By Musa Sunusi Ahmad
LAWYERS practicing in the Northern state on Friday offered divergent views on the move by two aggrieved northern members of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) to form a parallel association.
While two Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) Mallam Yusuf Ali , and Rafiu Lawal-Rabana sued for unity, Jibrin Samuel Okutepa, SAN, and The Arewa Young Lawyers’ Forum said the Constitution is on the side of the splinter group.
The Abuja Branch of the NBA queried the NBA’s motive.
On Thursday, Messrs Nuhu Ibrahim and Abdulbasit Suleiman, describing themselves as Convener 1 and 2, announced that they and others of like minds had formed a ‘New Nigerian Bar Association’ NNBA.
They said NNBA members were in consultations with “very Senior Lawyers of Northern Nigeria extraction and those practising therein with a view to constituting the Ttustees and for purposes of fixing date for formal inauguration of the Association.”
The Kaduna-based lawyers said their decision followed NBA’s alleged discrimination against Governor Mallam Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State who was disinvited him from participating at the ongoing Annual General Conference (AGC), following a petition against his human rights and rule of law record.
El-Rufai’s exclusion stirred a controversy with mostly northern or Muslim lawyers condemning the NBA National Executive Committee’s decision.
They petitioned the NBA to ensure fairness by withdrawing its speakership invitations to former President Olusegun Obasanjo and Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike — but the request was turned down.
The NNBA also claimed that the NBA offices were lopsided against Northern lawyers, among other grievances.
The NNBA ,in its Thursday statement,said: “The New Nigerian Bar Association has been watching the activities of the NBA, an association we all looked forward to joining with high hopes before being called to the Nigerian Bar, forcing idiosyncrasies of few on the majority of its members especially in recent times.
“No wonder, NBA NEC, which is the highest decision-making organ of the Association failed to uphold the fundamental principles of fair hearing which in itself, is the fundamental aspect of Rule of Law, on the allegations against the Executive Governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai as were contained in a petition by Chidi Odinkalu Esq. A long time foe of His Excellency and a Lawyer of eastern extraction. But the NBA failed to extend the same treatment to Southern invitees who were also petitioned and are also alleged to have committed similar or more human rights abuses than those alleged against Mallam El-Rufai.”
According to them, membership of the NBA is not mandatory, adding that Section 40 of the Constitution of permits freedom of association.
They added: “The New Nigerian Bar Association members, gleaning from the above Constitutional provision feel that their interests are no longer taken into consideration in major decisions of the NBA hence the formation of this Association.
“A cursory chronicle of the membership composition of major organs of the NBA would reveal lopsided representation despite having large numbers of Lawyers from all parts of the country and especially Northern Nigeria who have diligently paid their Bar practicing fees and have distinguished themselves in the legal profession.
“The New Nigerian Bar Association feels that, Lawyers, as professionals like Doctors and Accountants should have more than one Association regulated by the General Council of the Bar.”
They stated further that the Legal Practitioners Act (LPA) which regulates the legal profession in Nigeria did not establish the NBA.
“In fact, the NBA was established as an Incorporated Trustee by Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC). It is no longer gainsaying that a group of Lawyers can freely join any lawful Association for the protection of their rights and interests as Lawyers and citizens of Nigeria pursuant to the above cited Section 40 of the Constitution.
Even Section 1 of the Legal Practitioners Act, which seemingly conscripted all Lawyers in Nigeria to Mandatory Membership of NBA is, for all intents and purposes, at loggerheads with Section 40 of the Constitution which makes the former null and void and of no effect whatsoever.
Reacting to the development, Ali SAN called for caution.
He said: Nobody has contacted me about formation of any parallel organisation. I’ve not been consulted, I’ve not been contacted, but I want to advise caution on all the sides.
“Our elders have a saying that beheading is not the answer for headache. We are better off with our numbers and diversity of the Association.”
He said that if in the future such a split becomes necessary, “it shouldn’t be borne out of disagreement. It should be something that comes because our numbers have become so huge and that there are needs. It should also be a pan-Nigerian thing.
“So, for me this is just an event; it is quite unfortunate, but I think it is a matter that we should address at a conference table.
“I don’t think we should join Nigerian politicians to behave the way they normally do; you’re dissatisfied, form your own party. I’m dissatisfied, I form my own party. That’s not the best way to go, and as leaders in the country, by virtue of our training, we should show good example and provide leadership to others to emulate us. We should not because we have issues within ourselves, balkanise our association.
“Some of us have our reservations about the decision of the NBA excluding Mallam El-Rufai, from the conference, but, that notwithstanding, we should still keep our heads and take rational decisions in the interest of our Association, our profession and our country. I ask for understanding and caution.”
Former NBA Secretary Lawal-Rabana SAN, said he had also not been contacted, “and if I am eventually, I will decline to be part of it and also advise against it.
“There will always be one strong and united NBA, it’s all about leadership challenges and once we get it right, pockets of resentment will die naturally.”
But Okutepa SAN, who declined to say if the group had consulted him, said the NNBA’s move was not surprising considering recent happenings in the Bar.
He argued that many honest lawyers were disenchanted because the NBA had lost its values, and the NNBA members had the constitutional right to form another association.
Okutepa said: “If you have read me in several papers – myself, Femi Falana and several others – we have spoken sufficiently to the Constitutional iniquities of making Nigerian lawyers to be members of the NBA, particularly that the NBA has lost it value. “So, if any lawyer feels aggrieved that he wants to form a new association, what stops them from doing so?
“That is within their rights under Section 49 of the Constitution. So, I do not share the views of those who say you must be forced to be a member of the NBA. I don’t share that view. We have chosen to be members of the NBA because we believe that the NBA will live up to the standard of its motto, which is promoting the rule of law.
“But in the past years have you seen NBA promoting rule of law? Or rule of personal aggrandisement?
“The question is whether or not they have the right to do what they have to do. If you ask me, they have the right to do so, because the Constitution in Section 40 grants us the right to freedom of association.
“They don’t need to consult me. If they decide to consult us, they are only giving us respect consistent with the rules of our professional ethics, that you must pay respect to seniority.”
Another SAN from the North Central region, who spoke anonymously, told The Nation that he was yet to form an opinion on the matter.
But the Chairman NBA Abuja Branch Evelyn Shekarau, queried the basis for a new association.
Shekarau said: “Nobody has reached out to me personally or to the association. All I know about it is what I read on social media. I haven’t seen any document and I don’t know the rationale behind wanting to create another NBA, so, it is too early to comment on.”
The Chairman Arewa Young Lawyers Forum (AYLF), Olayinka Jimoh said he was aware of the NNBA but his group were yet to be officially informed.
He said: I’m aware of it and I read it about it the same way other lawyers did on social media, but we have not been carried along either as a forum or as individually. They haven’t contacted the Arewa Young Lawyers Forum at all, but you know under Section 40 of the Constitution, there is freedom of association. So, they have their rights, as far as the law is concerned, to throw up an association.
“The way the conveners put it, they said they are exercising their rights enshrined in the Constitution, but AYLF is not aware officially and has not been carried along.”