Austin J. Otah, Esq is a dually qualified legal practitioner (Nigeria/Uk) and Chief Consulting Officer of Esquires’ Legal, an international based legal consultancy and a member of the Abuja branch (Unity Bar) of the Nigerian Bar Association. (Read his full profile here)
He spoke to The Metro Lawyer on his opinion of the Unity Bar and the challenges it has faced since its last elections.
TML: What do you think of the leadership challenges the NBA Abuja Branch (Unity Bar) has faced since its last election.
Otah, Esq: I don’t think we have any challenges. What has happened is, we members of the Abuja branch wanted to elect a new Exco. First of all, the previous Exco was truncated for some strange reason. We accepted and held elections. Our electoral activities are autonomous to the branch as such, we decided to screen candidates, and abide by the decision of the electoral committee and as succinctly stated in the Uniform Bye-law. Thereafter, we elected those we found to be eligible. There was a successful election of Victor Abasiakan-Ekim and his team so we were good to go!
TML: Why Then are there what appears to be two factions of the Abuja Branch of the NBA
Otah, Esq: Now what happened was that some people who did not understand our Constitution or chose to ignore its salient provisions on electoral matters, or who think they are bigger than the Constitution, those who chose to misinterpret the Constitution of the NBA – registered or not, decided that the Electoral Committee which assumes an autonomous nature when it comes to elections should have its results proscribed. They injected that persons they arbitrarily handpicked should be imposed on the branch members contrary to the election out come.
It goes against our professional ethics as well as our constitutionally guaranteed rights to impose persons not acceptable to us. If I had my way I will have those propagators; who have caused this unwieldy imbroglio put before the Disciplinary Committee. We must be professional and must not bring the profession into disrepute. Nigerians already have a poor opinion of lawyers, and even worse opinions of the Judiciary. They think we are corrupt because of all the media nonsense that has been going on.
TML: But the argument by one of the factions is that the process of bringing up candidates for that election was flawed.
Otah, ESQ: You can say it was flawed. But the point is, we have reposed our trust in the electoral committee that, it is independent and the very fact that persons were disqualified, of course, it’s very unlikely for one to say, it was a fair process.
The point is, these are the ones that were chosen. We have to trust the electoral committee that it is doing his job to the best of his ability as a professional. More so, we have not amended the provisions of the Constitution such that anytime we lose faith in the electoral committee, we can do things the way we want!
It would lead to chaos because a dangerous precedent would have been set and tomorrow others will come forward to say they can do the same. For example, the former NBA brass nominated some people and tried to superimpose artificially on the executive arm of the NBA Abuja branch. Are we supposed to accept them? Shouldn’t we too go to Court?
I don’t know if anyone thought about it but the Unity Bar should have gone to court, and say the superimposition of Ezenwa Anumnu and his cohort is ultra vires the powers of the NBA or even NEC of the NBA as they have no constitutionally guaranteed right or power to do what they did.
On that issue alone, they could have brought an action seeking an injunction suspending that decision of the NBA or a declaration that such action was void and of no consequence or issue etc. If they had done that, then any action taken by Ezenwa on behalf of the Unity Bar would have been truncated, right there.
TML: There have been Court Orders stopping activities of the branch. What is your opinion of these Court Orders? Some Lawyers argue that the Ezenwa faction’s interpretation of the Court Orders is faulty.
Otah, ESQ: There was an order given not just in Court, but by the NEC of the NBA, that nothing should be taken by the branch and the status quo antebellum be maintained.
With all due respect to the NBA President and esteemed Silk, I believe, perhaps, he should have taken a different, more forceful direction, and reached the only logical decision as informed by the decisions reached by the Agabi panel led by the very senior and accomplished legal luminary. Perhaps there are factors and information available to him unknown to me but the NBA President having set up a committee of respected Senior Advocates and Elders of that same Bar, and instructed them to look into this situation and advise him accordingly, should accept the decision/s or advice the Panel recommends!
What I find odd is that the NBA President comes from the Unity Bar but he has allowed this crisis to persist by his refusal to implement the Panel’s Report or take other decisive action to curb any excesses of the warring parties. This has been very harmful to the Unity Bar. If he knew he was not going to trust the panel’s judgment [bottom-line], why [invariably] waste their time?
TML: You mean to say there are other factors coming to play?
Otah, ESQ: All I’m saying is that he didn’t implement it and that is not the kind of leadership expected. A leader must be decisive, he must stand or fall by his sword otherwise, people will question his ability to lead. There is an issue with the current NBA Presidency. There was also an issue with the previous NBA Presidency.
The way the last NBA Exco treated the Unity Bar is a mockery at best. It showed no respect for our vote franchise. What makes it even more unfortunate is that we had our own Afam Osigwe as the General Secretary of that Exco.
I remember when Afam came on board he was supposed to be representing the rest of the youth, or if you like junior members of the NBA in the Unity Bar. He advocated for change and that he should be chosen because the choice of Chairman used to be the preserve of the Senior Advocates to pick the favoured candidate or so the argument went. The elders and the Senior Advocates would meet and nominate a favourite son to become the NBA chairman for Unity Bar. That is how it used to be and the stewardship of the Unity Bar was steady.
Mazi Afam Osuigwe came up with the concept that it shouldn’t be an exclusive preserve and we gave him a chance. We thought he is an exciting young man, and he got the desired opportunity from the branch members. When he finished his term as Chairman, he also aspired to the office of General Secretary He promised amongst other things, that he would represent the Unity Bar, Abuja Branch of the NBA and its interests and once again, the Unity Bar supported him.
It is therefore sad that these unfortunate events happened under his watch and this would remain a part of his legacy as General Secretary. It was under his watch that this imbroglio at the Unity Bar occurred and it is obvious from antecedents and current happenings that he was actively involved in ensuring that there was a dichotomy between the Unity Bar proper, and this faction that claims to be the current Unity Bar Executive.
This is, to me, not the type of leadership expected of him and it may be described somewhat as a ‘betrayal’ of the Unity Bar. A lot of people do not understand what leadership means with what they have displayed. All I can see is self-interest.
TML: Some Lawyers have questioned why the Unity Bar has yet to take any action to stop the Ezenwa faction
Otah, ESQ: The reason things are the way they are, is because the loyal members of the Unity Bar and Elders refused to take the law into their hands. They chose to abide by the law, by the decisions of the Court and the NEC. But this faction will not obey Court Orders if the Orders do not suit but would rather go and get other Court Orders, and expect others to obey them. Rather than listen to and follow the decision of NEC, they sued the NBA.
It tells you they have an agenda and they cannot be trusted. The more they keep on with the way they are carrying on, the more we are convinced that they cannot lead the Unity Bar.
TML: There was another Court order…..
Otah, ESQ: Well, I don’t understand why the Court will listen to them at all! If I were to represent the Unity Bar in these matters, the first thing I will do is point out to the Court that these people who are seeking this injunction from you are coming with very unclean hands and you cannot continue sinning yet expect grace to abound. I will show them chapters and verses on how they had obtained the various orders, seeing that the courts didn’t take any action against them. I will now calculate what they have done, and I’ll say to them that what they are doing is to try to put and keep our house in disarray. These people coming are in breach of conduct. In other words, they are in contempt. In fact, what should happen is that they should be held for contempt, and I would actually commence contempt proceedings against them.
All they’re trying to do is to make sure they waste the period of tenure. Over One year has already gone, and we are still here ‘chucking and chiving’. They go on social media to mislead unsuspecting members of other branches, as per their authenticity, claiming that they are the ones actually representing the Unity Bar. They are busy holding conferences, seminars, organizing meetings without the Unity Bar and we are quiet, behaving as if we are important or something!
You see, ever since the current NBA Executive decided not to follow through with the Kanu Agabi SAN report, I stopped trusting that they would be able to handle the situation properly if at all and in the interest of the Unity Bar. It is for this reason that the Caleb Dajan caretaker committee was pretty much silent whilst they were acting in that capacity. To the best of my knowledge, they called only one meeting. I consider it symbolic of how the NBA considered the interest of the Unity Bar. After the meeting I went away with no crumb of comfort that they were acting in our interest. It was as if they just followed through with a process.
There was no assurance that anybody that has not followed the NBA’s directives in this matter would be summarily disciplined or dealt with etc. They made noise but they did nothing, and you are telling me that I should trust this NBA to handle the situation? That is where the problem lies.
The National Exco brought out its mandate talking about how they were going to bring in discipline. How they were going to bring in new ways. They promised to do business differently but are performing worse after getting into the hot seat.
TML: What advice do you have for young lawyers who may be confused as to the leadership of the branch.
Otah, ESQ: I will tell them before they form any final opinion that they should get the whole facts for themselves and rightly. They should meet the previous chairman of the branch in the person of Agada Elachi Esq. to explain the circumstances. They should enquire on why his tenure was truncated. He was also involved in the handing over procedure in the election that took place.
I will also refer them to Abdul Ibrahim SAN. My reason being that he was the chairman of the independent electoral committee of the said 2016 election. They need to read and understand the provisions of the constitution of the NBA and uniform bye-law particularly, the provisions electing new electoral officials.
Now, what makes this even more interesting, is that by hook or crook somehow the last National Exco decided to amend the constitution. And it was the changes that they had brought in that that ended up affecting some of the ‘preferred’ candidates.
Ezenwa did not fulfill the requirement of the committee and as stated in the uniform bye-law. I spoke to the chairman of the electoral committee, and he informed me beyond reasonable doubt that Ezenwa did not fulfill certain criteria that was why he wasn’t nominated.
Again one of Ezenwa’s arguments when I spoke with him (after all we are all brothers), was that Abasiakan did not also satisfy the criteria. You see we are lawyers. When you say anything, you must have something to back it up. The electoral committee submitted its report, and every one accepted. It would seem however that the previous NBA National Executive did not like it and decided to look for a fiction, and find a way to impose their preferred candidate on the Unity Bar.
They were however unable to dispel the fact that there was a franchise given to members of the Unity Bar and that franchise by their very action had been controverted. No matter how beautiful your argument will be, it’s all sophistry, if at the end you deny the majority their choice simply because you are not happy with those who have been picked as candidate on some ‘technical’ yet unconstitutional grounds. It becomes more obvious that whoever they superimposed was not the majority’s choice!
TML:Do you have a word for Ezenwa’s group?
Otah, ESQ: My message to Ezenwa and Lawrence is whilst it is not absolutely too late, retrace your steps, humble yourselves, come back and be unified with the Unity Bar.
This route that they have taken I cannot justify in my short twenty-seven years at the Bar and experience both at home and abroad. I cannot see how they will benefit ultimately from this. I believe they are being used. I believe they are actually ultimately pawns in a very convoluted chess game. I cannot see them winning because if they should continue with their actions, they will lose me.
Who am I? I am just another member of the Unity Bar but I like to think I am personable. I like to think I can get along with most people. I like to think I am affable and sociable. They will lose me and if they can lose me, they have lost out because if some other persons, be it influential or not should reason half the way I do Ezenwa and his group will feel the impact negatively at some point. I think they should think carefully of what they are doing as well as their future in the Profession. I have weighed their actions and I find them wanting.
Whilst it is not too late, whilst we are still acting with civility and we are still following the Rules, we are still saying there is an olive branch, we are still saying we are one, I think it is time to stop. They must reflect, consider their families, their future careers as lawyers in Nigeria, and do a double take. They should retrace their steps and stop this. I actually feel a little sorry for them because I feel they are being used by others.
TML: Do you have any idea who could be using them?
Otah, ESQ: Yes, but I’ll not say. The point is they are allowing themselves to be used, and it is not in their interest. When I see my juniors making errors, I advise them. I usually tell them that what I am seeing whilst I am fast asleep, you with all your ‘feferity’ standing on a hill, cannot see it. A lot of times, maybe because I don’t scream at them, they think I am wrong and they are right. The results are always heart-breaking especially in their avoidability.
Abdul Ibrahim, SAN, the electoral chair, categorically stated that the committee’s decisions cannot be impugned anywhere. The committee did its job properly and accurately. It followed the law, the rules and everything.
I am saying that this has got to stop and I am saying that I don’t like the attitude of the NBA Executive past and present, to this situation. It is not in our best interest.
I am not looking at what they say; I am looking at the fruit of what they do. The kind of commotion that has dragged us, the authentic members of Unity Bar backward. It took six months for the Caleb Dajan led caretaker committee to be set up and for another six months they had done absolutely nothing [so to speak], except to call one meeting. The decision they took to set up elections for the Unity Bar was then frivolously challenged in Court again by the Ezenwa led group and the election was stopped. I had expected those representing the Unity Bar to seek to set aside the said Order and bring an application to stay the action of that suit, go before a vacation judge and say it’s an emergency because the state of the Unity Bar is at stake here but I do not know if anything in that wise was done.
TML: As a senior lawyer sir, have you made this suggestions to those representing the Unity Bar in court?
Otah, ESQ: #1- except I am invited to the tea party, I don’t gate crash.
#2- I have mentioned some names Agada, Abdul Ibrahim so obviously I discussed some of these issues with them; trust me, my independent opinion you cannot curtail. I actually asked them why this was going on. For example, I learnt the Ezenwa group went to the secretariat, and picked up the vehicle that was there. They went to the police etc as a result amongst other things, which went awry and should not be mentioned as happening between lawyers and I wondered why the matter is NOT before the disciplinary committee already?
Because we are lawyers we must put sentiments aside. As a lawyer, there are -certain things I cannot do anymore. Leadership comes with responsibility. Once a lawyer is called to Bar he assumes a position of leadership in the society. The profession comes with responsibility as encased in our Rules of Professional Conduct.
Right now, with the crises surrounding the Unity Bar and the lack of leadership expected from the NBA National Exco, these Rules have been observed more in breach.
TML: What is your opinion on Discipline of lawyers in Nigeria?
Otah, ESQ: Recently, a lawyer was struck of the roll at the Supreme Court for embezzling client’s funds to the tune of Fifty Thousand Naira. I think, with a caveat that I am not privy to the facts of the case, that perhaps it was too harsh. There has to be extraneous factors justifying the decision. Considering the amount alone it may have been better if he was suspended for some time, and given an opportunity to make good the wrong, or try to find a way to repay the money but not that he should lose his livelihood and career as a professional. I would otherwise not agree with the harshness. It is welcome that disciplinary action is taken against conduct that would bring the profession into disrepute but it should be uniform and it should not be mixed with Bar politics. That’s a discussion for another day.
The legal profession is a calling and you can err. Even ministers of the gospel err, and their Calling is of the Highest Authority. Some of them get to stand down for some time but when they get rehabilitated they are usually restored to a degree. Now this man may have taken this money dishonestly but what is he now going to fall back on? Why ruin his career without the option of rehabilitation? So based on the money alone I think it was very harsh however I don’t know the full facts. Sometimes the conduct itself may be critical and not just the sums misappropriated.
TML: What offences do you think the highest punishment (disbarment) should be reserved for?
Otah, ESQ: It will always depend on the facts and the gravity of the task. So, a lawyer who is found guilty of murder obviously would be disrobed, whether he is executed or given a twenty-five year jail term. That is an extreme situation.
Now for me, one key element of what should actually warrant a decision to go one way or the other would be the temperament, attitude and conduct of the accused person. If the accused person is penitent, and you know penitence is not just saying ‘I am sorry’. It is taking action, trying to restitute, sorting things and even suggesting ways he can change; I think he should be given a chance. We all make mistakes. Right now, as we live through these trying times and with a difficult economy, there are more people who have the tendency to err than not.
Again it depends on the magnitude and on the breach of professional conduct. I consider it a grave offence where a lawyer has been served with Court papers and he refuses to take them. He is not just misconducting himself to the person who is trying to serve him. He is doing it to the Court. He is doing it to the Bar. He is doing it to the Institution itself. We always advise our clients when they are served Court papers not to run away but to pick them up, instruct a barrister or a solicitor to handle the matter for them. And here, a lawyer is been served Court papers and he is avoiding it. You can be cited to come and show cause why you should not be disciplined for refusing Court papers. I am talking about just refusing Court papers, how much more when there is an order given by a Court saying do not take any action in a matter and the lawyer brazenly goes ahead to do it in sheer and utter contempt!
It brings us back to what is happening at the NBA. You are conducting seminars. There is one person that keeps sending out messages to Unity Bar members about these events claiming to be the PRO of the Unity Bar – when we have an elected PRO. The seminars augur well for a progressive Bar but the rigt thing done the wrong way is still necessarily wrong. It would be better if all parties agree to unify effort to build a better stronger unified Unity Bar and not this despicable hocus pocus that makes a laughing stock of our training, ethos and calling.
TML: What is your message to the Unity Bar as a whole?
Otah, ESQ: My message is simple: If you’re the authentic Unity Bar, do something about it for crying out loud. Stop telling me to ignore nonsense. Who is this person breaching our Rules? Has he been reported to the NBA? Has the authentic Bar gone to court to take action against him and to injunct him from doing anything in that regard. If your identity is being stolen why can’t you get the culprit disciplined? If you are not doing anything about it, don’t go telling people that this offender is not authentic because if your claim is germane, you would have done something about it. You can’t come and rain on my parade and I will look at you. I will take every possible action against you. In fact, the Unity Bar better stand with one voice. The advocacy on behalf of the Unity Bar at court right now is not aggressive enough.
Allow me to borrow those sagely words from a noted Nigerian polity: “I go siddon look”.