For Isiaka Abiola Olagunju, General Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association, legal practice is a jealous profession. This belief has reflected in his activities as a lawyer since his call to the Nigerian Bar almost three decades ago. Apart from running his law chambers in Ibadan, the Oyo state capital, Olagunju is most visible in NBA politics than he is in the social world. “Law is all I do,” he said as he speaks on issues affecting the NBA in this interview with JIDE JEGEDE
How would you describe the last general election of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in which electronic voting was used for the first time to elect national officers?
The election meant a lot to me. Not to me alone, but all progressive minded people in the legal profession in Nigeria. Before that election, after what we call the 1992 debacle, the constitution was reviewed to allow election by delegates wherein all the branches in the country supply minimum of 10 delegates per branch to form an electoral college to elect the National officers. But along the line, leaders of the bar saw that the delegate system was not working because many contestants would have to spend so much money for them to be elected.
Buying over the delegates?
Not to buy them over. I would prefer the word ‘logistics’. Let me give an example. If election is holding in Ibadan, for instance, and delegates are coming from all over the country, as a candidate, you have your own line of supporters, for whom you have to provide their logistics in terms of transportation, accommodation and feeding.
It costs a lot of money to move people from across the country to a particular place for voting. It is quite expensive. And in their wisdom, the leadership thought we should go back to the time of old, during which we had one man one vote. I must confess that it was that principle of one man one vote that gave someone like me an edge in the election, because I may not have been able to afford the kind of money involved in the former process. Before being elected, I had served in several electoral committees of the bar. I knew what it took to get elected as a national officer, especially as President or General Secretary of the NBA. In terms of wherewithal, I may not be able to afford it. But this time around, the Alegeh (penultimate President) presidency introduced universal suffrage wherein every lawyer, as long as you have paid your practicing fee, is qualified to vote in the election. Again, instead of converging in a place you could vote in the comfort of your home. It was electronic voting. To me that was a good development. People voted from all over the world. Some members who were outside the country at the time of the election voted where they were. You only need to log on to the NBA website with your unique ID and cast your vote. That was the first time I would say that the wishes of Nigerian lawyers prevailed. In all fairness and humility, many people did not give me a chance because, one, I came in late to the race. My opponent had been on ground for almost two years before my first declaration for that office was made on the 1st of March, 2016. The election held from June 30 to July 1. After the declaration, I toured all the 36 states of the federation to campaign.
Until the last minute, I did not rest for the period. I thank God that through that effort and His grace, I became victorious. Yes, they considered my profile. I have served severally in the NBA. I started from my branch in Ibadan, where I first served as the Social Secretary in 2000. In 2006, I became the first Assistant Secretary at the national level. I also served in committees nationally and locally. I was the secretary of the Electoral Committee that ushered in JB Daodu as the NBA President in 2012. I was Executive Secretary of Human Rights Institute of the NBA, a council member of NBA Section on Legal Practice (SLP). I have been a National Executive Council (NEC) member since 2006 till date. I am a prosecutor in Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee. I have always been involved. So many people have known me through my activities in the NBA. They knew what I stoodd for, because I am not a greenhorn in the Nigerian Bar. All that worked for me because everywhere I went during the campaign, people told me not to worry that they would vote for me. Some even referred me to what I did for them years back that I had forgotten. The acceptability was there as well as the belief they had in me that I would perform. I thank God that the acceptance I received during the campaign translated to victory at the poll.
Let’s examine corruption in Nigeria and the NBA as a body. Some people have alleged that the main reason Nigeria has not made meaningful progress in her anti-corruption war is because of the alleged connivance of some of your members who were said to be assisting culprits to evade the wrath of the law. What is your reaction?
I take exception to that. Let us get one thing right; whether you are a lawyer or whatever, you are a reflection of the society. Lawyers and judges are also members of the society. They are not angels. They live in the society. I concede that high expectations are placed on lawyers. The people believe that if you are a lawyer, you must be incorruptible. That is good, it is fine and correct. But is that practicable? Yes, there are corrupt lawyers. But you must not forget that there are many lawyers who are incorruptible. We have over 100,000 lawyers in Nigeria. Are we saying all of them are corrupt? Many of us are not corrupt. Many of us have integrity. It is just a fractional few that we have challenges with. I won’t agree that there are no bad eggs. Anywhere you are, in any organization in the world, you always see the bad eggs. But we shouldn’t forget the fact that there are many Nigerian lawyers who are upright. They are competent, they have integrity and have the love of our nation in their hearts.
These ones fight against corruption with all they have, including risking their lives. They may not be heard now, but there are thousands of Nigerian lawyers who believe that corruption must be fought and they dedicate themselves to that struggle day and night.
But it appears that the black sheep among you are too powerful and your association has not been able to take decisive actions against them
In my position as the General Secretary of the NBA, I have received several petitions against some senior lawyers and I know that some senior lawyers are facing disciplinary committee of the NBA. Some of them have been dealt with in the past. I won’t mention names here.
Some are still going to face disciplinary actions. Most of these measures have not got to the public domain because as lawyers we don’t subject ourselves to unnecessary publicity. It is unethical. As lawyers you shouldn’t be going to the press to say you have done this or that. Many people that know what we are doing will know that we are actually working. We are doing everything within our capacity to ensure that we clear the Aegean’s table.
Are you saying that Nigerians should expect some decisive actions against some corrupt members of the bar soon?
Yes. One of the thematic areas of focus of the current administration is the regulation of legal practice. Recently, the NBA President constituted the Legal Profession Regulation Review Committee. The committee is headed by Mr. Anthony Idigbe (SAN) with other senior lawyers as members. The mandate is to come up with recommendations on how we can regulate our profession. We are going to take a holistic approach as the focus will cover the stages of undergraduate, internship, Law School and the practice per se. I can assure that before we leave office in 2018 Nigerians will know that we are actually leaving a better bar.
Is it right to say that you are taking this action as a reaction to the dent your image as a body has suffered due to the ignoble activities of the so-called corrupt members of the bar?
That may be true to some extent. I have said that every profession is a reflection of the society and in all fairness we have never had it as bad as we do now. Things are even compounded in the recent times when our members have to relate with politicians on election petition matters and the likes. There are some challenges and that is what we are facing. We want to see how we can make things better. But notwithstanding, we need to regulate ourselves and that process has begun.
Nigeria has been talking about decongesting the prisons, which were said to be mostly populated by non-convicts. What effort is the NBA making to achieve this goal because lack of access to legal representation is said to be the main reason many suspects still languish in prisons across the country?
One of the focal points of this administration is the public interest. While delivering a speech on the 10th of December, 2016, the Human Rights Day, the NBA President inaugurated the National Pro bono service scheme of the NBA. The essence of that scheme is to see that an average inmate has access to justice. The NBA is the largest professional organization in Nigeria because we are in every part of the country. And in each branch, we expect that at least 10 lawyers engage in pro bono service. We are trying our best to ensure that from now, all lawyers are involved in pro bono service scheme.
I agree that over 70 per cent of inmates are awaiting trials. But, we should also state that there are several other factors, apart from not having access to lawyers, that are responsible for suspects being kept perpetually in custody. Some may be because the police have not concluded their investigations. Some, the police have concluded investigations, but have not forwarded the file to the directorate of Public Prosecution for advice. Some have the advice concluded, but yet to be properly arraigned. There are several factors. Essentially, those other factors could persist when the inmates lack proper legal representation. If you are well represented by a lawyer, he would follow up at every stage of the case and ensure that things are done with dispatch. We will do all we could with the National Legal Aid Council and the office of the Attorney General of the Federation and the states to ensure that more of our members are engaged in the pro bono service scheme and ensure that at least by the end of this year (2017) many of the inmates would have their cases dealt with, one way or the other.