Eric Elezuo Photos: Ken Ehimen
Getting the person of the President of the Nigeria Bar Association, Mr. Augustine Alegeh, to sit down for a chat, was more like a herculean task. But tough as it might look, his simplicity defeated my expectation as he graciously walked us (my colleague and I) into his spacious office of large mahogany table, which as large as it was, could not swallow the gigantic size of the ‘big’ man.
On the walls were family pictures that recreated happy moments as well as various trophies, certificates and plaques which defined, on its self the personality which his 30 years of practicing law could wordlessly explain.
After tidying up a few pressing issues, the legal luminary turned to us for the chat. While we prepare our instrument for the all important interaction, the legal luminary dropped the first bombshell. He wanted to know why we considered him qualified for the interview. He was now the interviewer, and the crew, the interviewee. Satisfied by the answers he got, he relaxed and took the first salvo, which wanted a piece of his personality.
“My name is Augustine Alegeh, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. I am a lawyer and I’ve being practicing law for over 30 years. I am also the President of the Nigeria Bar Association, and I have been President since August of 2014, ready to hand over by the end of August this year, that is in the next few days,” he said more superlatively.
The excitement in his answer showed a man, who was willing to relinquish power, contrary to the way things seem to be where people who had tasted power strive to hold on. So that makes it two years of service, and he was set to go, not minding that in most sectors, leaders are allowed re-run.
However, sensing the thought behind the inquisitive look he received, he quickly added:
“You know that the NBA is a professional association and one must go back to his profession.” Again, it is a set rule that NBA presidents must serve two years, he said.
He further explained: “In the two years I have served, it had been quite difficult to run my practice and serve my clients. I just felt I owe my association the service, and two years is enough to make an impact. Moreover, it engenders continuity and after 2 years, someone else can continue. This is even good as the knowledge of two years will spur you to attempt the achievable, and not things that are not feasible within the time.
On how the two years in office had been, the 2007 set of SAN said it was worth the while given that most associations allow only one year of service, adding that he had the best of time as well as accomplished several things accomplishable as a president with two years. In all, he had the association and staff to thank more.
“So, I am particularly pleased that members of the association considered me fit and proper for this position for two years. So two years is more than enough.”
Obviously, when one becomes the president of his association, he surely had conquered the field, so we demanded to know what next; whether there is any political desire.
“No!” He exclaimed. “I’m not going to run for any elective office. I only got involved in NBA for the service of the association. I don’t belong to any political party; I have never belonged to any. I am satisfied to be a professional, and as a lawyer, it affords me an opportunity to maintain my relationship; personal and professional level with my friends and my clients irrespective of their political leaning. I don’t intend to go for any elective office,” he spat.
It is actually rare for the regular homo sapien to have such mind set, and it is believed that whoever exhibits such intentions is considered one in a million, but in his usual ‘no grandstanding attitude’, he said:
“Everybody has a scope in life. You have what you want to be in life. I want to be a lawyer, and I’m around to be NBA President because I felt my association needed my services at that time for meaningful leadership, which I have done my best to discharge. But coming back to the office, working on case files, going to court is what I was trained to do, and I’m happy to be back to that job. You know that it is not good to learn new things in old age. If I go into politics at this level, how do I want to start? You will become a starter on that level. So, for me now, I have done two years, and the little experience I have gained makes it sufficient for me.
“Additionally, you don’t serve your people by holding office. Without holding office, you can serve your people. I like people to understand that I’m not saying that I don’t want to serve again; I will render self service without going for election, he stressed.
But with just two years in the NBA, Augustine Alegeh made landmark achievements, breaking barriers and setting new standards. He made this known in as many words, which exemplified his stewardship in serving the association he loves so much.
“Well, you know that it is difficult to judge yourself. You cannot give yourself an examination and then mark the script, it is very difficult. I can’t judge what I have done in the NBA, but I can point them out, he said.
He went ahead, in unusual humility to itemize activities that only a sound mind can put together. These include the introduction of free insurance policy for lawyers; introduction of electronic voting system; completion of the new ultra modern NBA secretariat; amendment of the NBA constitution; introduction of NBA stamp; 25% discount on flights for lawyers with Arik Air among others.
“Firstly, I introduced a free insurance policy for every lawyer LeadWay Assurance. In the last two years most of those who choose the death benefit received N1 million for their family for nothing other than being members of the NBA. We have also negotiated with Arik Air to give lawyers have 20% discount, as well as introduced bar card, which is a card has both the lawyer’s picture and enrollment number. It is also a card, with the support of Access Bank, any lawyer can transact business with. We also introduced the NBA stamp, which has been a topical issue, and needs the Supreme Court’s determination, which determined that any legal document in Nigeria that does not have that stamp is invalid. That singular act has helped us to weed out quacks in the legal profession. You are not a lawyer if you don’t have your rudiment number issued by the Supreme Court.
“I also helped to amend the NBA constitution. Before in NBA, all lawyers could not vote at the elections; it was a delicate system. Now, the constitution which we amended has given all lawyers the right to vote and not just to vote, but to vote by electronic means. We had an election over the weekend recently, and the result was declared by the early hours of Monday and it was electronic voting. Lawyers who were in London, America and anywhere in the world on holiday voted from wherever they were.
“This is the first time we have done that, bringing Universal suffrage to the lawyers, and we have commissioned the NBA national secretariat, in Abuja – an eleven floors edifice, which was bequeathed to my administration by the previous regime, and that is why I said continuity is good. The building is a product of continuity.
He noted that the electronic voting system is at moment only operational at the central level, and not yet available at the state levels, adding that it will be in the nearest future.
It is not operational in the state here because, under the NBA constitution, there are different parameters for voting. The conditions for voting at the national election are different from those at the branch levels. At the branch level, you only need to prove that you have attended 5 meetings of the branch, but at the national level, you need to show that you have paid your practicing fees till stipulated date as well as your brand dues. As we go further, it will be introduced to branches.
A no-nonsense man, and stickler to the constitution, Alegeh found it necessary to step into the crisis at the Ikeja branch when abnormalities set in. This incident led to his being called names. He explains:
Shina is my good friend and brother, and his election was not annulled. The truth is he was never elected. The constitution stated clearly that if you have heLd office on two occasions, you are disqualified from holding office for another five years. This constitution was passed on August 27, 2015. Shina was aware when it was passed. If you have held office two times at the national level, you are banned from holding office for 10 years. It is not a punishment; it is to enable you go and face your practice and develop yourself. He has held office twice, and has to wait for 5 years.
The constitution says on page 46 (section 6) “no member shall occupy the same office more than two years (1 term). And any member, who has held elective office as branch president for 2 terms, shall not be eligible to contest for a branch office until at least 5 years after his last tenure of office.”
Sina was not qualified to run for election, so he shouldn’t have done so in the first place. I was not the one that annulled an election; I couldn’t have annulled an election that never held. Note that no one deprives you from picking the form. The NBA is very open. It is expected that you as a member would have gone through the constitution to know right thing. It is when you submit the form that the electoral committee will scrtinise and decide. Out of the 79 elections we did in 14 days, only two branches had problem. So, Section 12 of the constitution says that; “if there is nobody who is qualified to contest election in a branch, the branch can apply for weaver, for somebody who is not qualified to contest.” The chairman of the Ikeja branch as at the moment is Dele Oloke. There is no way we can make a constitution for all lawyers, just to target one person.”
Even as unprintable names were used against him, he was not perturbed, but insisted that it was the Election Monitoring Committee which supervises the elections that has the mandate to decide who contests and who does not. He added that as the president, he only oversees matters. As a result, the issue someone calling him an interloper or busy body does not arise
Mr. Alegeh also took a general overview of the state of the nation, especially regarding the judicial recklessness rearing its ugly head with special emphasis to Abia State where two men were generously given certificates of return by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). He took a swipe at the judiciary for its uncertainty, and without making a case for the judiciary in the Abia imbroglio, he said:
In Abia for example, somebody filed in Abuja, somebody else filed elsewhere, both claiming similar thing. Though I have not read the judgment, and as a lawyer, it is very risky to comment on judgment you have not read, I have discovered both men filed their cases based on what was right to their disposal, and because they were the lone person in the court they approached, they won their case. The judges have different factual basis. This judge will give a different judgment based on what he has seen. It would have been better if we can have a way of consolidating all these cases, so that every case involving two parties will be brought into one court, with one judge. There, the two parties will present their evidences and the judge will give judgment.
He acknowledged that the judiciary is working assiduously to achieve judicial cohesion and certainty, stressing that as NBA president, he had given the advice to the commission. He admitted that legally speaking, the present judicial logjam is not good for the system.
Happily married, Mr. Alegeh spends his relaxation time with his children, whom he cherishes more than anything.