By Chidi Anselm Odinaku
Defined by the Nigerian political landscape, characterized by ethnicity, the outcome of the ballot for the Presidency of the Bar was not entirely unpredictable. Yet, the manner in which the NBA conducts elections saddles the in-coming President with a moral burden from which he can, nevertheless, retrieve an agenda for reform and leadership.The concerns first expressed about NBA’s leadership processes in 2012 remain unaddressed. If anything, these elections advertised them on a grand scale. The hallmark of democratic politics is that elections are governed by pre-determined rules designed to guarantee the credibility of outcomes, which are indeterminate. Within the NBA, however, there is ample reason to believe that the rules are indeterminate in order to facilitate outcomes that are designed to be pre-determined. This is not a criticism of any candidate. Rather it speaks to the failures of an Association whose methods and reputation are no longer of any concern to its leadership or membership and whose dominant governance mores now hew closely to the anything-goes predilection of Nigerian politics. This is tragic.
Many aspects of the just-concluded elections were deeply flawed. Arbitrariness defined the process. To begin with, the NBA’s branch network determines the outcome of the Association’s votes. In 2012, the NBA comprised 100 branches. In the run in to the 2014 ballot, at least nine new branches were created. When branches were last created in 2012, the NBA resolved that the new branches would not be deployed for election purposes. As such, they did not present any delegates to the 2012 elections. In a departure from this precedent, however, all the newly created branches in 2014 fielded delegates to the Special Conference. Although the rules for creating new branches in the NBA are very clear, the criteria for the creation of the new ones and their distribution across the country were unclear. Recollections also differ as to how some of the new branches were created. In the end, an impression may have been created that many of these new branches were primarily created to affect or tilt the electoral calculus with aforethought.
The guidelines governing the elections gave the hand-picked Chairman of the NBA’s Electoral Committee plenipotentiary “powers” to fiddle with the rules as he deemed fit and to disqualify candidates on a whim. On the eve of the vote on14 July, the Committee did just that, disqualifying four candidates for different positions in circumstances that appeared opaque at the very best.The list of eligible voters was unknown and undisclosed until the delegates converged in Abuja for the accreditation on 14 July, one day before the actual balloting. The best that the outgoing leadership of the Association offered in defence of this was that publication of the NBA’s Roll of voters is not provided for in the rules of the Association. In response to this, one can only hope that the leadership was mis-reported otherwise this would be considered evidence of bad faith or of lack of the capability to organize a credible ballot.
Balloting was to have ended by noon on 15 July. By this appointed time, however, none of the candidates knew or had access to the list of accredited voters. In effect, it was theoretically possible for voters to have been accredited after the official end of accreditation by 17:00 hours on 14 July. There were credible allegations that this may indeed have happened. It was impossible to verify these allegations before filing this report.
After voting was supposed to have ended, the Electoral Committee announced that they had accredited 1,481 voters, comprising 142 Senior Advocates; 36 Benchers; 68 co-opted members of the National Executive; and 1,235 branch delegates. This information was, however, provided, long after the fact and in circumstances which sadly leave the leadership of the Electoral Committee open to entirely avoidable allegations of fiddling with the list of accredited voters. The easy thing to have done was to ensure that all the candidates received copies of the list of eligible voters well ahead of time and of the list of accredited voters immediately after accreditation finished. It is indefensible that senior lawyers could justify a system that makes this possible.
This balloting took place in the middle of July, notoriously the heart of the rainy season in Nigeria. Yet, there were no arrangements for covered stands. If it had rained, there would have been nowhere for anyone to hide and the NBA would have struggled to organize anything. When I pointed this out to someone at the venue, she responded that the NBA must have visited a rain maker. You can imagine how reassured I was by the knowledge that our Bar is fully in tune with Nigeria’s community of shamans and voodoo practitioners.
Voting delegates travelled to Abuja on 13 July. The next day, 14 July, was the date set aside for accreditation and final campaign orations. Voting, counting and declaration of results followed on 15 July. The NBA’s travelling voting parties began to disperse from Abuja on 16 July, having spent four days on a voting process that involved a highly educated electorate of a mere 1,728 voters. To call this antediluvian is to be charitable. As we say here though, they all travel with “journey mercies”.Even more indefensible, therefore, than the rules and conditions under which the NBA conducts it elections is the fact that lawyers, supposedly the defenders of the rules of electoral democracy in Nigeria, could subject themselves to a leadership contest and ballot under these conditions.
Despite all these shortcomings – or may be because of them – the NBA has elected a new leadership that deserves a chance to prove that it realizes and relishes the challenges that confront the Bar and the wider country. The biggest of these challenges is a Bar devoid of civic credibility; lacking the moral authority to persuade anyone to its message of promoting the rule of law; in hock to paymasters with an investment in capturing its organs and institutions; and increasingly without a capacity to offer any value to its members. This is a terrible place for any entity to be, least of all the foremost professional association in the country.
In 2012, at the request of the outgoing Presidency of the NBA, I led a committee to review the professionalism of the NBA’s programming. The Committee’s report, submitted in January 2013, began: “[t]he NBA does not offer a clear value proposition to its members. The absence of a defining value proposition is an existential threat to the NBA and to the effectiveness of its Secretariat. If any other organization or entity can rise to offer to members of the NBA a unifying promise of professional growth or edge, the NBA as we know it could become history. To avoid this possibility, the leadership of the NBA must define a value proposition for our members and, in the Secretariat, evince a programming capability to ensure the realization of this promise.” These provide metrics by which the in-coming leadership of the NBA can measure progress in grappling with the many challenges that bedevil the Association. There is not much time to turn this around. If they fail, it is possible that this could be the last time the NBA would be voting as a unified and united body for its leadership. To the incoming leadership, congratulations are due; to the Bar, good luck.
Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is a member of the National Executive Committee of the NBA and was a delegate to the just-concluded special conference of the NBA.