The Governor of Kaduna State, Mr. Nasir El-Rufai, was expected to be one of the guest speakers at the 60th annual conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) that ended at the weekend. Rufai is not in any way shy of controversy. He either courts controversy or controversy corners him. At this moment when his state, or part of it, is in turmoil, he has been in the eye of a tornado. When the NBA invited him as one of its guest speakers many people, lawyers and non-lawyers alike, thought that the opportunity had come for them to hear from the Governor who, customarily, speaks with harsh candour. We expected to feel the sting and hear the clash of battle between the NBA and its invited guest speaker. But that didn’t happen because a lawyer, Mr. Usani Odum, had started a mild protest that grew into a revolt. His petition against the invitation of Rufai got the endorsement of about 3,000 lawyers.
The request to disinvite Rufai was addressed to the chairman of the NBA Technical Committee on Conference Planning, Professor Koyinsola Ajayi. The lawyers listed 10 allegations against Rufai and his son, Bello, who is a Special Adviser to the senator for Kaduna Central Senatorial district, Senator Uba Sani. The complainant-lawyers said that Kaduna State had a “record of 483 persons killed between January and June 2000, which is higher than the reported deaths in the Boko Haram territories of Borno, which is 290, Adamawa, 37, and Yobe, 35. They also mentioned the alleged disrespect of Governor Rufai for court orders and the rule of law.
In summary, he was disinvited for two reasons (a) insecurity and (b) alleged rule of law violations. The then outgoing president of the NBA, Mr. Paul Usoro, a Senior Advocate, has explained, in response to ethno-religious accusations in the decision, that the National Executive Committee (NEC) of NBA’s “decision had no ethnic or religious colouration or connotation howsoever and whatsoever. In discussing the issue at NEC, nobody talked about religion or ethnicity. As I recall, there were no more than three advocates for retaining the invitation of the NBA to the Governor (not including me) and two of these three gentlemen are from the South of Nigeria. Conversely, some of those who spoke against his attendance share the same faith with Mallam Nasir El-Rufai and some others come from the northern part of Nigeria.”
It is clear that the NBA was on the horns of a dilemma. Three thousand of its members wanted the invited guest stopped. If it did not act as they wished, these people would have revolted. Then the NBA acted as the 3,000 wished and others have revolted. This was a Catch 22 situation, heads you lose, tails you lose. The NBA was obviously between the rock and the hard place. But it would have been better for the association to err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion. That would have shown that it is consistent, after all, a few years ago, the NBA invited President Muhammadu Buhari to address its forum. Buhari had not solved Nigeria’s security problems then and still hasn’t even now.
He did not obey the court’s several orders, including ECOWAS Court orders, on Mr. Sambo Dasuki and Mr. Zakzaky. Event hough people thought it was inappropriate to invite Buhari to come and lecture the NBA on the rule of law, which he treated with disdain, I thought it was a wise decision to invite him for three reasons: one, it was an opportunity to hear his thoughts on the subject of rule of law and why his government finds it difficult to obey court orders. He made his views known and the NBA and the public, including this columnist, also made their reservations to his position crystal clear.
The second reason I think it is better to invite both saints and sinners is that, by the way Nigeria is arranged in ethno-religious terms, there will never be an agreement or who and who not to invite for such gatherings. There will always be disputes because one man’s saint is another man’s sinner. It is, therefore, better to go for inclusiveness so as to preserve the unity of the NBA.
The third reason is that the NBA, being one of the custodians of people’s rights, should be in the vanguard for the expansion, rather than the contraction, of the space for free speech. That space is being rapidly constricted by a constellation of censors who want free speech punished as hate speech and who shoot law-abiding, peaceful placard carriers and pull into detention for long periods people who say one or two unkind words about the government, federal, state or local. If an enlightened group like the NBA queues behind those censorship czars, then our democracy is in serious trouble.
I share the view of the former Emir of Kano, Mr. Muhammadu Sanusi, that “by disinviting Rufai, the association has lost an opportunity to interrogate the governor and collectively rub minds to identify areas that need to be addressed for the purpose of governance.”
I also think Mr. Yusuf Ali, a respected Senior Advocate, was on point when he said: “If you say somebody has done something wrong, that would have been a good platform to take him up on those allegations or whatever reasons they may have. As the foremost body of lawyers in Nigeria, we must develop a system to be able to accommodate all shades of opinions, even if they are not popular. We must run away from the culture of vociferous minority and intolerance.”
While the decision to bar Rufai from the Bar conference may have been in intuitive accord with the temporary mood of the moment, it does damage to the credibility of the NBA for its inexplicable and indefensible selectivity. That selectivity amounts to hubris. The problems of Nigeria are too grave and complicated for the conversation that can lead to their resolution to be limited only to those who agree with us or who we agree with. We must expand the circumference of the conversation to include those we disagree with and those who disagree with us.
Nigeria is clearly out of joint now. To solve its problems, we need a big-tent approach because there is safety in numbers. The country is too deeply divided now, so we do not need to do things that are capable of bringing more divisions. Now the lawyers who are angry with the decision to bar Rufai from the NBA dialogue have formed an association they call the New Nigerian Bar Association (NNBA). Two lawyers, Mr. Nuhu Ibrahin and Mr. Abdulbasit Suleiman, said in Kaduna a few days ago that the withdrawal of the invitation to Rufai was based on religion and ethnicity. I don’t believe the decision had anything to do with ethnicity or religion. It may have been based simply on the possible desire to please the 3,000 petitioners whose views accord with the NBA’s objective of protecting the rule of law. Still, it was a mistake not to let Rufai have his day at the forum so that he could be subjected to some close scrutiny. After all, lawyers are said to be priests in the temple of justice whose duty is to contribute to the delivery of justice through fair hearing. The NBA violated its legal maxim, audi alteram partem, meaning, hear the other side. By now, NBA should have realised that its platform is a much cherished bully pulpit, which it should not turn into a pantomime dragon by default.
The treatment it gave to Rufai was some kind of Halifax Gibbet Law, a harsh and summary justice without hearing the other side. It should learn some lessons from its past activities. In 2008, the NBA sent an invitation to Professor Maurice Iwu, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) chairman who conducted the flawed election of 2007, to attend its conference. Then, some lawyers protested and insisted that the invitation be withdrawn. It was withdrawn. There can never be a 100 per cent reason for inviting anyone to a conference or indeed for barring anyone from a conference. To be on the safe side, the NBA should maintain the position that there will be no withdrawal of invitation once issued, to avoid the hurly-burly of partisan politics. No invitation will ever satisfy lawyers on all sides of the bar. To say that Rufai has no moral right to speak at the conference is to expose the NBA to needless controversy and to the split that is threatening it now.
If you are looking for public officers with moral authority to speak on issues, where will you manufacture them from? If we had plenty of them, Nigeria would not be in the disjointed shape in which it is today. Rufai could have been queried by the lawyers on his alleged disrespect for the rule of law and it would have been right to do so. As for the insecurity in Kaduna State, it is illogical to hold the governor responsible.
Security is provided in Nigeria by the police and the armed forces. These are all controlled by the Federal Government, not by state governors. We must be willing to accept that governors are chief security officers of their states in name only, no power, no authority, pure and simple. For insecurity infractions we should hold the Federal Government and President Buhari solely and wholly responsible. Isn’t the lack of authority over the security of their states the reason state governors are always trooping to Buhari for help, and are now forming all kinds of security groups – Amotekun, Forest Guards, etc?
The NBA should join the bandwagon for the creation of state police approved by the 2014 National Conference and also approved by the APC committee headed by Rufai.
The current attempt by the Federal Government to establish community policing is the equivalent of moving in circles. No centrally controlled policing arrangement can solve the multifarious security problems of this heterogeneous society. To blame Rufai for the intractable problems in Southern Kaduna is to divert attention from the President who controls the police and the armed forces. Is Rufai expected to secure Kaduna with his Koran or his bare hands? Let logic prevail. No state governor can police his state efficiently when the operational decisions are not taken by him but by someone else far away from the theatre of action.
As for those who are threatening to form a new NBA, my advice is: don’t split your association. There is enormous strength in numbers. If the NBA was wrong in its decision on Rufai, you do not need to dismantle your respected association with your own wrong-doing too. Two wrongs will not make a right. Go back to the big tent of the NBA and work within it to reform the association.