El-Rufai’s Disinvitation to NBA AGM: Flogging a Dead Horse, By Mike Ozekhome

For the better part of this and the previous week, Nigeria’s social media space has been agog with arguments for and against the invitation of Kaduna State Governor, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai to speak at the 60th Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). Following the protestations against Mallam el-Rufai’s invitation, the NBA National Executive Committee (NEC) heeded to the popular voice of majority of NEC members by withdrawing the invitation that was earlier extended to Nasir.

However, the week was not without some more “El-Rufai drama” as some Muslim interest groups from the North decried the disinvitation and further ascribed ethnic and religious undertones to the NBA NEC’s decision.

Similarly, some branches of the NBA, notably the Bauchi and Jigawa branches of the NBA, expressed their intention to withdraw from the National conference following the withdrawal of the invitation that was hitherto extended to Mallam El-Rufai.

REMOTE CAUSES

First, it is important to understand what led to the extant controversy.

In line with the Nigerian Bar Association’s age long tradition of inviting key note speakers from all works of life to speak at the Association’s Annual General Conference, Kaduna State Governor, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai was invited. However, this time around, this was one invitation too many, as the invitation drew significant outrage from both lawyers and non lawyers alike, especially on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

As a matter of fact, numerous lawyers communicated their intentions to withdraw from the Conference if El-Rufai’s invitation was not withdrawn. As if that was not enough, an online petition for Mallam El-Rufai’s invitation to be withdrawn attracted no less than 3,000 signatures. The outrage against the governor’s invitation centred on his now infamous poor handling of the Southern Kaduna crisis, his ruthless disposition towards his critics, and rights Activists, and most importantly, his blatant disregard for court orders and the rule of law.

For instance, Twitter user, “@Lugard_Tareotu”, tweeted: “Governor @elrufai has no business addressing lawyers at the @NigBarAssoc conference. As lawyers, it is our duty to uphold the rule of law. Courts have found that El-Rufai’s Government has illegally arrested & incarcerated people. I hereby withdraw my attendance from the conference.” The same user further tweeted: “And I call on other well meaning lawyers to also boycott the conference, except El-Rufai is withdrawn from speaking at the event. The Kaduna State Government does not have a track record of respect for the rule of law and protecting the rights to life and property.”

It is also important to note that Mallam el-Rufai’s insensitive and inflammatory comments with respect to the Southern Kaduna crisis further added momentum and zest to wide-scale calls for his immediate withdrawal. For instance, while speaking as a guest on Channels Television’s flagship programme, ‘Sunday Politics’, Mallam El-Rufai infamously declared:

“I have no time for nonsense. I will not appease idle people who have nothing to do but to raise a spectre of genocide. They do that to get money into their bank accounts and get donations from abroad instead of standing up…”

To say the least, Mallam El-Rufai’s notoriety and historic inflammatory disposition is well documented. It was for this reason, perhaps, that the National Executive Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association (NEC) heeded to the outrage against his invitation and proceeded to disinvite him from speaking at the conference. The tweet put out by the Nigerian Bar Association’s official twitter handle, “@NigBarAssoc “ is as follows:

“The National Executive Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association at its ongoing meeting resolves that the invitation to the Kaduna State Governor, H.E. Nasir el-Rufai, by the 2020 Annual General Conference Planning committee be withdrawn and decision communicated to the Governor.”

However, rather than establish normalcy, the popular decision of the NBA NEC to withdraw Mallam el-Rufai’s invitation brought to the fore, the deepened polarization and fault lines, of not just the Nigeria/State, but the Nigerian Bar Association, along ethnic and religious lines. It is so shameful.

Within minutes of the withdrawal of el-Rufai’s invitation, different interest groups in the Northern part of Nigeria expressed their dismay at the NBA’s decision. For instance, The Supreme Council for Shari’ah in Nigeria, SCSN described the withdrawal of the invitation as irresponsible. According to the Council, the treatment meted out to Governor Nasiru Ahmad el-Rufai of Kaduna State by the NBA, has cast a terrible smelly smear on NBA, which until recently, was regarded as representing the best ideals of justice, equity the good conscience of the society.

Similarly, the Muslim Lawyers Association of Nigeria, Kaduna State Chapter, withdrew their attendance at the Conference. The Jigawa State Chapter of the NBA also expressed their intention to boycott the conference as a result of the NBA’s disinvitation of Mallam El-Rufai. In a statement, the Jigawa State Chapter posited thus:

“The Nigerian Bar Association Dutse Branch disagrees with the position of the national executive committee of the association held this evening, in its resolve to withdraw the earlier invitation sent to Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, the executive governor of Kaduna state to participate as a guest speaker in the forthcoming annual general conference of the association scheduled to take place from August 26-29, 2020 based on frivolous allegations…The decision is quite unfair as the allegation against the governor has nothing to do with the NEC or NBA at large. Worse still, the governor has not been given the opportunity to defend himself on the allegations raised against him by a group within the association, before the resolution of this magnitude was reached against him. as the Nigerian Bar Association belongs to all.”

The Bauchi and Yobe State Branches of the NBA also followed suit in threatening to boycott the NBA Conference because of the withdrawal of the invitation extended to Mallam El-Rufai.

Thus in some quarters, it is being canvassed that the withdrawal of the invitation extended to Mallam El-Rufai was done in bad light and was oppressive to Northern and Islamic interests. This line of argument is incredibly mean and low.

In saner climes, these allegations would have been dismissed for being obviously unintelligent and simply being dumb and ludicrous. This is Nigeria, where people place ethnic and religious considerations above reason and common sense. Such allegations must therefore be sufficiently addressed to assure Nigerians that the disinvitation had no ethnic or religious undertones. I also attended the NEC. The motion, for El-Rufai’s exit was raised by Northerners and propelled by them. Infact, it was Southerners, including a Christian Cleric and even the NBA President, Paul Usoro, that argued fiercely for Nasir’s retention.

In every event, other speakers at the NBA conference will included Chief Justice of Nigeria, Ibrahim Tanko Mohammmed; Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, SAN; CAC Registrar General, Mr. Garba A. Abubakar, among others. This list of speakers, shows a common denominator: they are all Northern Muslims.

The invitation of other Northern Muslim speakers and panelists aside Mallam El-Rufai by the NBA should therefore naturally lay to rest, the asinine allegation that Mallam El-Rufai’s disinvitation had anything to do with his Northern heritage or Islamic faith. Was El-Rufai ever invited because he is a Muslim and Northerner? I cannot understand this purity.

The decision to whip up ethnic and religious sentiments in response to Mallam El-Rufai’s disinvitation is highly unintelligent, divisive, disingenuous and diversionary. It constitutes a red herring. It attempts to take away the attention from the larger issues behind Mallam el-Rufai’s disinvitation. It takes away the focus from the fact that more people have been killed in Southern Kaduna this year alone than by Boko Haram in the entire North East. It attempts to distract us from the fact that the Kaduna State Governor, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, has developed an uncanny proclivity to blatantly treat court orders which do not suit his agenda with contempt, impunity and utmost derisior. It takes away the focus from the fact that fierce critic of Mallam El-Rufai, Abubakar Idris, also known as “Dadiyata”, has been missing since he was abducted in Kaduna State for over one year now. It attempts to distract us from the ordeals of Stephen Kefason, who was captured in a Gestapo-style by security agencies allegedly sent by Mallam El-Rufai and kept in detention for over three months, before his eventual release.

The truth, without mincing words is that Mallam El-Rufai’s disinvitation had nothing to do with his religion or ethnicity. It was solely an angry Bar’s reaction to sustained outcry and outrage by lawyers and well-meaning Nigerians against Mallam El-Rufai’s flagrant abuse of democratic ideals in the administration of Kaduna State. Malllam’s disinvitation was in direct response to widespread protests against his inactivity and lukewarm towards the injustice in Kaduna State and absolutely nothing with ethnicity or religion. Where were these protesters when he was committing these? How come they never raised a finger of protest against genocidal acts, but are dripping oceans of lamentation one a mere dis-invitation of the alleged perpetrator or these acts? It this how to nurture democracy and keep are country?

The other lame argument that has been put forward by the “El-Rufai army” is that his disinvitation offends the core principle of fair hearing. The allusion to lack of fair hearing is simply tantamount to being clever by half. For what it is worth, Mallam El-Rufai was not standing trial before any constitutionally recognised court of record in Section 6(5) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, such as to activate section 36 thereof. Moreover, the NBA Conference is neither a court of record nor a platform for the resolution of issues that reside best in a court of law. The NEC was neither debating his culpability or otherwise. It simply said the invitation prober if not quenched early enough would distract from the NBA AGM Finish?

El-Rufai’s flagrant disobedience of rule of and violating of citizens rights are clearly against the objectives of the NBA, as part of the aims of the NBA is to uphold Rule of law.

The inherent power of invitation also comes with disinvitation. He who can hire can also fire. Though the principle of fair hearing is one of the cardinal pillars of law, it comes to play during a trial or a quasi judicial hearing. The above scenario is not one of these by any means.

The NBA, as an association however, followed due process in the withdrawal of Governor El-Rufai’s invitation, because the decision was supported by majority at the NEC meeting present and voting.

With respect to the huffs and puffs of some dissident branches of the NBA to withdraw from the conference, the words of my good friend and brother, Chief Ferdinand Orbih, SAN, are sufficient:

“A branch of the NBA has no authority or mandate to speak for the NBA. Bauchi Branch should be advised on this. The Constitution of the NBA makes NEC the highest decision-making Organ of the NBA subject only to Annual General Conference. No Branch has the right to dissociate itself from a decision of NBA NEC. The provisions of the Nigerian Constitution and NBA Constitution referred to in the Bauchi branch Press Release are totally irrelevant to the decision taken by NEC to withdraw the invitation extended to Governor El-Rufai to speak at its AGC. In other words, I don’t see how Governor el-Rufai’s rights were violated by the decision of the NBA to withdraw the invitation extended to him to speak at its AGC. Nasir El-Rufai is not entitled to speak at the NBA’s AGC as of right. Inherent in the right to invite is the right to withdraw the invitation”. Sikena.

The NEC is the highest decision-making organ of the NBA, second only to the NBA Annual General Meeting (AGM). The NEC decision was neither a judgment on the person of Mallam el-Rufai, nor an assessment of his leadership of Kaduna State. The NEC decision simply cancelled the TCCP`s invitation to Mallam El Rufai. NEC did not sit in judgment over Mallam El-Rufai. It merely took a decision targeted at averting needles, controversy, and in line with the wishes of an overwhelming majority of NBA members.

In conclusion, the ventilations against Mallam El-Rufai’s disinvitation are tantamount to flogging a dead horse. It amounts to absolutely nothing. It is nothing but the Shakespeare words, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and funny and signifying nothing”.

•Chief Ozekhome, SAN, is a human rights activist and constitutional lawyer.

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