Mr. Augustine Alegeh, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, is President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). In this interview with FRANCIS FAMOROTI, Head, Judiciary Desk, he speaks on the challenges of NBA leadership, his achievements so far and on the pending bills before the National Assembly among others. Excerpts:
How are you able to cope with the challenges of the NBA leadership since you assumed office?
The first thing that I would say is that when I got into the saddle, it struck me that certain structural deficiencies were in the Secretariat and certain things were not in place at the secretariat and we have spent the last few months, a year plus now putting these structures in place. With work in progress, I hope that there will be progression after I leave. Firstly, as I have always said, an association must cater for its people and if the contact point between the people and the association is the secretariat; the secretariat should serve the members. But when I got into that place, I met a situation where workers at the secretariat were not available to serve. You are looking for a file it is not available; the documents are not there and I said no it can’t work like that. I tried to introduce a new re-orientation for the staff at the secretariat. We tried to mobilize and encourage them the way the works should done so that things can get better. We charged them to be hardworking and efficient. So the first thing was the shock we met when we got there.
We met for example, a cash environment; it was to me shocking dealing in cash because in my little office we do everything by cheque or by bank transfer and we had to stop that at the secretariat immediately. I can say it without fear of contradictions that our cash transactions are minimal for stuff like newspapers and so on. Even if you do a committee work, we tell you all we need from you is the account number. Instead of people going to the bank and be putting money in the envelope, we said we don’t want that and what we do now involves bank transfer and cheque transactions.
We also tried to get lawyers on line; it has been very challenging. I know that between January and March 2016 many lawyers who are not online will get online for the simple reason that we have done portal amendment. As part of our plans, we are going to introduce universal suffrage for lawyers and during election you’ll vote through your profile page on the NBA on-line portal. If you are online then it will be possible to vote. We used online now because it is preferable , when we came in we paid the courier services for the amounts owed them and decided that things should be done online and we used this often for petitions except where exhibits are required. A lot of the things we have introduced are we would have done earlier but you know when technology is available you can introduce some things.
A lot of the things we conceived have not fully materialized like internet banking; some are still afraid of this because it involves a lot of things; the insurance. So we have put a lot of things in place so that the bank can cope; when the bank gets our instructions they have to call us to confirm and so far we have not been duped by any person.
We have done the stamp and seal project for lawyers; we have done the insurance policy for lawyers with discounts across the board and we have entered into strategic alliances with some corporate bodies which makes it possible for get things done easily. We have a building in Abuja; when we were sworn in 2014. On this Abuja land project, we have completed the second basement floor. We have roofed the entire building from zero to 12th floor. We are proceeding to the next stage and we hope to commission the building soon. On the auditorium, we have offered it to some lawyers, some corporate bodies. If they can take up the bills then it will be named after them. We will get this done with the approval of the NBA-NEC.
We are instituting the Fame of Honour for contributions to the Hall project and the Library in the names of donors subject to the approval of NBA National Executive Committee (NEC) and resolution. We’ll do all within out power to ensure that the project is completed on schedule and get everything done with NBA-NEC approval.
We have also tried on the discipline of lawyers; lawyers are more aware that the association is more interested in good conduct. I know we send an average of 25 letters weekly on this especially on those granting interviews on pending cases in the Television. Those who were involved initially said nothing can happen; they later came to us and apologised. NBA is not set out to punish any lawyer deliberately, once you notice that what you have done is wrong, apologise and that is all as long as the damage done is minimal. So we are trying our best.
We have also tried to create a level playing-field on the recommendations of lawyers for the SAN awards. For the appointment a committee. The committee does not have a power of appointment but to recommend and it recommended about 30 something lawyers for the award and about 17 of them were picked. It is now open-ended, you will have an interview, you score some marks. If you do well fine; if you don’t do well, it’s over to you. You will appear before the panel, if you do well, you will be recommended so a lawyer needs to be more active at the Bar. These are measures we feel as the way forof Senior Advocates in year 2015, we have ward the Bar can be happy. I believe we have put in our best although we have challenges.
On the NBA conference, we are trying to do our best to improve on the inadequacies of the past. We are getting our name tags free and some other items. We have perfected all these plans to make the next conference interesting.
I think the media management at the last Bar conference was poor. The papers presented were not readily available to the media. How will you react to this?
We made concrete arrangements at the conference to ensure the papers presented get to the participants. Every paper presented was sent out by Law Pavilion, it was sent out session by session by e-mail; so if your e-mail was not active at that time there is no way you can get the paper. For those who could not get the papers, maybe there are no sufficient servers from which some could get the papers from but then again we are happy you have drawn this to our attention and we will know how to manage it later.
The Supreme Court judgments on Stamp and Seal project have generated comments from the Bar. There is a need for NBA as a body to react and even on the issue of fake lawyers?
Anybody who says the Supreme Court judgments on stamps and seal are conflicting is a quack. The Supreme Court second judgment touched the issue of the earlier judgment, so there is no conflict at all. If you read the judgment very well the pronouncement of Rhodes-Vivour, JSC sets out clearly why the two judgments are not conflicting.
For the fake lawyers, your question should even be why are we not prosecuting them?. Let me say that for Stamp and Seal, we have challenges; anything you are starting afresh has its challenges. Even our manufacturers producing the Stamps are having challenges. We have challenges of lawyers who paid for stamps; you give them, they come back and ask for new set of stamps.
The Supreme Court has a manual record and its officials update the record from time to time. When we ask for this, they will check their paper record and digital record and supply us the information and details we needed. We have several challenges internally, in-house challenges and until we perfected the system, we cannot claim we have overcome these challenges. Our direction now is that there is a legal challenge. Someone took us, the NBA to the Federal High Court; we overcame the legal challenge. The challenges of our manufacturers are being addressed; we are getting over this; we will deal with these internal ones and then think of addressing other ones later.
Do you think the succeeding administration of NBA leadership will have the passion to continue with your project and plans?
What I have been trying to do is to build capacity. The phone calls I received on stamp now are fewer; there is a staff at the secretariat that handles that now. When I came on board, we met a stamp at the secretariat; it was a paper stamp and I said no way; we can’t continue with this and so we introduced the Stamp and Seal.
How will you react to the trend whereby legal practitioners grant interviews on pending cases on Television?
We’ll prefer that lawyers do not speak on their cases in court on television. Some lawyers, very senior lawyers who were involved in this practice came to us. There was noise cannot happen nothing can happen. After so much noise they came back to apologise for their conduct. We know that in some instances, there is the need for overriding public interest which may necessitate grating interviews while handling some cases. But a lawyer can put off his robe to address the press; not speak or grant interviews to the media in their wigs and gowns. It is only the court that a lawyer can address while being robed. The media is not a court so lawyers should not address the media in their wigs and gowns or address the media on issues pending before the court. As I said earlier, it is advisable for lawyers not to grant interviews to the media on their pending cases in court.
How do you see the reactions of the Bar in recent times to Supreme Court judgments?
Supreme Court can err, but that does not make its judgment illegal. Supreme Court rarely reviews its judgments, except it is a policy judgment. There must be an end to litigation. Supreme Court can correct its error. The court corrected itself in Ararume’s case when it decided Amaechi case. This is clear in Oguntade’s judgment in Amaechi case.
How will you react to the pending bills before the National Assembly that were not passed before President Muhammadu Buhari assumed office?
Of course, you know that I am a member of the Stakeholders’ Consultative Forum on the issue of pending Bills before the National Assembly. At our meetings, we were able to address this issue at the forum. When a President has left without assenting a bill, the President who takes over or come in cannot sign the bill. At the stakeholders’ workshop, we advised the Presidency on the way forward; the bills that could be signed and how other pending bills should be dealt with. The fact is that we have done extensive work on this, that is, on the bills that cannot be passed either because of conflict of laws or for other reasons.
How do you think the interests of the oil-producing communities would be addressed in the process of enacting laws affecting their communities?
We have dealt with this issue extensively. We are going to initiate an Oil Communities’ Rehabilitation Bill, which we can push and pass along with the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) . These are the challenges and let’s see how NBA can resolve it with the involvement of the IOCs.
Some of the sections of professional bodies created by the NBA are inactive?
SLP is functional and operating. SPIDEL board is to be reconstituted in February NEC meeting. I think we are proposing that they will all have uniformed bylaws. When we meet in Jos at NEC meeting in February 2016 we will decide all that.
How will you comment on the shift towards globalization of legal services in the country?
I think with clearly defined rules of engagement you cannot just work into our country and begin to operate. I know they don’t mean well for us. We need to have clearly defined rules of engagement. At all times, let us not look at globalization as magic word for expansion. If the rules are there, we should operate them to our advantage.