By Eric Elezuo
In his campaign messages during the runoff to the Nigerian Bar Association elections, the President-elect, Olumide Akpata, never stopped laying emphasis about his desire to create an ‘NBA for all’, an association of tolerance, interrelationship and devoid of ethnic and religious colourations.
However, with days to the official change of leadership baton and swearing in ceremony of the President-elect, most, if not all things are about to fall apart in the highly revered association of very learned professionals.
What appears like a fragile peace in the administration of the outgoing president, Mr Paul Usoro, is shaky today with the division that has been created with the official withdrawal of the invitation extended to Kaduna State governor, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai as a speaker at the forthcoming conference of the association.
The lawyers have accused the governor on allegations bordering on killings in southern Kaduna, violation of human rights, disobedience to court orders and others.
Some of these lawyers include former chairman, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Dr. Chidi Odinkalu, former chairman, NBA, Ikeja branch and leader of Radical Agenda Movement in the Nigerian Bar Association (RAMINBA), Mr. Adesina Ogunlana, Open Bar Initiative (OBl) led by Mr. Silas Joseph Onu, and Mojirayo Ogunlana-Nkanga.
The leadership of the NBA withdrew the invitation extended to the governor to participate in the association’s annual general meeting in a resolution at it’s national executive council meeting on Wednesday, saying the decision would be communicated to the governor.
Using it’s official Twitter handle @NigBarAssoc, and confirmed by the Kunle Edun, the publicity secretary, the NBA noted as follows:
“The National Executive Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association at its ongoing meeting resolves that the invitation to the Kaduna State Governor, H.E. Nasir El-Rufai by the 2020 Annual General Meeting Conference Planning Committee be withdrawn and decision communicated to the Governor.”
The Kaduna governor was originally among the guest speakers slated to participate in a session titled ‘Who is a Nigerian?… A Debate on National Identity.’ El-Rufai was scheduled to participate at the session alongside the governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike; former governor of Anambra State and vice-presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party at the 2019 election, Peter Obi; cleric and chairman, African Advisory Council of the Royal Commonwealth Society, Tinder Bakare; activist and former federal minister, Oby Ezekwesili; and immediate past ECOWAS commissioner for political affairs, peace and security, Salamatu Suleiman.
Those billed to speak at the conference include Vice President Yemi Osinbajo; Femi Gbajabiamila, the Speaker of the House of Representatives; and Tanko Muhammad, the Chief Justice of Nigeria; Olusegun Obasanjo, a former president; Ike Ekweremadu, former deputy senate president; and Abubakar Malami, the Attorney-General of the Federation.
The 60th NBA annual general conference, its first-ever virtual event, is themed ‘Step Forward.’
However, the inclusion of El-Rufai among the guest speakers at the annual fiesta, had not gone down well with most lawyers, who expressed their disapproval in a petition. The petition, in turn, had woken other lawyers to reality, and they toe the line, threatening withdrawal if El-Rufai is allowed to speak at the conference.
A Port Harcourt based lawyer, Godwin Odimabo, noted thus concerning El-Rufai’s participation:
“If the association has value for her motto, respect for rule of law, democratic norms and values, it won’t take more than 24 hours to humbly write to Kaduna State governor, El-Rufai, informing him of his substitution as a guest speaker at the AGC.
“If he paid to speak, we should refund him his money. If we paid him to speak, we should bear it as the inconvenience caused him by our withdrawal.”
Consequently, the National Executive Council, the highest decision making body of the association of learned professionals, took a decision to nib in the bud the governor’s participation in the conference scheduled to hold from August 26-29.
But the disqualification of the governor has not been taken lying down by the both Northern and Muslim lawyers who felt it was a slight on one of their own. They have therefore decided to go against the decision of the NBA NEC and threaten withdrawal from the conference if El-Rufai is not restored as one of the speakers.
Shortly after NBA made its decision public, the Muslim Rights Council (MURIC) called on all Muslim lawyers to boycott the conference, saying that the NBA has crossed its line by withdrawing El-Rufai’s participation.
In a statement on by its director, Professor Ishaq Akintola, MURIC described NBA’s action as parochial, myopic and jejune.
“MURIC calls on all lawyers from the North to boycott NBA’s AGC in protest against this open declaration of war on Northern Kaduna. Every little action of injustice must spark a reaction if tyranny is to be stopped in the world,” Akintola said.
“NBA has crossed the red line in human relations and conflict management. No single lawyer from the North should participate in the AGC either as a resource person or as a participant unless NBA rescinds its decision to drop El-Rufai from the list of speakers. Injury to one is injury to all.
Akintola said by dropping El-Rufai, NBA has declared war on the other side in the Southern Kaduna crisis and has lost a golden chance to be part of the solution to the conflict, adding that the association has further been elected to be part of the problem.
He said, “The fact that NBA took the ill-advised step on account of a petition written by a group, Open Bar Initiative whose main fear is expressed as ‘One can be sure that he will also use the given platform to advance his conflated narrative, designed to deceive and confuse the nation on the real causes of the killings’ exposes NBA’s impatience, intolerance and self-conceit.
“Is it not better to hear him out than to lock him out? Is it not better to jaw-jaw than to war-war? The departure of the ambassador, they say, is the beginning of war.
“Was it not Jane Goodall who said, ‘Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right’? Change cannot come through rejection and exclusion.
“How justifiable is NBA’s decision to exclude Governor El-Rufai from the virtual conference when people like Chief Olusegun Obasanjo of Odi and Zaki Biam fame and Governor Nyesom Wike are among the speakers? Who bulldozed the hotels of innocent people despite court orders? Who visited unspeakable violence on political opponents? Should NBA hobnob with people linked to genocide and undemocratic practices? So why demonise El-Rufai where killers of innocent people and enemies of democracy are idolised?”
However, while MURIC’s outburst has drawn condemnation from a session of Nigerians including northerners and Muslims, who said he did not speak for them, it has also aroused ethnic and religious sentiment among northern lawyers.
So far, as at the time of going to press, two state associations; Jigawa and Bauchi states have written strongly worded letters to the NBA to restore the Kaduna governor as a speaker or they won’t participate in the conference.
In a statement on Friday by Chairman of NBA Dutse, Garba Abubakar, the group described as “frivolous” the allegations levelled against Governor el-Rufai, accusing the NBA of not giving him the opportunity to defend himself.
“A section of the country cannot therefore take us for a ride as we all have a fair understanding of the law.
“On the strength of this therefore, we call on the national body under President Paul Usoro (SAN) to reverse the decision with immediate effect else the Nigerian Bar Association Dutse branch will boycott the Virtual Annual General Conference taking place in a few days to come,” the group said.
But the NBA Assistant National Publicity Secretary, Habeeb Akorede, said that Garba Abubakar, who issued the statement was not the recognised chairman of the branch and he could not be taken serious.
“Besides, Annual General Conference participation has nothing to do with branch but individual lawyers across the country, and it is free,” he said.
Again, another Islamic body, Shiites, have commended the NBA’s leadership for withdrawing its invitation to the governor.
The Shiites’ position was contained in a letter written to NBA and signed by the President of the Movement’s Media Forum, Ibrahim Musa, on Friday.
Speaking to the Boss, however, a member of the Bar, Raymond Nkanka, said he feared that the religious and ethnic colourations given to the decision taken by over a hundred member NEC, representing over 125 branches across the country, might lead to a more devastating consequences for the NBA.
He noted that with the statement from Dutse and Bauchi branches, the stage is set for a replication of the events of 1966 where after a successful coup had been staged, ethnic connotations were employed as inventory of the casualties were taken, and seen not to favour a group.
“What they failed to realize was the decisions were collective irrespective of who the casualty is. Now, it’s happening again, and the casualty happens to be a northerner and issues are again being raised bothering on ethnicity and religion,” he said.
Nkaneme noted that the high profile members that constitute the NBA NEC cannot be wrong having taking into cognizance the Kaduna governor’s utterances and body languages in recent times, with special reference to the interview granted channels TV not long ago.
“Note that the NBA NEC comprises all former presidents of NBA, all former secretary generals, three representatives each from the 125 branches of the association and also 120 members who are co-opt-ed. The NEX of the NBA is a very large body and represents all shades of opinion and interest. And for the fact that this matter was put to vote and only three members voted in favour of El-Rufai says so much,” he said.
Also in defence of the NEC’s decision, Chidi Odinkalu, a human rights lawyer, noted that all the three who voted in favour of retaining El-Rufai among the speakers are all from the south while one of them is even a Reverend gentleman, thereby ruling out the issue of ethnic or religious bias.
Attempts made to speak with the president-elect, Akpata was unsuccessful as his phone rang out without being picked. However, his assistant, Barr Orji Uka, when contacted, revealed that he was attending a retreat in readiness for his swearing-in activities.
It would have been a good opportunity for Nigerians to borrow a leaf from the lawyers in calling leaders to order as regards their conduct while carrying out their constitutional duties, but for the cracks noticeable in form of divisions.
Meanwhile, the NBA President, Paul Usoro, has tendered an apology to El-Rufai, noting that the decision of the body was not personal.
The coming days before the actual conference will unfold a few more events to determine the way forward even as the Kaduna governor, in a press release signed by his media aide, has threatened to seek legal redress, saying that the language used in condemning his participation was not palatable.
Time is now to check the cracks in the walls before they turn to holes.