Welcome Address by the President of the Nigerian Bar Association,Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud,OON, SAN at the AGC 2017
Your Excellency, the Ag. President Prof. Yemi Osinbajo GCON, SAN;
(Represented this evening by the Hon. Minister Power, Works and Housing HE Babantunde Raji Fashola SAN)
Your Excellency the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, GCON;
My Lord, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Samuel Walter Onnonghen GCON;
Your Excellency, the Governor of Lagos State, Akinwunmi Ambode;
Excellencies the Governors of Kano, Ondo, Rivers and Sokoto States;
Justices of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal;
The Hon. Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami SAN;
My Lord, the Chief Judge of Lagos Fumilayo Atilade;
My Lords Chief Judges of the various States;
Distinguished members of the Body of Benchers,
Learned Senior Advocates of Nigeria;
Invited Guests and Resource persons;
Gentlemen of the Press;
Ladies and gentlemen,
- 2. INTRODUCTION
It is with great pleasure that I welcome you all to the 57th Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association holding here in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. The NBA Annual Conference is the flagship event in our annual calendar. It is now Nigeria’s primary conference event. This year nearly 12,000 persons have registered to participate.
The 2017 conference has attracted unprecedented interest and attention not only amongst lawyers, our primary constituency, but from the business community, the public sector, the academia and the development community. It is also receiving wide coverage in local and international media in addition to considerable following on the social media. Why such interest?
- 3. The Conference theme and objectives
I began my term as President of the Nigerian Bar Association on 29th August, 2016. Shortly after, we found ourselves in a whirlpool of a number of major controversies. The first was triggered by my somewhat innocuous comment in my inaugural address in Port Harcourt. In my first speech as the President of the bar, I drew attention to the need to review the institutional framework for the operation of Nigeria’s foremost anti-corruption agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) as a strategy for strengthening Nigeria’s fight against corruption. My comments asking for a narrower and clearer definition of EFCC’s mandate and securing its institutional autonomy from political interference, attracted very virulent attack against the Legal profession from the EFCC leadership. The second controversy erupted later in October that year, precisely on 7th October, 2016. It followed the mid-night raid and arrest of Judges of Nigeria’s Superior Courts including justices of the Supreme Court by the State Security Service. This was unprecedented. It threw the legal community into a state of confusion and disarray. Opinions became sharply divided. For some, it was a welcome development reflecting the general popular perception of the deep rot in the Nigerian judicial system. For others, it was a cynical assault on the nation’s judiciary aimed at intimidating the courts by an agency essentially controlled by the executive branch with no constitutional mandate to do what it embarked upon.
These controversies I dare say were at the heart of Nigeria’s development crisis; its inability to create and nurture strong institutions. More importantly, our failure to nurture the culture of open public debates about the forms, character and functions of public institutions. We promote strong individuals rather than strong institutions. They were symptomatic of the weakness that characterised Nigeria’s public institutions. Neither the EFCC nor the nation’s judiciary enjoyed the confidence of the Nigerian public.
These controversies were playing out against the backdrop of a recession in the economy, declining standards of living and high level of corruption that was unfolding at the time and the seeming inability of law enforcement agencies and the judicial system to confront and deal with it. It became clear to us that the declining economic fortunes, seeming failure of the legal system was further undermining confidence amongst various groups in the country leading them to question the viability of the Nigerian Project. The insurgency in the North East, the restlessness in the Niger Delta and the rising tension amongst various agitators was beginning to shape the national narrative along very divisive tendencies. People began to question more and more the justification for the continuing existence of the country as a single entity.
For the leadership of the Nigerian Legal Profession, the issues became clear. The challenge of development in Nigeria is the challenge of institution building. It was clear that the ability of our country to guarantee social protection and political stability as well as engender economic prosperity is being hamstrung by absence of strong institutions. The EFCC would succeed not on the basis of a strong ‘Ribadu’ or ‘Magu’, but on the basis of a clearly defined and well-structured institution run on a sustainable basis. An institution that will continue to operate on an enduring basis delivering on its mandate in an accountable manner and not so much on the strength of one individual, but on the basis of defined rules and processes. The same for the judiciary and indeed other sectors of the society and the economy.
The impact of the absence of strong institutions is not just at the macro level. The absence is also visible at the micro level. Coming closer home for instance, the legal profession has remained well below its full potential in comparison to other countries both in the developed world but also in the developing world. We have remained largely fragmented organised in small often poorly run firms that hardly survive their initial founders. Why do we not have large firms capable of driving trans-border transactions across the continent? Can small underdeveloped law firms compete effectively in Africa and in the global environment? If Africa’s full potential is to be unleashed should we not break barriers that hinder transactions across the continent? As the Chairman of the TCCP has posed consistently, the legal profession in Nigeria is much older than most other professions. Yet it has remained comparatively less developed compared to other professions. Whilst the accountants can boast of firms with more than 1000 accountants some with strong international partnerships, in Nigeria there is hardly a law firm that has crossed the 100 person threshold. How can we draw attention to these challenges and change Nigerian and African narratives by beginning to build strong institutions that function in an accountable manner and governed by rules, processes on a sustainable basis?
Your Excellencies, my Lords, distinguished colleagues, it is a convergence of these concerns that has shaped the vision and the theme for this years’ Nigerian Bar Association Annual Conference which we tag: “African Business: Penetrating through Institution Building”. It is a theme that speaks to the dilemma of the legal profession in Nigeria and the dilemma of our country and indeed our continent; the dilemma of building strong and enduring institutions. It speaks to the primary objective not only of governance but in a way our various endeavours, our desire to create wealth and engender economic growth and prosperity for ourselves and our various communities and indeed the country.
I must admit that neither the NBA leadership, nor the TCCP can claim credit for identifying this dilemma. The issue of institutional capacity especially in developing countries is generating new interest in the development community. The UNDP has long identified it as a key factor in engendering development and guaranteeing sustainable outcomes. Recently, on 25th September, 2015 the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, a set of 17 goals designed to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda to be achieved within the next 15 years. Goal No. 16 focuses on Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. It identifies the role of strong institutions in promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development. We must thus all be concerned about how we build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. Institutions that can deliver quality education, good healthcare and fair economic policies as well as inclusive environmental protection.
The 2017 World Development Report of the World Bank further underscores the relationship between the Governance and the Law and the important role of institutions in engendering development. The Report for instance draws attention to the intricate relationship between governance and the law and the important role institutions play in securing commitment, coordination and cooperation to ensure that policies, whether in regulating markets, or in designing social programs yield the desired outcomes.
This conference, therefore marks a defining commitment by the Nigerian Legal Profession to fully deploy its resources, skills and creative energy to pursue the goal of promoting the right to development for the Nigerian people by promoting strong institutions be they market institutions or governance institutions. We are confident that a credible commitment to pro-growth policies anchored by strong institutional framework will guarantee an environment in which firms and individuals feel secure to invest their resources in productive activities thereby ensuring macro-economic stability and ultimately prosperity for our country and our continent. We are confident, should this happen, we will rekindle the hope of our people for a more secure future and therefore in our country. We will begin to change the current divisive narratives. We will open up the country for more investment thereby further unleashing its potentials. We are convinced that it is partly the loss of confidence in our governments and public institutions to provide protection and promote economic opportunities that is fuelling the current calls for secession and restructuring. The NBA whilst supporting peaceful negotiations around the future of the Nigerian federation, we firmly believe that the country is better off as a strong, united country. Its size and diversity should be harnessed as a source of strength and not a weakness.
Your Excellency, my lords, distinguished colleagues, the legal profession in Nigeria cannot be a champion of institution building or transformation, unless and until it reinvents itself. Indeed many will argue that the legal profession and more broadly the legal order must be the first candidate for reforms. As a friend recently euphemistically said to me, the legal order, or more directly the judicial system, in any country is like the operating system on a device. Once it is corrupted or it breaks down, no other application will operate successfully and the device may ultimately shut down.
It is in recognition of this that we have embarked on a number of initiatives. One of such major initiative was to begin a process of complete review of the legal and regulatory framework for the Nigeria Legal Profession. In December 2016, I inaugurated a high powered panel under the leadership of Chief Anthony Idigbe SAN, a very seasoned and highly accomplished lawyer supported by 21 equally brilliant lawyers and academics supported by some of our brightest young lawyers to undertake a holistic review of the regulatory objectives and regulatory architecture of the Nigerian Legal Profession. The panel was to and consider what needs to be done to modernise the legal profession and prepare it to service a modern growing economy. I am happy to report that the committee has completed its assignment and submitted a report which we have currently exposed and are taking feedback from our members and other stakeholders. This report contains far reaching recommendations that aim to propel the Nigerian legal profession into a completely new era. It is accompanied with a complete draft new Bill that deals with legal education, the regulation of law firms, professional discipline, the role of the Body of Benchers. It also seeks to introduce paid pupillage as a prerequisite for entry into the profession. The overall objective is to raise the entry requirements into the profession, raise the quality and standards of the bar, to provide for more rigorous regulation of law firms, instil a more effective disciplinary process and provide for effective and well supervised continuing professional development. I want to emphasise that the report is still work in progress and it will ultimately be a proposal from the NBA for which we seek stakeholder buy-in.
Your Excellencies, my Lords, distinguished colleagues, there are other strategic objectives which this conference seeks to achieve, all tied to its broad theme of institution building. One objective is to push more and more lawyers into the digital age. So for every registrant we have procured a device. Each device contains not only the conference resources, papers and presentations, each is also pre-loaded with fully subscribed legal resources for a complete year. These include law reports, Laws of the Federation and of some States, various rules of court etc. The idea is not only to help equip lawyers with the new tools but also encourage them to develop the new skills that are needed to operate in the new economy. This is very deliberate. Technology as experience has shown is key to building new, effective, transparent and accountable institutions. We are confident that, when properly and effectively deployed, it will help reequip the Nigerian Legal Profession and position it to play a catalytic role in the transformation of the country. By making legal resources more broadly available and accessible, hopefully the practices of our members regardless of where they are located, whether in rural Nigeria or in cosmopolitan cites, will be positively impacted, the work of our courts will hopefully be more efficient thereby promoting speedier dispensation of justice.
This year’s conference I dare say, seeks to achieve yet another objective: to borrow the words of President Barack Obama: “Yes we can”! We can as a legal profession transform ourselves, we can organise a world class conference! We can as a country be resourceful, innovative and creative. And therefore a New Nigeria is possible! I want to at this stage pause, and thank our Technical Committee on Conference Planning led by Prof. Konyinsola Ajayi SAN for driving the organisation of the conference with uncommon zeal, energy and determination and in his usual tradition of excellence. I thank all the bright minds on the committee for helping me in delivering on my promise of a #ABraveNewBar!!
- 4. State of the Bar
Your Excellencies, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, colleagues, let me now turn briefly to other areas of activity of the Nigerian Bar Association. We have in the last twelve months pursued not just the reform of the profession, we have also tried to enhance the governance framework of the NBA. We developed a three year strategic plan to set the pathway for our programs and activities with clear milestones and deliverables. We are working very hard to raise the standards of our corporate governance and financial management and also strengthen financial controls and reporting. We hired the KPMG to undertake a review of our financial processes and controls. We hope the outcome will be a set of recommendations that will help improve the association’s financial management and strengthen the confidence of its members and partners. In the course of the last one year, we have also tried to introduce a much higher level of transparency and openness in the management of the Association. All activities are regularly reported by a strong media team on various social media platforms which we regularly monitor and also receive feedback many of which are acted upon.
- 4. NBA Public Interest Engagements
At the level of public interest, we have scaled up our public interest engagements. We are working to promote pro-bono legal services and enhance access to justice across the country. Last month, we signed an MOU with the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria to undertake major programs in providing legal assistance especially with respect to human right abuses in conflict areas. Our Task Force in the North East has been working very hard in the region trying to provide support to victims of the insurgency and generally support the reconstruction and rehabilitation of justice sector institutions in the areas affected by the insurgency. Our Niger Delta Task Force is also working to support peace initiatives and rehabilitation in the Niger Delta. This is in addition to the NBA intervention in other conflict areas including Southern Kaduna and more recently Taraba State. The Nigerian Bar Association is also leading a civil society initiative with the support of the MacArthur Foundation to develop a policy and legal framework for Transitional Justice in Nigeria following African Union guidelines and drawing from the experiences of other countries in Africa and elsewhere. Hopefully, such a policy when adopted will assist in reconciliation and peace building efforts in various conflict areas in the country. Last month the MacArthur Foundation approved a grant of $1.8 Million United States Dollars to support NBA’s work on the reform of criminal justice administration. The first tranche of the grant is expected within the next week or so and will support our work in the first batch of 10 project States across the country. Our Committees have just been recently reconstituted and will begin work in earnest on their various mandates. These include the NBA Human Rights Institute, the Anti-Corruption Commission, the Legislative Advocacy Committee, the Young Lawyers Forum etc. The Section on Business Law has remained active and we are working with its Council to broaden its activities to reach more corners of the country. I hope early next year the Section in collaboration with the NBA National Body will organise a major conference focused on Mining and Agribusiness to support economic diversification as a strategy for National development. The NBA is interested in helping lawyers and businesses build their capacity in servicing these fairly underdeveloped sectors yet potentially huge areas of growth for the economy. I hope this will take place outside our traditional conference areas of Lagos, Abuja or Port Harcourt. We hope to partner with the Federal Government and any State or group of States willing to partner with us in this initiative. In principle the Law Society of Australia is willing to work with us on this. In the next couple of months we are also going to focus on reviving the NBA Section on Legal Practice that will promote the development of general legal practice and the Section on Public Interest and Development Law that we hope will take the lead and drive our public interest engagements.
Your Excellences, distinguished colleagues, I believe in the last several months we have succeeded in promoting the NBA Brand as a credible partner for national development. We have demonstrated keen interest in national affairs and supported the yearnings and aspirations of Nigerians. We have risen in the defense of the Judiciary even as we remain strong advocates for its reform. We have promoted the rule of law and indeed the role of law in national development. We have promoted the growth of the Nigerian economy with various partners recognising that economic growth and increased prosperity will lift millions of Nigerians out of poverty and rebuild confidence in our country.
Our quest for a #ABraveNewBar is not a destination but a journey. This journey has indeed begun. It is a journey to rebuild confidence in the Nigerian Legal Profession. It is a journey to restore it to its original core values of ethics, courage, integrity and professionalism and thereby regain the confidence of the Nigerian people. It is a journey which is important not only for Nigeria, but for Africa.
- 5. Conclusion
I want to conclude these opening remarks by thanking our partners and supporters for this conference. We have enjoyed tremendous support from Lagos State Government. Our last conference here in Lagos was back in 2009. We are delighted to be here once again especially to join the State as it celebrates its 50th anniversary. We have come back here not just because of the conference facilities and other infrastructure, but also to support the transformative journey this State has witnessed in the last several years. If we are talking of institutions, there is no better place to do that than here in Lagos, a State that has perhaps made the greatest institutional transformation in recent times. We remember Lagos of the 80’s and 90’s a State of frustrating traffic hold ups, smoky roads and army of unemployed youth roaming the streets to now a much more modern city, a centre of excellence. I therefore wish to thank HE Governor Ambode for his tremendous support.
I wish to also thank our other partner states, Rivers, Kano, Bauchi, Plateau, Sokoto, Ondo, Oyo, Plateau and Kogi States. We are grateful for the support we have received. Some of the States will be having special showcase sessions to promote investment and tourism opportunities in their respective states. I want to also thank all our corporate partners, our development partners and numerous individuals who have all given us their immeasurable support. The list is long and I do not intend to go through it. But I am sure, this is visible from the various brands you will be seeing in the course of the week. However, I would like to single out one partner for special appreciation that is Tristate Cardiovascular Associates. Tristate has erected a big tent to provide free health care screening for our conference participants. I believe more than 1500 participants have registered for this. This is in addition to providing emergency services throughout the conference period. I am familiar with the story of Tristate and I hope this story will be fully told in the course of the conference. But for now I will like to thank Prof. Kamar Adeleke the CEO, Prof. Paul Davis, the Chief Cardiothoracic Surgeon and Dr Kunle Iyanda the Chief Operating Officer of Tristate for their great support.
Your Excellencies, My Lords, distinguished colleagues, I welcome you to the 2017 Annual Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association. I wish all of us a memorable and enjoyable week.
God Bless the Nigerian Bar Association
God Bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria
Welcome to #ABraveNewBar