by Orji Uka
Deep intrigues have been brewing behind the scenes regarding the 2014 Presidential elections of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA).
Those intrigues which are threatening to plunge the body into another round of crisis, came to public glare last month when one of its former presidents, Dr. Olisa Agbakoba, SAN wrote a letter dated 28th April, 2014 and addressed to the incumbent NBA president, Okey Wali, SAN.
In the letter, Agbakoba advised the NBA not to depart from its zoning arrangement in the upcoming NBA presidential elections scheduled to hold in July 2014.
Before we go into the issues, here are a few things you should know about the Nigeria Bar Association.
The NBA is the umbrella professional association of all lawyers admitted to practice law in Nigeria and claims on its website to be engaged in the promotion and protection of human rights, the rule of law and good governance in the country.
It is made up of about 100 branches, 3 professional sections, 2 specialized institutes and 6 practice-cadre forums.
The National Secretariat is managed from Abuja and Lagos offices and it has an organizational structure which consists of a National Executive Committee, a National Officers/Management Board, Sections, Forums, Committees, Working Groups and a National Secretariat.
One more thing: The body organizes annual conferences for members in July/August of every year and holds its general elections to elect its national officers every other year.
Leadership crisis – not a new thing in the NBA
The general elections of the NBA have in the past been mired with controversy. In 1991/1992, there was a leadership crisis caused by the alleged intervention of the Military Government of General Ibrahim Babangida which was determined to ensure the emergence of a friendly NBA president by preventing the then president, Priscilla Kuye from seeking a fresh term after succeeding Chief Clement Akpamgbo who was appointed by the regime as the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice.
This Babangida regime interference threw up a crisis at the Port-Harcourt, Rivers State Conference of the NBA. It was so severe that for six years, the NBA had no leadership at the national level, and was only being organized at the branch level.
Zoning is not for the PDP alone
Things however returned to normalcy in 1998. From that time, there became an unwritten ‘gentleman accord’ to rotate the presidency of the body among the three NBA zones – the East, West, and North – akin to what transpired at the National Level of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) from 1999 to 2011.
At any particular general election, only one of these zones is ordinarily supposed to field candidates for the office of the NBA president, preferably a consensus candidate.
The thing is, the zoning arrangement is a mere gentleman’s agreement and is not backed by the NBA constitution, so technically other candidates are not precluded from contesting the election. For instance, when the presidency was zoned to the East in 2006, Mrs Funke Adekoya, SAN (a ‘Westerner’) who incidentally is one of the contestants for the position in the upcoming elections, contested against Olisa Agbakoba, SAN (an ‘Easterner’) despite calls by those who felt that the zoning formula should be respected. Agbakoba however defeated her in the election and so the zoning arrangement prevailed.
And the zoning system has been working.
According to a former NBA President, Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, the first cycle of the current zoning arrangement began in 2000 with O. C. J. Okocha, SAN (East), followed by Wole Olanipekun, SAN (West) in 2002 and Bayo Ojo (North) in 2004. The second cycle had Olisa Agbakoba (East) in 2006, Rotimi Akeredolu, SAN (West) in 2008 and Joseph Daudu, SAN (North) in 2010. The incumbent President, Okey Wali, SAN, who hails from the East began the third circle in 2010 and in line with the zoning arrangement, it is the turn of the West to take the slot.
There have been previous instances of arrangement and compromise resulting in peaceful transition in the NBA. In 2000, O. C. J. Okocha won the election ahead of Wole Olanipekun, SAN, who was the bookmakers’ favorite for the position but who had to enter into an agreement that saw him step down for Okocha in consideration of the latter’s support which in turn saw Olanipekun emerge as President in 2002. Similarly when the Presidency was zoned to the West in 2008, Dele Adesina, SAN widely believed to be the overwhelming favorite to win had to step down to pave the way for Rotimi Akeredolu, SAN to be elected unopposed, having been so prevailed upon by the ‘Elders’ of the zone to prevent an acrimonious election that could jeopardize the zoning arrangement.
So what is the dispute this time?
Basically, the problem is that it is quite difficult to understand the exact composition of the three NBA zones especially when one compares it with Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones.
The NBA’s Eastern zone for instance comprises of all the states in the South-East and some of the States in South-South geopolitical zones namely: Rivers, Cross-River, Akwa Ibom and Bayelsa States.
The NBA’s Northern zone comprises of the traditional Northern states, so no problems there.
The dispute that has now arisen is how to determine what is meant by the ‘West.’
Is the West the same thing as the South-West Lawyers’ Forum, better known as Egbe Amofin Oodua? Or does it comprise of both the Egbe Amofin and the Midwest Lawyers Forum (i.e. Edo and Delta States, which although in the South-South geopolitical zone, are not part of the NBA’s Eastern zone like their other South-South neighbours)?
The Presidential Candidates for the July elections are Mrs. Funke Adekoya, SAN, Mr. Dele Adesina, SAN and Chief Niyi Akintola, SAN, from the Egbe Amofin and Mr. Austin Alegeh, SAN and Mr. Osas Justy Erhabor of the Midwest Lawyers Forum.
The Midwest Lawyers Forum in fielding both Alegeh and Erhabor, claims that since there is no separate recognition given to the Midwest, they are entitled to field their own candidates under the ‘West’ slot.
In his letter, Olisa Agbakoba, the former NBA president and a delegate at the ongoing national conference, argued that the Mid-West is not part of the Western Bar. But his position was quickly faulted by Chief Ferdinand Orbih (SAN), the Chairman of Midwest Lawyers Forum.
Orbih said in a riposte to Agbakoba that at a meeting held in March, 2012 to address the demands and aspiration of the Midwest Bar Forum for the NBA presidential slot, Dr. Olisa Agbakoba submitted a written position where he clearly stated that for the purpose of the zoning of the NBA presidency, both the Midwest Bar Forum and Egbe Amofin belong to the West only for Agbakoba to now make a volte-face because of his support for a particular candidate.
The contention of the Midwest Bar Forum is that there is no South-West in the zoning configuration of the NBA as far as the office of the Presidency is concerned and that the three recognized zones are North, East and West (comprising of the Egbe Amofin and the Midwest) and so whenever Presidency is zoned to the West, both the Midwest and Southwest should be entitled to contest for the position and hence in view of the fact that the South-West had produced the past Presidents of the NBA on the two occasions the NBA presidency had been zoned to the West (Wole Olanipekun, SAN in 2002 and Rotimi Akeredolu, SAN in 2008) it is reasonable, equitable and fair that the 2014 NBA presidency should go to the Mid-West.
The South-West or the Egbe Amofin on the other hand contend that the Mid-West Bar Forum have themselves indicated that they are not part of the West and that if they are, they should bid their time and wait for 2020 when next the zoning train as it were shall berth in the West.
The conflict appears to be more deep rooted than just a mere disagreement over the issue of whether or not the Mid-Western Zone is part of the West or whether it is just the South-West that comprises the West considering the fact that apart from the two candidates from the Mid-West, the South-West themselves have failed to produce a consensus candidate.
While Olisa Agbakoba, SAN who incidentally does not even hail from the West (whether South-West or Mid-West) has by his letter expressed his support for the South-West, a stand that has certainly miffed the Mid-West, it appears the crisis has torn the South-West Zone into two competing camps, one led by former NBA President, Chief Olanipekun ostensibly in support of Dele Adesina, SAN and other camp said to be led by Chief Bamidele Aiku and which allegedly favors Funke Adekoya, SAN.
So what next?
Barring any last minute compromise, the path trodden by the East in 2012 which led to an acrimonious contest between the incumbent Okey Wali, SAN and Emeka Ngige, SAN seems the most likely outcome. Whether the NBA can survive another of such acrimonious contests or whether such will plunge the body into another round of crisis as Olisa Agbakoba, SAN predicts remains to be seen.
– This edition of The Scoop Explains was written by Orji Agwu Uka, a member of the Lagos Branch of the NBA. Follow the writer on Twitter: @OrjiUka