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Mazi Afam Osigwe, the immediate past chairman of the Abuja chapter of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) is an aspirant for the position of Secretary General in the July 2014 elections of the professional body holding in Abuja. In this interview with LAW EDITOR, Adam Adedimeji, the Secretary General hopeful vowed that if elected he will work with whoever emerges as the president to introduce some innovations that will further reposition NBA for the better. He also spoke on other issues of national importance. Excerpts:
The election for the national executive of your association, the NBA is around the corner in which you aspire to contest for the position of the General Secretary. What is prompting you to contest for that position?
First of all, I believe that I am qualified not only in term of the constitutional requirement to run for the office, but in terms of the requisite experience needed to run
for such an officer. And I believe that it is a matter of experience. I have a programme that with the support of the President and the entire members of the bar if we are able to put them in place we will be able to lift the bar higher. Now, there are things people could take for granted for people who are members of the NBA Abuja. For example at the branch level here, many years even long before I became chairman, people got their minutes of the meeting through emails. And that is one thing that is yet to still happen in the NBA. And it is also difficult even for us here in Abuja to sometime confirm if a particular person was a lawyer or not. And I think NBA should be able to provide that report to branches. This is one area we should pay attention to. And the issue of also making information available to members, I believe that we can work with any president that comes in to make this a reality. Many of the members of the bar have no career path. And there is need for people to make out a career path and career progression in the NBA. There is need to streamline things. There is need to make the NBA work as a non-governmental organization that will develop programmes and implement programmes to make life better for members and even impact positively on the society. These are some of the things that I believe if I am elected we work hard to achieve to make the bar better. Now, there is something people also take for granted if they attend international conferences. Now you can stay in the comfort of your office in Nigeria and register for international bar association conference online. And then you arrive at the venue and you simply collect your materials. In NBA, sometime that could be a serious problem. I think a General Secretary as the head of the secretariat under the directive of the president should work with the secretariat staff to make it a seamless thing. Now if you follow the NBA election guidelines, it talked about branches submitting a list of, getting copies of those who have paid practice fees. And I think that NBA should be run in such a way that from the record, financial records available to the secretariat, you need to know those and from which branches who have paid their dues to know the number of delegates who are qualified. People don’t need to go logging piles of receipts, photocopies of receipts. And we have this issue of remittance of practice fees. Now, under the NBA resolution, the NBA branches get 10% of practice fee paid by their own members. And I think the secretariat working with the president could develop such a scheme such that the current treasurer has developed a code for branches, so that if for example, like Abuja code is 004. You make payment with a code of 004, automatically there will be instruction in the system to credit 10% of whatever that paid to NBA Abuja, so that you don’t have to have dispute about delay of payment of this fee. The NBA should be up and running and should be seen to set example for a modern association in terms of ease of doing things. I mean, you don’t have to be in Nigeria to pay practice fee. All you need is to get to the payment platform, just like you would book an airline ticket. And I think we need to modernize NBA – the way of doing business, the way of relating with branches, the way of making members of staff who work there to have full opportunity to grow and have a career path like I have said.
There was this controversy about zoning of the NBA presidency. Is zoning really spelt out in the constitution of your association?
The NBA constitution does not have a provision on zoning. It is just a political understanding by leaders of the bar in order to give a sense of belonging to all parts of Nigeria because it was felt that certain parts of Nigeria would have it difficult to win the presidency of the association easily. And so it was agreed that there should be rotation from East, West, North along the lines of the three regional structure of post-Independence before the creation of the Mid-West. That is simply what it means. It only applies to the presidency because in NBA, the presidency is a plum job. So the General Secretary as well as other offices other than the presidency are not zoned.
So, you mean it is not really a constitutional thing?
No! But you see lawyers respecting it. And we have the same zoning arrangement in Abuja, North, East, West along the three regional structures. Presently it is zoned to the west, including the old Western Region. So, any part of Nigeria today that falls under the old Western Region before the creation of Mid-West come under this zoning arrangement.
What about the situation where lawyers from the Mid-West Bar Forum asking that South-West should allow them to have the presidential slot this time around?
I already answered the question by saying that any person who comes from a state within the old western region before the creation of mid-west is qualify to run. Mid-west was carved out the western region sometime around 1963 or 1964. So, it means that since mid-west was part of the western region, any person from the present day Edo, Delta can run. We have the same situation here in Abuja and the zoning for the chairmanship in our last election was zoned to the west and the man from Edo state ran alongside a man from Delta and another person from Ondo State. And the current chairman now is from Edo State. So, when it is the turn of the west no part of the west is excluded. Just like when it is the turn of the north, no part of the north is excluded. And when it is the turn of the east no part of the east is excluded. Some people may think that when we say east we mean just southeast, therefore Rivers man cannot run. No! It is the old eastern region, just like we mean the old northern region and the old western region. Now, it is for the regions to sit down, work out an arrangement, just we have in the east where the Igbos and the non-Igbos that constitute the old eastern region have an understanding. You take it now, when it is coming the next time we take it. So, when it came back the other time the Igbo took it when Agbakoba was president, now it came back again to the east, it was the turn of the non-Igbo speaking part of the eastern region which made Okey Wali to emerge.
What was your experience like as the Chairman of the Abuja chapter of the NBA between 2011 and 2013?
There are some areas I found most interesting and that is in the area of providing continuing basic education for lawyers. And that is the only area I found challenging because quite a number of our young lawyers and indeed our old lawyers could do with some level of retraining and could not afford the cost of the retraining and the branch has to source for money to either subsidize it or wholly undertake it. And one other area I found very interesting was in the area of ensuring that quacks or impostors or people who are not called to the bar are stopped from practicing law and thereby prevented from dragging the name of the profession in the mud. And another area also is the issue of welfare of members. Now, this is one area I will say that I could not achieve as much as I set out to achieve. It was part of my campaign that if i was elected chairman, I will help get land for mass housing. But in trying to get that land I realize that even though the mass housing land are supposed to be free, they are not in reality free, because officially they are no longer available and a number of companies that have acquired these land under the laudable mass housing scheme of the FCDA are now selling them to genuine developers. So in other words, individuals or companies that lack the capacity to embark on this mass housing acquire this land in order to trade them off in the open market and make money contrary to the provisions of the term which does not confer any title on the developers who were given allocation of land under the mass housing. So, we discover that there is racket going on under mass housing scheme thing and because of that the NBA could not afford the cost of buying it which goes for as low as 200 million and as high as you can imagine. So, my failure in this, is one of my regrets as chairman of NBA Abuja chapter. Another area that I also felt that we could have done better is the refusal of lawyers to subscribe to any form of insurance scheme, be it group life or accident insurance scheme. This would help lawyers in cases of accidents that lead to permanent disability or make it difficult to earn a living. Lawyers were really not interested in contributing. I cannot say whether I did this good or bad. But I think it is left for others to judge me. Some societal influence made it difficult for me to achieve the things I set out to achieve.
What do you think would have made the lawyers not to show interest in the insurance scheme?
While I was chairman, a number of our members passed on. And we thought that could bring home the message that death could meet any of us at any time and that there was need for us to plan either for those we leave behind or for when an accident occur for us to have some provisions to bear with the loss. I have also discovered that many lawyers believe in their earning ability on a daily basis and so many lawyers do not have the lifestyle of saving or investing. They have this belief that they can always make money. Somehow, again there are some cases and reports that the insurance companies are not always willing to pay when the insured risk occur. For me, I thought it was better for us to tread on the side of caution by subscribing to an insurance scheme. But the rest as they say is history. And I only wish that the attitude of lawyers in this regard will change.
In sharing your experience as the chairman of NBA Abuja chapter, you outlined some of those things you had set out to achieve but could not due to some impediments. What then would you say are your major achievements in office as NBA chief in FCT?
I have always been reluctant about blowing my trumpet. I am not unmindful of the fact that people think our administration achieved quite some things. If you would permit me not to talk about them, I don’t want to sound immodest or boastful. That is one area I would rather allow other persons to talk about. You may wish to sample opinion about the things I did. The one I will only want to talk about is that while I will not appropriate it to myself, is that we were able to awaken interest of lawyers in the association. The attendance at meeting increased. The respect for the leadership of the bar increased. We were able to speak out on a number of issues affecting lawyers and the society in general. NBA is not a government that is supposed to put certain infrastructures in place. Members expect you to articulate their interest and aggregate their views in matters of national or societal importance and to that extent I can score ourselves high in that point.
Can you say that Nigeria’s judiciary as the third arm of government in Nigeria is totally independent of the executive’s?
I believe we do have an independent judiciary. The problem in Judiciary in Nigeria to my mind is not executive interference. But in some cases could be as a result of wrong persons being appointed to the bench. It could also be attributed to the lawyers. It could also be attributed to the corruptive influence of members of the society. There have been allegations that some serving judges of Nigeria trying to influence the court, the tribunal, election petition tribunal. We have proven cases, rather allegations of serving judicial officer trying to influence the outcome of an election petition. And another issue is that some judges are lazy. They don’t deliver judgment when they should. They don’t sit on time. Sometimes they don’t get control of their courts. They allow lawyers and sometimes litigants to take advantage of the judicial process. I think it has nothing to do with independence. It is not an issue of executive interference. But generally the perception is that the problem of the judiciary is executive interfere in the administration of justice. But rather factors like lawyers not bringing their witnesses asking for adjournments, judges not sitting, judges interfering in proceedings in some cases and people bringing frivolous cases – cases that shouldn’t go to court in the first place. We will all wish that things move faster and maybe someday will be close to a judiciary where the court will use court to discourage either counsel or litigants from delaying the administration of justice. And the current NJC must make sure that the act of judging judges on the quantity of their judgments is deemphasized, rather judges should be judged based on the quality of their judgments for a more empirical and result-oriented, because some judges just write judgments so that they will meet that requirement. Some judgments do not really address some of the issues raised. Where their conclusions in some cases may be right, the substance of the judgements is sometimes lost all in a rush to meet that minimum numbers.