The controversy trailing the reconstitution of Body of Benchers standing committees by its Chairman, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo SAN has taken a new twist as the immediate past Chairman of the elite body, retired Justice Mary Odili has washed her hands off appointment of former Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) President, Mr. Augustine Alegeh SAN as the Appointment Committee chairman.

CITY LAWYER had in an excusive report noted that Alegeh disagreed sharply with the recent reconstitution of the Body of Benchers committees by Awomolo and vowed that he remained the chairman of the Appointment Committee.

Law and Society Magazine reports that following Odili’s denial, Awomolo issued a query dated 3rd June, 2024 to the Secretary of the Body of Benchers, Mr. Daniel Tela, asking him to respond to Odili’s assertion.

Part of Odili’s her letter reads: “It is with great shock to read the contents of the letter which in effect means that I, as outgoing chairman of the Body of Benchers, authorized the said appointment. I could not have embarked on such an appointment of Augustine Alegeh SAN as Chairman of Appointment Committee for the following reasons:

1. I had made it known to the administration that I had no interest in reconfiguring the Appointment Committee during my tenure.

2. I could not have embarked on such a process on the day I chaired the last meeting of my tenure, which meant that the appointment would not be presented to the House for approval before the letter to the candidate.

3. I would not have entered into the restructuring of the Appointments Committee without reference to the Vice Chairman with whom I worked as a team.”

In an elaborate defence, Tela insisted that all the instructions he received from the five different Chairmen he had served as Secretary of the Body were mostly oral. Asserting that it was the secretariat which always raised letters based on the verbal, SMS or WhatsApp instructions of the Chairmen as that of Justice Odili appointing Alegeh Chair of Appointments Committee, Tela wrote: “It is rare to see a written instruction.”

Setting out his defence, the embattled Benchers’ scribe also wrote: “Regarding the appointment of Committee members, I wish to clarify that the Secretariat acts only on the directives of the Chairman issued orally or in writing. I say this on my honour. The Secretariat sometimes makes suggestions to the Chairman who is the final authority. In the instant case, I suggested to the then Chairman, Hon. Justice Mary U. Peter-Odili, CFR, JSC (Rtd), DSSRS, that the Chairman of the Benchers Appointment Committee should come from the Bar, given that the previous Chairman had served two consecutive terms from the Bench. Mr. Augustine Alegeh, SAN, being a Life Bencher and past President of the Nigerian Bar Association was subsequently appointed as Chairman, based on the verbal approval of the Chairman.

“May I state for the record that the above appointment is not the first to be done based on verbal communication or via SMS. There are other Chairmen and members of Committee whose appointments were made on the basis of such verbal communication. That is why the steps taken on the appointment of Mr. Alegeh, SAN and other members of the Committee was not strange.

“Prior to this, I verbally drew the attention of the immediate past Chairman to the expiration of the tenure of the Chairman, Benchers Appointment Committee, Hon. Justice Umaru Abdullahi, CON and some of the members wherein it was agreed that they be notified of the expiration of their tenure, some having served beyond the stipulated tenure. Letters were issued notifying the following of the expiration of their tenure as members of the Benchers Appointment Committee having been appointed on the 8th of February, 2018: Hon. Justice Umaru Abdullahi, CON, Chief Albert Akpomudje, SAN, lchie L.M.E. Ezeofor, Hon. Justice Oyebola Ojo. This means their tenure ought to have expired on the 5th of February, 2024 having served two (2) consecutive terms.

“I further suggested to the Chairman the need to replace the Benchers whose tenure have expired. I specifically suggested that the nominees to serve on the Committee should be Life Benchers in view of the peculiar function of the Committee.

“Following the above suggestion, the Chairman requested for the list of members of the Body of Benchers which I forwarded through her PA via WhatsApp. The Chairman, through her PA nominated Hon. Justice K. B. Akaahs, OFR, Hon. Justice P.A. Galumje, Hon. Justice A. N. Nwankwo and Mr. D. D. Dodo, OFR, SAN. The list was sent to me via WhatsApp.

“I drew the attention of the Chairman through her PA on WhatsApp that Mr. Dodo, SAN was already a member of two (2) Standing Committees of the Body, and based on the Body of Benchers Regulations (as amended), no Bencher shall serve on more than two (2) Standing Committees of the Body which the PA responded that she will get back to me. Subsequently, the PA sent me the name of Hon. Justice Uzo Anyanwu as replacement for Mr. Dodo, SAN.

“It is for the foregoing reason that Hon. Justice P. A. Galumje attended the meeting of the Benchers Appointment Committee held on 22nd May, 2024 and today he remains a member of the Committee.

“I wish to emphasize that I have always acted in good faith and in accordance with the directives of the Chairman. I have never unilaterally appointed any Bencher to serve in any Committee, and I cannot do so. My loyalty to the Body and its leadership remains unwavering, even in the face of differing opinions or challenges.

“Sir, you may recall that by a letter dated 16th April, 2024, I forwarded the list of members of the Committees of the Body indicating the date of appointment of each Committee member as requested. The names of the aforementioned Benchers were included on the list, particularly at page 5. (Copy attached for ease of reference). Sir, if l was not directed, how could I have included their names on the list of the Benchers Appointment Committee which I forwarded?

“Sir, you may further recall my observations to you on the 26th of April, 2024 regarding the reconstitution of the Committees of the Body where I expressed some concerns and reservations and also mentioned the appointment of the Chairman of the Benchers Appointment Committee.

“However, I still followed your directives being the Chairman and knowing you have the final say and issued appointment letter to Prof. Yusuf 0. Ali, SAN as Chairman of the Benchers Appointment Committee as well as other Benchers appointed into various Committees as reconstituted. God forbid that a day will come when the Secretariat will refuse to carry out the directives of the Chairman of the Body on account of the manner in which the directives was issued.

“I must state that most instructions given to the Secretariat to act are done orally. It is rare to see a written instruction. As a matter of fact, it is the Secretariat that usually raises a Memo for the Chairman’s approval not the other way round. There are several instances where such memos have been raised or letters written to a Chairman for his information and further directives or necessary action and the response comes either orally or via SMS or WhatsApp messages. Out of respect and in line with the usual practice, the Secretariat carries out the directives. With the recent development, should the Secretariat only act upon written directives given to it for the records? To my mind, the answer should be yes. This way, the records will speak for itself.

“I have received oral directives from various Chairmen on several occasions which were duly carried out. This include the issuance of appointment letters to Hon. Justice Ejembi Eko and Hon. Justice Sidi Bage as members of the Body of Benchers in October, 2023 under the chairmanship of the immediate past Chairman, the circulation of the list of reconstituted Committees to all members on 29th April, 2024, the directive that appointment should be for a period of two (2) years and issuance of letters to Benchers who objected to their removal from Committees informing them of their continued membership of the particular Committee. I have also received oral directives regarding changes to meeting dates, Call to Bar ceremonies and Traditional Law Dinners.

“Permit me to state for the record that after the incidence that took place on the on the 22nd of May, 2024 during the meeting of the Benchers Appointment Committee wherein both Prof. Yusuf 0. Ali, SAN and Mr. Augustine Alegeh, CON, SAN claimed to be the rightful chairman of the Committee, I thought it wise to mention to the immediate past Chairman about the embarrassing situation for two (2) reasons; first because the list of nominees for appointment as Benchers which My Lord the then Chairman recommended for appointment was brought up in the course of the meeting and adjourned for consideration on the 26th of June, 2024.

“Secondly, to draw My Lord’s attention to the fact that Mr. Alegeh, SAN who was appointed during her tenure and Prof. Ali, SAN appointed under the leadership of the current Chairman were laying claim to the position of Chairman of the Committee and expressed my worries about the effect of such incident on the image of the Body. I made this call on the 23rd of May, 2024. In response, My Lord thanked me for the information and also told me not to allow anything disturb me, stating that they will sort themselves out.

“To my mind, after the report of the incident, the question as to how Mr. Alegeh, SAN and Prof. Ali, SAN were both appointed to chair the Committee would have risen. But none. On the contrary I was told not to allow anything disturb me and that they would sort themselves out.

“I was shocked that by a letter dated 3rd June, 2024 I was issued a query alongside the letter written by the immediate past Chairman dated the same 3rd June, 2024 denying knowledge of the appointment of Mr. Alegeh, SAN. I placed a call to My Lord to find out if the letter actually emanated from her and I was surprised to receive a response to the effect that she tried reaching out to me earlier but I was not picking and she had to put together the letter and does not want anything to do with the issue of the Appointment Committee as it was not her position. I reminded my Lord of our discussion on the issue and the subsequent correspondence but my Lord maintained her position. The conversion ended with a plea that I should ‘find a way to help Awomolo’.

“I said I have been doing so, but with the content of the letter, I kept wondering how? At the detriment of my integrity, reputation and career, because the content of the letter is damaging to my person. I have been pondering on the import of the statement. I have never and will never work against the interest of any Chairman nor betray the trust reposed on me.

“I have been inundated with calls on the fact that that the immediate past Chairman did not authorized nor approved the appointment and that I have been queried. I am still wondering how the letter got to the public space.

“May I further state that since my assumption of office, this is the first time I am receiving a query from any Chairman of the Body regarding actions I took in good faith and based on approval given by the Chairman.

“I am concerned about the negative impact of recent events on the Body’s image and integrity, it has been a major distraction for me in the smooth operation of the Secretariat. I pray that these events wiII soon come to an end, and I remain committed to advising and guiding the Chairman with honesty and integrity.

“I have always ensured that the image of the Body and that of the leadership is always protected by not making certain comments and actions public even when it sometimes portrays me and the Secretariat in bad light. My loyalty to the Body and its leadership at all levels remains intact.

“In my humble view, what is most important at this stage is finding a solution rather than blame game. It is never too late to make things right for the good of the Body.

Meanwhile, Awomolo has asked the Federal High Court in Lagos to dismiss the suit filed by Alegeh challenging his removal as Chairman of the Appointment Committee. The Benchers Chairman argued that Alegeh has no legal right over the affairs of the Body of Benchers, and that appointments are not rights but privileges.

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