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Olumide Akpata and the Burden of Leadership

By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu

Nearly 10 years ago, in September 2012, the then president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Okey Wali, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), was at the beginning of his tenure. With the energy of a fresh presidency, he desired to make a mission of changing the way the association did business. To begin that, he constituted a small committee to examine the operations of NBA. I chaired it.

The committee took three months to conduct is work. Over that period, it consulted with a cross-section of leadership, branch structures, members and staff of the secretariat. The report, when it came out in January 2013, was unsparing in its diagnosis and ambitious in its vision. It said that the NBA was “severely under-capacitated, with an unclear mission, an insecure future, and hugely unrealized potential. The NBA itself does not offer a clear value proposition to its members. The absence of a defining value proposition is an existential threat to the NBA….”

In those days, the association was top-heavy. It elected its leadership through a relatively small number of delegates, comprising the most senior and well-heeled lawyers in the country. Most of its members had good reason to feel excluded because the process by which leadership emerged offered no incentives for service to the vast number of mostly impoverished members. The association was also in a habit, as the 2013 report said, of contracting “potentially problematic relationships with politically exposed persons (PEPs) who sometimes have partisan interests in compromising an independent Bar.” It’s credibility was predictably diminished and, for most members as well as the public, the NBA had become part of the Nigerian problem not part of the solution.

Okey Wali’s successor, Augustine Alegeh, another SAN, who emerged against the grain of conventional calculus in 2014, did the unpopular thing among senior lawyers of re-inventing the cone of leadership legitimacy at the Nigerian Bar. Instead of entrusting this unique responsibility to a small coterie of self-serving senior lawyers, called delegates, he reformed the constitution of the Bar to return leadership selection to a system of one-lawyer-one-vote. To make this work, the Alegeh reforms moved the NBA to a new world of digital voting.

These reforms made possible the emergence of Olumide Akpata in 2020 as the president of the NBA, six years after the end of Alegeh’s tenure. There were, however, teething problems to be overcome in the interregnum between Alegeh and Akpata. Many senior lawyers felt estranged from a system that counted their votes as worth exactly the same as that of their employees. The association also did not have the data infrastructure for digital voting. So, its early efforts to elect leadership digitally were marred quite badly first by apathy and suspicion. When they voted for the successor to Alegeh in 2016, only 6,932 members turned up out of a population of just under 100,000 on roll but that was still 5204 people more than the 1,728 who were allowed to participate in electing Alegeh two years earlier.
In 2018, the number grew to 12,421. The uptake had evidently increased but nothing on the scale of what was required to grow the association in the direction it needed.

The NBA’s experiment in digital elections was also blighted by scandal. The 2016 leadership election ended in court over claims of serious “electoral infractions.” In 2018, membership data was deliberately compromised, leading to manifest rigging of the election which is now the stuff of pending criminal prosecution.

When Olumide threw his hat into the contest for the presidency of the Bar in the 2020 cycle of leadership election, he set about harnessing the promise of the Alegeh reforms but he faced considerable odds. To begin with, every president of the Bar since 1998 had been a SAN, and Olumide, who had built his reputation in commercial practice rather than in courtroom litigation, was not one. Second, he was up against two formidable SANs and, in a habitually stratified vocation and society, was the youngest in both biological and professional age among the cohort of a strong pool of candidates. Third, he was from the mid-west Bar in a year in which the presidency was due to come from the Western region.

Each of these could easily have frightened aspirants of lesser fortitude but it was clear that Olumide had deliberately identified the NBA presidency as the site for his leadership tilt and had gone about it methodically. Prior to running for the NBA presidency, he had served as a pioneer in the Council of the NBA’s Section on Business Law, topping it off with a two-year stint as the Chair of the NBA’s best know Practice Section.

Before that, he had also served as the General Secretary of the old students of the oldest public High School in the country, the Kings College Old Boys Association (KCOBA), during which he professionalized that association and put its operations on a sound footing.
In running for the presidency of the Bar, Olumide managed to turn all his headwinds into tailwinds, revealing a huge appetite at the Bar for generational inclusion and for an independent NBA. His campaign showed creativity, adaptability, and extraordinary savvy in digital constituency building and when the votes were counted in August 2020, he had bested all comers taking some 54% out of 18,256 votes cast.

Olumide could easily have entered the history books as the first NBA president to be inaugurated in a pandemic. He inherited an association reeling from a credibility crisis, membership apathy and financial challenges. In two years, he has managed to transform the finances of the association and will be leaving behind a stability fund that will guarantee its financial and professional independence.
Over the same period, Olumide has also transformed the credibility of the association, giving it a public voice that is now respected by the country. Membership services, including continuing legal education and skill have also improved. This is evident in the payment subscription to practicing fees which has more than doubled over two years from just under 30,000 members to over 61,000. The association is no longer in hock to politically exposed persons. It’s membership and data management protocols of the association have dramatically improved and it’s infrastructure have been massively enhanced under Olumide’s leadership.
Under him that body described 10 years ago as “severely under-capacitated, with an unclear mission, an insecure future, and hugely unrealized potential” has now been replaced by one with substantial heft.

These have not come without a fight. A Federal Attorney-General, who felt affronted by intimations of an independent Bar, decided to abort it through acts of decapitation in a unilateral amendment of the Rules of Professional Conduct in the Legal Profession designed to render the association irrelevant. Last week, the courts upheld a challenge to this by Olumide’s NBA, ruling the Attorney-General out of line. He has also frustrated another line of attack which exposes the Association to being sub-ordinated to the Body of Benchers, a statutory body. At the end of his tenure, Olumide has conducted what is by far the most credible leadership transition since the association pivoted to digital elections in 2016.

For his efforts, Olumide’s tenure has not been without challenges. Despite his formidable advocacy skills, lawyers are still liable to be abused and assaulted by security agents and, as demonstrated by the pending case of Inibehe Effiong before the Akwa Ibom State High Court, sometimes by judicial officers. In the aftermath of his letter requesting the current chairman of the Body of Benchers to recuse himself from office pending the conclusion of disciplinary hearings on a complaint in respect of which the latter suffers potential exposures both as witness or as a co-respondent, Olumide has been criticized for not being sufficiently respectful of business-as-usual at the Bar. Far from a criticism, however, that should be a badge of honour.

When he makes his exit next week after two very eventful years as president of the Nigerian Bar, Olumide Akpata deserves to hold his head very high. He will surely go down as one of the most consequential tenures in the leadership of the association since Alao Aka Basorun.

Olumide leaves the NBA well placed to play a pivotal role in policing the 2023 General elections. He also leaves shoes of immense size behind and not merely as a testament to his considerable physical presence. His successor has a challenge to build on and improve on the huge leaps the association has made in the last two years under Olumide. The expectations are high and the membership of the Association will exact consequences if the bar drops.

A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at [email protected]

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