Less than a week after the announcement of its creation, over 5,000 lawyers have subscribed to the membership of the New Nigeria Bar Association (NNBA), Abdulbasit Suleiman, one of the conveners, has claimed.
The NNBA is a splinter group of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), whose formation was announced in the heat of a crisis among Nigerian lawyers last week.
Shortly after the controversial election of the new NBA leadership, the dis-invitation of the Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El-Rufai, to the NBA annual general conference as a guest speaker, turned into a debacle for the association.
Mr El-Rufai’s invitation to the meeting was withdrawn a week prior to the programme over the governor’s alleged violations of the rule of law and mishandling of a security crisis in a part of his state.
But the decision of the NBA leadership to keep Mr El-Rufai away from the conference was opposed by lawyers who alleged political, ethnic and religious sentiments against the governor. In protest, some branches of the NBA in northern states boycotted the conference held last week.
However, the immediate past president of the association, Paul Usoro, denied any other reason than those stated by the National Executive Committee of the NBA for asking Mr El-Rufai to stay at home.
In a letter to the Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, Friday, the conveners of the NNBA notified the minister of justice of its creation.
According to the letter signed by the two conveners, Nuhu Ibrahim and Abdulbasit Suleiman, the formation of the new association was made imperative by the “activities, disposition and most recently, the decision of the Nigerian Bar Association – NEC which apparently failed to take into consideration our national interests and particularly do not promote the unity of our indissoluble country.”
Meanwhile, in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES on Monday night, Mr Suleiman said the reasons for the formation of the new association was beyond the dis-invitation of the Kaduna governor.
He cited poor welfare conditions of lawyers under the NBA and the partisanship of some leaders of the bar as major reasons for the secession.
“Reasons for forming the new NBA are many but the first is that the NBA is being hijacked by some few cabals. NBA activity is just circulating between some few people. We have more than 200,000 registered members in Nigeria but I can tell you authoritatively that less than 100 people are benefiting from the NBA.
“Most of us are not benefiting from the NBA. We are paying our dues. We follow all the rules and regulations but our benefits and interests are not being protected.”
He said the new association is not to divide the association of lawyers but to create a competition to drive change.
“We are not dividing the bar. We are trying to form an association to create a competition for the NBA. If we have two or more, there will be competing. If we look at developed countries, they have more than one lawyers’ associations. Why must we restrict ourselves to one.”
However, he insisted that the withdrawal of Mr El-Rufai’s invitation was uncalled for.
“We, the conveners of the new NBA, are not a fan of El-Rufai. We all have our reservations on El-Rufai’s government. But since you have invited this man, let’s hear from him- for him to answer our questions before we take any action against him.
“Some people wrote a petition against him without giving him fair hearing. This is against our motto, which is to uphold the rule of law. We did not do that. El-Rufai was not given that opportunity.”
On formal registration of the new association and its membership, Mr Suleiman said; “As I’m talking to you now, we are still counting. We have more than 5,000 members that have registered with us and we are still counting.”
He added that while formal registration is ongoing, the group will begin notifying state governments of its proposed activities.
“Starting from tomorrow, some state governments will be receiving our letters, notifying them of the formation.”
Asked if he was worried about the criticisms from bigwigs of the profession, Mr Suleiman said he and his colleagues in the new association are not afraid.
“That’s why we have the court of law for any grievances they may have. But we believe they would not do that.”
He also denied insinuations that the group was being sponsored. “We are ‘bankrolling’ ourselves. We are like-minds. No one is sponsoring us,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.
Legal practitioners have expressed concerns about the new group.
On Monday, during a discussion organised by Elombah TV, some senior lawyers decried the degeneration of the NBA crisis but also expressed worries over the creation of the new association.
The discussant included Jibrin Okutepa, a senior lawyer; Afam Osigwe, the former General Secretary of NBA, and Daniel Bwala, the Special Adviser on Legal and Constitutional Matters to the Deputy Senate President.
Mr Osigwe said the association is an attempt by some displeased individuals, who failed at the polls, to channel their grievances.
“I was approached for us to form an association by people who want to form an association because their candidates did not emerge,” he said, citing his experience after he lost the NBA presidential election.
For Mr Okutepa, the NBA as an association has dragged itself into the “murky waters of politics.”
“When we started derailing was when we started going for NEC meetings and engaging in political jamboree, asking non-lawyers to come and address us. Our members who are political party members took advantage of that,” he said.
Mr Bwala noted that while the NBA is embattled with various issues, forming a parallel association is not the solution.
“The unions in America are not borne out of a reactionary approach, although they may have thought about it before El-Rufai’s issue. When you say it is a New Nigerian Bar Association, the question is what is the difference between the old bar and the new bar association? They have not been able to give a good reason for that.”
Mr Bwala said because the faction was formed because of one person that represents a section or a religion, its formation is more of a reaction than a total plan.
“I do not see the reason for us to create a parallel bar at this moment. We should be very careful not to allow politicians to push on their agendas,” Mr Bwala cautioned
Both Messrs Bwala and Osigwe called on the newly inaugurated leadership of the NBA to address the burning issues in the association.
“The animosity is building up. Recognising their grievances and giving them priority and genuinely addressing them is the only way the bar can seem to take this matter seriously,” Mr Osigwe noted.
While responding to one of the questions, Mr Bwala said everyone has agreed that there is a problem in the NBA and that there is bottled-up frustration on the part of those agitating for a parallel bar.
He advised the aggrieved parties to write to the new president, Olumide Akpata. “He may consider setting up a committee. Through conversations, we will solve the problem. Leaving the bar will not solve the problem.”