In recent times there has been a number of serious national issues burning and plaguing the nation, Cross River State in particular. In Rivers State for instance, there is a lingering needless and meaningless political war against the State Governor which is contrived and escalated by the National Judicial Council (NJC).
The crisis has resulted in the shutdown of the Rivers State Judiciary for a period of nearly a year now. There is also the ongoing national strike action by the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) which has paralyzed legal activities in the country and has shut down all State courts nationwide for nearly two months now.
Other issues that have featured on the national front burner include the devastating, agonizing and terror attacks by the blood-tasty Boko Haram sect which have continued to receive widespread international condemnation; the alleged certificate scandal of the All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential flag bearer, General Mohammadu Buhari; and more recently, the inglorious postponement of the general elections by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
It is important to note that most of these plaguing issues are of serious constitutional nature. However and surprisingly too, the leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has lamentably and shamefully kept mute and continues to maintain a studied silence on these issues. The Nigerian Bar Association is the umbrella body for all legal practitioners in Nigeria and membership of the association is automatic upon enrollment in the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
Although no statutory framework establishes the association, the NBA has been acknowledged by various statutes and subsidiary legislations. See for instance sections 1(2) (i); 3(1) (k); 12(2) (e) of the Legal Practitioners Act Cap L11 LFN 2004 and section 2 (1) (f) of the Legal Education (Consolidation etc.) Act LFN 2004. See also Rules 10, 11, 12, & 13 of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners, 2007.
Among the functions of the NBA is to promote law reforms by taking official position on certain legal issues in the country. The NBA is also expected to perform various advisory functions to the government and its agencies. In view of these, it is surprising and baffling too, that the NBA would chose to be passive and maintain stylish silence even in the wake of serious national issues begging for concern.
Just very recently and particularly towards the end of January, 2015 lawyers in the city of Colombo took to the streets in peaceful but forceful protest against what they perceived to be injustice and mal-administration by the government of their home country, Sri Lanka.
This sense of activism and sagacity is indeed commendable. However, such is not common and is in fact, non-existent in our clime. One would have thought that the lawyer’s body in Nigeria would draw an inspiration from their counterparts in Sri Lanka to mobilize/galvanize and imbibe in her members such spirit of sportsmanship and take to the streets in peaceful protest and solidarity for the ongoing indefinite industrial action by the members of the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN), and urge the State governments respectively to comply with the subsisting judgment of the Federal High Court delivered in favour of JUSUN.
Interestingly and incidentally too, the consequence of the present prolonged strike action is telling more on the lawyers and on innocent litigants. It would appear that the leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association is of recent, more interested and concerned about the collection of annual practicing fees paid by lawyers.
By the provisions of section 8 (2) of the Legal Practitioners Act (supra), every legal practitioner in Nigeria is mandatorily required to, on or before the 31st day of March each year, pay a fee to be prescribed by the General Council of the Bar (A statutory regulatory body in legal profession in Nigeria) and known as “annual practicing fee”. See also Rule 9 (1) of the Rules of Professional Conduct (supra).
In view of the ongoing and prolonged strike action by judicial staff nationwide, it is doubtful how many lawyers can afford to pay their practicing fees on or before the 31st of March, 2015 after staying out of court for months.
I am aware that the current national president of the NBA has quite belatedly and as if suddenly awoken from delusional dreams, released a statement urging security agencies to prove to Nigerians that the security advisory on which INEC relied on to postpone the general elections was not a smokescreen, and also urging INEC to request the Federal Government to declare public holidays for two days to enable registered voters to collect their PVCs.
The point has however been made that the Nigerian Bar Association must swiftly, more than ever before awake from her self-induced slumber, become more pro-active and creative to take her prime of place in defending the defenseless and in the vanguard for social change, promotion of legal reforms, and championing the cause of justice and respect for constitutionalism, etcetera.
Anything short of this would be a dangerous insouciance. The present writer is fortified in this view because the failure and blatant refusal of the NBA leadership to frontally and pointedly speak out on numerous plaguing national issues bordering on injustice, oppression, official corruption, disrespect to the law, etcetera would not only show-case the lawyers association as abdicating her sacred duty but also makes her an accessory to same.
Eno Iyamba is a practicing lawyer in Cross River State, practicing with Basic Right Council Calabar.
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