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Differentiating between sexually transmitted diseases — Opinion — The Guardian Nigeria News – Nigeria and world news

In a country and a time where honesty is not always considered a virtue, those who make it the currency of their daily lives are either idolized, endangered, or idolized to the point of endangerment.

On the streets of Nigeria, a person who speaks out on issues of public concern can be said to have “broken the table.” As a figure of speech, this usage is a double-edged compliment for resisting the national habit of sugarcoating reality in a bodyguard of avoidance.

However, tables can be useless without a chair or bench. If the table is scattered, the bench that goes with it can suddenly be of limited use. To paraphrase a Nigerian, lawyers and benches are like five and six. Judges and magistrates are referred to as members of the “bench.” In some countries, when lawyers need to discuss a matter in private in court with the judge, they “approach the bench.”

Even before that, when admission to practice is granted, their admission to practice is monitored by a Body of Benchers, which is made up of “lawyers of the highest distinction in the legal profession in Nigeria” as defined by the Legal Practitioners Act. The body’s self-proclaimed “vision” (sic) is to “be a beacon of legal professionalism and to set standards for legal education, qualifications and conduct worldwide.”

To achieve this, the Body of Benchers must at least themselves embody the highest standards of the profession. This could have been said of them many years ago.
Today, it seems, it is the Benchers who are at war with the Tables. In Nigeria’s Body of Benchers, the Tables are currently being scattered in a manner that reveals how the standards of the legal profession have become hostage to a capricious entitlement mentality of its leadership.

Amidst the daily drama that defines life in Nigeria, the spectacle unfolding in the Body of Benchers has been largely shielded from public attention. It is time to remedy this neglect.

There is another reason why this matter deserves attention. For several weeks, the current leadership of the Body of Benchers has been trying to intimidate journalists, reporters and platform providers, threatening them with unspoken consequences should they even dare to publish material about the current crisis in the body.

Those who had already published were given instructions to remove the material and threatened with dire consequences if they did not comply. This level of effort to suppress and attack the legitimate exercise of a lawful profession is both intolerable and unlawful. It may even be punishable. It would be uncharitable to think that this has anything to do with the fact that the current Chairman of the Body of Benchers is someone who left the police in still unclear circumstances before becoming a lawyer.

The Body of Benchers is a statutory body. Any status enjoyed by its members is conferred upon them by law. Therefore, the citizens have a duty to keep the body and its members in check.

Since the current crisis in the Body of Benchers ultimately has its roots in membership issues, it is important to look at the issue of membership in a little more detail. The body consists of two categories of members. Life Benchers enjoy lifelong membership. They can attain this status either by virtue of their office or by dutiful long-term membership after at least five years.

There are also ordinary members of the panel whose membership is not for life. Members include both lawyers and judges. For the sake of fairness, leadership rotates annually between judges and lawyers, so that if a judge chairs the panel one year, a lawyer will chair it the following year.

Membership of the Body of Benchers used to adhere very closely to the statutory requirement of restricting it to persons of “highest distinction”. Today, some aspects of the body have degenerated into influence. For example, they have extended automatic membership to senior federal legislators who are lawyers, such as the Chairmen of both Houses of the National Assembly; and also to some Chairmen of important committees.

In fact, a former governor and serving minister with a reputation for “generosity” is one of the best-known life benchers. At the instigation of the panel, success in the bloody art of electoral fraud in Nigeria is now considered the “highest honour” in the legal profession.

But we digress. Among the committees established within the body, a Nominating Committee examines candidates for membership, presumably to ensure that they meet the minimum requirements of the law. This committee is headed by a chairperson whose term of office is three years.

In the last week of March 2024, Augustine Alegeh, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and one of the most distinguished Presidents of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in the last three decades, officially accepted the nomination to head the Appointments Committee.

The following week, the body elected a new chairman, whose first act was to issue a decree dissolving the existing committees and recreating them. The problem is that, according to its own rules of procedure, the power to form committees lies not with the chairman, but with the entire body of Benchers. For the avoidance of doubt, the body is constituted for this purpose by a quorum of at least 50 of its members. Many members of the body rightly saw this claim to unilateral power by the current chairman as a descent into a domination-free autocracy. The new chairman’s decision to ignore their protests only heightened this fear.

The case is now before the courts, as Mr. Alegeh has filed suit against the Chairman and the General Assembly as defendants. The actual issue before the courts is a major one. According to a letter from a General Assembly member, “The Chairman took exception to the Appointments Committee because his wife’s name was on the list, which we did not approve.”

The member feared that the Chairman’s claim to non-existent powers to dissolve and reconstitute the Appointments Committee “raised suspicions” that he had merely wanted to ensure that his wife was appointed as a bencher during his term of office.

In this case, it is alleged that the Chairman of the Body of Benchers attempted to manipulate the governance of the Body in general and the composition of the Appointments Committee in particular in order to secure for his wife, by any means necessary, the requisite membership of the Body. This may make him a truly loving husband, but the Body is no place for marital relations. Opposition within the Body is directed not only against its Chairman’s blatant breach of the rules, but even more fiercely against the claim that “highest distinction” in the legal profession can be achieved through pillow talk or marital intimacy between husband and wife.

The logical fear must be that if the qualification for membership in the organization can be transferred in this way, then surely the eligibility for membership would also become a sexually transmitted disease (STD).

The question of the extent to which legal services in Nigeria can be considered a sexually transmitted disease is one that the Supreme Court will ultimately have to address in the current proceedings concerning the actions of the current Chairman of the Body of Benchers.

This is an important issue which, in the interest of the profession, deserves the utmost attention of all persons dealing with the legal institutions in Nigeria.
Odinkalu, an attorney and teacher, can be reached at [email protected].