Olumide Akpata is a Senior Partner and Head of Corporate and Commercial Practice Group at Templars law firm. In this interview, he speaks on his aspiration to become the next president of Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, and his vision for the association. Excerpts.
By Innocent Anaba
Why should lawyers choose you, and not your fellow contestants, as President of the NBA?
In answering this question, I need to issue two very important disclaimers. Firstly, although the elections are scheduled for the end of this month in compliance with the provisions of the NBA Constitution, the Electoral Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association (ECNBA) is yet to advise us that the ban on campaigning has been lifted.
However, that has not stopped the provisionally cleared candidates from sharing their programmes and action plans. It is only in that light that I have agreed to grant this interview. Secondly, I also have to be careful not to run afoul of the provisions of the NBA Constitution as well as Electoral Guidelines issued by the ECNBA which prohibit statements or publications that vilify other candidates.
So, if you don’t mind, I will restrict my answers to why I believe Nigerian lawyers should choose me, without any reference to my fellow candidates, both of whom I have tremendous respect for.
I have always said, and I will repeat it today that my life as a lawyer has been dedicated to the service of the NBA, championing capacity development of lawyers and welfare related issues amongst lawyers, and of course to the service of my clients who pay my bills. In the course of my involvement in the activities of the Association, and I have been very involved, it soon became obvious to me that there is a widespread sentiment within the profession that the NBA is grossly lacking in utilitarian value and that many lawyers have remained members of the Association out of compulsion.
The often-asked question is, what does the NBA do for me by the way? An Association whose members do not join, or do not remain part of, out of a voluntary sense of commitment and involvement but due to compulsion is on the verge of extinction. Beyond this, there is also a wide spectrum of lawyers who are not in private practice and who are often alienated and not treated as equal members of the Association. This should not be.
This is where I come in. I am confident that I possess the tools to lay a solid foundation for a Bar that works for the overall interests of all segments of the Bar.
My aim is to ensure that the actions of the NBA at the national level positively affect all the members of the NBA no matter the Branch that they belong. The NBA must ensure that members have a sense of belonging and are carried along in all that we do.
Young lawyers often complain that the NBA does nothing other to collect their annual dues and organise the Bar conference. What are your plans for them?
Anyone who has followed my activities especially at the Bar will attest to the fact that the NBA Young Lawyer has been a primary focus of interest for me. In fact I always have had to defend myself to tell our more esteemed seniors that I am also for them.
Frankly one of the fundamental principles that guide my actions is that it is impossible to chart the course for the future of any association or organisation and the young persons who are the beneficiaries of that future have no seat at the negotiation table. It just cannot work. If I emerge as NBA President, I will bring institutional focus to issues affecting our younger colleagues.
In this regard I must say here as I have said a number of times at different fora, my idea of welfare for the young lawyer does not lie in providing hand-outs to them. Rather it is about equipping them with modern skills and tools to provide for themselves.
I recognise that if we do not train our young lawyers and aspiring lawyers in contemporary legal subjects and in a practical manner, they will not be fit for the future. If our young lawyers are not fit for the future, it will create room for lawyers from foreign jurisdictions to surreptitiously fill up that space and this would not be good for the future of the profession. That is why one of my chief policies will be to make dispensations to young lawyers to enable them satisfy the requirements of the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) Programme every year.
In this era of globalisation, no organisation can afford to insulate itself and refrain from actively engaging with others. For instance, the NBA-SBL under my leadership organised, in partnership with the IBA, a free training for 100 young lawyers on the fundamentals of International Legal Business Practice.
If I emerge NBA President, I will ensure active partnerships and collaborations with international organisations and agencies especially the IBA to provide our young lawyers with capacity building opportunities.
What are your thoughts on the practice of zoning adopted by the NBA for its elections?
The rotational presidency policy, was introduced as part of the solution to the crisis that engulfed the NBA between 1992-1998 when NBA had no national President and was run at the Branch level only. It is a testament to the success of the policy that there has been no repeat of such crisis to date.
It is also in compliance with the policy that all three provisionally cleared candidates in this year’s race are from the Western Geographic Zone as defined by the NBA Constitution. How can I possibly fault that?
These days, money seems to play a big role in NBA elections. What are your thoughts on this seemingly ‘money for votes’ practice?
Honestly, I do not share these sentiments. I admit that in time past we had the issue of money politics in the NBA especially during the practice of delegate voting. But this is exactly what the universal suffrage introduced by the Austin Alegeh SAN Administration and implemented for the first time in 2016, was put in place to tackle. While we cannot say we are there yet, we have made considerable progress. In fact, the 2020 ECNBA Guidelines I earlier mentioned has also gone a long way to minimise the place of money in our electoral process and I commend them for this.
Have you secured the backing of any regional body association of lawyers for the 2020 NBA presidential election? If not, why?
I have not secured the backing of any regional body association of lawyers for the 2020 NBA elections if you are referring to the three constitutionally recognised geographic zones. Indeed, only one of the Zones came out to say that they have adopted one of the candidates. Of course, that has not stopped another candidate from that same Zone from contesting. On that issue I shall say no more other than to say that this is an era of one man one man.
In recent times, the NBA has failed to take critical position on obvious injustice by the Federal Government and some state governors. Do you think the body has lost its activism role?
I completely agree with you that the NBA has in recent times lost its voice as the prime defender of the integrity and independence of the Bar and the judiciary in Nigeria. For too long the NBA has yielded its position as the conscience of the Nigerian society and the bulwark against tyranny and injustice in Nigeria.
The truth is that for as long as the Bar fails to carry out this sacred duty, we would continue to dash the hopes of the millions of our compatriots who look up to us to fight against all forms of injustice, condemn unpopular government policies and check abuse of power. It is for this reason that the NBA must strive diligently and consistently to restore the dignity of the Bar.
Once again, I am not campaigning but I must say that if I emerge as President of the Association, the voice or opinion of the Bar must and shall be heard or made or rendered loud and clear on every topical issue, policy, action, etc. of various governments/their agencies and/or on issues of national and global discourse.
What difference would your presidency bring to the NBA if you succeed in your aspiration?
This is just like the first question you asked about why the members should choose me. One thing I will certainly do differently is that I will be available. It is unfortunate but the NBA Presidency has become a fulltime job requiring a hands-on leadership style with a President serving as a Chief Executive Officer. This ought not to be the case.
I have said this a couple of times now and some people said I was playing politics. Those who know me know what I can do. Before deciding to throw in my hat into the ring as it were, I first obtained the permission of my partners to grant me the time off to fully deal with the responsibilities of this office. And this is what I pledge to do. Although I must add that it is my desire that subsequent Presidents and Secretaries of the Association do not have to abandon their practices to run the Association as both ought not to be mutually exclusive.
One other thing I will promise is that I have the leadership will, to do that which is required to solve the Association’s problems. And I do not joke when I tell you that some of these problems require very simple and practical solutions. I will just one example.
If you have been following the activities of the NBA, you will recall that it was the NBA administration in 2014-2016 that successfully implemented the Stamp and Seal policy. Meanwhile that policy had been provided for in the Rules of Professional Conduct since 2007. It just takes the leadership will and constructive engagement with the members of the Association and most of the ills plaguing our Association will be dealt with.
Do you see any problem with the block voting pattern at the local NBA branches?
I do not see any problem with that. In fact, I do not have any data to support the existence of a block voting pattern. As I said earlier, we now have a one-man one-vote policy, as it should be. Therefore, it is for the best man to win.
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