Babatunde Ajibade, SAN and the cravings for a united Nigerian bar
NEWS DIGEST – The time-tested principle is that a house divided against itself cannot make reasonable progress. Past administrations of the NBA identified various problems plaguing the association of lawyers and did relatively well in the short time allocated to them. Since my call in 2017 I witnessed part of the A.B Mahmoud, SAN led brave new bar which aimed at restoring the association to its glory days and the incumbent Paul Usoro, SAN led NBA which has in my opinion scored highly by blocking leakages in the administration’s finances as well as displaying previously unattained levels of transparency by ensuring compliance with the codes of corporate governance. These achievements make the choice of the next NBA president even more intriguing as the imaginary bar has been set even higher. This was probably why the incumbent President of the Bar insisted on inserting a new clause in the constitution which would make financial buoyancy a strong criterion during the screening process of candidates running for presidency.
While campaigns have not officially commenced with the ban on political activities still on, the body language of the major contestants has intentionally given them away. One man however has probably hinged his marketability on a very important yet insufficiently discussed issue – the unity of the Bar. A key deduction from his articles and speeches is how greatly divided the bar has become. Lawyers are now split across many lines with divisions among lawyers based on their nationality and ethnicity, between the public and private bar, between junior lawyers and senior lawyers, between commercial practitioners and litigators, between female and male lawyers, along lines of political affiliation and other fault lines. If this is not addressed, then the Bar cannot be expected to make reasonable progress and if lawyers cannot speak with one voice in defence of the rule of law then the NBA cannot fulfill its major objective of promoting the rule of law. The disadvantages of this trend cannot be overemphasized. Babatunde Ajibade, SAN currently puts himself out as the man who can bridge the gaps which have divided lawyers for this long. I would now consider the major indicators for a man who has undertaken to carry out this herculean task judging strictly not by what he has said but based on experience and track record.
A man who seeks to undertake the seemingly herculean task of uniting the largest bar in our part of the world must have sufficient experience both as a legal practitioner and an administrator. Having led the firm founded by his father from the more traditional legal practice to the modern firm it is today which transcends both dispute resolution and commercial practice one can hardly doubt the experience of the learned silk in legal practice. As an administrator, the senior advocate of Nigeria has paid his dues in service to the legal profession which dates back to 2008 and has continued to date.
The man comes qualified as an academic in his own right being a doctorate degree holder from King’s College, London and while a strong advocate for unity back home his work has not gone unnoticed by the International Bar who awarded him with the International Practice Fellowship in 2009. His rich resume and experience would definitely be invaluable to the bar.
I will now consider some of the lines of division with the aim of considering how his track record can help to tackle the issues with the aim of uniting the bar.
The divide along political lines.
As the concerned citizens that most lawyers are, it is not unusual for them to have political leanings but it is wrong for lawyers to let these divisions divide the bar. The bar must speak with one voice in line with its core objective of promoting the rule of law and protecting the interests of both the bar and the bench. A strong impediment to this has been the identification of the President of the bar with a particular political party. This can sometimes be misconstrued by the lawyer’s representation of a political figure or party which alienates him from members who are sympathetic to other political leanings. When this happens, his every move is likely be viewed through political lenses which can only serve to further divide the bar.
Dr Babatunde Ajibade, SAN to the best of my knowledge does not handle election petitions and should be free from such perceptions placing him on the pedestal to unite the bar irrespective of political leanings.
The divide between Commercial and Dispute resolution lawyers.
The two broad arms of legal practice have their peculiarities and sometimes differ in what they expect from the NBA. The learned silk in focus here is a top litigator who attained the rank of Senior Advocate in 2007 as the first member of his 1989 call set to do so. He is also a top commercial practitioner making him aware of the peculiarities o both groups and places him in the pole position to unite both groups by unifying the varying interests and expectations.
Between young lawyers and their seniors.
I consider the learned silk to be in the twilight zone of the age distinctions being not very old and not very young. He is able to sit with the very young members of the profession and interact meaningfully with them. His practice is hinged on the vibrancy of the young members of the profession and knows the challenges young lawyers face. His peers in the inner bar speak fondly of his ability to get things done. He advocates for bridging the gap between these groups as the challenges facing the profession have been identified to cut across lines of seniority. Both young lawyers and senior members of the profession are sure to benefit from any improvements.
The divide among lawyers of different ethnicities
This has plagued the bar for some time now and has proven to be a huge impediment to the One Bar One Voice principle. While this is a reflection of a problem in the larger Nigerian community, lawyers have in the past shown to be above these petty sentiments and there is the need to restore the bar to that high ground. Babatunde Ajibade pledges to do this and a cursory look at his background and network shows that he has stakes in basically every geo-political zone of the Federation. He has invested sufficiently in the Nigerian project and can be trusted with bridging the gaps along ethnic lines. Every geo-political zone is represented in his office staff. Again, I find no clogs in this area.
While I must now conclude, I must say that the bar has other problems but very few can be achieved with the bar which currently falls short of the ideal state of unity. Babatunde Ajibade seeks a bar where it is one for all and all for one. This is the most fundamental issue for me and what the bar requires at this time in order for all to begin to reap the achievements of past administrations. One can also not ignore the role of elections in contributing to factions within the NBA as the last two elections have ended up in court. To curb this disturbing trend, the elections must be conducted in a way that is acceptable to all. Little things like swapping computers in the middle of the electronic coalition process can cast serious doubts on the integrity of the process. The bar is yet to recover from the divisions that postelection litigation has caused and this must be addressed.
Nnamdi Uzuegbu is a member of the Unity Bar, Abuja branch of the NBA.