TML INTERVIEW: Unity Bar Electoral Committee Chair, Atadoga SAN Breaks Silence on Branch Crisis

Abdul Atadoga Ibrahim, SAN is Principal Partner of A. A. Ibrahim & Co. He was Chairman of the Abuja Branch (Unity Bar) of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) from 2009-2010 and Chairman, Abuja Branch Electoral Committee for 2016. In this tell-all interview, the learned silk explains in detail the Abuja Branch elections and all the crisis in-between. He also weighs in on the issue of factional EXCOs of the branch and what he calls “Unbridled Meddling by the immediate past National EXCO”.

What do you think is the genesis of the crisis in the Abuja branch?

To be honest with you there was actually no crisis before now until maybe the undue interference from the past National NBA EXCO.

These all started from events leading up to the last Unity Bar elections.

Now I know as a matter of fact that we had our own constitution, which had been in operation right from the time of Jude Okeke, presently Hon Justice Okeke. The branch had been operating with that constitution and the termination date of that constitution is 31st December. When the national NBA now came up with a uniform bye-law, we decided to obey and not be seen to be left out though there was some reluctance initially on the part of branch members.

At a meeting, the whole house agreed that we should abide by the uniform bye-laws and pursuant to that, an electoral committee was set up. I was not even in the country when it was set up.

Five of us were made members of that committee headed by Ola Olanipekun (SAN). At our meetings we subdivided the committee into groups. Ola Olanipekun was the overall head and I headed a sub committee, which was to verify candidates’ qualification.

So working with the constitution, we began vetting the submitted application forms. The mindset of the committee then was that once an applicant meets the minimum constitutional requirements (which was as to attendance and as to his nominators also being qualified as to attendance at meeting and payment of dues) he or she will be allowed to run for office.

You will verify that some persons were even initially disqualified. People like I.B Belede and a couple of other candidates. Then there’s even Dan Nwobodo who was also disqualified because some of his nominators did not meet the constitutional requirement of attendance.

Note that we did not disqualify out rightly. Rather we invited affected applicants, informed them and even gave them the hard copy register and the electronically prepared one, as well as the manuscript to inspect. Some of them were satisfied with this.

We were still on this process when we began receiving reports from the Alegeh SAN–led EXCO accusing us of qualifying people who were not qualified. How? Where?  It was in the course of this, that the National EXCO offered to give us a constitutional interpretation, the same one that was given to the Ikeja branch of the NBA.

Now let me state for the record that we the members of the electoral committee, had initially agreed that since the new uniform constitution of the NBA was coming in, we were not going to look back. We were going to qualify everybody because as at the time the constitution came into force, those candidates were not holding office. So why should it have a retrospective effect? Again, we felt it was just like expropriatory legislation. If you want to deny a man something, he must be aware of what he is going into and not that you just come and cut things short. We said let us proactive from the beginning. But the National EXCO insisted and sent us a letter containing guidelines (same was issued the Ikeja branch).

As an offshoot of following the National EXCO guidelines as contained in the letter, we had no option but to disqualify people like Afam Okeke and Sadiq Rilwan who were also candidates.

Now the letter among other things said that whoever had held office in the past should not be considered and should be disqualified. Whether they have their reasons or not, God knows best. Well in the spirit of precedence and “respect” for authority, we followed that interpretation since they said it is uniform. At the end, people like Afam Okeke and Rilwan were disqualified.

Part C of the letter also said that someone who nominates a candidate for any office, must also be qualified to be nominated for that same office.

Unfortunately, this was the rule that caught up with Ezenwa, especially since my committee could not act on one part of the letter and avoid the other. This part C caught up with him because his nominator was Betty Umegbulem who was holding her third office in NBA and she could not have contested for the office of Chairman. On the basis of that, Ezenwa Anumnu was disqualified and the election was conducted.

Now the Alegeh-led EXCO began to mount all kinds of pressure on our committee. It was alleged that one Dafe Akpedeye SAN, who was the electoral monitoring committee chairman (I have never met him), sent us a letter, which we never received till date.

Because of the enormous pressure on the committee and in fact threats on the committee Chairman, Ola Olanipekun, he resigned as head and I stepped in as substantive chairman.

The election went on peacefully without any hitch. Recall that it was conducted by NIGCOMSAT and the process was very transparent for all the candidates’ agents to see.

At the end of the day Victor Abasiakan Ekim was returned as Chairman and his opponent even congratulated him. Erewele lost to Chinedu Obienu and his agent even signed and acknowledged the outcome of the elections. Here is the evidence to show that (tenders documents)

The new branch EXCO was sworn in, the AGM conducted and we were done with the elections.

I was shocked to learn days later, that the Alegeh-led EXCO had declared Ezenwa and Erewele as the candidates that were returned from the election. According to them, they sent us mails and we did not respond.

What is the legal requirement for the conduct of the general election?

Attendance must be up to date, person must be a financial member of the bar, person must attend nothing less than five meetings in the branch within a time frame and for each of the offices, there are statutory prescriptions for age at the Bar. You must also have nominators who are as qualified as you are to run for the office. The requirements were made public at the time.

As head of the electoral committee, you were accused of flouting regulations as set by the National body.

First, who is accusing me? Where is the letter forwarded to me that I violated any such regulation and what provision did I violate? Recall that shortly after the period Alegeh SAN left office, A. B. Mahmoud (SAN) set up a committee of three SANs, led by Kanu Agabi SAN. We appeared before them and made our position known to them. That report is in the public domain; it has vindicated us because that report found us fault free and also found unnecessary meddling from the national body in our branch politics. That is what has led to the crisis we are in today.

Does the national body have the power to so regulate?

Well constitutionally, I don’t think they have the power to get themselves involved in the local branch elections. Their role is more of oversight. What has led us to where we are today is the unbridled meddling by the Alegeh-led National body. They brought the rule, it was complied with so why should one part be taken and the other not.

Do you think that NEC should have appointed the Chairman?

Let me state for the record that we have had about 17 or 18 Chairmen of the Unity Bar since inception. This is the first time that NEC is appointing a Chairman; on what basis should they do that?

Is NEC’s function that of appointment of a local Chairman? What does the constitution say about the decision of the electoral committee? The decision of the electoral committee is final! Where is the constitutional provision for the so-called electoral monitoring committee? If we want to be sincere, it was just unbridled meddling and pathological desperation that led us to where we are today.

You have allegedly been accused of bias by the Anumnu faction and also allegedly quoted as saying even before the elections that whatever happens you will disqualify him. How accurate is this allegation?

In the first place, I don’t join issues with my juniors. By all standards in life, Ezenwa is not my mate, whether age wise, politically, by status, etc. But because you have asked, I will ask this in return; did I ask him to pick Betty to nominate him? Am I the author of the letter sent by the National body as guidelines? I don’t have any reason to disqualify him. Will I come and be chairman twice? If he said that, then that is the statement of a drowning man, grappling at straws.

He said that he believes in the rule of law but when the National body came up and gave an order that he should step down, he disobeyed and still held on to power. Is that not the act of a desperate man?

Do you have any advice particularly for Ezenwa, as a junior?

It might be difficult for someone like that to listen to whatever kind of advice I will give. Someone who has accused Kanu Agabi (SAN) of bias; someone who has not listened to a man as revered as Kanu Agabi, SAN. Is it now me he will listen to?

He is an adult so it is up to him. Maybe he knows why he is going on this way but all I know is that service to the Bar is not compulsory and one must not be desperate about serving his people.

Do you think that the current National EXCO has acted decisively enough in respect of this nagging issue in the Unity Bar?

Everybody has his style of leadership. For me this issue should not have dragged this long. Those who know me know that if I were President, it would not linger like this.

How can one man want to hold a whole association such as ours to ransom? Only God can do that because we are all subject to Him. Even in a family, where there is one dissenting voice, the person can agree with the rest in the interest of peace. Then if what the majority was holding on to does not work out, he can then say, “I told you so!”

Can Ezenwa in good conscience say he was Chairman of this branch? Can his name ever be put in a hall of honor or fame of this branch, legally or morally speaking?

If the Ezenwa faction thinks they are right in what they are doing, that he actually stood an election and was voted into office, then we wish them well. But if not, nemesis is always there to catch up with them. The young followers he is misleading today could be his albatross tomorrow.

We have seen it happen countless times before. There is nothing in this life and nothing should be taken as a do or die affair. We are watching… the elders are also watching.

Is it enough to just watch and do nothing?

In Africa, when something grave is happening and the elders are just watching, be careful, it means a lot.

I cannot be in his support even if I have sympathy for him. Compare and contrast..the Chairmen and Secretaries of both factions were asked to step down. Victor and Chinedu did in the interest of peace.

But Ezenwa is tenaciously holding on and even accusing a man like Kanu Agabi of bias! Can people like Abdullahi Ibrahim, Chief Awomolo, etc advise me on an issue within the NBA and I would ignore or insult them? It is not possible! After all, I also have boys that I advise within the Bar and they obey me.

He will be an elder tomorrow, let’s see how that goes for him.

Some members fear there would be two elections for Unity Bar chairmanship in 2018, from each of the factions? What is the way forward?

There is only one recognized Unity Bar. If Ezenwa thinks he can organize an election, those in charge should know what to do. Banditry and brigandage do not confer legitimacy. Ther’s no cause for alarm.

The leadership of the NBA has set up a committee to review the proposed constitutional amendment. Some have accused the NBA leadership of having an agenda to cancel universal suffrage. Do you have suggestions as to how to tackle this issue and to bring about equity in the electoral process without necessarily taking us back to the delegate system, which is said to be tainted with corrupt practices?

Nigerians are good at accusing people of corrupt practices. We have tried the delegate system as we know it; we have also tried universal suffrage only once or twice, why don’t we try it for sometime, although the tendency to nominate one person who does not appreciate the essence of leadership at the Bar is there.

When you look at it, there are more juniors now who do not appreciate what it means to lead the Bar. Leadership at the Bar involves sacrifice, not only in terms of your career, but it also affects your family life, your finances, etc. So if you want to serve there should be no desperation. I even believe we should have a system of succession at the Bar but some fundamentalists may suggest that it is against the principles of the Bar, but you cannot beat experience. I think we need experienced hands that are selfless and not professional NBA politicians who cannot face their practice but believe in jumping from one NBA office to the other.

What is your opinion of the forthcoming NBA Presidential race and what are your predictions?

Well the candidates have not been officially announced though there have been speculations. I only wish them well and I hope that the best person will win.

Do you think the SAN status should be a pre requisite for the NBA presidential candidacy?

It must not be but it could be an added advantage. If one is coming to lead the profession and has not gotten to that top rank, he would never appreciate the problems of those that are up there. So it must be someone who has tested almost every part of the Bar.

I would suggest that such a person must also be someone who has held top positions at the branch before getting to the National EXCO so that he would have experienced and appreciates what branches go through.

Each branch has its peculiarities and must be addressed individually. For example in Abuja, we had our own unique way of handling our issues before the last constitution came in. We had our own unwritten rules of rotation in producing the branch chairmen between the North, East and West zones of the country, and we never had issues.

I was a product of that arrangement. When it was the turn of the North, our elders screened us and I was chosen as the preferred candidate. Same thing happened when it was time for the West to produce a candidate, that method produced my predecessor Muyiwa Akinboro SAN and others.

With all due respect, we always had issues with candidacy when it was time for the East to produce a Chairman. The records are there to prove me right. Right from the time of Jude Okeke, then Afam Osigwe and now this Ezenwa-gate, there is always a problem choosing a leader from the East.

Any last advice for the branch in general?

I will appeal to all warring parties within the Unity Bar to sheath their swords.

NBA service is a very thankless service as my experience has shown. You will not receive your reward as NBA Chairman when you are in service, but after you have selflessly served, God will reward you accordingly. There were so many experiences I had as Chairman, and I went out of my way to meet a myriad of needs then, from arranging for antenatal services for a lady impregnated by a young lawyer, to doling out financial assistance to many members with one need or the other. You will see a lot of things as Chairman. I even came out broke, because I could not pay very much attention to my practice and there were so many needs to be met by “The Chair!” which of course, you cannot settle from the association’s purse (the association had a very meagre purse, anyway!)

When you are selfless about service to the NBA and think of how thankless it is, there is no reason for desperation.

Well that was in those days, I don’t know if there is more to it now and that is why some people do some unethical things to remain there but I believe in everything we should not be in a hurry in life, God’s time is the best. Take a cue from President Buhari who contested election thrice for the same position he is occupying now. At God’s appointed time, he got there.

I remember when we barely had ten members in our meetings and had to beg members to come so we could form a quorum. Now the branch has grown tremendously and some people just want to destroy it because of selfish reasons. If you destroy your house, where will you go?

This is selfishness, because if you are a true leader no matter who is at the helm of affairs, you can support with ideas, head committees, give advice and so on, to move the group forward. You must not be at the head for you lead.