Dr Paul O. Ebiala is the Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Calabar branch. In this interview with Legal Editor JOHN AUSTIN UNACHUKWU, he shares his views on the challenges that confronted him as the branch chairman, the appointment of a substantive Chief Judge for the State and sundry national issues.
You have been Chairman of the NBA Calabar branch for over one year now. What has the experience been like?
My experience in office can better be described as very exciting, challenging and stressful. Occupying the office of the Chairman of a Branch of the Nigerian Bar Association enables one to see beyond the ordinary. As Chairman, you have the singular opportunity to know your members through and through (their dispositions, their temperament, their attitude, tendencies, etc.); and you must develop the skills to attend to them all on equal basis, and with tact and diplomacy.
How did you manage the challenges of the appointment of a new Chief Judge for Cross River and the payment of magistrates that cropped up in your branch during your tenure?
I must confess, my administration experienced the greatest ‘turbulence’! As you rightly noted, the troubling issues of appointment of a substantive Chief Judge for the State Judiciary and the non-payment of Magistrates for upwards of 27 months coupled with some perceived distasteful and anti-people policies of government requiring the Branch’s comment/position almost threw me into a state of despair; however, fully aware that these issues were state-wide and required the concurrence of the three branches of the NBA in the state, we, as the branch in the state capital, made bold to state our positions unequivocally without prejudice to the views held by the other two branches. In fact, the issue of the appointment of a substantive Chief Judge particularly polarised the branch.
So, what were your roles in these crises?
My roles in these crises were sincere, dispassionate and unbiased (even though some may hold different views, depending on the side of the divide they belonged).
So far, what is your appraisal of your performance in office?
I am not very good at appraising myself. For me, appraisals are better done by onlookers rather than the actor himself. However, because you have asked, let me take you through a few achievements we recorded as an administration upon assuming office almost two years ago. We had a tradition in the branch whereby every Chairman that came on board ran the Association from his private office; we had a situation, therefore, where the branch office moved from private office to private office every two years. We put a stop to this three months into our administration by providing a well-furnished temporary secretariat with an administrative secretary within the Judiciary Headquarters courtesy of the then Chief Judge of the State, Justice Michael Edem (Rtd), who made a space available to us on request.
What is the effect of this on lawyers?
Now, we have a place where lawyers step in after court sittings to transact bar businesses. Secondly, the lull that existed before we took over the mantle of leadership has changed to a beehive of activities at the Branch; working through the instrumentality of standing and adhoc committees, the welfare of lawyers is well catered for, monthly meetings were held on schedule until the few months that the Covid-19 pandemic ravaged the world.
What is the position of things now in the branch after the COVID-19 Pandemic?
We have since returned to our regular meetings again. For the first time in a very long time in the Branch, two Bar Weeks were successfully held within our two year tenure. We have recorded a couple of firsts also, namely, we produced a Branch Diary and are producing a Branch Directory for the first time. Through the Elders Committee set up by the administration, three High Court halls were created and furnished to assist in the dispensation of justice to members of the public. Above all, we fostered and maintained a very cordial bar-bench relationship throughout our tenure in office. These are just a few of our achievements.
How cordial is your relationship with the other two branches in the state?
Undoubtedly, my relationship with the Ogoja and Ikom Branches of the Association was (and still is) very cordial. We enjoyed mutual respect from one another, and had regular discussions with a view to finding solutions to problems that bedevilled either the profession or the judicial arm of the state.
The current leadership of the NBA is striving hard to promote the rule of law across the country, how far did you do this during your tenure?
Evidently, we have promoted the rule of law in all our dealings. Whenever the government of the day or any arm of the security agencies deviated from the provisions of the Constitution of the FRN, 1999 or any written law for that matter, we raised the necessary alarm and prevailed on these outfits to follow the rule of law. Where we needed to approach the courts to compel compliance, we did not hesitate.
Recently, Governor Samuel Ortom was attacked where he went to his farm in his State, what is the security implication of this to the country?
The unfortunate attack on Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State clearly exposed the ‘nakedness’ of our country, Nigeria, with regard to security. If a sitting Governor, with all the security apparatuses at his disposal, could be threatened and humiliated to that extent, then we are living at the mercy of God. Government, whose primary responsibility it is to protect lives and property, has failed woefully in this role; this further supports the call for the establishment of state police.
So, what do you consider to be the solution to this?
This country, as things stand now, needs restructuring in all ramifications (not necessarily a break-up as some seem to be advocating). Our brothers and sisters in the two chambers of the National Assembly must be sincere and committed to their defined roles – to make laws for the good governance of the country. Only they can create state police; only they can institute true federalism; only they can shed the overbearing legislative powers of the federal government vis-à-vis the state powers. These and many more lie in the hands of our lawmakers.
What is your appraisal of the Olumide Akpata-led NBA Administration?
I must, first of all, commend the Olumide Akpata-led administration of the Nigerian Bar Association for the numerous laudable programmes it has introduced and implemented within a very short time. However, there is room for improvement. The Insurance Scheme for lawyers must be pursued vigorously; mentorship is another area the leadership should seriously look into and dedicate itself to; the issues of fake lawyers and commensurate remuneration for lawyers are still staring us in the face, the leadership should not relent in its efforts to change the narratives.
As a member of the NBA Section on Public Interest and Development Law (SPIDEL), what do we expect on the forth coming SPIDEL conference in Ibadan?
The SPIDEL conference billed for Ibadan in May this year promises to be a bang. As a member of the Central Planning Committee and the Finance Sub-Committee, I know that a lot has gone into the planning. The array of Speakers on parade is mind-blowing! The ambience and content are irresistible. I enjoin colleagues to register and take part in the conference, because, of course, every lawyer ought to make public interest a priority.