It is no longer news that the national body of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has deplatformed Mallam Nasir Ahmad El Rufai, the Executive Governor of Kaduna State, from speaking in its first ever virtual Annual Conference.
What is of concern now is the sort of precedent NBA has set for posterity.
As it is customary with the NBA Annual Conference, speakers are invited from different endeavours and disciplines to speak on burning and topical national issues. Mallam El Rufai was invited as one of the speakers; and he respectfully accepted.
In very suspicious circumstances, a minority petition was generated by few members of the NBA urging the national leadership to deplatform Mallam El Rufai from speaking at the Conference. It was a minority petition because it was not signed or endorsed by even one-quarter of the over 16,000 members that had registered to participate at the Conference at the time the petition was written.
Specifically, the petition, written by a group known as Open Bar Initiative, ‘indicted’ Mallam El Rufai of disrespect for rule of law and court orders, and poor handling of the security situation in the State, especially in Southern Kaduna.
I have had the previlege of reading the petition; and I make bold to say that the ‘indictments’ contained therein are weighty.
Why NBA acted on a weighty one-sided minority narrative of the petitioner without hearing from the side of Mallam El Rufai is disturbing. The petition is dated 19th August, 2020 and the pre-AGM, where the decision to deplatform him was taken, took place the next day (20/08/2020). Why the hurry in taking that decision based on a one-sided minority petition within a period of 24 hours?
NBA acted rashly in deplatforming Mallam El Rufai. Throughout the tenure of the present NBA leadership, it never deemed it fit to visit Kaduna on a fact-finding mission to ascertain the true situation of things on ground to enable it make an informed decision. It is on record that the NBA leadership of Abubakar Mahmoud, SAN visited Kaduna on such mission. Why would this leadership act on a one-sided minority petition without some sort of verification or cross-checking?
Even if the leadership of NBA was mindful of deplatforming Mallam El Rufai without hearing him, it should have at least conducted an online referendum to feel the pulse of the majority of its members before arriving at the decision. This would have been better than relying on a petition written by a minority section of its members.
The decision to deplatform Mallam El Rufai has raised a lot of controversial issues of concern that may haunt the NBA for a long time, if not swiftly addressed.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo and Governor Nyemson Wike of Rivers State who are also billed to speak at the Conference, were ‘guilty’ of the same ‘indictments’ leveled against Mallam El Rufai. The failure to deplatform them has raised religious, regional and political questions.
Substantial number of the members of the NBA that are Muslims and from the North have the impression that Obasanjo and Wike were not deplatformed because they are Southern Christians, while Mallam El Rufai was deplatformed because he is a Northern Muslim.
Even the letters that were written by the NBA President to the Director-General of the Governor’s Forum which contained an express apology to Mallam El Rufai, and the one to Muslim Lawyers Association of Nigeria (MULAN) denouncing religious colouration and nominating the Governor of Borno State as replacement, have not changed this impression and perception of the Muslim members. This is why protests of withdrawal from the Conference by NBA branches from the North, especially the Muslim dominated part, are increasing since that unpopular decision.
The decision is also seen to raise a political question. Some see it from the angle that another reason why Mallam El Rufai was deplatformed was because he is a member of APC; and that Obasanjo and Wike are allowed to speak at the Conference because while Obasanjo is sympathetic to PDP, Wike is member. This is another reason why the attempt to bring in Governor Zulum as replacement is seen as a bad damage control measure.
Lawyers are known professionally to be discerning and engaging. Their intelligence and eloquence are best showcased in their art of advocacy in and outside the court room. One would have thought that the best way to confront Mallam El Rufai on the ‘indictments’ contained in petition is the Conference platform. The Conference would have enabled the petitioners to face him frontally. Unfortunately, they have missed that opportunity in a very lazy manner.
The truth is, the NBA has shot itself in the foot by setting a bad precedent.
This decision has shown that the leadership is unrealible, unserious and cannot stand by its own decision: it speaks with double mouth. It also shows that minority protests can be given prominence over majority will. It has opened a vista and floodgate for unnecessary, baseless and flimsy protests and petitions in the future against any guest speaker that some few members may have personal issues with. It has deeply divided the NBA along the dangerous lines of partisan politics, religion and region. The Association has lost its unity and cohesion.
If the national leadership of NBA knew it took the right decision by deplatforming Mallam El Rufai, why would its President be overworking himself with letters of apology everywhere trying to explain why the decision was taken. This would have been needless and unnecessary if they knew the did the right thing.
Guest speakers that will be invited in the future may be uncomfortable in accepting the invite for fear of being exposed to unnecessary protests and petitions from members.
The incoming leadership has to do a lot more to bridge these dangerous gaps so as to foster unity and bring back NBA as a united and cohesive bloc.
Cavaet!: This piece is written in my capacity as a concerned member of NBA.