The Annual General meeting of the Abuja Branch of the Nigerian Bar Association (Unity Bar) comes up tomorrow. Members will also go to the polls same day to elect new executives to pilot the affairs of the branch.
Exclusively chat with the outgoing chairman of the branch Agada Elachi Esq in a no holds barred interview. He spoke on his legacies, branch controversies, upcoming elections and the future of the unity bar.
Congratulations on a successful tenure, law week and bar dinner.
Spoke with some attendees of the law week and they were very impressed with the organization. Did you experience any organizational difficulties?
Agada: In every effort you make in life there will always be challenges and so this was not an exception but the peculiar challenge we had was the fact that we are in an era where the financial position of most people is at its lowest ebb.
So in terms of fundraising we didn’t do as well as we did last year but through frugal management of resources we were able to save quite a lot of funds which we applied in order to continue with the tradition of giving members a befitting law week and dinner.
The testimonies are out there. If I may say so myself without sounding immodest. I believe this is the best we have had and I think we took this year’s law week and bar dinner up a notch or two. The quality of the presentations and calibre of persons and the sheer numbers of lawyers in attendance are indicative of the fact that the law week was well received and that it had the impact that we desired.
The bar dinner was also another great achievement. The ambience, of the venue was wonderful. The choice of Trancorp Hilton was an offshoot of some of the lessons learnt from last year’s law week, the concerns about security and bearing in mind that there are not so many halls in Abuja that can host the number of members of Abuja branch where we have about 5000 members.
What are the other challenges you faced in your tenure?
Agada: Managing a body of lawyers will always present challenges. Everyone has his or her perception of one thing or the other or their interpretation of the law one way or the other. We had to deal with unnecessary in fighting. Situations where people believe they know better than others. Another very unfortunate situation where one individual feels he knows better than the rest of us and could interpret the bye-laws better than the rest of us especially those of us who were on the executive.
What legacies are you leaving behind?
We have had to imbibe discipline among members of the branch. Were we 100% successful? No. We still recorded pockets of indiscipline here and there with some incidents being very apparent in the last few days. We find lawyers conducting themselves in ways that are not befitting of their status as such. However we have, through the ethics committee been able to pass out information about how lawyers should conduct themselves and uphold the ethics of the bar. We started a series during our monthly branch meetings, where we give a 10 to 15 minute lecture on a particular area of professional ethics that members have to abide by. We also through the disciplinary committees addressed issues where lawyers and members of the public got redress on wrongs done to them by some of our members. In fact that is why in picking the theme for this year’s law week, we chose one that was like a self-audit for us in our profession.
Regularity of monthly meetings and improved attendance
I can confidently say without mincing words or appearing to sound immodest that there is no month during this administration that we missed a meeting, and that ensured that we kept members vibrancy up and morale very high. We have recorded tremendous improvement in attendance to our monthly meetings with average number of attendees being about 600 to 800.
Depth of Intellectual content
This is by far one of the greatest legacies we have bequeathed to the branch. Throughout this tenure and almost on a monthly basis we have provided members of the bar the opportunity of continuing legal education organized by the branch and many of them through some of our sections and committees. These were free of charge and all members had to do was to show up and learn. One of such lectures was the one on tax law and administration which was an opportunity for members to know about other areas of legal practice that they could take advantage of to expand their horizon in such a way that they will be better equipped to serve their clientele.
Welfare of Members
We gave priority to the welfare of members especially the younger ones. Our Young Lawyer Forum has been very vibrant. Apart from providing them with opportunities for continuing education and skills development, we have been able to refer young lawyers to well established chambers for employment and a number of them were accepted. Also, we co-sponsored 2 members abroad for medical treatment. Most recently we were able to help a colleague acquire a motorised wheelchair.
As an individual, one of the things I believe I have tried to bequeath to the branch is a disposition to always be at peace with people no matter the provocation and frustrations. I have always bent backwards to demonstrate that as a lawyer you must conduct yourself in a fit and proper manner; in a way that endears people to the profession. This I must confess has not been easy especially in the light of the fact that certain persons have continually sought to take advantage o9f that disposition. It has always been and continues to be my view that a leader must be ready to stomach mud slinging etc.
This is a platform that allows lawyers and judicial officers sit together at a round table and tell ourselves the truth about areas that are not doing well in the justice administration system in Abuja and what to do to improve the situation. The purpose of the meeting is not to criticise but to work together to make justice delivery in the FCT better.
We have had to carry everybody along. Many of our senior colleagues who had hitherto not been very active in the branch became active. Lukewarm members woke up and became more involved.
NEC & AGM
We hosted the first NEC meeting of 2015 in February 2015. This was our first official assignment and it was adjudged a huge success.
We were also privileged in August 2015 to host the annual general conference of the NBA which was a highly successful event here in Abuja. Recall that the President Muhammadu Buhari was the special guest of honour at the event and the keynote speaker was the Chief Judge of Kenya. It was a landmark event, very well organised and very successful. We still have a lot of accolades coming in on account of that event.
Development of financial policy and other templates
When we came on board there were no particular templates for accounting and other areas of administration. We introduced a budgeting system and also a financial reporting system. We were able to develop a system that is transparent and frugal. We were strict to ensure that monies were only spent for purposes that they were meant and resources applied strictly to purposes that were of benefit to the branch. I will say that there is room for improvement and we shall recommend same to our successors in office.
NBA ABUJA BAR CENTRE
We have made tremendous progress on the Bar Centre which will double as a research and development centre. Apart from securing the title and dealing with trespassers, we have also procured the designs and are in the process of acquiring approvals. We have also improved on the building fund by increasing it from what me met. I am confident that those who succeed us will take it further.
There has been some controversy in the branch towards the end of your tenure. Firstly, the branch PRO was suspended and now there are allegations in some quarters that a few candidates in the upcoming elections were wrongfully disqualified. There are fears the elections may be marred by violence. Can you react to these?
Agada: As I said at the beginning of this interview, in every administration or governance at every level, there will always be difficulties or challenges. We have had our fair share of those challenges. In our first year of office we had a fairly smooth sail I would say, we were busy, we were pushing our activities and we did quite a lot. Of course we had occasional disagreements on modus operandi, constitution of committees etc. but these were quickly resolved and we moved on.
We tried our best to steer the course of the ship despite the challenges.
Personally as a trained mediator, I tried as much as possible to always bring my training, experience and skills to bear in every situation.
In any crises we had to deal with, we did our best to manage the expectations of those who had dissenting views. However at the end of 2015 and into the beginning of this year, we had some of our colleagues on the Executive who decided to go rogue on the Executive with petitions alleging financial impropriety against the financial secretary, the treasurer and myself. The interesting thing is that although they have been challenged to bring proof of their allegations, they have not done so from January to date. In fact, between that time and now, through the intervention of certain respected members, we have met, and talked, and forgiven each other. Despite all measures taken to address the situation, sadly it persists.
My understanding of it to a great extent is that certain people wanted to feel relevant and when they did not get that sense of relevance they felt the best way was to rubbish the good we have done particularly myself, who had stated from the beginning that as an individual I would have nothing to do with finances of the association.
By the grace of God if you check my pedigree, I had distinguished myself as a successful practitioner before I became NBA Chairman. I had a policy that the bar association funds should be used strictly for the association. Even where I had to go on assignments for the branch, I funded those assignments from my personal purse because I believed in following the tradition of some past NBA Presidents who took to the attitude that they were there to serve and not to be served.
As things unfolded it became clear that the concern of the petitioners was not that money was missing or was misappropriated but that they felt that monies were spent without “executive approval”. The reality however is that all funds expended were accounted for and the Executive approved/ratified same.
Interestingly the basis of the petition which was the account of 2015, was received and approved by the AGM held on 11th December 2015 which also had the petitioners in attendance. There was no objection whatsoever at that meeting.
For me it has been an interesting experience in public office, finding out that people can just fabricate stories about you. I have challenged time and again those who are carrying on along that path to bring forth proof against me. There is the age old principle of law that he who asserts must prove.
There is a recording of a telephone conversation making the rounds and purportedly between yourself and the suspended PRO of the branch. Can you enlighten us on this.
Agada: In that conversation, we were trying to talk peace. It is interesting to note that the individual came out clearly to state that he had nowhere in his petition stated that I Agada Elachi stole money of the branch. So the question is where is this report of financial misappropriation coming from?
One of the things I have learnt about public office is that there are those who for their personal interests or for reasons I cannot fathom fabricate stories.
We are lawyers and every lawyer knows that he who avers must prove. So allegations of financial impropriety must be backed up with hard evidence.
A fundamental provision of the Nigerian constitution is that everyone is presumed innocent until proved guilty and that should be applied in this case.
In the heat of all that we are trying to do to manage the issue and even reached an accord, I have always insisted that the interest of the association must be put first.
We also agreed that an audit of the association’s account be done according to the bye-laws. This audit report will be provided at the AGM of the branch tomorrow.
As far as that controversy is concerned, I believe it is the machinations of people who believe that since Agada Elachi will not conform with their frivolous wishes, it is better to rubbish his name in the mud.
On the issue of the elections, the body that is charged with conducting elections is the electoral committee. Article 15 (5) of our bye-laws states that the decision of the electoral committee shall be final. The word “shall” there is operative.
Nothing in the bye-laws or the constitution of the NBA empowers any other body to look into this decision. Those who go about crying foul are just being sore losers.
In the history of NBA this is not the first time that people have been disqualified from running. We have had situations where disqualified candidates go back, re-strategize, recontest after 2 years, win and subsequently occupy key positions in the NBA.
Article 15 (1) of the bye-laws is very clear on the issue of eligibility to contest in election. A member must be validly nominated by one who is eligible and qualified to contest for that same office.
If for any reason the person nominating the contestant is not eligible or qualified to run for that office, then the nomination of that contestant is invalid or void and the person stands disqualified. When people are shouting themselves hoarse about this issue that is very clear from the bye-laws they are only putting out one narrative and that is unfair.
My charge to my colleagues is that those who are eligible to vote should come out tomorrow and vote for the candidates who have been cleared by the electoral body, the only body empowered to do so.
What message will you leave for members of the branch:
Agada: My final words to my colleagues, members of the Abuja bar and to anyone who has the opportunity of reading this discussion are, public office is a call to service. However if we continue to allow a situation where certain individuals can take the names of persons who have sacrificed their time and effort to add value to their profession and society and begin to engage in mudslinging and all sorts of things it is a disincentive to people who want to serve.
To friends and colleagues I say that I believe that I have served with a fair sense of commitment, singleness of purpose with a view to uplift Abuja branch of the NBA. I have made huge sacrifices along with members of my executive to ensure that the interest of the bar is put first at all times. This has been the guiding principle that has led us to where we are today.
I encourage members of the legal profession to stand up for what is right at all times and to remember that we are first lawyers and that political and other considerations must be pursued within the confines of the rule of law. If as lawyers we begin to act in the ways I have witnessed recently where people are issuing threats to disrupt elections then I find that rather sad. A lot of people have value to add to society but they are afraid of public office for the reasons that I now have come to see.
When you put yourself out there for public office, rather than applaud you, there are those determined to pull you down. I take consolation in the fact that you can never please everyone. The worst thing a leader can do is not to act. It is better to be guilty of having acted than not to have acted at all.
I believe that the executive under my leadership has acted in the best interest of the branch to move the Abuja branch to greater heights and we look forward to handing over tomorrow at the AGM so that whoever succeeds us can take the branch to even greater heights. We have done our best to take the unity bar to another level and we expect those who will succeed us to take the branch to an even higher level. These are the issues that are important to me.