- NBA stirs succession controversy at Body of Benchers
The tenure of the 50th Chairman of the Body of Benchers(BoB), Chief Wole Olanipekun ends today, March 30 and this evening at a colourful dinner ceremony, he will hand over to his Vice Chairman, Justice Mary Peter-Odili who becomes the 51st Chairman.
This just as the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has started another level of controversy as its President, Yakubu Maikyau SAN has written a letter to the body, nominating Mrs Funke Adekoya to be the now Vice Chairman of the body.
Chief Olanipekun took over the reins of the body, the highest statutory and regulatory body of legal practitioners in Nigeria, on March 31 last year from a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour. An ultra conservative body, BoB comprises very senior members of the legal profession both on the bench and in the bar. The leadership is rotated between the bench and bar on yearly basis, based on seniority, and call to the body as benchers.
Olanipekun’s tenure has been eventful, even in the midst of controversy. No sooner had he started his tenure than opposition arose, mainly from his own constituency, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), an association he presided over twenty years earlier. He was President of NBA in 2002-2004, an era regarded as a watershed and glorious era of the association.
The accusation that his law firm was involved in ambulance chasing by the immediate past president of the NBA, Olumide Akpata was thrown away by the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LPDC). Just as he heaved a sigh of relief, the new President, Yakubu Maikyau SAN, following the footsteps of his predecessor, demanded that Olanipekun must not preside over the December 2022 call to bar of new wigs unless the body heard the petition filed by his predecessor. The body, despite Olanipekun’s offer that the matter be tabled, simply ignored his request. Maikyau eventually boycotted the event, which met with outstanding success.
NBA, even before availing BoB of wading into the matter, had taken the matter to the court of public opinion, which was against the tenets of the body. Akpata was only nine years at the bar when Olanipekun was President. Yakubu was 11. Both at private times enjoyed very good rapport with the highly respected chief. While seeking office, Yakubu was reported to have paid glowing tributes Olanipekun on November 20, 2021, when he celebrated Olanipekun as a ” great man..who without doubt is amongst the greatest men who have etched an indelible path in our legal profession, a trailblazer. On the occasion of your platinum celebration, it is my honour and privilege to celebrate you sir for being a true testament that great men exist. I congratulate you on your appointment as the vice chairman of the exalted body of benchers. This couldn’t have come at a better time. It shows yet again your immense contribution to our noble profession”.
Despite these travails, Olanipekun has been able to lead BoB so credibly that his achievements will stand the test of time. It is during his tenure that the body’s building, Body of Benchers Complex was completed. The building was commissioned by President Muhammadu Buhari on September 29,2022.
Because of his leadership style, many Benchers who had hitherto been passive became alive and are willing to serve the body in several capacities. He carried along the members effortlessly and gave them tasks which were carried out even with their own resources.
As a leader, Olanipekun is always at the front of the charge, leading by example. When the poor remuneration of judges became an issue that threatened to tear the Supreme Court apart, Olanipekun was at the forefront of dousing the tension. He set up a committee that he led and intervened. He did not stop there. He commissioned an consultancy firm, Messrs Ernst & Young (E&Y), a Firm of Accounting and Financial Consultants to work out a peer review of the conditions of service of Judicial Officers in Nigeria with other countries and jurisdictions, within and outside Africa. The fees of the consultants were borne by him as he contributed N10 million while another senior lawyer and life bencher, Prince Lateef Fagbemi SAN contributed N5 million.
Even before the report was ready, he led the body on a visit to President Buhari seeking the intervention of the Federal government in the review of remuneration and retirement benefits of judges. He was able to secure the commitment of the President to improve the conditions of service of judicial officers.
Addressing the president during the body’s visit to Aso Villa on July 30, 2022, Olanipekun described the condition under which judges, especially the Justices of the Supreme Court work as pathetic, appalling and below the minimum standards that are required. “We want to plead with you. We need to bail out the Judiciary. The situation is bad. Let us sympathize with the Judiciary. I know you have respect, feelings for the Judiciary. You have sympathy, empathy and consideration. The Body of Benchers as elders of the legal profession makes these recommendations to Your Excellency, with a plea that they should be attended to urgently,” he said.
Buhari at the occasion called for the 2018 report on the remuneration of judicial officers and promised to work towards the improvement.
Speaking on Olanipekun later, President Buhari said: “When he visited on the 30th of July, 2022 he was very emphatic in making a case for the Welfare of the Judiciary. I noted his patience and commitment in championing the Welfare of the Judicial Officers in Nigeria”.
The President restated his commitment to improve the welfare of the Judicial Officers.
Buhari said he awaits the review of the conditions of service of Judicial Officers in Nigeria with other countries and jurisdictions, within and outside Africa by the consultants engaged by the leadership of the BOB, through its Judiciary Advisory Committee, for the welfare of judicial officers in the country”.
Olanipekun also addressed the issue of conflicting orders usually given by courts of concurrent jurisdiction, and forum shopping by lawyers. He set up the Judicial Advisory Committee (JAC) to address this and other issues. A prove that JAC is successful under Olanipekun is the fact that forum shopping and conflicting orders greatly reduced, particularly before , during and after the 2023 elections.
As Olanipekun hands over to Justice Odili this evening, the body will again have to contend with the nomination of Adekoya by the NBA. Ordinarily, leadership of the body is based on seniority among the Benchers. In line with this, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo SAN is expected to take over as Vice Chairman. Mrs Adekoya is the third on the list as she still has Chief Albert Akpomudje SAN before her. After her comes Dr Olisa Agbakoba SAN, Mr Joseph Bodunrin Daudu SAN, and Sir G. Ofodile Okafor, all in line succession.
It remains to be seen how Justice Odili and the body will handle the new challenge. However, Olanipekun a legal legend in the midst of legal icons just finished another tour of duty.
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