In this interview with OLADIMEJI RAMON, the President-elect of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mr Olumide Akpata, refutes allegations of electoral malpractices and speaks on some of his programmes for the association.
Did your winning the NBA election come to you as a surprise, given that you contested against two Senior Advocates of Nigeria?
Absolutely not. I keep telling people that I am not an outsider. And that I am not a Senior Advocate today is because of the path that I have chosen to follow in my career. I am not a litigator; I am not a court-going attorney; so, I am not a Senior Advocate, not because I cannot be a Senior Advocate. Indeed, I have to partners in my firm who are Senior Advocates of Nigeria. They became Senior Advocates in the course of practice of law in my firm. I think that is an indication that if I were on that path, the likelihood that I would have been a Senior Advocate today is quite high.
So, did winning come to me as a surprise? No, because Senior Advocates are Senior Advocates; they are the masters of the game of advocacy; they are crack litigators; brilliant lawyers. I am a lawyer myself and I am good at what I do in the path of the profession that I decided to tread. I have been practising law for 28 years. I joined in building one of the best firms in Nigeria. So, I know who I am and I am quite confident in the position that I occupy. I am a senior lawyer in this profession. And I have looked at the rules that anybody who ticks certain boxes, 15 years post-call, etc., can be president of the bar. That none who are not Senior Advocates have tried in the last 25 to 30 years doesn’t mean I shouldn’t go for it. So, it didn’t come to me as a surprise because I have been here all along. Those you refer to as Senior Advocates, I have operated on opposing sides with them; I beat them sometimes in transactions and cases and they have also beaten us.
Those who know NBA history understand the context. Our association was virtually imploded in 1992. Our seniors came together to rescue the association and by 1998 when a new leadership emerged, it was a Senior Advocate, who was president and over time, it became almost like a convention, one Senior Advocate handing over to another. And the reason is because we are a litigation jurisdiction, such that lawyers and even non-lawyers, when they think of the leaders of the profession, they think of Senior Advocates because most of our lawyers are dispute lawyers. Even the man on the street, when he heard that Olu Akpata was running for the NBA president, the first question he asked was: is he a Senior Advocate? Because that is the message that has been sent out. But this is the same profession that has Baba Chris Ogunbajo, one of the foremost, if not the foremost, commercial law practitioner in Nigeria; Gbenga Oyebode, Asue Ighodalo, Senator Udom Udoma, George Etomi, Prince Adefulu, and Senator Dipo Odujinmi. These are the lawyers that I chose to follow.
So, are you saying that if Gbenga Oyebode decides he wants to be president of the bar today, he cannot? It is an indictment on those who even make that argument. Are you saying that if Asue Ighodalo decides he wants to be president of the bar today, he cannot? Or let us even assume that age will permit Papa Ogunbajo and he says he wants to be president of the bar today, are you saying he cannot? I think that argument was self-serving; it was convenient at the time. But thank goodness for victory. You will never hear that argument again.
It is believed that most of your votes came from young lawyers. What do you think was responsible?
Firstly, it is my track record. I have been in our association for quite a while and I have made it clear to all who care to listen that I am very concerned about the future of the profession and the future of our young lawyers because I was 23 years old when my partner and I launched Templers. So, I’ve worn the shoe, I know where it pinches. A 23-year-old today in 2020, what are their chances of replicating what my partner and I have done? What re they being taught in school to equip them for the realities of practice today? So, I have demonstrated to the young lawyers that I am really concerned about them. I mentor a lot of them, I try to provide them with capacity-building opportunities; I have been preaching to them specialisation, diversification; I have encouraged them to embrace new areas of law because I told them that is one of the secrets of our success in my firm. At a time when most of the senior lawyers were busy in court, my firm and I went into electricity law; we embraced the Federal Government’s privatisation programme in the late 1990s, to act as privatisation advisers. So, I have been working with young lawyers; I have organised seminars for young lawyers in medical law, technology law and other new areas. And it is because that is the way out for them – to go down the road less travelled. So, the young lawyers know that I have their back. And when I showed up on the ballot, of course, it resonated with them. I am part of their recent experience of the profession. There is this expression: people may not remember what you say to them but they will always remember how you made them feel and that is what guides me. I know that most of these young lawyers remember how they felt when I sponsored 100 of them, in my capacity as chairman of the NBA-Section on Business Law, on IBA training in Abuja, to say come and learn new things. Or when we sponsored law students around the country to attend the NBA-SBL conference for them to understand what the profession is about. Those students are lawyers today. They are part of the electorate. They won’t forget. I didn’t do it then because I thought I would one day be contesting for the NBA president. I did it because that is my interest and the job is not yet done.
Did the election meet your expectations?
It did. The first time we had electronic voting post our constitution amendment in 2016, we had 6,000 voters; 2018, there were about 12,000 voters; 2020, close to 20,000 people. And indeed, it would have been more if not for those who had technical hitches. So, from the point of view of participation, interest of our members, it met my expectations.
From the point of view of how it was organised by the electoral committee, it fell very short of my expectations in many respects. And I am on record as the only candidate who complained formally about some of those shortcomings. And I am glad to note that at the end of the day, the electoral committee tried to repair some of those defects that I highlighted to them in my two letters to the ECNBA.
How do you react to allegations of malpractices or rigging trailing the election? For instance, Mr Dele Adesina, even before the election ended, called it a sham; also, Egbe Amofin alleged that there was infusion of 4,000 ghost voters. Mr Jibrin Okutepa said there were breaches of the rules; while Mr Femi Falana similarly condemned the process. How do you react to these?
These are respected, smart and very intelligent lawyers; these are very knowledgeable people. I am of the view that if there is any substance whatsoever in their allegations, they would go to court. And the fact that they have chosen not to go to court tells me that these are unsubstantiated allegations. We are lawyers; we operate by the rule of law. So, I think that if they feel so strongly, they will go to court.
Those who ask me about the process, I keep saying to them, I didn’t conduct an election; I participated in an election and at various points in that journey, I identified to those who were conducting the process, what I thought the shortcomings were and I am on record as the only one who essentially did that. So, those who are coming out now (with rigging allegations), they are the ones who do election petitions, I don’t. These are post-election issues. If, indeed, they feel so strongly and they think there was something that was fundamentally flawed, they should challenge it.
For me, I say the shortcomings notwithstanding; those shortcomings did not materially impact on the process to the point that there was a subversion of the will of the people. In my view, and I believe in the view of the majority of lawyers in Nigeria, the shortcomings did not impact materially on the will of the people. My emergence as president is a reflection of the will of the majority of Nigerian lawyers. And I don’t think it will be wise on the part of anybody to try to deny Nigerian lawyers of that outcome.
I repeat, it is one thing to have conversations and grant interviews as Mr Okutepa or Mr Falana have done. What I think is important that they must do, if they think indeed that that process was as flawed as they have alleged, is that they should go to court.
In what way have you shown magnanimity in victory towards your rivals in the election?
Those who know me know that I am a live-and-let-live kind of person. That is my disposition in life. I may tell you all that we did in the course of our campaign but there is a higher power that determined the outcome of the process. So, I don’t ascribe the credit to myself.
One thing I said to myself when we started the race was that I would try very hard not to make enemies and not to lose friends. Dr (Babatunde) Ajibade is a very close friend and I am so glad that we have finished this process and we remain close friends. He called a day after the election. He issued a statement that I consider a class act; he showed the kind of person that he is. I also called him; we have talked and we are going to meet soon because it is the same NBA. And Deacon Dele Adesina is a senior colleague, one that I have nothing but respect for. At least, up until the night of the election, we were still talking. I have reached out to him, I tried calling him, I am guessing he was busy at the time when I called and I know he will call back. So, I don’t have any hang-up. We are in the same profession; the NBA presidency is 24 months, after that I will be back at work and we will need to continue to relate as colleagues. Without a doubt, I will always build or strengthen the bridges between us.
It’s NBA’s third attempt at e-voting. Do you see the NBA showing Nigeria how it can use the e-voting model for the nation’s general elections?
The assurance that I give as the president of the NBA is that definitely, we will show Nigerians how an election ought to be conducted. Once you can approach the issue with sincerity and transparency; once you are not opaque, you can run an election. It is not easy what the NBA did; I think it is to the eternal credit of Mr (Augustine) Alegeh that he was able to find the courage and the NBA was able to find the boldness to say universal suffrage is what is desirable; one lawyer, one vote.
Just as you had the perception that only Senior Advocates could be presidents of the bar, at that time too, we had the perception that we could not do anything else, except with delegates voting. Just as Senior Advocates emerged leaders out of the crisis, delegates voting also emerged in a bid to get a more workable arrangement. But we have long gone past the crisis. So, in 2016, we said we had matured enough to re-introduce universal suffrage and when those who came up with counter-arguments asked where we would congregate all lawyers in Nigeria if we were to have one man, one vote, we said this is the era of technology, we will vote virtually. And we tried it in 2016; again in 2018 and now 2020, noting the imperfections. But we must continue to work at it because that is the ideal.
It is for the leaders to think of the way we can have one man, one vote, in manner that will be transparent, effective and rancour-free. It is not rocket science, if we all approach the issue with sincerity of purpose, it can be done.
The NBA is a microcosm of Nigeria. The issues we confront in the mainstream society are the issues we confront in the NBA. How difficult can it be to know every lawyer in Nigeria once you have a data base? When election comes, hand over the data base to those who will conduct the election. It is simple. I give you the assurance, God spare my life, we will have an election that nobody will have any doubt about because my team and I will approach it with no preconceived notions as to what the outcome should be. I will not attempt to play God; let the people decide election issues.
Is this to say that you will embark on electoral reforms in the NBA as president?
From day one, because it is a bit embarrassing that we who are supposed to be leading are grappling with such a simple issue. From day one, an electoral reform committee will be set up.
Lawyers commonly reference the late Alao Aka-Bashorun as the model NBA president because he was an activist and he was vocal. Since you don’t appear to be an activist, what traits will underpin your own leadership?
Who is an activist? Should we get the dictionary and check that word? We all have to have, firstly, courage of conviction; we have to believe in certain things. A man who will not stand for something, will fall for anything. When a man begins to label himself an activist, he is not an activist. By their fruits you shall know them. What will signpost my administration, I have said it before now that we must first deal with the issues of our members. I find it laughable when people keep talking about the role of the bar with regard to society when almost 70 per cent of the members do not even believe that the bar is of any use to them. How can I go out and start intervening in society when those who are supposed to be giving me backing don’t believe in the association. I think it is ridiculous.
These days there is a prevalence of disobedience to court orders; abuse of the rule of law, violation of human rights; lawyers are being arrested; peaceful protesters are being harassed and detained by security agents. Do you think the NBA has done enough to intervene?
No, I don’t think so. I told you I think the NBA has almost become a spectator too; it has almost become a Catch 22 situation. You mention lawyers being harassed, the NBA has not done enough regarding its own members and so it is even more difficult to intervene in the affairs of the larger society. As I step in, we are going to be setting up a lawyers’ defence fund and anybody who is a financial member of the NBA will be represented for free by the association in the event that they are being harassed or prevented in any way from carrying out their professional duties.From my observation, it seems that once someone becomes an NBA president, they retreat into their shell; you try to reach out to them, you don’t get them to speak on issues. Will it be different with you?
Very different. Different in the sense that I will not shy away from issues that are germane and topical. Once I am free of conflicts, I will come out and speak. But I don’t speak for the sake of speaking. I am not looking for popularity. But you can rest assured that under my watch, the NBA will intervene in frontal issues in our socio-political and economic space. You, the fourth estate of the realm, will not have any problem in accessing the NBA to get our views. Don’t come to us trying to stoke controversy or cause problems; we are not looking to be an obstruction; we are looking to be an enabler. So, you will not find us shying away from issues but we are not here to make noises. I tell our members that the hallmark of the NBA leadership is not to be combative or belligerent; it is to engage. Once you know that I am going there with a clean slate and not going there for personal benefits, you will know that I will go there for the best outcome.