In this interview with GODWIN ISENYO, the First Convener of the New Nigerian Bar Association, a splinter group of the Nigerian Bar Association, Nuhu Ibrahim, says it is wrong to believe that Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El-Rufai, is sponsoring the new group to cause a crisis in the 60-year-old body of lawyers in the country
It appears that the Nigerian Bar Association is in tatters. What’s your view on this?
As far as I am concerned, there is no crack in the legal profession. You may wish to say there is a crack in the NBA, but that’s in your own opinion, as so many people see it differently. But I don’t see it that way. What we are out to do is not to create cracks but to bring harmony that is based on justice, rule of law and equity. So, I don’t see how somebody, who is out to ensure that there is equity and rule of law, is out to create cracks. To have an alternate platform is a constitutional right of all as enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution. The fact that you are a lawyer does not mean you will remain within the fold of the NBA as an association, which is just like any other association in the country.
Is the NNBA extending its membership beyond the North?
The new NBA is not a regional body, but a body of all Nigerian lawyers, who are willing to see that there is a change, as far as lawyers carry on with their profession across the country. It is informed by several reasons. Not only one reason and especially the one that is being cited, falsely though, which is that it is the de-invitation of Governor Nasir El-Rufai that gave rise to the formation of the New Nigerian Bar Association. That is a false assertion. We distance ourselves from anything that has to do with that. El-Rufai only features when we are citing one of the situations, where the NBA has failed the rule of law. One of the reasons why we decided to embark on this mission at this time is the fact that the NBA has for several years failed to meet the needs of its members.
It has rather treated its members with so much disdain and has been unable to cater to their needs. You may wish to sample the opinions of lawyers across the country and they will tell you that the NBA is not forthcoming as at when needed and you can hardly have any lawyer, who will tell you that the NBA is anything that can be termed a body of rule of law, and even in the internal affairs, you can hardly say that they are practicing democracy.
These are some of the reasons why there have been ongoing efforts to see that there should an alternative to the NBA so that lawyers may have an alternative whenever their aspirations are not met and whenever they feel that they can no longer work with the people that have taken over the affairs of the NBA and those who have hijacked it for their own selfish interests; then they can always find an alternative body, under which they can practice as lawyers without let or hindrance. Those are mainly some of the reasons.
What’s your membership drive like now?
One of the wrong notions being peddled around is that the New NBA is a northern association. It is the NNBA meaning, New Nigerian Bar Association; it is not a northern bar association. It does not represent the North alone, but represents the whole country. I hail from Kaduna State and I’m a Fulani man by tribe; Abdulbasit Suleiman, the second convener, is from Ogbomosho and he is Yoruba by tribe. We have Muhammad Abubakar, who is the spokesman; he is from Edo State. I don’t know if to some people, Edo and Oyo states have become part of the North.
Some people are saying your action will further divide the country along ethnic and religious lines. Do you agree with this?
I don’t think somebody that is struggling for justice will be said to be dividing the country. Any unity that is based on injustice is not unity; it’s just cosmetic unity. The real unity is the unity that is based on the rule of law, justice, equity and fair play. So, we are out to promote all these issues that I just enumerated and I don’t see anything bad in that. Unless you can say that injustice is synonymous with the rule of law, equity and justice, then, you can say we are out to bring about disunity in the country. We are simply out to ensure that there is justice for members of the legal profession; that is, members of the Nigerian bar. When I say the Nigerian bar, I don’t mean to say the Nigerian Bar Association. The two are quite distinct. While the Nigerian bar is a body of everybody that has become a lawyer, even if you are a judge, because before you become a judge, you must have been called to the Nigerian bar, but once you are a judge, you are no longer a member of the bar. So, the Nigerian Bar Association is simply an association of practising lawyers and as an association, the constitution has given every citizen the right to join an association of his choice; he can also form an association and leave the association at will as long as he feels that his interest is no longer catered for.
So, the Nigerian Bar Association is as an association of members although it is recognised that it has got some form of statutory recognition in the sense that the name, NBA, has reflected in several statutes, especially the Legal Practitioners Act and the Rules of Professional Conduct, but we just believe that the NBA has enjoyed monopoly in the last 60 years as the only body of practising lawyers in the country, but now we believe that with an alternative, we are going to push for not only the creation as we have already done, but we are going to push for an amendment of several laws so that anywhere the name NBA appears, it is going to be replaced with any legally recognised body of lawyers.
So, in that sense you will see that any group of lawyers of similar interests can come together and form associations to protect their interest as lawyers unlike the way things are being currently run. The NBA is not working for anybody, but everybody is conscripted to remain in the NBA, and whenever you say you are going out of the NBA, they will start to threaten you that you can’t appear in court without a licence from the NBA and you cannot find any document without the NBA. We recognise that fact.
Will you be willing to oblige should the NBA call upon your group for discussion over the current crisis?
Let me say that even our predecessors in this struggle have always been amenable to dialogue. Dialogue is a good way of resolving issues, but the truth is that any dialogue that will not be based on equitable terms, definitely we are not going to accept it.
You distanced yourself from the controversy surrounding the NBA’s withdrawal of the invitation to the Kaduna State Governor, Malam Nasir El-Rufai as a guest speaker at its 60th National Conference, but some watchers of events alleged that your group is actually being sponsored by the governor to cause crises in the NBA; what’s your take on that?
So far, there have been some campaigns of calumny and we want to believe they are all meant to distract us, but we won’t be distracted. We have refused to be distracted and we will not be distracted. We have seen and heard many allegations, but the assurance that I can give you is that I am the first convener of this new NBA and I want to let you know that it has nothing to do with Nasir El-Rufai. It doesn’t have anything to do with his invitation from the NBA.
Just as I said earlier, the disinvitation of El-Rufai is just one of several examples of injustice that have been promoted by the Nigerian Bar Association. Actually, as of the time El-Rufai was disinvited we didn’t make a declaration as to the formation of the new NBA; that was why we didn’t make a public statement as to that, but every lawyer who is trained to promote the rule of law will definitely not support the unceremonious way that he was invited and disinvited by the NEC without hearing from him.
Every lawyer worth his salt knows that whenever there is an allegation against a person, the person must be given the opportunity to defend himself and in this case, instead of allowing him to come forth to defend himself or even to write him so that he will be able to convey his response to NEC and it will weigh his response vis-à-vis the allegations against him before arriving at a just conclusion. They did not do that. The whole thing in the content of the allegations is the Southern Kaduna crisis, which has since assumed an ethno-religious dimension, and you can see several elements, who do not share political ideas with El-Rufai. They are coming to attack him to say he is sponsoring the killings when these killings have been there for the last 40 years.
Where was El-Rufai in the 1980s when the first crisis happened at Kasuwan Magani? Where was El-Rufai in 1992 when the massacre took place in Zango-Kataf and crises across the southern part of Kaduna, especially Kafanchan and other places? Where was El-Rufai in 2011 when more than 1,000 persons were massacred at Zonkwa? Why is it that El-Rufai, who came in the last five years, is being ascribed with the crises? So, it doesn’t make sense. I want to believe that it is part of that sentiment that some people have been trying to sell to the world that made them disinvite El-Rufai in such a manner that is unfair. No matter how weighty the allegations are, he ought to be listened to.
Will it be then right to say that the formation of the New Nigerian Bar Association coincided with the withdrawal of the invitation to the governor?
In fact, it did not coincide because the invitation came several days before we made our declaration. You can only say probably it was one of the examples that we always cite as the failure of the old NBA as far as its observance of the rule of law is concerned, but apart from that, El-Rufai does not know any of us. He doesn’t sponsor us. He knows more people in the old NBA than he knows in the new NBA. We don’t have any connection with him. He doesn’t sponsor our affairs. In fact, let me use the currently used words; we are bankrolling ourselves. We are bankrolling the new body from our own pockets. We are pushing this idea and by God’s grace, we will achieve what we want to achieve for the benefit of all Nigerian lawyers.
What do you think is the way out of this crisis?
I think the best way out is to allow the new NBA to properly take off. If it eventually takes off, it will give room to competition between two associations. Lawyers will be able to choose which of the associations will serve their interests better. They will come to know the association that’s best promoting the rule of law, protecting its members and also promoting the cause of Justice. So, definitely, if that competition is allowed, that will be what will bring sanity to the legal profession.
Are Senior Advocates of Nigeria and other senior lawyers part of your group too?
Definitely, we have Senior Advocates of Nigeria among us. We have senior lawyers among us, who have identified with the struggle. They have been part of the struggle right from day one and I believe they will continue to be part of it and together, we will achieve our goals.
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