Thoughts on the 58th Annual General Conference of the NBA

By Nkannebe Raymond Esq.

The theme of the just concluded Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA): “Transition, Transformation and Sustainable Institutions” in many details, speaks to the circumstances of Nigeria as a nation state still grappling with the developmental problems that overwhelm invariably all sub-saharan African countries.

To the extent that it takes off from “Transition”, it finds a harmonious intersection with the political climate in Nigeria where the citizens warm up to participate in the highest democratic ritual of electing new set of leaders in the executive and legislative arms of government; an almost always controversial exercise in many African states.

The organizers of the conference must have had this in mind when they delimited “Transition” as one of the tripodal themes of the well attended conclave of legal practitioners as well as other key stakeholders drawn from other human endeavours. As there are no guarantees that we will have a seamless transition at the centre of power (in the likely event the current government is not returned by 2019) as was seen in 2015 courtesy of the graciousness of one man, it is only being proactive that one of the nation’s brightest of men be brought under one roof, to interrogate the factors that militate against seamless transition of power especially in African societies. As by doing so, we can  be armed with the right tools to check against it, or in a worst case scenario, tackle it head on, should it rear it’s ugly head.

How can African states become transformed in order to play a leading role in global politics has agitated the minds of nearly all her greats since the wind of independence swept through sub-saharan Africa a little before 1960 and beyond. Agitations for self rule by the leading African nationalists  from Senghor to Nkrumah through  Zik, and down to Awolowo to keep the list short, was largely informed by the need to make Africa the captain of her destiny and by implication, a key stakeholder in global politics so as to negotiate for what is hers in the comity of nations.

But in the five to six decades after most African states broke off the yoke of colonialism, disillusionment  aptly captures the situation in most of her economies.  So much so that not a few of African citizens have come out to declare that African peoples fared better under white rule. Like the proverbial sore thumb, underdevelopment has sticked out in the circumstances of many African states and the statistics out there bear this out.

With rising unemployment numbers;  hunger, occasioned by food insecurity brought by desertification and climate change; excruciating poverty( with Nigeria taking the ‘lead’ in this respect); inadequate health care facilities; high maternal mortality rate; a very ugly per capita income;  rising insecurity in Nigeria, Libya, Central African Republic, Sudan, Mali, Somalia and elsewhere; a cycle of corrupt leaders that have elevated misappropriation of public treasury to a virtue; it would be understating the point that Nigeria and indeed other sub-saharan states are in dire straits and in need of socioeconomic transformation.

This is where the second leg of the theme of the conference, to wit: “Transformation”, resonates. How do we transform African societies? Why are most African states poor in sharp contrast to their European and North American counterparts? As  one delegate asked in one of the plenary sessions, “is Africa a cursed continent, that she has become the world capital of gloomy statistics in most global indexes on socioeconomic performance?”. Why is corruption most prevalent in Africa? And why is it increasingly difficult to live a decent life here? These and many more are some of the issues that agitated the minds of all those 10,000 delegates as well as faculties who converged on the International Conference Center, to attempt a therapy to  Africa’s developmental cirrhosis of sorts. And I have no doubt within me, that they have done a good job. But that was not all.

Ever since the publication of that masterpiece on political economy- Why Nation’s Fail, by the two cerebral authors, Daron Acemoglu and James A.Robinson, the argument of strong Institutions as a sine qua non to the growth and development of states have become a chorus in in the choir of developmental politics.

It is the irony of Africa however, that she has replaced strong institutions with strong men and have continued to pay for this indiscretion with a stunted, nay arrested development of her governments and peoples. A very steep price you could say. To put things in some context, It is to the weakness of institutions that we owe the decrepit nature of Nigeria’s chief civil security apparatus- the Nigerian Police Force and the numerous units within it especially the notorious Special Anti Robery Squad (SARS) now supposedly under reforms. If the head of a secret police assumes powers to the irritation of the Constitution by emasculating one of the pivotal organs of a democratic state, then we are met face to face with the opportunity cost of weak institutions. One can go on and on, to highlight the divergent manifestations of strong men at the expense of strong institutions, but that would be tantamount to a needless excercise at this time.

The point being made however is that to the extent that the third limb of the theme of the conference under reference tethers around thesustainability of institutions, it is safe to say that the NBA is alive to the problems of Nigeria of today, and has taken it upon itself to be in the vanguard of getting her out of the proverbial woods. And it is on this score, that credit must be given to the Technical Committee on Conference Planning (TCCP) who set the tone for what was indeed an edifying encounter.

The argument for strong and sustainable institutions notwithstanding, one of the highpoints of the conference was the seeming aversion for this theory by one of Nigeria’s unlikely figure, His Royal Highness, Muhammad Sanusi II, the emir of Kano. In the special plenary session with the commander in Chief of the Republic of Ghana, His Excellency, Nana Addo Dankwa Akuffo-Addo, the erstwhile CBN governor declaimed that Nigeria, and indeed Africa still need strong men, and posited in his trademark accent that “weak men destroy strong institutions”.

The arguments of the bank guru in many details finds accord with those of a newspaper columnist, Mr. Paul Ojenagbon, who earlier last month in an article published in the Sun and Guardian Newspapers entitled, “Africa Still Needs Strong Men”, argued that as much as Africa was in great need of strong institutions, it does not suggest that strong men ipso facto constitute an anathema to developmental and transformational leadership. He thus submitted that in the African context, and especially at this stage of her history, she was in need of some good dose of “strong men”. I like to think that the examples of Singapore under Lee Kwan Yew; China under Mao; and Malaysia under Manhatir (in his first coming), in many respects recommend the thesis of the Kano monarch and my good friend, Mr. Ojenagbon when one factors the disposition of the leaders under reference to the autonomy of state institutions under their watch.

The danger however, and which unmasks the weakness of the thesis of the inimitable economist with all due respect,  is that strong men are given to upend and circumvent institutional bureaucracies which pose a great threat to the collective civil liberties of the citizenry. And there is no better evidence of this than the sardonic writ of president Muhammadu Buhari, who in what Prof. Wole Soyinka has aptly termed a “pernicious doctrine” attempted to make a mockery of the rule of law, by arguing, although warply, that “the rule of law must be subject to the nation’s security and national interest”. Such a poke in the face of the cherished Rule of Law principle that would make A. V. Dicey turn in his grave.

That said, Suffice it to say however that the eminent Kano traditionalist has set the tone for a debate that I expect political scientists to interrogate in the Nigerian context to found upon a middle ground between strong men and strong institutions by all means.

At any rate, one expects that the rich discussions that was had throughout the technical sessions around the three pillars that form the theme of the conference would further put in glaring consciousness   the amount of work that needs to be done to effect a paradigm shift in the fortunes of Nigeria, nay Africa. And there is no question about who should drive this process. Lawyers by the peculiar nature of their training must not only be in the forefront of setting this path for a New Nigeria (apologies to Obafemi Awolowo), but must be seen to do so. It has been said ad naseaum that when a nation gets her legal and judicial architecture right, every other thing would be added onto it, like they that seek first  the “kingdom of heaven” in scriptural parlance. If the above postulation hold some water, then lawyers in their twain professional roles as barristers and judges must rise to the occasion of this momentous era of our history.

Talk, as they say, is cheap as shit. Hence Beyond the glitz and glamour of the annual showpiece therefore, is the walking of the talk. Assuming we navigate through 2019 in a seamless transition, we would have achieved one of the main thrust of what this conference set out to achieve. But that would only be of real value if it leads to the transformation of the circumstances of the common Nigerian out there struggling to eke out a living, which can only be possible with the right leadership. A leadership that is ingenious enough to solve problems, and not one that shifts the burden as lawyers do, in a civil trial. But the peak of these all would be the setting up of strong, robust and sustainable institutions on which the engine of state would grind seamlessly to birth the Nigeria, nay Africa of our shared aspirations. These, in my estimation are what the Nigerian Bar Association has tried to achieve in the extant edition of its annual professional pilgrimage.

Raymond Nkannebe, a lawyer and public interest commentator wrote in from Lagos. Comments and reactions to raymondnkannebe@gmail.com


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