In what may pass as their first presidential debate in the run-up to the 2023 National Elections, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar and former Anambra State Governor, Mr. Peter Obi went head-to-head yesterday at the ongoing Nigerian Bar Association Annual General Conference (NBA-AGC).

The presence of the leading presidential candidates confirms CITY LAWYER’s exclusive report that the duo would attend the event.

One of the highlights of the Opening Ceremony monitored by CITY LAWYER was the Keynote Address delivered by globally acclaimed writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Atiku and Obi were among five presidential candidates who gave insights on how they plan to turn Nigeria’s fortunes around if elected president at the forthcoming general elections. The All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential candidate, Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu was conspicuously absent. Also absent was the New Nigeria Peoples’ Party (NNPP) presidential candidate, former Governor Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso. Tinubu was however represented by the party’s vice presidential candidate, former Borno State Governor, Kashim Shettima.

Themed “Democratic Transitions in 21st Century Nigeria: 2023 & Beyond,” the face-off was moderated by former NBA President and NBA Board of Trustees Chairman, Dr. Olisa Agbakoba SAN.

The high-profile Opening Ceremony which held at the prestigious Eko Hotel & Suites, Lagos was witnessed by leading jurists at the Bar and Bench.

Aside from speeches by the Local Organising Committee Chairman, Mr. Ikechukwu Uwanna; Technical Committee on Conference Planning (TCCP) Chairman, Mr. Tobenna Erojikwe and outgoing NBA President, Mr. Olumide Akpata, Goodwill Messages were received from the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, who was represented by Lagos State Chief Judge, Justice Kazeem Alogba as well as the Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, who was represented by the Attorney-General & Commissioner for Justice, Mr. Moyosore Onigbanjo (SAN).

Governors Solomon Lalong and Godwin Obaseki of Plateau and Edo states respectively also attended the conference as well as NBA President-elect, Mr. Yakubu Maiyau SAN and his rival during the recently concluded NBA Elections, Chief Joe-Kyari Gadzama SAN.

According to a PUNCH newspaper report, Atiku and Obi flayed the Federal Government over the insecurity and economic crisis confronting the nation, stating that Nigeria possessed all the negative indices that qualified it as a failed state.

The two candidates agreed that 2023 is Nigeria’s decisive year, noting that the election is critical to the country’s existence. On his part, Shettima urged Nigerians to vote for their joint ticket because of their achievements as governors in Lagos and Borno states.

Ariwoola, Sanwo-Olu and Adichie were among speakers who advocated the reform of the Nigerian judiciary in order to position the country on the path of transformational change.

In his remarks, Atiku observed that the country is more disunited today than it had ever been since democracy took root in 1999, noting that Nigeria had never found itself in such a very critical situation in its history.

He stated that Nigeria had all the negative indices, adding that the nation had never experienced the current level of poverty, insecurity and unemployment. He noted that “Since the return of democracy in 1998/99, Nigeria has never found itself in such a very very critical point in our history.

“Today, we have had all the negative indices. Today, we are all disunited in the nation. We have never experienced this level of poverty. We have never experienced this state of insecurity. We have never experienced this level of unemployment. We have recognised all these negative development in our history.”

He added that the important thing was to tackle the challenges. “This is where history and experience beckon to us that we don’t get it wrong at this point in time. If we get it wrong, I don’t know when we will get it right,’’ he noted.

An online newspaper, The Cable reported that ex-vice-president revealed that he would hand over the federal universities to states if he was elected president. According to the report, Atiku said his administration’s reform would involve creating an enabling environment for foreign and local investors. The reforms, he further explained, would include healthcare and education ‘’because the government alone cannot bring about development.’’

He stated, ‘’One of the fundamental reforms I have in my policy document is to encourage the private sector as far as the development of the country is concerned — both foreign and local. It is very essential because the federal government does not have the resources to do all the things that they want to do,” he said.

Shedding more light on his plans, he stated, “The only way is to make sure that a conducive environment is available for the local and foreign investors to participate in the development of our country, whether it is infrastructure, education and healthcare.

“I had an argument with a university professor from Federal University, Lokoja. He said he read in my policy document that I intend to devolve, in other words, to return education to the states. How dare I do that?

‘’I said: ‘Mr professor, do you realise that the first set of our universities belongs to the regional governments?’ He said, ‘yes’. I said ‘who are the successors of the regional government?’ He said: ‘the states’.

“I said the children you send to America or England; who owns those universities? Mostly, the private sector. So, why is it that you think we cannot do it here? We don’t have the money.”

Atiku posted on his Twitter page on Monday that he was at the NBA conference to give lawyers insights into his bold policy which he said embodies unity, security, economy, education and devolution of power to states and local governments.

The Labour Party presidential candidate, Obi in his remarks said ‘’the election will not be about tribe, religion, connection, entitlement, but it must be about competence capacity and commitment to deliver.” Obi said that Nigeria needs urgent transition from being a highly insecure country to a secured one and from a disunited country to a united one.

He added, “Nigeria has qualified to be a failed state. We have the two or three biggest characteristics of a failed state. One is when you are no longer in charge of your territory.

“Today, we are among the top terrorised countries in the world; we are among the top kidnapping countries in the world. Banditry has taken over part of the country and Nigerians are being killed.”

He called on Nigerians to elect the candidate with the capacity to rescue the nation from its current mess. “Nigeria is in a mess. We got here simply because of the accumulative effects of bad leadership. The coming election is not about tribe or religion but about character and competence. We need a bold transition from a highly insecure state to a highly secured state,’’ he noted.

The APC running mate, Shettima pointed out that his principal would replicate at the federal level the feats he recorded in Lagos when he was the governor. Shettima said they would hit the ground running if elected into office in 2023. He stressed that Tinubu is the man to beat because of his skill-set. “I aligned with the APC candidate because of his competence and performance,’’ he affirmed.

The vice-presidential candidate said as governor of Borno state, he facilitated the construction of the best schools in the country. “Nigerians have the capability to see through the worn-out rhetoric and sophistry of pretentious politicians,” he said in a veiled attack on his opponents.

“Nigerians should ‘follow the man wey know the road.’ From day one, we will hit the ground running. We’ll promptly address the issue of the economy, ecology, and security.

“And we have the antecedents. I built some of the best schools in Nigeria. Go to Borno and see wonders; you will never believe that it is a state in a state of war. So, we are going to replicate our achievements in Lagos, in Borno and some of the frontline states so that our nation will be a better place.’’

Shettima asked the NBA delegates to make an informed decision in changing the narrative of leadership in the 2023 general elections, saying his principal is the man to beat. He urged lawyers to choose a leader that has established records, stating that he had mentored men and women.

The guest speaker at the conference, Adichie in her keynote address said the country was in disarray and needed heroes to save it. She said, “Nigeria is in disarray; things are hard and getting harder by the day. We can’t be safe when there is no rule of law. Nigerians are starved of heroes to look up to.

“Late Dora Akunyili and Gani Gawehimmi were heroes that Nigerians looked up to before now. Unfortunately, that era has gone. I believe that NBA is in a position to give the nation heroes that we can look up to lead the nation.’’

Stressing the imperative of justice, the author of Half of a Yellow Sun and other books, further said, “As long as we refuse to untangle the knot of injustice, peace cannot thrive. If we don’t talk about it, we fail to hold leaders accountable and we turn what should be transparent systems into ugly opaque cults.’’

She submitted that many people who have abused their positions in Nigeria would regard the NBA as troublesome. Adichie called for an incorruptible judicial system and advised the NBA to leverage technology in the judicial process and the administration of justice in the country.

“As the NBA continues to fight the abuse of power, it must also look inward not to be corrupted,’’ the award winning author admonished.

The presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party, Adewole Adebayo lamented that the country’s crude oil was being stolen by the government. Adebayo advised the conference participants to be suspicious of every statistic being given.

The presidential candidates of the African Democratic Party and the All Progressives Grand Alliance, Mr. Dumebi Kachikwu and retired Justice Peter Umeadi also spoke at the conference.

Earlier, Justice Ariwoola said the Bar and Bench must return to the days when the ethics of the legal profession was upheld and enforced. He said that the justice sector is very important to the survival of Nigeria so all stakeholders must ensure that it is protected and improved upon so it can continue to provide hope for the masses.

Also speaking at the conference, which has over 13,000 delegates in attendance, Sanwo-Olu said the state’s judicial system had upheld the legacies of the past administration in the improvement of the legal practice. His words: “We have continually transformed our structures, building new courtrooms, renovating existing ones, to create a more conducive environment for our judges and to efficiently administer justice.’’

“I can boldly say that no state takes the funding of the judiciary as seriously as Lagos State, and this is a legacy that has been sustained by successive administrations since 1999,” he said.

On his part, Akpata said it was the greatest privilege of his life to have piloted the association.

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The Borno Emirate Council under the able and distinguished leadership of His Royal Highness, Alh. (Dr.) Abubakar Ibn Umar Garbai Al Amin El-Kanemi CFR honours Chief J-K Gadzama, SAN with the coveted traditional title of Shettima Ilmuye of Borno (Shettima of Knowledge of Borno).

The Borno Emirate Council which was ably represented by Alh. Mala Isa said “the noble title is conferred on personalities of proven integrity who are fair, just and firm to the society and have excelled especially in scholarship. The Royal father found Chief Joe-Kyari Gadzama, OFR, MFR, SAN worthy to be honoured with this title for his tremendous contributions locally and internationally.”

Chief J-K Gadzama, SAN who was represented by family, friends and lawyers from NBA Maiduguri Branch thanked the Emirate Council for this great honour conferred on the learned Silk. Engr. Emmanuel Yerima, a family member of the learned Silk said “We sincerely thank the emirate council for finding our brother worthy of this great title and we assure you that he will continue the good work of impacting positively on humanity.”

On his part, an Associate at J-K Gadzama LLP, Mr M.M. Kaigama, Esq appreciated the emirate council for this great honour “On behalf of J-K Gadzama LLP, we want to genuinely appreciate His Royal Highness for this well deserved conferment. This coveted title has duly recognized Chief J-K Gadzama’s profound contributions to the legal profession and humanity at large which made him to be conferred with numerous titles within and outside the shores of Borno State; as Sardauna of Uba, Bobajiro of Akure Kingdom and Okwuoloura of Ukpo land. The Shettima Ilmuye title couldn’t have come at a better time as Chief J-K Gadzama, SAN is a Man of many firsts, the first Senior Advocate of Nigeria to hail from Kanem Borno and the entire Northeastern Nigeria, First Senior Advocate from University of Maiduguri, Borno State and the current Pioneer Chairman of Nigerian Bar Association-Security Agencies Relations Committee.”

Hajiya Zara Yaqub Esq., a frontline member of FIDA thanked the Borno Emirate Council for adding yet another feather on the cap of the learned Silk. “We assure you that J-K Gadzama, SAN will continue to contribute more to Borno State and Nigeria as a whole. He has recently helped orphans and students affected by insurgency in Borno State at Future Prowess Islamic Foundation. This award will be a booster for more humanitarian strides”

The representatives of the Borno Emirate Council presented the letter of appointment signed by the Secretary of the emirate council, Zanna Laisu Kazalma which indicated that while they shall be waiting for the learned Silk to officiate the conferment ceremony, the appointment shall take effect immediately.

The event ended with prayers, refreshments and photographs.