point it out here that what prompted this kind of revolt by the LSN are often cause by the arrogance of the NBA leadership. NBA leadership very often behave tyrannically, may be basically because of its belief that it has the law on its side as seen from the above decisions of the Court of Appeal that whatever it is contained in its bye law cannot be challenged in the court of law forgetting that there are limits to every act of transgression.
NBA is a replica of what is going on in Nigeria whose leaders rather than addressing the problems on the ground would prefer to complicate it and embark on misplacement of priority. Most Nigerian leaders, the moment they get into power would become tourists travelling to different countries in the world which tourism at the end of the day add no value to the development of the country; rather than first travelling around the countries meeting with the Nigerians, listening to their plights as well as their needs and to give the assurance that the Federal Government is with them and will try as much as possible to attend to their yearnings. If this kind of attitudes have been cultivated by the Nigerian leaders from the past to the present most Nigerian peoples from different parts of the country will be very happy that their existences are being recognised by those steering the affairs of the country. The only time Nigerian leaders reach out to the people is when they need their elections, thereafter the President will sit down in the Aso Rock Villa giving directives rather than going to the scene of happening to see things for the purpose of assessment and necessary action, but unfortunately most time they behave as if Aso Rock Villa and Abuja are the only places they are meant to govern.
The emergence of LSN with its mission statement is a great indictment on the leadership of NBA, if the LSN is now talking about empowering “the legal profession with quality member service (high standards of learning, competence, and profession conduct); facilitates access to justice , maintain and advance the cause of justice ;and promote the rule of law…” , does that not mean that the NBA has failed in its primary responsibilities? Many lawyers are not happy with what is going on in NBA and that is why many of them are grumbling. Leadership self-centredness, unnecessary disqualification of candidates through some discriminatory provisions in the NBA constitution during elections and the winner take all syndromes are among the factors that are breeding discontent in the NBA.
The immediate past Akpata regime may have its lapses but at least he succeeded in bringing some far reaching reforms into the NBA. Forming a new bar association like Law Society of Nigeria (LSN) cannot be the solution to the problems on the ground, rather mutual engagement to a great extent will do the magic. Since NBA has already set up a Committee calling for memorandum from members on electoral reform and review of its constitution, I believe this is an opportunity for lawyers to make suggestions and recommendations on how the right things should be done. I have suggested somewhere else that the NBA should again look into the full democratization of the NEC membership through elections rather than through co-option. Certain percentage of NEC membership should be subject to elections to afford full participation of members of the NBA as this will create the high sense of being allowed to be part of the NBA system by many lawyers. When NBA Committees are being set up both members of the Inner and the Outer Bars must be considered to serve rather than pegging everything to the one side of the divides.
In the NBA elections, those that lose must be ready to accept defeat in the spirit of sportsmanship while those that win at the same time must be accommodating to those that lose rather than playing the game of arrogance and winner take all. Winning elections is not the only way members can contribute positively to the development of the NBA and the legal profession at large. We must continue to see ourselves as learned friends and colleagues rather than enemies. God bless the NBA and guide its leaders to be fair and just!
NOTE: Anyone is at liberty to disagree with my above submissions as I will surely appreciate a balanced, fair and objective rebuttal.
Ibrahim, a Notary Public, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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