The mechanisms for electing the leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) are out-dated, scandal-prone and liable to whimsical capture. The question is not whether to change them but how quickly and how deeply. The answer to this is: not soon enough. The pay offs from such reform will be far reaching. They will transform the way we govern our Bar, give the Bar greater legitimacy in monitoring public affairs and ensure better revenues for the NBA. Above all they will herald a more transparent, professional, efficient and fully inclusive Bar.

No one knows how many lawyers there are in Nigeria. We don’t keep good records even of our lawyers. Such inexcusable omissions undermine the credibility of our Bar. There are well over 80,000 lawyers on the Roll of lawyers kept by the Supreme Court.
This is the list of all lawyers who have ever been admitted to practise in the country. A few thousands are surely dead. Many have also gone on to the Bench as Magistrates and judges. Obviously, neither the dead nor judges and magistrates should be voting in NBA’s elections. As presently organised, however, little stops votes being counted in their names.

The NBA elects its leadership by a system of delegates drawn from the 100 branches of the Bar. Each branch is entitled to 10 delegates each. If a branch has 100 members of more, it gets an additional delegate for every one hundred members. Also entitled to vote as delegates the elected officers of the NBA (13 of them), all living lawyers (excluding judges) who are members of the Body of Benchers, Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) and all members of the expanded National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Association. In all, this electorate at its optimal is less than 2,000.

There is a painful history to this delegates system. 1991 was the last time the NBA tried to vote by universal suffrage in Port Harcourt. The military government of Ibrahim Babangida was then in power. There were allegations that it was interested in installing a Bar leadership of its liking. There were court orders, police interference and, in the ensuing confusion, the Port Harcourt conference ended in chaos. The NBA was to become largely leaderless until the end of military rule in 1998.

The inevitable diagnosis that followed concluded that the problem was that the Bar could not manage the numbers seeking to vote. Yet there were then fewer than 20,000 people on the Roll of lawyers in Nigeria. The idea of suffrage for delegates alone was intended to reduce the expenses and uncertainties involved with universal suffrage at the Bar.

That diagnosis, with the benefit of hindsight, was quite wrong. The problem was not the numbers but the fact that the governance of our Bar was too dependent on government and the elections into leadership at the Bar were too prone to manipulation. These two problems remain unaddressed.

The NBA’s bi-ennial election conference is a four-day jamboree. On the first day, delegates travel to and arrive at the venue in Abuja. On the second day, the delegates are accredited and addressed by the candidates in a “Manifesto” night. Voting takes place on day three, followed by counting and declaration of results. On the fourth day, most travelling delegates return home.

There is no excuse for this arrangement. For most lawyers in single or two-person practice, the delegates’ conference is a waste. The risks of road travel are also enormous. Most delegates travel long distances by mini-bus from their respective branches. Many of these buses are inadequately insured, if at all. Elections at the Bar are one car crash away from being hostage to avoidable tragedy. No amount of “God forbid” or “It is not your portion!” should be allowed to diminish the size of this risk.

There is no reason why the Bar should spend four days in organizing elections in which there are fewer than 2,000 voters. If it continues this way, the Bar loses any standing to criticize the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) for its well-advertised inefficiencies.

Returning credibility to our Bar requires that this situation be reformed urgently. To do so, the NBA must set a target for leadership selection based on universal suffrage by 2016. It could be sooner. Achieving this requires three easy steps.

First, we need fully transparent and reliable records of lawyers in Nigeria. This requires a capable electronic platform. If the NBA can spend ten-digit sums acquiring buildings, it surely can find sums in the low seven-digits to finance a capable electronic platform with adequate firewalls. Old membership records can be mirrored electronically in one year or less. Prospectively, membership and admission records for all lawyers can be electronically maintained and updated.

Second, membership management – including services, entitlements and voting – can be organised around a unique professional identity number (PIN) assigned to each lawyer on Roll. At the end of the deadline for payment of annual Practising Fees the first quarter of each year, the NBA should issue the list of all members who have paid the fees and who, thereby, will have the rights to membership services and voting.

Third, the idea of gathering all voters in one place is Mediaeval and must end. In the current security context that we have in Nigeria, it is plainly unsafe. Instead, voting processes at the Bar, including accreditation and balloting, can and should be de-centralised. Current ICT capabilities make this easily manageable.

The newly elected President of the NBA, Okey Wali, a Senior Advocate, can easily launch the Association onto a new pedestal by implementing these easily achievable reforms. To help get the message out, he can launch a Movement for Universal Bar Suffrage (MUBS) in 2012, creating the awareness across 100 branches of the NBA to make it possible to amend the constitution of the NBA in 2013 to eliminate the delegate’s conference. The larger goal in doing this will be to give us a Bar for the 21st Century.