Nigerian Bar Association and its social media ‘war’ -By Olabisi Deji-Folutile
For the second time in six months, the Nigerian Bar Association has asked the Chairman of the Body of Benchers, a top regulatory body of Nigeria’s legal profession, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN) to step down. The request was as a result of the allegation of professional misconduct by his legal firm, through a former lawyer in his chambers, Ms Adekunbi Ogunde.
The first time NBA made the call was in July during the tenure of its immediate past president, Olumide Akpata. At that time, the NBA insisted that Olanipekun must step down from his position to enable the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LPDC) determine the possible culpability of Olanipekun and other partners of the law firm in the case against Adekunbi, without coming under any undue suspicion of impartiality.
On 5 December, the same call was repeated by the new NBA president, Yakubu Maikyau, barely 24 hours to the call to bar ceremony of new wigs in Abuja. The NBA president, in a letter written to Olanipekun, called on him to step aside and allow the Vice Chairman of the Body of Benchers (BOB), former Supreme Court Justice, Mary Peter-Odili, to preside at the call to bar event.
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But this time around, the NBA was accused of using the social media platform, as against the conventional process of in-house communication channels, to make its request. In other words, the letter was published on the social media before it was received at the BOB headquarters.
For those not conversant with the details of the issue at stake, there was an email written by Adekunbi Ogunde, a former partner in Chief Wole Olanipekun’s law firm, soliciting for patronage from a foreign multinational, against standard practice. Adekunbi has since admitted that she wrote the letter of her own accord, without the autorisation of the chamber she worked for. Subsequently, she resigned her appointment and tendered an apology for embarrassing her employer and recused herself from practice for an unspecified number of years.
This email was the basis for a petition to the LPDC by the NBA. The association also demanded that Wole Olanipekun and the chambers be sanctioned. While the case of Adekunbi is still pending in the LPDC, and ongoing in Abuja, the legal professional disciplinary committee said there was no prima facie case against Chief Olanipekun and the other partners in the chamber. It also established that the lawyer in question acted on her own volition.
One would have assumed that the verdict of the LPDC on Olanipekun was final since the body is singularly charged with effecting discipline in the legal profession at all levels. However, asking Olanipekun to recuse himself again creates a negative impression in the mind of an average follower of the situation. Is NBA implying that it does not really respect the verdict of the disciplinary body set up to punish offenders within its own profession? Is NBA telling the world that the LPDC’s verdict is biased and, as such, should not be respected? Or is NBA more interested in dealing with the BOB chairman and not the lawyer at fault? As it is, the NBA is creating the impression that the BOB chair is its target and that does not augur well for the association. Is there no process in place to appeal the position of the LPDC, if it is considered as not satisfactory?
The NBA should not subject its internal control systems to the whims and caprices of social media. The NBA should not be seen as engaging in a social media trial. In fact, it is better for the NBA to question the correctness or otherwise of the LPDC’s decision internally if it is not satisfied with it than seeking to get validation for its actions on the basis of social media comments.
Even Maikyau has confirmed that the law firm of Wole Olanipekun and Co. has been excused from any liability regarding the email in issue. But curiously, the NBA president resorted to quoting social media comments on the decision of the LPDC and using such as a yardstick for expressing some reservations on that decision. Taking this step is like rating public opinion above that of its own internal disciplinary mechanism.
The NBA, in its letter to the BOB, has said that it is doing what it is doing towards “regaining the confidence of Nigerians in the legal profession.” The body has every right to fight for the legal profession in Nigeria, but the way it is going about this war is suggesting otherwise. The sheer scale of this social media ‘war’ should be embarrassing to legal professionals.
The NBA has said that whatever confidence Nigerians may have had in the legal profession was drastically eroded by the content of the email in contention. From the way the NBA described the email, it would seem as if it was the worst thing that had ever happened to the legal practice in Nigeria. “There is no gain-saying that this email has brutally hurt the legal profession; it made a caricature of the Nigerian Court system and brought the entire legal profession to abject disrepute. It is disgusting!” These are the exact words of the NBA.
Personally, as bad as this case may be, I do not agree that this is the worst thing that has happened to legal practice in Nigeria. In fact, our judicial system is plagued with accusations of corruption and other vices. Some people believe the NBA has been too quiet in the face of poverty and gross abuse of human rights in this country. Besides, the association has maintained a deafening silence at times Nigerians would have appreciated its voice. Even when it talks, its voice is feeble, as in the case of the prosecution and conviction of the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen by the Code of Conduct Tribunal. What role did NBA play when Nigerian students were at home for nearly nine months due to ASUU strike? Besides, how respectable does NBA think Nigerians see a bunch of lawyers who fight over souvenirs and destroy registration booths during their national conference?
I don’t know how many people are convinced about the ongoing grandstanding by the NBA in its so-called duty to “protect the integrity of the legal profession, and to engender public confidence in the judiciary and other institutions saddled with the administration of Justice in Nigeria?” Nigerians would rather prefer an NBA that will work for them.
What is more, senior members of the association have made worrisome statements supporting human rights abuse in the past. After all, we were all in this country when a senior member of the association and VP said that Sunday Igboho should be crushed simply for agitating for a peaceful rally in support of self-determination for the Yoruba nation, which is a legal demand in a federation. How did the NBA leadership react to this militaristic expression in a democracy?
Shouldn’t the NBA and its executives be at the forefront of promoting the rule of law? Did the former NBA president not defend his VP for expressing his personal opinion? The NBA didn’t take that as the position of the association. So, why is it fixated on indicting Wole Olanipekun when there is no evidence to back its claim? To what extent has the NBA held the Nigerian government accountable for the lives of citizens lost to insecurity, the high level of corruption in the system and the abject poverty in the last few years? The NBA used to be a vibrant civil society group in this country.
For me, using the organ of the association to wage social media wars has a lot of negative implications. Resorting to letters of advice on social media is doing more damage to the image of the legal profession.
I don’t know how many people are convinced about the ongoing grandstanding by the NBA in its so-called duty to “protect the integrity of the legal profession, and to engender public confidence in the judiciary and other institutions saddled with the administration of Justice in Nigeria?” Nigerians would rather prefer an NBA that will work for them. A good way to start is by ending the incessant arrest and detention of innocent people by the police and other law enforcement agencies, as suggested by one of its own, Femi Falana (SAN).
Olabisi Deji-Folutile is editor-in-chief, franktalknow.com and a director at AF24news.com. She is also a member of the Nigerian Guild of Editors. Email: email@example.com.