Last Saturday, the Eastern Bar Forum (the EBF) held its quarterly meeting in Abakaliki, Ebonyi State. Amongst other things, it resolved to reject the proposed amendment of the Constitution for the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and subsequently issued directives to all branches of the NBA in the East to withdraw any memoranda they must have submitted in respect of that.
While some lawyers applauded the EBF and joined in the same call, others stared in disbelief at what they described as a big opportunity blown away by the EBF.
In the words of a lawyer from Abia State, “the constitution amendment presented an open post for the EBF and other pressure groups to kick the ball into the net but they opted to kick it over the bar.”
The motive behind the new amendment is still not clear. Many lawyers have indeed opposed the idea especially for being passed at the wrong meeting, but the EBF as a group should have been more strategic in their position.
The most remarkable provision of the NBA 2015 constitution was the enthronement of universal suffrage for lawyers as provided for in, Section 9(4). Another remarkable part of the constitution is Section 9(3) which divided the country into three zones for the purpose of elections into national offices thereby recognising the [rinciple of zoning. Section 2.2(a) of the second schedule further emphasised it.
In section 2.2(d) of the second schedule, it is provided that, where a position is zoned to any particular geographical zone; the position shall be rotated and held in turn by the different groups and/or sections in the geographical zone. This forms the crux of this writing.
The EBF and other pressure groups have influenced elections in the NBA long before the 2015 constitution, but the advent of that constitution left some doubt as to whether it made them stronger or weaker.
No doubt, the introduction of universal suffrage made these pressure groups weaker since they will now have to grabble with the control of many more lawyers who have now fallen into the dragnet of eligible voters, unlike before when the delegate system made it easy for them to control and influence fewer lawyers for the purpose of elections. However, universal suffrage is not the biggest problem these groups will face under the 2015 constitution, the biggest problem they will have to deal with is the problem of section 2.2(d) of the second schedule of the NBA constitution.
The section has given the pressure groups a false sense of authority and indeed deceived them into thinking that they have a duty to give effect to that very section and other related sections. I am persuaded to believe, that based on that, that the EBF made one of its most audacious pronouncements in its 13-years existence, putting itself on a likely head-on collision with the NBA.
Section2.2 (d) (e) of the NBA constitution as stated above provides for rotation among different groups/sections in the zones and provides for the states that fall within each zone. This came with a colossal error.
The colossal error was the failure of those who drafted the constitution to include or recognise anybody saddled with the responsibility of giving effect to section 2.2(d). The NBA does not have zonal branches.
In other words, the question at this point becomes, if a position is due to a particular zone, who will put the section into effect? Which organ will ensure compliance? What happens if it is not complied with? The constitution is silent on these questions and some lawyers believe it is deliberate.
Tactically, these pressure groups (Arewa Lawyers Forum, Midwest Lawyers Forum, Egbo Amofin, Eastern Bar Forum) putting themselves forward were not mentioned anywhere in the constitution. Another question now arises, where did they derive their authority? This is where the EBF misadventure starts becoming apparent.
The EBF is in focus now since the next NBA president will emerge from the eastern zone where the EBF supposedly operates. One would have expected the EBF to be the first to support the amendment, and lobby that the constitution be amended to recognise it and other similar groups in the West and North as the legitimate authority to give effect to section 2.2(d) or recognise a regional body for that purpose where the EBF will have influence. They acted otherwise and left many brewing questions unanswered.
In the same meeting, the EBF put into motion a process for adoption of candidates. This may end up being an exercise in futility. Some lawyers have pointed out that the EBF is standing on nothing in the exercise of this authority. There are simply many “what ifs” arising from the EBF voyage to assume the role in giving effects to section 2.2(d). What if another group emerges as an umbrella of lawyers in the East, how will the EBF prove its authority? What if a dispute arises in the choice of a consensus candidate, in what capacity will they relate to the NBA to do their will? What if an issue is raised as to whether the EBF acted wrongly or rightly in exercising authority trying to comply with 2.2(d)?
The answer is obviously NO because the constitution did not, in any way, recognise its existence and the EBF cannot assume it suo moto. An argument in favour of the EBF has stated that, the EBF has always selected its candidates ever before the 2015 constitution came into force and that there is an established convention of “turn by turn”. This is absolutely incorrect.
The EBF has never in its 13-year history endorsed any candidate based on any convention whatsoever.
The EBF was founded in 2004. In 2006 Olisa Agbakoba SAN, Chris Uche SAN and Funke Adekoya SAN ran for the position of the NBA president.
Agbakoba and Uche came from states that are presently in the East, while Mrs Adekoya came from the West. The EBF, which was young at the time with a few members mobilised support for Agbakoba not because of any convention, but because it was politically expedient to make sure that an outsider in the name of Mrs Adekoya did not take it away since two people from the East were in the race. Chris Uche was left in the cold. Until today, the EBF has never had reasons to choose any candidate based on any convention.
Some lawyers who have sympathy for the EBF have argued that in 2012, in the election between Okey Wali SAN and Emeka Ngige SAN, the EBF adopted Okey Wali over Ngige because of the “turn by turn convention”. That is grossly incorrect. In the 2012 presidential election, the NBA at the time was opposed to adoption of candidates by pressure groups.
Emeka Ngige did not put himself out for adoption, so Okey Wali became the sole candidate for the election since he put himself forward for adoption. According to the EBF at the time, Okey Wali was the only candidate that they knew since he was the only one that came forward. There was no opportunity to give reasons why one was chosen over the other since they did not stand side by side for adoption.
Unfortunately, recently some lawyers have started changing the narrative that Okey Wali was chosen over Ngige because of a convention that is obviously not in existence. Again, the question now is, how could you have chosen one candidate over the other when indeed there was only one person for consideration? Another pertinent question is “When exactly was this convention entrenched?”
In my view, for an action to qualify as a convention, it must have at least happened. The so-called convention of ‘turn by turn’ has never happened in the EBF’s history. The EBF has never in its history, put out a presidential candidate on the basis of the so-called ‘turn by turn’ convention which according to them provides that the position will be alternated between Igbo speaking members and others. However, if the EBF says that they want to start it now, it is a different ball game and it will raise a lot of questions which will include the question as to how many sections/interests actually make up the EBF and what will constitute fairness in alternating the position.
Recently, some lawyers have started the agitation that the EBF as presently constituted is actually made up of four groups namely the old Imo state, the old Anambra state, the old Rivers and the old Cross River state. In the association’s recent history, old Anambra has produced three presidents, Old Rivers has produced two presidents, old Imo has produced one while old Cross River has produced none.
Some hardliners in the EBF have argued strongly that the zones within the association are recognised only on the basis of Igbo and non-Igbo states. However, some who are not faithful members of the EBF have argued that the intent of those who drafted the NBA constitution or even founded the EBF was to strike an ethnic balance. They argued that the use of sections and geographic interest as used in the NBA constitution was a mere diplomatic approach not to categorically ethnicize the NBA elections.
In view of that, they argued that technically, 100 percent of those who have been presidents of the NBA from the region are all of Igbo origin and no one from Ijaw, Efik, Ibibio, Annang, Kalabari etc, have been supported to attain the position. That line of argument is increasingly gaining popularity.
In all of these arguments, regardless of how brilliant they are, if the NBA, through its constitution continues to stay away from saddling any group with the responsibility of making sure that section 2.2(d) is put into effect, the EBF and its authority will continue to stand on nothing. All its efforts will amount to exercise in futility.