The task of administering the National Secretariat of the Nigerian Bar Association can only be described as challenging and demanding. With over 80,000 members in 111 branches spread across 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory, the association is unarguably the largest professional body in Africa and its annual conferences are rightly described as the largest gathering of lawyers anywhere in the world. Mrs. Ifueko Alufohai as the Executive Director of the NBA has the responsibility of ensuring the smooth running of the Association’s National Secretariat in Abuja. She explained to May Agbamuche-Mbu, Jude Igbanoi and Tobi Soniyi how she has fared on the job and the future projections of her team at the secretariat.
Under one of the Nigerian Bar Association’s most recognised administrations, in terms of Government and Private Sector participation and collaborations, you have served as the Executive Director of the NBA Secretariat. What have been some of your most notable achievements in the past year?
The President of the NBA Augustine Alegeh SAN at its inauguration stated that the NBA will seek constructive partnerships and collaborations with government institutions the private sector as well as civil society organisations. We have made progress in a number of areas. Notable interventions with government include the leadership and mediating role of the NBA in bringing the nation wide strike of the judicial workers to an end. The NBA also intervened in the strike action embarked on by counsel in the Ministry of Justice. Other activities include facilitating consensus by Justice Sector stakeholders on important issues such as Police Reforms, Prisons Reforms and Reforms in the Judiciary specifically as it relates to the appointment of Judges. You should know that the Chief Justice of Nigeria recently pronounced that lawyers in private practice are now able to aspire to the Bench including that of the Supreme Court.
With respect to our engagement with the private sector. We entered into a Strategic Partnership with Access Bank Plc. to produce a uniform identity card (Bar Card) for lawyers. The Card is a chip and pin card that contains the name of the lawyer, a passport photograph and Supreme Court enrolment number. The card also functions as a payment card for ATM, POS, and online transactions. The presentation of this Bar Card entitles a lawyer to a variety of discounts and other packages negotiated by the NBA with various merchants and service providers. The Card is issued free of charge to Lawyers who have been verified and are on the NBA database as well as have paid their practising fees. We also signed a strategic partnership agreement with Leadway Assurance Company Ltd. The purpose of which is to provide a comprehensive life insurance cover for lawyers. We also have agreements with a number of companies in the hospitality industry such as Transcorp Hilton Hotel, and other notable hotels. We are also in partnership with Air Peace, Ark Air. Both airlines give generous discounts to lawyers on local and international air travel. We are exploring modalities for similar partnership with British Airways and KLM Air France.
This last year has been a busy one for the NBA. What programmes would you say have been the NBA’s flagship programmes in the past year?
This year has been a busy one not just for the NBA but for the nation as a whole.
Nigeria held a general election this year which was adjudged successful and we are proud to say that the NBA was part of that success. The NBA, through our Voter Education and Mobilisation Committee and the Election Working Group was actively involved in the 2015 General Elections. The Voter Education Committee conducted voter education and awareness exercises across the country in preparation for the 2015 elections. The Association set up a Situation Room at the NBA secretariat during the election to receive live reports from various polling units in Nigeria through our observers in the field. Our observers were members of the NBA in our branches nation wide. We were the only non- government institution with observers in all the 36 States of the Federation. Our report therefore is possibly the most comprehensive on the 2015 elections. The NBA also introduced a Stamp and Seal Policy pursuant to Rule 10 of the Rules of Professional Conduct. I am happy to say that the argument around this matter has now been finally resolved by the recent decision of the Supreme Court. The secretariat has put in place measures to ensure that applications from lawyers are speedily dealt with.
It will appear that the stamp and seal policy seems to have generated a lot of controversy among lawyers. Can you explain the rationale behind the introduction of the stamp and seal policy? How does the NBA intend to resolve the controversy over the stamp and seal policy?
Pursuant to Rule 10(1) of the Rules of Professional Conduct, 2007 which states that ‘A lawyer acting in his capacity as a legal practitioner, legal officer or adviser of any Governmental department of Ministry or any corporation, shall not sign or file a legal document unless there is affixed on any such document a seal and stamp approved by the NBA’, the NBA launched the NBA Stamp to be affixed on all the documents filed in courts by lawyers throughout the federation. It is one of the measures introduced by the NBA to reduce the incidence of fake lawyers in the country. It is currently being implemented by all courts in the federation. This project had generated a lot of controversy. However, The Supreme Court on Tuesday, 27th October, 2015 in Appeal No. SC /722/15 between Gen. Bello Sarkin Yaki V Sen Atiku Bagudu & ors affirmed the mandatory provision of Rule 10(1) of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners 2007 which requires a lawyer acting in his capacity as a legal practitioner, legal officer or adviser of any Government department or ministry or any corporation, to affix on any such document a seal and stamp approved by the Nigerian Bar Association. Any document so signed or filed without such a seal shall be deemed not to have been properly signed or filed. By this decision the controversy has been put to rest.
Some lawyers complained that several months after they have paid for the stamp, they have not gotten it. What is responsible for this delay?
A large volume of Stamp applications are received at the Secretariat on a daily basis from the NBA Branches. The process for the Stamp application is that all completed forms duly approved by either the Branch Chairman, a National Officer, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria or a Bencher are sent to the NBA Branch of the applicant for onward forwarding to the NBA Secretariat for production. The forms are scrutinised to ensure that only lawyers who qualify have their stamps produced. Lawyers must have paid their Bar Practising Fees for the year, must have been verified and paid for the Stamps before their stamps are produced and sent back to the branches for distribution. Lawyers who are yet to receive their stamps should please go to their branch offices to enquire about their Stamps. Delays can only be encountered in areas where errors are found in names, especially when the names as written on the application forms are not found on the enrolment list of the Supreme Court or due to incomplete payment of Branch dues, Bar Practising fees, Verification fees, stamp fee or issues with change of names.
You also spoke about the NBA Insurance policy. What has been the response of lawyers to this policy?
Yes, we have received numerous applications from all Branches of the NBA.
The NBA introduced an insurance policy with Leadway Assurance Company for lawyers. Lawyers who have paid their Bar Practising Fees for the year and have been verified are automatically covered by the policy. All they have to do is download the application form from the NBA website, fill it and submit it to the NBA Secretariat or to their branch offices. The covers offered are in four options;
N1, 000,000.00 Death or Accidental Permanent Total Accidental Disability (Whichever comes first)
N500, 000 Death or Accidental Permanent Total Disability,
N500,000 Accidental Death.
N350,000 – Death or Accidental Permanent Total Disability –
N280,000 – Critical Illness
N350,000. – Accidental Death
N280,000 – Death or Accidental Permanent Total Disability
N280,000 – Accidental Death,
N280,000 – Critical Illness-;
N 30,000 – Accidental Medical Expenses
We are proud to note that the response from lawyers has been tremendous so far and to report that some claims are being processed.
The current administration introduced the lawyer’s data verification exercise to rid the legal profession of fake lawyers. What progress has been made so far with the verification exercise?
The Secretariat is still carrying out the verification exercise on a daily basis. Yes, the verification exercise is an important measure introduced by the NBA to fish out fake lawyers. The NBA receives requests from individuals and organisations around the world asking us to verify whether Mr. X is a qualified lawyer. If we do not have any information on Mr. X on our database of lawyers how can we confidently say he is a lawyer licensed to practice? Through the exercise we have been able to discover a number of these fake lawyers. We invite all members that have not been verified to make good of this opportunity. The form can be downloaded from the NBA website www.nigerianbar.org.ng. Completed forms along with the accompanying documents listed on the form can be forwarded to the NBA Secretariat or the NBA Branch of the lawyers seeking to be verified. In a situation where the Lawyer has carried out a change of name, a letter of change of name should be written to the Supreme Court attention Chief Registrar with the following documents; Call to Bar Certificate, Public notice Advert, Sworn Affidavit, Marriage certificate where applicable
The NBA is made up of over a hundred branches, professional sections, specialised institutes and practice-cadre forums. With 80,000 members. How does the secretariat cater to the needs and interests of members of the organisation from different backgrounds and orientations and what are the goals of the secretariat for 2016?
The NBA is currently made up of 111 Branches whose members have different interests and specialisations and through its Sections, Fora and Institutes the Bar impacts on the lives of its members through their activities. The NBA Secretariat also has different Directorates to cater to the needs of not just lawyers but also members of the public such as the Programs, Membership and Bar Services Department, Legal Research and Development and its Directorate of Finance and Administration. The membership and Bar Services department which fosters the relationship between the NBA National and its 111 Branches has at its core the duty to provide and deliver services to Members of the Bar.
Meeting the needs of 500 persons comes with its challenges not to mention meeting the needs of over 80,000 persons who are lawyers but by working with the NBA Branches we are able meet all challenges. But I am grateful to the executives of the NBA and its Branches without whom our task would have been much more difficult. They have been very cooperative in passing information and meeting the needs of their Branch members.
The NBA Secretariat is the engine room of the Association and so needs to be ready at all times to meet the demands of the Association. Our goal for 2016 is to provide efficient and professional support to members of the Association. We will continue to focus on continuous legal education especially around current developments in law and practice. We will work towards creating opportunities for our members locally and internationally. We believe that the NBA should play a leadership role in facilitating partnerships with African Bar Associations. You will recall that the NBA successfully co-hosted the Pan African Lawyers Union Conference in September, in Abuja. We also sponsored the International Bar Association African Regional breakfast meeting at the recent IBA Conference in Vienna.
As a starting point we will host a meeting of African Bar Associations to achieve shared appreciation of common goals and objectives. In particular we will reengage bars associations in West Africa. Our members must be able to benefit from the opportunities that abound in ECOWAS States. Of course in other to deliver professional service to our members, the secretariat needs to be well informed on all fronts and appropriately skilled. We will therefore invest a lot more in the professional development of our staff.
Over the past few months anti-corruption agencies and the fight against corruption have dominated our socio-political consciousness. Furthermore, the President of the NBA Augustine Alegeh has shown strong commitment and dedication to eradicating corruption from the legal profession at all levels. Can you enlighten us on the initiatives designed by this administration to tackle corruption in our society?
In response to the challenges faced by anti-corruption agencies in the fight against corruption, the Nigerian Bar Association’s National Executive Committee in 2012 established the NBA Anti-Corruption Commission to aid the Association take an informed position on corruption and to collaborate with relevant agencies and organisations to effectively tackle corruption within the Justice Sector and in the public and private sector. The Commission is currently chaired by T.C Osanakpo SAN. The NBA Anti-Corruption Commission has also set up Anti-Corruption Committees in Branches of the NBA nationwide. The Commission has also been quite active. Mrs. May Agbamuche-Mbu chaired the committee that organised the one day seminar with the theme ‘The Fight Against Corruption In Nigeria: The Way Forward.’ The purpose of this seminar was to articulate the position of the Bar in the area of legal, institutional and policy anti- corruption proposals. We will be presenting to President Muhammadu Buhari in the form of a Compendium of the papers delivered and Communiqué from the Anti Corruption Commission Seminar. I should also mention that the NBA will has concluded plans for a number of activities in support of the World Anti-Corruption day coming up in December.
Young lawyers have often complained about the cost of NBA programmes and activities which affects their participation at these events. How can the NBA effectively engage young lawyers who form a majority of the legal profession?
The NBA is very interested in its young lawyers and it set up a Young Lawyers Forum to meet the needs of young lawyers. The current administration has been very supportive of the activities of young lawyers. During the NBA conference the NBA granted partial scholarships to one young lawyer from each branch of the NBA. Discounts and concessions are given to young lawyers at NBA activities. We are always willing to look into complaints by young lawyers to see other areas in which the NBA can assist them.
The NBA held its 55th Annual General Conference in August this year. The Conference was widely applauded for its unprecedented rich content and strong government and private sector participation. What are the lessons learnt from the success of the 2015 Conference and how does the NBA’s leadership intend to build on this for next year?
The NBA 2015 Conference was adjudged a huge success though there were a few glitches here and there. For me, the lesson learnt from the success of the 2015 NBA-AGC is that there is absolutely nothing we cannot achieve if we put our minds to it.
We intend to build on the exciting relationships made with the government and private sector. No doubt mistakes were made during the 2015 NBA-AGC, however, going forward we will be learning from our mistakes. We received a lot of feedback after the 2015 NBA-AGC which we will be looking into. For example, we will be reviewing the conference registration process. We will try to ensure that the choice of conference venue is made in time, to provide for adequate planning required for the chosen location. It is worthy of note that the IBA has the list of successive conference venues 5 years ahead. In fact, right from the opening ceremony of the just concluded conference in Vienna, the venue for next year‘s conference, Washington DC, was already being advertised. We will ensure the conference materials are ready at least 2 weeks to the conference. For this, we hope to be very strict with confirmation of facilitators and sponsors. A number of times, the program is not finalised in time because organisations and other stakeholders delay in sending in their input.
We will still encourage early bird registration, to ensure effective capacity planning and preparation. In summary, we have learnt from all that went well and the few things that went wrong, we will take these on- board for all conferences of the NBA.
You mentioned problems with registration. The success of the Conference at one point was almost marred by the serious problems encountered by much of the 12,000 attendees during registration. The size of the Conference was always going to be a herculean challenge to overcome but how can the NBA’s planning Committee create the same kind of seamless logistics and participation for attendees that other Bar Associations like the International Bar Association seems to have perfected?
Permit me to say that the 55th Nigerian Bar Association’s Annual General Conference was the largest gathering of Lawyers anywhere in the world, and as such, is prone to some herculean challenges other associations are not exposed to. For example, the IBA has a participation of about 6,000 attendees while NBA, as you rightly said, has about 12,000, especially when it was hosted in Abuja. This makes it imperative that we not only get up to speed with how the IBA organises its conferences, but to also surpass them as we need to replicate almost twice their capacity in terms of logistics, not to talk of the other peculiar challenges we have in Nigeria.
This however, is not in any way to undermine the urgent need to learn from these other organisations, and as a matter of urgency, identify our weak points and put up measures to overcome them. Fortunately, we were at the last IBA Conference, not just in participatory capacity, but also as keen observers of their processes, understudying the intricacies of their registration and conference planning logistics.
There have been numerous complaints by lawyers who lament the fact that they do not get Continuous Legal Education accreditation for programmes and NBA events attended. Why is it difficult to promptly credit CLE points to lawyers after each rated programme?
Continuing Legal Education accreditation is not automatic, the NBA Institute of Continuing Legal Education, ICLE can only accredit a programme if the organisers apply for and meet the requirements for the accreditation. This procedure also applies to events organised by the NBA. If the programme is accredited, the Institute promptly uploads credit earned by participants; however the process of creating a platform to enable Lawyers to see the credit they have earned through the NBA website is still ongoing and we hope this will be concluded before the end of the year.
The NBA’s leadership is gradually beginning to advocate a new role for lawyers and the NBA in public affairs and in demanding accountability of the Government and of public figures. However there are some prominent members of the Bar who feel that the NBA is not going far enough and that the Bar in Nigeria is not fulfilling its role as guardian of the Rule of Law and last recourse of Nigerians against the political elite. What is your view on this?
The level of intervention of the NBA in governance has been multi-fold. Firstly, the NBA has been leading initiatives in law reforms on crucial issues that affect Nigerians but particularly the poor and vulnerable. For example we have intervened in the Reform of the Police Act and Prison Act. We also actively participated in the reform of the Legal Aid Act and the National Human Rights Commission Act. These interventions are necessary to enhance access to justice for majority of Nigerians.
We have also been in the forefront of holding successive governments at the federal and state level accountable on important areas of service delivery. Recently, the NBA was in the forefront of Civil Society intervention in Electoral process. We are indeed proud to say that not only did we ensure that the Electoral Act was responsive to the concerns of Nigerians, we worked to achieve a largely free and fair electoral process. Indeed all our 109 Branches as they were then (we are now 111 Branches) were actively involved in election monitoring. President Muhammadu Buhari acknowledged this constructive role of the NBA in his speech at the Opening Ceremony of the 2015 NBA AGC.
Of course we can do more. Our advocacy for good governance, respect for the rule of law and fundamental human rights will not be an event. Our engagement will have to be continuous.