By Raymond Nkannebe
After what was a long, tasking and punishing campaigns, elections into the office of the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) as well as other National Executives of the NBA came to a denouement on Thursday,30th July, 2020. As only one candidate could emerge from the process, it determined in favour of Mr. Olumide Akpata, the so called underdog amongst the triumvirate cleared to vie for the top office by the Electoral Committee after garnering more than one half of the total votes cast in a loud testament of his reception. In an association that had in recent history seemingly reserved the top office of the NBA for the distinguished and respectable members of the inner bar, few persons could have predicted such an outcome. But here we are, fully humbled by the verdict of providence and the ultimate decision of members of our association. Indeed the future makes a mockery of the human foresight.
The campaigns started in a relatively dignified tone, but as with all campaigns, things would run off at a tangent, not helped by bruised egos, and tampered nerves. What were the consequences? The gates of the mundane were flung open. No side was spared. The process would become one large room of conflicted interests with all sides daggers drawn, ready to out-do each other. The climax? The now infamous letter of a very Senior Advocate calling for a remaining-on-course with the status quo. Effectively, too much sentiments and emotions were invited at the electronic ballot. And the one candidate, whom it favored most, took the benefit in circumstances that will be told for a long time in the annals of the NBA.
The eventual charged atmosphere of the campaigns notwithstanding, the process was nonetheless enriched by the quality of debates that attended it: a tribute in a sense to the quality of the candidates. Their well written manifestoes spoke to one thing: their common passion for a revitalized Nigerian Bar of premium benefit to its members and the society at large. While they spoke in different tongues, they answered to the paramount question of change. Apparently, Akpata’s message resonated more with thousands of lawyers who had had enough of ‘yesterday’ and yearning for a breath of fresh air. They had their way. That is the beauty of any democratic process.
Yet, it would be imprudent of me, without prejudice to my advertised support of Akpata, if I do not to spare a word or two, for the electoral process that fielded the current National Executives. And here, I speak particularly of the electoral committee and their conduct preliminary to the opening of ballot. In the weeks before the election, I had sounded an alarm, warning that all was not well with the management of critical information by the committee. I had argued that the committee was unwittingly setting itself up for failure, or at best, sub-optimal performance. With the benefit of hindsight, it would appear I had a crystal ball.
A free and fair election can only be vindicated in the transparency of the process. But in NBADECIDES 2020, we had a situation where opacity was substituted for transparency by the electoral committee. When they woke up to this realization, it was a too little, too late.
For the most part, many of the candidates and the electorates groped in the dark, so much that it seemed the polls would not go on, 48 hours into the opening of the ballot.
Or how else would one explain away the fact that the final register of voters for an election that took several months and at least one postponement, to prepare, was released only few hours to the commencement of voting. And when it did, the list was a basket of errors manifesting in the ultimate disenfranchisement of otherwise eligible voters. This is totally unacceptable.
It is even more so as they were clearly avoidable blunders but which has unfortunately given birth to perhaps legitimate demands for an audit or scrutiny of the entire process by one of the Presidential Candidates.
The 2016 and 2018 elections of the NBA were seriously litigated in Court, and only few weeks ago, the EFCC charged a former staff of the NBA and at least, one Lawyer, for alleged interference with the integrity of the 2018 NBA elections in favour of the eventual winner.
At the very least, it would be a bad PR for the NBA if its 2020 election go the way of the last two before it, per, litigated in Court. When lawyers fail to conduct their internal affairs with decorum, they lose the important moral authority to sermonize in the affairs of other people and groups. Thus as advised by Prof. Chidi Odinkalu, the new executives must double down in enthroning a well structured voting template that would be void of all routine vices before the next national election in 2022.
For all the real or perceived flaws of the process, it leaves us with two important lessons that must not be lost on us in our efforts at nation building, namely, that an electronic voting system can be deployed by INEC to field our leaders, and that with oneness of purpose, Nigeria’s largely youth population, can produce the kind of leadership they want.
Olumide Akpata’s popular mandate is in the main, the triumph of popular will and weal against the ‘Old Order’. The margins of victory say it all. For the first time in arguably the entire history of the NBA, Nigerians of all extractions rallied behind a candidate for the office of President of the association as though it were a National elective Office. In one of my interventions in those heady days of the campaign, I highlighted the nuances of that nationalistic support.
On more than one occasion, I was engaged by non-lawyers whose message was simple: please ensure he wins. This teaches us that Nigerians can rise above petty and primitive considerations to elect a leader that embodies the values, discipline and worldview they aspire to. We have a lot of lessons to learn from this gesture as a people and as a Nation.
As I observed elsewhere, in 2023, INEC has no reason not to bequeath to Nigerians a full fledged, or at the minimum, a quasi-electronic voting system in the election of our national leaders. The Nigerian Bar Association has shown that it could be done, with the right attitude, investments and political will, it can be gotten better. God forbid that we should re-invent the wheel in 2023.
On the whole, I congratulate the newly elected National Executives, particularly the president-elect. It is almost cliché these days to ask that they show magnanimity in victory. So far, they have kept by the golden rule.
I have just finished reading the president-elect’s circulated letter to Nigerian lawyers: happily, he understands that there’s a paramount duty to unite the Bar after the divisions wrought by the campaigns. He has equally solicited the support of the co-contestants whom he says he’s “privileged to have run against”. That is the right thing to do. No meaningful transformation can happen in an atmosphere of discord. As much as possible, the Bar must pull in one direction to remain a model amongst other professional associations.
As I conclude, let me observe that this is not a victory for Olumide Akpata alone. It is a victory for all of us, as we continue in our larger mandate to promote the rule of law in a society where that salutary principle continues to lose its essence in the eyes of the common man.
Raymond Nkannebe, a legal practitioner writes from Lagos. He tweets @RayNkah