By Odinkalu Chidi

In a country and a season in which candour is not always seen as a virtue, those who make it the currency of their daily lives are either idolized, endangered or idolized into endangerment. On the Nigerian streets, a person who addresses issues of public significance with candour can be described as having “broken the table”. As a figure of speech, this usage is back-handed compliment for bucking a national habit of dressing up reality in a bodyguard of avoidance.

Tables, however, can be useless without a chair or a bench. When the table gets scattered, the bench that accompanies it can suddenly become of limited utility. To default to a Nigerianism, lawyers and benches are like five and six. Judges and magistrates are referred to as members of “the Bench”. When lawyers have to discuss a matter confidentially in court with the judge in some countries, they “approach the bench.”

Even before that, upon becoming eligible to enroll as into the vocation, their admission into the profession is overseen by a “Body of Benchers”, comprised as required by the Legal Practitioners Act of “legal practitioners of the highest distinction in the legal profession in Nigeria.” The self-designated “vission” (sic) of the Body is “to be the beacon of legal professionalism, setting the standard for legal education, qualification, and conduct worldwide.”

To accomplish this, the least the Body of Benchers must do is to embody the highest standards of the profession themselves. Many years ago, that could have been said of them.

These days, it seems, benchers are the ones at war with tables. In Nigeria’s Body of Benchers currently, tables are being scattered in a manner that exposes how the standards of the legal profession have become hostage to a capricious entitlement mentality of its leadership. Amidst the daily dose of drama that defines Nigerian life, the spectacle unfolding in the Body of Benchers has been largely shielded from public attention. It is time to redress that neglect.

There is one other reason why this matter deserves attention. Over the course of several weeks now, the current leadership of the Body of Benchers has sought to intimidate journalists, reporters and platform providers, threatening them with unspoken consequences if they much as dared to publish material on the current crisis in the Body. For those who had already published, instructions to take down the material were transmitted, accompanied similarly with threats of malign consequences if they failed to comply. This degree of investment in suppressing and attacking the legitimate pursuit of a lawful vocation is both intolerable and unlawful. It could even be criminal.

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The Body of Benchers is a statutory body. Any status enjoyed by its members is conferred by law. As a result, citizens have a duty to hold the feet of the Body and its members to fire.

Since the current crisis in the Body of Benchers has its origins ultimately in issues of membership, it is essential to dwell a little on the matter of its membership. The Body comprises two categories of members. Life Benchers enjoy membership for life. They can attain that status either by virtue of office or from dutiful longevity in membership after a minimum of five years. There are also ordinary members of the Body whose membership is not for life. Members include both lawyers and judges. For equity, leadership rotates on an annual schedule between the judges and the lawyers such that if a judge chairs the Body in one year, then a lawyer chairs it the following year.

Membership of the Body of Benchers used to truly hew closely to the requirement of the law limiting it to persons of “the highest distinction.” Today, aspects of the Body have degenerated somewhat into influence-peddling. For instance, they have extended automatic membership to senior federal legislators who are lawyers, such as the presiding officers of the two chambers of the National Assembly; and some significant committee chairs too. Indeed, a former Governor and current Minister with a reputation for “generosity” is one of the best known Life Benchers.

We digress though. Among the committees established within the Body, an Appointments Committee vets nominees for membership, presumably to ensure that they comply with the threshold requirement of the law. That Committee is headed by a Chair whose tenure lasts for three years. In the last week of March 2024, Augustine Alegeh, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, and one of the most consequential presidents of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, in the last three decades, formally accepted the nomination to lead the Appointments Committee.

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The week thereafter, the Body elected a new Chair, one of whose first acts was to issue an edict dissolving the existing committees and re-constituting them. The problem is that under its own Regulations, the power to constitute committees belongs not to the Chair but to the Body of Benchers as a whole. The Body, for the avoidance of doubt, is constituted for this purpose by a quorum of at least 50 of its members. Many of the members of the Body rightfully saw this claim of a unilateral power by the current Chair as descent into rule-free autocratization. The decision of the new chair to ignore their protests strengthened this fear.

The matter is now in court in a suit instituted by Mr. Alegeh against the Chair and the Body of Benchers as defendants. The real issue before the court is one of high significance. A member in a letter feared that the chairman’s action in claiming non-existent powers to dissolve and re-constitute the Appointments Committee was “fuelling suspicion” that all he wanted to achieve was to ensure that he had his way during his tenure.

In this case, the claim is that the Chairman of the Body of Benchers has sought to ransack the governance of the Body generally and the composition in particular of its Appointments Committee .

This question as to how far attainment within the legal profession in Nigeria can be reduced to an STD is ultimately what confronts the Federal High Court in the case now pending concerning the actions of the current chairman of the Body of Benchers. It is an important question and, for the sake of the profession, one that merits the keen attentions of all persons affected by institutions of the law in Nigeria.

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