Leading NBA Presidential candidate, Paul Usoro was interviewed by THISDAY recently, where a range of questions were discussed. Kindly find below the full interview..
The elections are here at last. Given the challenges complained about in the last elections which eventually resulted in litigation which are still ongoing, do you have confidence in universal suffrage by electronic voting?
PU: I don’t think the problem is with electronic voting or universal suffrage per se. The problem generally with elections is more often than not with its conduct and not the mode – electronic or manual. The problem also is not with suffrage – universal or restricted; it is, as I’ve already stated, with the conduct of the election. What I’m interested in knowing right now is the planned mechanics or processes for the NBA elections; it’s the mechanics that will tell us whether it’s tamper-proof or susceptible to manipulations and/or human errors. Until we hear from the ECNBA on these processes and mechanics, I cannot really comment on the integrity of the electronic voting.
Some have said that what the NBA needs right now, is a bridge-builder President, who has the potential to unify the Bar. For some, the huge challenge is finding a unifying factor for the young, the old, Inner Bar, Outer Bar, Ethnic fora, the Sections and various interest groups within the Bar. Would you say you possess that capacity?
PU: I believe that I possess those unifying qualities, but I’ll leave you and the members of the Bar to make the final judgment. I’ll give you pointers though. First, I’m from the East, had my education in the West, spent (and I’m still spending) some of my practice years in the North and I’m Lagos-based. Second, I keep my friends and my relationships over the years have not been and are not transactional; they also cut across all divides, be they regional, religious, age, fora, gender, Inner/Outer Bar, Post-Call years, etc. etc. Third, I’m about the only candidate that has not engaged in smear campaign against other persons (be they candidates or not) and I do not permit my supporters to engage in such unwholesome conducts. Fourth, at no time have I preached or encouraged hate and/or the divisive attitude of “us against them” – and you can see these in my Reflections publications – unlike some others who pitch young lawyers against the older ones or the Outer Bar against the Inner Bar etc. etc. Fifth, my Reflections series and my consultations have always been issues-based without denigrating any section of the Bar and I consciously and constantly build bridges both in my conduct and utterances. Sixth, the unifying force which I represent, shows in my support base which in various States, Branches and groups has brought together and unified persons who hitherto were in opposing camps and they’re all now working and focused on the unified objective of re-energizing the NBA with me as the President. Seventh, I’m very accessible to everyone by phone, e-mail, text messages, social media handles, WhatsApp and even direct contacts. These are non-exhaustive facts that should help you decide the question of whether or not I’m a unifying force for good in the Bar.
Many have expressed the belief that, ethnic fora are no longer needed in NBA elections, for any office, and that adoption is no longer a useful factor. But, the Eastern Bar Forum of which you are a member, was said to have adopted a candidate. Despite this, other candidates from the same East are still in the race. What would be the effect of this, on the election?
PU: I should perhaps point out from the outset that I’m not a member of the Eastern Bar Forum. I’m not registered with the Forum and I’m not alone in that regard; a large number of lawyers of Eastern Nigeria extraction are not registered with the Forum. In my understanding, ethnic fora are voluntary pressure groups that do not attract mandatory or compulsory membership. They cannot therefore attain or be elevated to the status of being the sole voice or even the voice for any ethnic group or region within the NBA. Ethnic fora are also not recognized by the NBA Constitution and cannot claim to speak on behalf of the Association or any part thereof. Adoption of candidates by ethnic fora is perhaps useful as a publicity or campaign stunt for the candidates but ought not to be the basis for excluding any qualified candidate from contesting for an NBA office. Ultimately, being a professional body, election should be based on the qualification of the candidates and their merit for the office and not on adoption by some ethnic fora, more so, in an election by universal suffrage and with electronic voting.
In a nutshell, what is your manifesto? Why do you think Nigerian Lawyers should entrust you with their Association for the next two years? How realisable are these programmes within your two-year tenure, if you are voted in?
PU: This is a question that does not lend itself to a “nutshell” response. I’ll therefore focus here on the reform programs which I believe the NBA, at the national level, urgently needs if it must retain its relevance not only in the larger society but even to its members. The reforms that I propose will, at the minimum, achieve four significant goals, to wit, (a) enhance efficiency in the operations and running of the Association; (b) engender confidence and trust amongst its members (or, as some would say, win back the confidence and trust of its members); (c) transform the NBA into a sustainable institution; and (d) increase the moral equity of the NBA to enable it effectively influence required reforms in the justice subsector and remain a respected watchdog of the society. The breadth and scope of these reforms are quite wide and extensive, and I’ve been writing on them in My Reflections series which is circulated by e-mail to all lawyers. Are these reforms achievable in a 2-year span? I believe so. Take for instance, running a transparent administration in all respects, including but not limited to procurement and finance policies and management. Nothing stops us right from Day One, from producing Quarterly Financial Statements with qualitative information that would educate and inform the members on and of the financial health of the Association. Nothing also stops us from instituting and institutionalizing transparent internal control processes and mechanisms including procurement processes, from Day One which would plug possible leakages in the system and also, illustratively, ensure that members get their stamps and seals soon after payment rather than the current practice of late deliveries of these mandatory items to lawyers. The reforms would not be the only things I would do in the two-year timeframe of my Presidency, if voted in, but it would be a cornerstone program and would impact the NBA’s ability to reform the justice subsector and the larger Nigerian society. I must also mention that, from Day One, we’ll introduce and enforce diversity and inclusion of every group, gender and demographics including our colleagues living with disability, in all aspects of the NBA. I will also focus on programs that will enhance the income-earning capacity of our members e.g. protecting the legal market for Nigerian lawyers and regulating the practice of law in Nigeria by non-Nigerian lawyers in a manner that does not prejudice and shut out the Nigerian lawyers. These are issues that I’ve touched upon in My Reflections series which I request that you read and follow.
What edge would you say that you have, over the other candidates?
PU: First, I am independent and economically secure and can do the right thing for and by the Association without being hobbled by interests’ considerations, be they economic, political, social or ethnic or by godfatherism. Second, I speak of reforms including governance principles because I’m the candidate with the most experience in and exposure to these principles given my consistent membership of boards of companies from about 2000 to date (no less than 2 simultaneous board seats in major companies at any given time within that timeframe). Third, I’m the only one that has articulated my vision in clear, defined and auditable terms in my Reflections series which underlies my understanding of the issues and competence/ability to implement them. Fourth, I’m the only one who has led by example in terms of attending to the welfare of my younger colleagues in the Firm that I founded in 1985 and where I work up-to-date, with more than 40 lawyers currently working in the establishment. Fifth, I also have a record amongst the candidates of having mentored the highest number of successful legal practitioners/professionals, benchmarked from their Post-Call years.
What would be your first steps and actions, within six months of assumption of office, if you are elected?
PU: In terms of reforms, I’ve already answered this question (see my response to the question on my manifesto): I would commence the reform programs from Day One. The reform program, it must be remembered, is vast, diverse and huge, all on its own. I would also revive and institutionalize monthly Press briefings on the state of the Nigerian nation. In promoting the rule of law, I would take steps to (a) protect the independence of the judiciary and prevent misguided and unwarranted assault on the institution and judicial officers; and (b) stop the assault of lawyers while carrying out their professional duties by law enforcement agents. I will also start the process of securing the Nigerian legal market for the Nigerian lawyers and the regulation of the market-access in a manner that benefits the Nigerian practitioner and does not prejudice him.
The NBA used to be very vocal on national issues, and even in the military era, it was the voice of the masses and downtrodden. But, over the years, it has gradually lost its voice. How do you intend to bring back those noble ideals, for which the Bar was once noted for? There are so many issues that the NBA should have taken a strong stand on, but not much was heard from the Association, for instance, Government’s seeming lack of respect for the rule of law and disobedience of court orders, incessant killings by the Herdsmen, invasion of the Rivers State High Court by political hoodlums and so on.++++++++
PU: I agree entirely that the NBA’s voice must be heard at all times and its voice must be strong and loud on national issues, amongst others. I’ve already committed to have monthly press briefings on national issues as the President of the NBA and will also discuss these issues at the meetings of the National Executive Committee of the Association. Institutionalizing the monthly press briefing practice will greatly enhance the standing of the Bar particularly when that practice is coupled with the reforms that I propose, and which would greatly enhance our moral standing to speak on national issues.
What plans do you have, to improve the lot of the young Lawyers?
PU: There is no single solution to the welfare challenges of the young lawyers. I’ve proffered a range of solutions in my Reflections series and these include institutionalized mentorship program (which, from my standpoint, is even more beneficial to the young lawyers than immediate short-term pecuniary welfare programs), enhancing the income-earning capacity of lawyers generally in a manner that translates, amongst others, into better welfare packages for junior lawyers, encouraging senior lawyers to remunerate their junior colleagues well and enlightening them on the benefits that accrue therefrom having at all times led by example in that regard. More importantly, I’ll constantly take in suggestions and advice from all relevant stakeholders in that regard (senior lawyers as well as young lawyers), process such advice and suggestions and find ways to implement those ones that are workable. To summarize, I’ll promote a global but diversified approach in addressing the challenges of young lawyers which go beyond welfare issues and include capacity building and growth opportunities.
What role will you play in sanitising the legal profession?
PU: I will promote the review of the regulatory provisions and processes for the legal profession in a manner that meets the international best standards both in content and procedures. The review would also address misconducts that may not have been previously captured in our regulatory processes, but which may now be current and inimical to good standing. I would also work to strengthen and make robust the disciplinary processes for the legal profession sufficient to meet the challenges of our modern era.
We wish you the best of luck in the election.