African lawyers’ associations at war over Gambia election

Yahya Jammeh [Photo credit: REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly (GAMBIA)]

Representatives of the Pan African Lawyers Union and the African Bar Association are engaged in a war of words over the resolution of the general election in The Gambia.

While the AfBA says it had arranged a meeting with relevant parties in The Gambia to resolve the election impasse, PALU described the association as “a fraudulent organisation that does not represent anyone other than its few individual promoters”.

Yahya Jammeh, The Gambia’s president who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1994, suffered a surprise defeat in the hands of Adama Barrow in the December 1 presidential election.

After initially accepting defeat, Mr. Jammeh, who had ruled the country with an iron fist, reversed his position and called for fresh elections, angering regional blocs like the Economic Community of West African State and the African Union.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the ECOWAS Chair, said Mr. Jammeh’s new position that the election was flawed is “totally unacceptable”.

“Our common commitment to the precepts in the Charters and Treaties of these regional, continental and global institutions are binding and prescribe consequences for non-compliance,” Mrs. Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, said in a statement on December 11.

Lawyers at war

While PALU describes itself as an “umbrella association of African lawyers and Law Societies bringing together the continent’s five regional and 54 national Lawyers’ Associations, as well as individual members;” AfBA says it was “created by a group of progressively-minded lawyers as a federation of national legal associations, corporate and unincorporated legal entities and individual lawyers”.

Trouble began last week after representatives of the AfBA arrived in Banjul, The Gambia’s capital, to hold meetings with Mr. Jammeh; president-elect, Mr. Barrow; members of the country’s electoral body and other relevant parties.

In a letter to the Gambian Bar Association, PALU dissociated itself from the AfBA.

“I have been instructed by the President and the Executive Committee (Board) to write you to continue to express our solidarity with you at this sensitive time in your country, and also to dissociate ourselves from and condemn the statements and actions apparently undertaken by the African Bar Association (AfBA),” Donald Deya, PALU’s Chief Executive Officer, said.

“We highlight that we, as PALU, have nothing to do with AfBA. We consider AfBA to be a fraudulent organisation that does not represent anyone other than its few individual promoters. It has no known membership on the African continent. It does not speak for African lawyers of lawyers’ associations (Bar Associations and Law Societies). It has no known constituency.

“If it considered the Gambian Bar Association (GBA) to be its member association, there is no way it would have ‘parachuted’ directly into the State House of The Gambia, to meet the outgoing president of The Gambia without consulting its member.”

In a statement on Tuesday, Nigeria’s human rights lawyer, Femi Falana, described the AfBA as “an illegal outfit”.

“From 2000-2002, the late Peter Ala Adjeteh (ex-president of Ghana Bar Association) was the President of the defunct African Bar Association (ABA) while I was its Secretary General,” Mr. Falana, a senior advocate of Nigeria, said.

“Since ABA was largely a society of lawyers in the anglophone countries the national bar associations and law societies in Africa resolved to form the Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU). Consequently, the PALU was formed and inaugurated in Addis Ababa in 2002.

“Having midwived the birth of PALU, the ABA decided to dissolve into it.”

Mr. Falana said PALU has since remained the only continental membership forum for African lawyers and lawyers’ associations.

“Since the African Bar Association has dissolved into PALU, the few Nigerian lawyers who are currently parading themselves as its officials should not be allowed to cause unnecessary division within the rank of African lawyers.”

However, Adewale Adebayo, a member of the AfBA, said the association has been a legitimate one since its formation in 1971.

He said PALU was formed when AfBA was undergoing “some issues”.

“Relaunched in 2004, AfBA is a platform and a gathering for African lawyers,” Mr. Adebayo told PREMIUM TIMES on Wednesday.

“It is the biggest platform for African lawyers, same way we have ABA, the American Bar Association, the International Bar Association, but in Africa here, AfBA is an association of African lawyers.”

Mr. Adebayo said the disagreement is because of the happenings in The Gambia, and that the statement of Hannibal Uwaifo, AfBA’s president, after his meeting with Mr. Jammeh was largely misconstrued.

He added that the AfBA has set up a meeting with Messrs Jammeh and Barrow, representatives of the electoral body for January 4, 2017.

“Most of the statements coming out of Gambia are propaganda from the opposition,” Mr. Adebayo said.

“Our president (Mr. Uwaifo) said that AfBA cannot take a position on what the facts should be until we verify the actual issue, what transpired in Gambia. AfBA is after is a free and fair electoral process in Gambia and a peaceful handover.”

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