My attention was drawn to the statements of our noble and able leader, Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud OON, SAN,  which he made at the formal inauguration of nine (9) technical committees of the NBA amongst which is the Disciplinary committee of the NBA. Mr. Abubakar whilst furnishing his speech said and I quote:

I like to say that we have had serious challenges of indiscipline and I like our members to reflect on this …These challenges bother on unruly behaviors which are contrary to the entrenched traditions of the profession…These issues include discipline, respect for elders in the profession, seniority and decorum. I like to say that many of us are deeply concerned and have been despondent at the turn of events…At times some lawyers make hateful comments against their leaders, against their senior colleagues. This is very unacceptable. We will really put a stop to this.”

The above statement of Mr. President is reflective of the fact that perchance the current administration has at some point spotted some acts which seem to amount to disrespect. In emphasizing this, Mr. President narrated or should say he spoke about what he experienced in Osun State.  According to him:

I went to Osun State about two months ago and was confronted with serious issues of indiscipline perpetrated by our members who showed gross indiscipline to the Chief Judge, barricading the Chief Judge from entering the court premises. This is most unacceptable. I will plead with our members to show utmost restraint, utmost discipline and utmost respect.”

Court decorum and general respect for constituted authorities of which the Bench is part of, is a fundamental duty of any responsible legal practitioner and it is this cause that must have propelled the authorities to make regulations, rules and as well established bodies to checkmate the excesses of disrespect. And such bodies, I must say we have many for the now. Sure, discipline is what shapes us. However, while the desire to discipline erring legal practitioners remains a priority for such bodies, I do not think that such task is to cross-beat rights and ranks.

If I may, let me refresh the eyes that read these letters to those once bolded above by reproducing same and as well move a step further by highlighting a part of the speech which catches my curiosity for most.

“These issues include discipline, respect for elders in the profession, seniority and decorum.. At times some lawyers make hateful comments against their leaders, against their senior colleagues. This is very unacceptable. We will really put a stop to this…. Let me remark about comments we receive on social media. While we live in an era of social media, we, as lawyers must be careful about comments we make in the social media about our profession. Let us be advocates of discipline, let’s be advocates of decorum and let’s be advocates of decency.

These words are of interest to me in the above comments: Elders, seniors (seniority) and leaders. An elder could be a junior, and a junior, a senior. A junior could be a leader, and a follower a senior. This is the perfect design of the Bar and Bench, and can never be derogated from. Thus at one point or the other, there seems to be a kind of ordeal in this order. But in all, the seniors, the elders and the leaders must be respected. But as this is a necessity, the law also does not fail to strike a balance. So as the young lawyers are bound to respect the senior, I am also aware that Rule 26 of the RPC, 2009 has enjoined the seniors as well to treat other lawyers with respect, on the basis of equality of status. I guess this should mean that where a senior breaches this rule, the Disciplinary Committee of the NBA would take up the challenge to also discipline such seniors since they have been inaugurated for disciplinary purposes. If yes, that is if this is a matter of discipline, why then is the emphasis on elders, seniors, and leaders? It seems as if the Committee was instituted against the juniors at the bar; that is to say, the juniors to the senior, the followers to the leaders and the juniors to the elders; especially those who wear the beautiful gown of boldness to speak against what they perceive as the ills in the legal profession. But I am happy that such boldness is exhibited by the elderly in the Bar as well. The murmuring does not end in the lips of the youngsters alone.

Shifting a bit let me speak on the issue of social media comments. Leaders are meant to live by examples, right? Like a famous writer said: When the elder becomes too careless, the children will end up seeing the grey hair as a mere decoration. No one called to the Nigerian Bar is a baby at the Bar. At least an average lawyer who is a day old knows his rights and how to enforce them. Making any attempt to monitor social media comments or even curb it will result to a battle between the Disciplinary Committee and the Fundamental right to freedom of Expressions and not even the Makers of the comments as many may transport their mind to. Makers of comments will see it as a likely contravention of their right to freely express themselves, a fight against constructive criticism. And sure, I see it as one.

There are only a few who have made such an attempt and those few ended up being criticized. Right to freedom of expression (Speech) is a right recognized in most Human Right Instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Right, even our own Nigerian 1999 Constitution as amended. It is a very technical right and should be carefully dealt with. Although I cannot eliminate my legal thoughts from the literal fact that where one man’s right ends, the right of another begins, I believe in all sincerity that there are the rules of contempt and defamation; they can take care of such excesses. I believe the more that the already established bodies that are to carry out disciplinary actions against legal practitioners are doing enough to handle disrespectful counsel and as well as those who engage in some forms of misconduct. Therefore, for the Disciplinary Committee of the NBA to delve into the arena of freedom of expression to become actors of this technical movie all in the name of exercising their disciplinary role give birth to nothing but dawning doom for them; it is a murky tunnel which end can ever be seen. Similar fate met the famous “Bill for an act to prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected therewith”, which triggered public outcry against its ideology. And when the whole federation battled against the Nigerian Senate, the Bill died a natural death.

As an association, NBA should threat members with the insignia of brotherhood and mentorship of court decorum through its Continuing Legal Education Programme which it is mandated to operate. Taking up the task of trying to discipline members with respect to social media comment is riding a horse on a coal-road instead of using a car. In other words, while I maintain that NBA may be fighting a technical war, I am also saying that NBA is carrying the wrong gun in the wrong war. NBA should busy itself with other matters of importance and not engaging itself in a social media war. The legal profession needs steady growth on the welfare of lawyers which is yet to be celebrated, thus seeking to battle social media comments is an attempt to battle criticism, and I bet, NBA will definitely lose this war.

On this note, I must say that if he who comments is right, then more should be done to see that he who is right remains right. This is definitely what is right. This is because if what is right is not all about who is right, then I wonder when who is right becomes right. I speak against the long spoken and believed fallacy which Mr. President himself said, which is “It is not about who is right but about what is right and appropriate for our profession.” Never can it be right to fight against constructive criticism. It is right to criticize, and he who criticizes constructively is right.

We are intolerant of criticism…..But…..Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.

USA based lawyer and Activist, Ifeanyi Ibo: ifibo@gmail.com

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