Posted by News Express | 5 October 2016 | 2,775 times
As a concerned Civil Society activist, I was passionately worried about and alarmed by a story making the rounds in some social and online media platforms, on allegations of theft of funds belonging to Nigeria’s largest private sector union: Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). These allegations were against the immediate past leadership headed by Mr Augustine Alegeh, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. In that immediate past administration was also a reputable Abuja-based litigation lawyer, Mazi Afam Osigwe who, prior to becoming the general secretary of the NBA, was the last chairman of a unified Federal Capital Territory (FCT) chapter of the body, before Gwagwalada was carved out as a distinct branch.
Mr Gbolahan Gbadamosi - a tested and trusted journalist who pioneered the reputable law page in the Nigerian media flagship, The Guardian - was the national publicity secretary. By every conceivable estimation, the Nigerian Bar Association is one of the most respected private sector platforms in the organised civil society community in the country. This body, alongside like-minded associations, fought the then military rulers of Nigeria to a standstill and helped to restore popular democracy in 1999. Such powerful and iconic figures like Chief Olisa Agbakaoba (SAN); Chief Wale Olanipekun (SAN) have at one time or the other headed this illustrious union.
The NBA is a non-profit umbrella professional association of all lawyers admitted to the Bar in Nigeria. This, in a layman's perspective, would translate into an amalgam with a membership of over 300,000 lawyers practising in both the public and private sectors It is engaged in the promotion and protection of human rights, the rule of law and good governance in Nigeria.
NBA has an observer-status with the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, and a working partnership with many national and international non-governmental organisations concerned with human rights, the rule of law and good governance in Nigeria and in Africa.
The NBA is made up of 120 branches, three professional sections, two specialised institutes, three thematic working groups, five practice-cadre forums with high-level leverage in the nation’s political society. Its National Secretariat/Head Office is managed from Abuja. Its organisational structure comprises a National Executive Committee, a National Officers/ Management Board, sections, forums, committees and working groups, with adequate man power.
The Nigerian Bar Association is a principled, people-centred organization, which takes serious its leading role in advancing the reform of Nigerian laws, strengthening her access to justice institutions and promoting the rule of law and good governance. The NBA is also committed to strengthening legal skills and law practice of its members, and to improve the legal profession in order to meet the needs of the 21st century. It also seeks to reposition members to embrace and cope with the changes occasioned by globalisation, information technology and economic developments, to enable the Nigerian lawyer and law firms compete in the international globalised market. These assertions and affirmations, derived from several authorities, are timely. Therefore, readers will understand the basis for this intervention. The salient fact about this ongoing story is that the larger public credibility and the corporate image of the Nigerian Bar Association is imperiled, if some or all of these allegations are found to be true.
What are these accusations and allegations, and who are the principal characters behind these allegations?
A group of legal practitioners under the name, ‘Lawyers for Justice’ petitioned the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), to probe the immediate past president of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mr Augustine Alegeh, over allegations of corrupt enrichment and money laundering. The group - in a letter to the EFCC chairman, dated September 14, 2016 and signed by the former secretary, NBA, Lagos, Seth Amaefule and vice chairman, NBA, Epe branch, Mr Dotun Hassan, - called for investigation in the face of suspicions that Alegeh - acting either alone or in collusion with a few national officers and cohorts - violated the law.
Part of the petition reads: “We, the undersigned petitioners, are some of the concerned members of the Nigerian Bar Association, who reasonably suspect that the immediate past president of the NBA, Mr Augustine Alegeh, SAN, corruptly enriched himself while in office; assisted in these unlawful and illegal deeds, perhaps, by national officers as follows:
“Prior to Mr Augustine Alegeh, SAN, becoming the President of the Nigerian Bar Association, he lived in Ikeja at the address below, which served as residence, law office, and also Tratrix Engineering Limited’s address, a company in which Mr Augustine Alegeh has majority shares, as the Chairman/CEO http://www.tratrix.com/management.aspx.
“Mr Alegeh’s residence and Tratrix Engineering office and Law Chambers aforesaid, situated at N0 11, Ladipo Bateye Street, off Adekunle Fajuyi Street, GRA Ikeja, Lagos State. Telephone +234-1-4532325; additional offices were located in Benin and Asaba, viz: N011, Emezie Drive, off Delta Crescent, GRA, Benin-City Tel/Fax: 052-293572 and N0 11 Tamuno Street by NTA, Okpanam Road, Asaba, Delta State. The names of lawyers presently in his chambers in the event that this investigation may extend to them can be found at this website:http://alegehlaw.com/our-team.
“Mr Alegeh moved his home from N0 11, Ladipo Bateye Street, off Adekunle Fajuyi Street, Ikeja, Lagos State - whilst holding office as NBA president - to N0 24A Ilabere Avenue, Ikoyi, Lagos, and also acquired exotic cars.”
In the thinking of these accusers, since NBA is a not-for-profit organisation, its officers are not allowed personal benefits or salaries, bribe and any form of corrupt practices and corrupt enrichment. Amaefule and Hassan further alleged that, during his NBA presidency, Mr Alegeh had moved his Abuja rented office building from N0 48 Lobito Crescent, Wuse II, Abuja to a more expansive premises believed to be owned by him, N0 22, Ziguinchor Street, Wuse Zone 4 Abuja. The petitioners stated that it was a matter of general knowledge amongst lawyers that Alegeh spent a humongous sum of money prosecuting his campaign for the office of the president of the NBA in 2014, which he eventually won in July 2014, against four others and which would naturally have depleted his resources.
These same accusers who clearly affirmed that Mr Alegeh deployed huge financial resources to prosecute his campaign, leading to his eventual emergence as the president, were the same persons who committed the monumental fallacy of crying foul when they allegedly witnessed that this stupendously-rich lawyer has bought some choice properties.
Not satisfied with their allegations built on substantial hear-says, they further alleged: “He appears to have stupendously, illegally recouped his pocket, as president who abused the office of NBA president. To the extent that Mr Augustine Alegeh’s personal estate at 24A Ilabere Avenue, off Macpherson Street, Ikoyi, Lagos, was displayed with impunity, to his friends and associates at his reception on completion of his tenure on Sunday 28th August 2016, after a church service at his parish in the Catholic Church of Presentation, Oba Akinjobi Street, GRA Ikeja.
"That, in addition to another large country-home which Mr Augustine Alegeh SAN recently built whilst sitting in office as NBA president, though yet to be finished, in GRA, Benin-City wherein he personally hosted some lawyers who attended the National Executive Committee meeting of the Nigerian Bar Association in Benin-City, in June, 2016.”
This set of petitioners who displayed crass ignorance of the possibility that this man, to whom they ascribed so much wealth prior to becoming the president of NBA, is capable of buying all the said properties since he is a rich man even by their estimation. They still proceeded to inform the EFCC thus:
“Before Alegeh assumed office, NBA had awarded a building contract in the sum of N2.5 billion to Schaums Nigeria Limited with an office at Suite F124, Haramani Plaza, Utako- Abuja, for the construction of NBA House at Plot 1101, Cadastral Zone A00, Central Business District, Abuja. The said builder/contractor had commenced construction of NBA’s 11-storey building when Alegeh was sworn-in, August 2014, and at the time, Schaums Nigeria Limited was at the first-floor stage, the said contractor continued to roofs and block-works stage when, by strong arm and self-help, Alegeh invaded the said premises. Whilst the building contract was not terminated, Mr Augustine Alegeh took over the building project, using ‘direct labour,’ approving and paying money to himself, via proxies.”
However, this writer searched frantically for proofs, by way of authenticated documents to show that Alegeh paid his company to complete the imposing new national secretariat in Abuja, but I was unable to see any. Except and unless superior documentary evidence is adduced, it is fair enough to dismiss this leg of their allegations as wild and unsubstantiated.
But their claim that, against ethical and lawful conduct, Chief Alegeh retained his position as Chairman/CEO of Tratrix Engineering Limited during his NBA presidency from August 2014 – August 2016, is at best an administrative charge, which is within the purview of the Disciplinary Committee of the NBA, if they can come up with evidence to back up their claim. I'm unable to see any law banning the NBA president from doing his lawful private sector job since his position as NBA president is neither salaried nor pensionable. May these accusers correct me, if I'm wrong in this line of my submission.
By the way; did they expect Mr Alegeh to starve because he is heading an organisation that is purely not-for-profit, or do they think that as a lawyer he must of necessity do cases in court so as to survive, even if the clients aren't forthcoming?
They alleged also that: “Mr Alegeh sought and received colossal sums as donations for the building project. It remains to be investigated: suspicious activities of diversion of funds by Mr Augustine Alegeh, SAN, for personal use.
Furthermore, during his tenure as President of NBA, Mr Augustine Alegeh organised six National Executive Committee meetings and two Annual General Conferences of the Bar. Monumental sums donated by individuals, corporate organisations, Governors and other political office-holders and individuals were made towards the hosting of these meetings and conferences.
“Mr Augustine Alegeh had entered an arrangement with Access Bank Plc to warehouse all NBA accounts in return for the bank sponsoring NBA-NEC meetings and conferences with approx. N250,000,000.00 annually. Also lawyers had to register at exorbitant fees to attend the Annual General Conferences 2015-16.”
The group also alleged that the two Annual General Conferences hosted by Alegeh, to wit: NBA-AGC Abuja, August 2015 and NBA-AGC Port Harcourt, August 2016 failed by and large as registration fees and donations were prodigiously collected and conference bags and materials were barely distributed to conferees.
The group continued: “Matter of fact, the Annual General Conference Port Harcourt which concluded on Friday August 26, 2016 was dubbed by some senior lawyers as ‘a scam and a sham’; despite large sums of money generated little value. At the conference, not only did many lawyers not receive conference bags, others got very low quality bags without conference programs, papers and proceedings. The annual reports 2016 which included NBA Treasurer and General Secretary’s reports were scarcely distributed to NBA members".
“When it is on record that the Governor of Rivers State, Nyesom E Wike gave the sum of N250,000,000.00 (the equivalent in US dollars) to Mr Augustine Alegeh as appreciation for bringing the 2016 Bar Conference to Port Harcourt, River State; the money meant for the Nigerian Bar Association seemingly diverted, converted and shared by a few national officers, notably the immediate past president and immediate past general secretary, Mr Afam Osigwe of Law Forte Block 21, Niamey Street, Zone 2, Wuse, Abuja, http://www.lawforteng.com/people.html.”
Alegeh stoutly rose to his own defence, thus: “The gang who are sponsoring all this they are well known members of the Bar, but what they should know is that all power belongs to God."
Alegeh, however, has denied culpability in any untoward management of the resources of the association and dismissed the petition as the thrashing of bad losers in the NBA elections, adding: “I am sure your reference is the petition that has been circulating. I won’t respond to this because, like the Bible say, this is the voice of Jacob and hands of Esau, which emanated because people lost an election,” he was quoted as telling a newspaper.
Clarifying his denial further, Alegeh said: “All I will tell you officially is that this is the work of a group who, having lost elections, think they should destroy those who did not support them. The records are with NBA and their accounts are audited and presented every year to every NEC meeting of which every member has the report. Most of their allegations are infantile of which I will not respond. I want to tell the aggrieved people that the Bar is one and people should not because they lost an election, want to destroy the Bar. But I believe that we are one family and everybody should behave like the gentlemen of the Bar.
“The records are there and we have an audited account for each quarter, which is still there in the NBA. However, for the building, you don’t even need an auditor to assess the worth. The main thing I will tell you is that all money to NBA goes to NBA account, and they are recorded. We are not owing any bank, even though we have contractors we have not paid because they have not completed their work. However, that building cost over N1.7 billion and we have paid N1.4 billion, and if we can raise to build that house how can we steal money. I will tell you that everything we did in NBA and all the money went to the account. We are the first regime and every next meeting we present an audited account.
“Our current president, AB Mahmoud, in 2004, he contested and lost but conducted himself well. I make bold to say that the building we built for the NBA is today valued at N5 billion and we did in two years. We built the house for N1.7 billion, commissioned and moved in. NBA is not a place to make money and within two years I was in NBA they did not pay for my expenses as I fuel my car. All promotion come from God.
“One of the chief backers is using surrogate, young lawyers. Why would one taken on the young lawyers when he knows they are being taken advantage of?
“Serving NBA is a selfless duty and when I was there, you ask the accountant who is still there, no cash transactions. When I was there I didn’t raise money by myself as there was always a committee. I slashed conference for 40 per cent, and I paid insurance companies for their premium. The money is not there, but the little we had we used prudently to build the house and did what we did, including the house. So, if we were able to build that house and the building commissioned by the vice-president, what money remains?”
“Let posterity judge, the NBA account is signed by three people and there are processes of which two people must sign. The claim about Wike’s donation is ridiculous, as all our transactions with Rivers State are documented.
“I thought that any reasonable person who sees that house should be happy, and if I steal money from the NBA, where did we get money to build that house within two years. That should be the question. I want to say again that everything we have done is documented and we didn’t do any cash transactions. Within my tenure, I went to many countries and bought all the air tickets with my money.”
The organisation that this writer heads took out time to employ the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act of 2011, to demand and has received a copy of the audited account of the Nigerian Bar Association, and have taken the liberty to go through the report. Recall that the Freedom of Information Act of 2011 in Section 2 (1) states as follows:
“Notwithstanding any other provisions contained in any other Act, law or regulation, the right of any person to access or request information, whether or not contained in any written form, which is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency or institution, howsoever described, is hereby established.”
From a careful perusal of this document, it is safe to assume that the petitioners don't have solid case against Mr Augustine Alegeh and his team, unless and until they are able to adduce indubitable evidential proofs to back up their claims. We await their better and further proofs of evidence.
•RIGHTSVIEW appears on Wednesdays, in addition to special appearances. The Columnist, a popular activist, is a former Federal Commissioner of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and presently National Coordinator of Human Rights Writers’ Association of Nigeria (HURIWA). He can be reached via 08033327672 (sms only) or via firstname.lastname@example.org
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