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Trouble in Nigeria’s House of Law deepens as Benchers bicker, in court

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The trouble in Nigeria’s House of Law, and more specifically the Body of Benchers (BoB) is deepening and taking twists and turns as major dramatis personnae are getting drawn in. As they get drawn into the battle over Committees’ Chairs, denials are becoming the order of the day.

The BoB chair, Solomon Awomolo, SAN, has queried the body’s secretary while the former chair, Justice Mary Odili, has denied appointing Augustine Alegeh (SAN) a Committee Chair.

Alegeh, SAN; Awomolo, SAN, Justice Odili, JSC.

The Secretary is insisting Odili made the appointment and did more, while Awomolo told a Federal High Court that appointments as BoB Committee Chair is a privilege not a right.

In a published report in Law and Society magazine, the raging controversy between the Chair of Nigeria’s Body of Benchers (BoB) Asiwaju A.S. Awomolo, SAN and a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Augustine Alegeh, SAN, is said to have taken a new dimension with retired Supreme Court Justice, Odili, the immediate past Chair of BoB denying ever appointing Alegeh as Chairman, Appointment Committee.

Following her denial, Chief Awomolo issued a 3 June 2024 query to the Secretary of the BoB, Mr. Daniel Tela. The letter reads: “Find herewith  Ietter dated 3rd June  2024 from the Immediate  past chairman,  Hon. Justice  Mary Ukaego  Peter-Odlll,  ]SC (Rtd) on  the above matter.

“May I request for your response.

“You  may   forward to  me the memo approved by the  former chairman where he instructed you I  write the letter of appointment, please. May  I  request  for  your response  by Tuesday  the  4  day ,of  June 2024, please…”

Part of Justice Odili’s letter reads: “It is with great  shock to read the contents of the letter which in effect  means that I, as outgoing chairman  of the Body of Benchers, authorilzed the said appointment. I  could not have embarked on such an appointment of Augustine Alegeh SAN as Chairman of Appointment Committee for the following reasons:

1. I  had made it known to the administration that I had no interest in reconfiguring the Appointment  Committee during my tenure.

2. I could not have embarked on such a process on the day I chaired the last meeting of my tenure, which meant that the appointment would not be presented to the House for approval before the letter to the candidate.

3. I would not have entered into the restructuring of the Appointments Committee without reference to the Vice Chairman with whom I worked as a team…

In his defence however, Tela insisted that all the instructions he received from the five  different  Chairmen he had served as Secretary of the Body were mostly oral. Asserting that it was the secretariat which always raised letters based on the verbal, SMS or WhatsApp instructions of the Chairmen,. On that of Justice Odili appointing Alegeh Chair of Appointments Committee, Tela said: “It is rare to see a written  instruction.”

Below is a part of Tela’s story:

“Regarding the appointment   of Committee  members, I  wish   to  clarify  that  the Secretariat acts only on the directives  of the Chairman issued  orally or in writing. I say this  on my honour. The Secretariat  sometimes  makes suggestions to the Chairman who is the final authority. In the instant  case, I suggested to the  then Chairman,  Hon. Justice   Mary  U. Peter-Odili,  CFR, JSC  (Rtd),  DSSRS,  that the Chairman of the Benchers  Appointment  Committee should come from the Bar, given that the previous Chairman had served two consecutive terms from  the Bench. Mr.  Augustine Alegeh, SAN, being  a Life Bencher and past President  of the Nigerian Bar Association  was subsequently appointed as Chairman, based  on the verbal  approval of the Chairman.

“May I state for the record that the above appointment is not the first to be done based on verbal communication or via SMS. There are other  Chairmen and members  of Committee whose
appointments were made on the basis of such verbal communication.  That is why the steps taken on the appointment of Mr. Alegeh, SAN and other members of the Committee was not strange.

“Prior  to this, I verbally drew  the attention  of the immediate past Chairman to  the  expiration of the tenure of the Chairman, Benchers   Appointment Committee,  Hon. Justice  Umaru  Abdullahi, CON and some of the members wherein it was agreed that they be notified of the expiration of their tenure, some having served beyond  the  stipulated tenure. Letters  were issued notifying  the following  of the expiration of their  tenure  as members of the Benchers Appointment  Committee having  been appointed  on  the  8th  of February,  2018: Hon. Justice  Umaru Abdullahi, CON; Chief  Albert Akpomudje, SAN;  lchie L.M.E. Ezeofor, Hon. Justice  Oyebola  Ojo.  This means their  tenure  ought to have expired  on the 5th  of February,  2024 having served two (2) consecutive  terms.

“I further suggested to the Chairman the need to replace the Benchers whose tenure have expired. I specifically  suggested that the  nominees to serve on the Committee  should  be Life Benchers in view of the peculiar function  of the Committee.

“Following   the  above  suggestion, the  Chairman requested for the  list  of members  of the Body of Benchers  which  I forwarded through her PA via WhatsApp. The Chairman, through  her  PA nominated  Hon.  Justice   K.  B. Akaahs, OFR,  Hon. Justice P.A. Galumje, Hon. Justice A. N. Nwankwo  and Mr. D. D. Dodo, OFR, SAN. The  list was sent  to me via WhatsApp.

“I drew the attention of the Chairman through her PA on WhatsApp that Mr. Dodo, SAN was already  a member of two (2) Standing Committees of the Body, and based  on the Body of Benchers Regulations (as amended), no Bencher shall serve on more  than  two (2) Standing Committees of the Body which the PA responded that she will get  back  to me. Subsequently,  the  PA sent me the name of Hon. Justice Uzo Anyanwu as replacement for Mr. Dodo, SAN.

“It is for the foregoing  reason that  Hon. Justice  P. A. Galumje attended  the meeting  of the  Benchers Appointment Committee held on 22nd May, 2024 and today he remains  a member  of the Committee.

“I wish to emphasize that I have always acted in good faith and in accordance with the directives of the Chairman. I have never unilaterally appointed  any Bencher to serve in any Committee, and I cannot do so. My loyalty to the Body and its leadership remains unwavering, even in the face of  differing opinions  or challenges.

“Sir, you may recall that by a letter dated 16th April, 2024, I forwarded the list of members of the Committees of the Body indicating the date of appointment of each Committee member  as requested. The names of the aforementioned Benchers were included on the list, particularly at page 5. (Copy attached for ease of reference). Sir, if l was not directed, how could I have included their names on the list of the Benchers Appointment Committee which I forwarded?

“Sir,  you may further recall my observations to you on the 26th of April, 2024 regarding the reconstitution  of the Committees of the Body where  I expressed some concerns  and reservations and also mentioned  the  appointment of  the Chairman of the Benchers Appointment Committee.

“However, I still followed your directives being the Chairman and knowing you have the final say and issued appointment letter to Prof. Yusuf  0.  Ali,  SAN, as Chairman of the Benchers Appointment Committee as well as other Benchers appointed into various Committees  as reconstituted. God forbid that a day will come when the Secretariat will refuse to carry out the directives of the Chairman of the Body on account of the manner in which the directives was issued.

“I must state that most instructions given to the Secretariat to act are done orally. It is rare to see a written  instruction. As a matter of fact, it is the Secretariat  that usually raises a Memo for the Chairman’s approval not the other way round. There are several instances  where such memos have been raised or letters written to a Chairman for his information  and further  directives  or necessary action and the response comes either orally or via SMS or WhatsApp messages. Out of respect and in line with the usual practice, the Secretariat  carries out the directives. With the recent development, should  the Secretariat only act upon written  directives given to it for the records? To my mind, the answer should be yes. This way, the records will speak for itself.

“I have received oral directives from various Chairmen on several occasions which were duly carried  out. This include  the issuance  of appointment letters to Hon. Justice Ejembi Eko and Hon. Justice  Sidi Bage as members  of the Body of Benchers  in October, 2023 under the chairmanship  of the immediate past Chairman, the circulation  of the list of reconstituted Committees to all members on 29th April, 2024, the directive that appointment  should be for a period of two (2) years and issuance of letters to Benchers who objected  to their removal from Committees informing
them  of  their continued membership of the particular Committee.  I have also received  oral directives regarding changes to meeting dates,  Call to Bar ceremonies and Traditional Law Dinners.

“Permit me to state for the record that after the incidence that took place on the 22nd of May, 2024 during the meeting of the Benchers Appointment Committee  wherein both Prof. Yusuf 0.  Ali, SAN and Mr. Augustine  Alegeh, CON, SAN claimed to be the rightful chairman of the Committee, I thought it wise to mention to the immediate past Chairman about the embarrassing situation for two (2) reasons; first, because the list of nominees for appointment as Benchers which My Lord the then Chairman recommended for appointment was brought up in  the course of the meeting and adjourned  for consideration  on the 26th of June,  2024.

“Secondly, to draw My Lord’s  attention to the fact that Mr. Alegeh, SAN who was appointed during her tenure and Prof. Ali, SAN appointed under the leadership of the current  Chairman  were laying claim to the position  of Chairman of the Committee and expressed my worries about the effect of such incident on the image of the Body. I made this call on the 23rd of May,  2024. In response,  My Lord thanked me for the information and also told me not to allow anything disturb me, stating that they will sort themselves out.

“To my mind, after the report of the incident, the question as to how Mr. Alegeh, SAN and Prof. Ali, SAN were both appointed to chair the Committee would have risen. But none. On the contrary I was told not to allow anything disturb me and that they would sort themselves out.

“I was shocked that by a letter dated 3rd June, 2024 I was issued a query alongside the letter written by the immediate past Chairman dated the same 3rd June, 2024 denying knowledge of the appointment of Mr. Alegeh, SAN. I placed a call to My Lord to find out if the letter actually emanated  from her and I was surprised to receive a response to the effect that she tried reaching out to me earlier but I was not picking and she had to put together the letter and does not want anything to do with the issue of the Appointment Committee as it was not her position. I reminded my Lord of our discussion on the  issue and the subsequent correspondence but my Lord maintained her position. The conversion ended with a plea that I should ‘find a way to help Awomolo’.

“I said I have been doing so, but with the content of the letter, I kept wondering how? At the detriment of my integrity, reputation and career, because the content of the letter is damaging to my person. I have been pondering on the import of the statement. I have never and will never work against the interest of any Chairman nor betray the trust reposed on me.

“I have been inundated with calls on the fact that that the immediate past Chairman did not authorized nor approved the appointment and that I have been queried. I am still wondering how the letter got to the public space.

“May I further state that since my assumption of office, this is the first  time I am receiving a query from any Chairman of the Body regarding actions  I took in good faith and based on approval given by the Chairman.

“I  am concerned about the negative impact of recent events on the Body’s image and integrity, it has been a major distraction for me in the smooth operation of the Secretariat. I pray that these events wiII soon come to an end, and I remain committed to advising and guiding the Chairman with honesty and integrity.

“I have  always ensured that  the  image  of the  Body  and that of the  leadership is always  protected by not making certain comments andactions public even when it sometimes portrays me and the Secretariat in bad light. My loyalty to the Body and its leadership at all levels  remains intact.

“In my  humble view, what is most important at this stage is finding a solution rather than blame game. It is never too late to make things right  for the  good  of the Body.

In the meantime, Chief Awomolo has asked the Federal High Court in Lagos to dismiss the suit filed by Alegeh challenging his removal as as Chair, Appointment Committee on the basis that he has no legal right over the affairs of the BoB and that appointments are not rights but privileges.

Recall that weeks ago, a Federal High Court in Lagos made an interim order restraining the Chairman, Body of Benchers (BoB) Asiwaju A.S. Awomolo, SAN from removing Mr. Augustine Alegheh , SAN, a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) or interferring with his duties as Chairman of the Body of Benchers appointment Committee.

The Court which held that nothing must be done to alter this appointment during his tenure from 28 March 2024 to 27 March 2027 pending the determination of the motion on notice for interlocutory injunction however refrained from the prayer that Awomolo be restrained from acting as “Chairman of the Body of Benchers pending the hearing and determination of the Motion on Notice for Interlocutory injunction.”

Listed as defendants in the suit are: Chief Adeboyega Solomon Awomolo, SAN, 1st Defendant and Body of Benchers, 2nd Defendant.

Alegeh who in the Origination Summons asked the court to determine “Whether having regards to the Body of Benchers Regulations, 2024, the 1st Defendant can unilaterally and in breach of the Regulations, alter and rename the Standing Committees of the 2nd Defendant listed and set out in Regulation I I (3) of the Body of Benchers Regulations 2024′, also made the following allegations:

“The 1st Defendant had stated severally that he is not bound by the Regulations of the 2nd Defendant and will neither respect and/or implement the aforesaid Regulations as the Chairman of the Body of
Benchers;

“The 1st Defendant has been accused of forgery, criminal misrepresentation, impersonation and fraud by the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria [BOSAN], which said allegations have ridiculed, brought dishonor, disrepute and odium to the revered Office of Chairman of the Body of Benchers and may likely lead to disciplinary measures against the 1st Defendant….

” On 29th April, 2024, an email was forwarded to all Benchers by the 2nd Defendant’s Secretary on the instructions of the 1st Defendant notifying all Benchers of the 1st Defendant’s unilateral and unlawful reconstitution of the membership of the 2nd Defendant’s Standing Committees and the shortening and/or reduction of the tenure of office of the Committee Members from three (3) years to two (2) years
in flagrant breach and violation of the Benchers Regulation. A copy of the aforesaid email dated 29th April, 2024 issued on the instructions of the 1st Defendant is pleaded and herewith exhibited as EXHIBIT P3.

“In the aforesaid email under reference, the 1st Defendant unilaterally and maliciously purported to remove me as Chairman of the Appointment Committee of the 2nd Defendant before the expiration of the term of three [3] years that I was appointed to serve.

”I wrote to the Secretary of the 2nd Defendant via email, drawing his attention to the obvious illegality of the 1st Defendant’s actions and the apparent breach of the Benchers Regulations. A copy of my Letter dated 2nd May, 2024 is pleaded and herewith attached as EXHIBIT P4.

” When I did not receive any response from the 2nd Defendant’s Secretary regarding my email, I forwarded the aforesaid email directly to the 1st Defendant for his attention and immediate action.

“When I still did not receive any response from the 1st Defendant to my email, on I 0th day of May, 2024, I sent a copy of my letter in reply to all the Benchers copied in the 2nd Defendant’s email of 29th April, 2024.

“Following my email of I 0th May, 2024, the 1st Defendant sent a private response to me via email stating that he just read my email and was unaware of my appointment as Chairman of the Appointment Committee of the 2nd Defendant, but rather sought my understanding and acceptance of his unilateral, unlawful and illegal decision on the matter. A copy of the 1st Defendant’s email to me dated I 0th May,
2024 is pleaded and herewith attached as EXHIBIT PS.

“The 1st Defendant, in his aforesaid email response to me, also stated that he had unilaterally and unlawfully created an ‘Executive Committee for the Body of Benchers’ which he claimed had approved all the projects and programs of his administration.

“That I replied the 1st Defendant’s email drawing his attention to his apparent breach of the Benchers Regulations, with particular emphasis on the creation of an ‘Executive Committee’ for the Body outside the contemplation of the Benchers Regulation. A copy of my email to the 1st Defendant dated I 3th May, 2024 is pleaded and herewith exhibited as EXHIBIT P6.

“On Wednesday I 5th May, 2024, the 1st Defendant sent me a text message inviting me for a meeting to discuss the matter. I responded via WhatsApp and we agreed to meet at his office at 10am on Thursday, 16th May, 2024. I visited the 1st Defendant’s Office for the meeting, in the company of my Learned Brother Silk and Life Bencher, Joe Agi SAN and left at about I I am after the 1st Defendant failed to
turn up for the meeting he fixed in his own office. The 1st Defendant was well aware that I moved my flight from 8.40 am to I pm to enable me meet with him to resolve the matter.

“Surprisingly, shortly after I left the 1st Defendant’s Office, I received a call from the 1st Defendant who said that he was now in his Office and that he would discuss the matter with me over the phone.

“That Immediately the 1st Defendant called me I activated my speakerphone so that Joe Agi, SAN who was with me in the same vehicle would be fully aware of all our discussions. The 1st Defendant informed me over the phone to the hearing of Joe Agi, SAN as follows:

a) That Honourable Justice Mary Odili DSC Rtd.] did not inform him that I had been appointed the Chairman of the 2nd Defendant’s Appointment Committee and consequently my appointment was not binding on him.

b) That as Vice Chairman to Honourable Justice Mary Odili DSC Rtd.], he was informed of all appointments made by the latter. Hence, my appointment made during the tenure of Honourable Justice Mary Odili DSC Rtd.] without his knowledge, was null and void as he was the center of power at the material time.

c) That he had personally interviewed all the people who he appointed as Chairmen of the various Committees and selected them on the basis of their commitment to help him achieve his projects and programs during his one [I] year tenure and had assigned them to the Committees they had
indicated an interest in.

d) That he is not bound by the Benchers Regulations and that it is his decisions as Chairman that is important, not the Benchers Regulations.

e) That in his thirty [32] years as a member of the 2nd Defendant, no member of the 2nd Defendant had challenged any decision or action of a Chairman of the 2nd Defendant and I should do whatever I wanted but his decision cannot be challenged.

“That my suggestion to the 1st Defendant that he is bound by the Benchers Regulations and the rule of law infuriated the 1st Defendant and he got very angry on the phone.

“GENESIS OF 15t DEFENDANT’S MALICE TOWARDS THE PLAINTIFF

“That I met the 1st Defendant in the course of conducting campaigns for election as President of the Nigerian Bar Association.

“That I told the 1st Defendant that I was a son of a Policeman who served the Force meritoriously for 35 years and retired in 1985.

“That the 1st Defendant told me that he was a former Policeman but did not tell me how long he served in the Police Force and/or the circumstances that led to his exit from the Police Force.

“That when I became the President of the NBA in 2014, the 1st Defendant approached me and requested me to recognize him as a Past President of the NBA on the basis of his claim that during the period of interregnum of the Bar in 1991, he was the Chairman of the Committee of Chairmen that presided over the affairs of the Bar during the period of Interregnum.

“I informed the 1st Defendant that I would consult with Past Presidents and Bar Leaders over the issue and that if his claim was correct, I would present the issue before the NBA National Executive Committee [NEC] for its decision on the matter.

” Upon consultation with Past Presidents and Bar Leaders, I discovered that the 1st Defendant was not a Chairman of any branch of the NBA at the time. That the Bar could not have had a Past President during the period of Interregnum occasioned by a dispute over elections.

“I informed the 1st Defendant of the result of my findings and he was clearly displeased with the outcome as he told me it his life ambition to be recognized as a Past President of the NBA

“In the heat of campaigns for the NBA Presidency in 2020, I was yet again approached by the 1st Defendant who informed me that he would deliver a political masterstroke which will guarantee Olumide Akpata’s victory at the Polls.

“That I dismissed his statement at the material time as I considered him to be an elder of the “Egbe Amofin” group of the NBA which had already endorsed Dele Adesina, SAN as their preferred candidate in the elections.

“That I told the 1st Defendant of Dele Adesina SAN’s endorsement by Egbe Amofin but he dismissed it as he stated that he was not in support of Dele Adesina, SAN’s candidacy as Dele Adesina, SAN was Chief Wole Olanipekun SAN’s stooge and would be unable to perform creditably in Office.

“That a few weeks to the conduct of the NBA elections, the 1st Defendant authored a letter in which he claimed that the Presidency of the NBA be ceded and reserved exclusively for Senior Advocates of Nigeria. A copy of the 1st Defendant’s aforesaid letter is pleaded and herewith exhibited as EXHIBIT P7.

“That following Olumide Akpata’s emergence as the President of the NBA, the 1st Defendant once again approached me to convince Olumide Akpata to recognize him as a Past President of the NBA He stated that his letter according to him, was the master stroke that gave Olumide Akpata victory at the Polls and that I should put pressure on Olumide Akpata to grant his request. He stated that he believed Olu Akpata would accede to my request as he was very close to me.

“That I immediately told the 1st Defendant that I could not raise such a request with Mr. Olu Akpata for the same reasons I declined to accede to his request during my tenure of office as NBA President between 2014 and 2016. The 1st Defendant was visibly displeased and unhappy with my position and stated that I had betrayed him a second time.

“I firmly believe that the above-mentioned facts collectively constitute the basis for the malice and bad faith being exhibited by the 1st Defendant against me and which has led to 1st Defendant’s unlawful and illegal move to remove me as Chairman of the 2nd Defendant’s Appointment Committee…”

● Main report by Law and Society Magazine 

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