by Femi Falana
The National Executive Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association held its last bi-monthly meeting from July 5 to July 7, 2013 at Yenogoa, Bayelsa State. At the end of the meeting the NBA President, Mr. Okey Wali, SAN, was reported to have called for the proscription of the Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF) in view of the controversy, which had trailed the outcome of the re-election of Governor Rotimi Amaechi as its Chairman. Mr. Wali, SAN, must have forgotten that his own election was seriously contested by his major opponent, Chief Emeka Ngige, SAN. In spite of the fact that the allegations of malpractice (including the fact that some lawyers who died several years ago voted from the grave!) were proved beyond reasonable doubt no one ever suggested that the NBA be proscribed. However, while I reject the insinuation in certain legal circles that the call for the proscription of the NGF was influenced by the fund collected from the government to host the last NBA NEC meeting I am of the strong view that the liquidationist call should not go unchallenged.
In his characteristically forthright manner, the Edo state governor, Comrade Adams Oshiomole, exposed the NBA leadership to ridicule when he said that: “the environment and the overall circumstance known and unknown that led the NBA president to call for the freezing of the right of Governors to associate borders on corrupt practice.” Although another governor has joined issues with Mr. Wali, SAN, I deem it pertinent to challenge his reactionary call before it is adopted by the forces of annulment in the country.
More so that the call is a sad reminder of the fate that befell some progressive professional bodies and trade unions which were either corruptly taken over or decimated by the Ibrahim Babangida junta. It would be recalled that the NBA was once a target. Under the leadership of the late Mr. Alao Aka-Bashorun (1987-1989) the NBA was in the forefront of the struggle for the observance of the rule of law and the restoration of democratic governance in the country. The junta did not disguise its plot to hijack the leadership of the Bar at the 1992 Annual Bar Conference, which held in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.
But some of us successfully frustrated the imposition of the official candidate as the leader of the NBA. A few months later, the Legal Practitioners (Amendment) of 1993 was enacted and backdated to 1992. In the main, the decree sacked the National Executive Committee members of the NBA led by Chief Priscilla Kuye and replaced them with a caretaker committee headed by the late Chief FRA Williams, SAN, to manage the affairs of Nigerian lawyers. Although the decree ousted the jurisdiction of the courts and criminalised the institution of any suit which might question “anything done or purported to be done” under it I was prepared to challenge it. But the Ikeja branch of the NBA instructed me to file the suit on behalf of all its members. Of course, I did.
In the suit we challenged the legal validity of the proscription decree. The Lagos High Court presided over by Obadina J (as he then was) granted an injunction against the caretaker committee. Dissatisfied with the injunction the defendants rushed to the Court of Appeal. Owing to the constitutional significance of the case the request of the appellants’ counsel, Chief Williams, SAN, for a special panel of five Justices of the Court of Appeal to hear the appeal was granted. However, the appeal was dismissed. In upholding our submissions their lordships unanimously declared the amendment decree illegal and struck down it down for violating the fundamental right of Nigerian lawyers to associate freely and assemble without interference. See FRA Williams & Ors V Akintunde & Ors (1995) 3 NWLR (PT 381) 101.
In the same vein, the complaint filed by Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, at the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights at Banjul, The Gambia, on the proscription was equally determined in favour of Nigerian lawyers. Thus, in Civil Liberties Organisation (in respect of the Nigerian Bar Association) v Nigeria (2000) AHRLR 186, the African Commission found that the official interference “with the free association of the Nigerian Bar Association is inconsistent with the preamble of the African Charter in conjunction with UN Basic Principles on the independence of the Judiciary and thereby constitutes a violation of article 10 of the African Charter”. Both decisions have confirmed that some Nigerian lawyers went all out to defend the autonomy of the NBA and resisted the official imposition of leaders on it, even under a fascistic military dictatorship. It is therefore ironical that the current leadership of the NBA has, for some inexplicable reasons, colluded with the forces of retrogression to constrict the democratic space in Nigeria.
It is particularly sad to note that the NBA, which used to be the defender of the fundamental rights of the Nigerian people, has thrown up leaders who are campaigning for the proscription of friendly societies and clubs. Even if Mr. Wali does not like the NGF he is duty bound, as a lawyer, to respect the right of the members to associate without external interference.
In the light of the foregoing it is hoped that concerned lawyers will urgently adopt decisive measures to free the NBA from the grip of anti-democratic forces and reposition it to resume its traditional role of defending the rule of law and the expansion of the democratic space in the country. Otherwise the NBA will soon lose its relevance in the struggle of the Nigerian people for the transformation of the country from civil rule to democracy under the rule of law. I am, however, convinced that that will not happen as majority of lawyers do not share the perspective of bar leaders who have contempt for the democratic rights of Nigerians.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Femi Falana