BY TOYE OLAGOKE
A letter from the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) asking the legal luminary, Wole Olanipekun (SAN), to step down as Chairman of the Body of Benchers (BOB) to allow the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LPDC) to rule on a motion against a partner in his firm, Adekunbi Ogunde, surfaced in the media over the weekend.
NBA President Olumide Akpata, who signed the letter, explained that recusing himself as BOB chairman would allow the LPDC, a standing committee of the BOB, to conduct its investigation without undue influence.
We have been following this case and were surprised by this latest turn of events, especially since Olanipekun, a fine jurist, had previously issued an unqualified apology for an offense he did not commit and which led to the whole affair. It looks like there’s literally more to it than meets the eye and the NBA wants to ridicule one of its former executives.
A brief recap of the saga is in order. Ogunde, a partner in Olanipekun’s company, had canvassed SAIPEM Contracting Nigeria Ltd, on trial over $130 million fraud allegations in the Rivers High Court brought by the Rivers State Government against Saipem SPA, Saipem Nigeria and others.
The problem was that SAIPEM is a client of Henry Ajumogobia, another senior lawyer in Nigeria (SAN). Ogunde’s action was unprofessional and was condemned. When Olanipekun became aware of the problem, he wrote a sincere apology. He has downgraded himself completely, a decision that most experienced lawyers of his caliber will not accept.
In a letter dated June 24, Olanipekun apologized to Ajumogobia and explained that he did not authorize his client’s attempted hijacking.
It read in part: “First, let it be unequivocally known that the said letter was written without the instruction, authority, mandate, approval or consent of Wole Olanipekun & Co.; nor was it brought to our attention by the author.
“Secondly, our law firm has never had a practice of soliciting business or clients, and we will never engage in this disturbing practice and trend.
“Indeed, the author of the letter in question was alone, and we completely dissociate ourselves from the letter and its contents: while internal measures would be immediately taken to remedy this unfortunate situation.
“The author never discussed his intention to write the letter or showed it to any person or attorney in the office, either before or after sending it to Mr. Caio. In other terms, the letter is hereby retracted unequivocally: even though it was not authorized and made without our permission, authority or consent.
“We unreservedly apologize to the highly respected H. Odein Ajumogobia, SAN, OFR, and the entire Ajumogobia & Okeke Law Firm for any embarrassment the letter may have caused them; but know that the letter also caused us much embarrassment.
Considering how humbled he was before and being a strong believer in fairness and justice, to which the NBA itself can attest, one finds the endgame of the association disconcerting. Is it to humiliate Olanipekun, one of its leaders and committed reformer, by speaking of justice, equity and posterity?
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck. The NBA is believed to be messing up and only hiding under Ogunde’s offense to bring opprobrium to its former leader and, by extension, his company.
Some of Olanipekun’s accomplishments as NBA president include the innovative introduction of stamps and seals to legal proceedings and documents, uniquely distinguishing them from those of touts or non-lawyers.
He was also instrumental in forming the NBA’s Business Law Section (SBL) and Legal Practice Section. Olanipekun led the NBA’s battle against the enactment of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act of 2011, sections 5 and 25 of which required lawyers to also obtain licenses from the Special Anti-Money Laundering Control Unit of Money (SCUML) before opening bank accounts and ensuring disclosures contrary to attorney-client confidentiality.
Working pro bono, Olanipekun, alongside Funke Adekoya, SAN and Babajide Ogundipe, won the Federal High Court striking down the offending provisions of the Money Laundering Act. The judgment of the Federal High Court was appealed to the Court of Appeal. It was the same Olanipekun who, pro bono, represented the NBA in the appeals court, where the decision of the federal high court was upheld. Records indicate that the appeals court ruling was appealed to the Supreme Court, and it was again the same Olanipekun who filed a respondent brief on behalf of the NBA.
We do not say that an offense should go unpunished, but in this case the cerebral lawyer is not the culprit. Along with an earlier letter to the LPDC demanding that Olanipekun and his son, Bode, the firm’s other partner, be punished alongside Ogunde, Akpata’s weekend letter leaked to the media further teases a plan to humiliate the lawyer born in Ekiti State. Ogunde had confessed and even cleared the other partners of knowing about his letter. Why then insist on punishing the other partners and asking Olanipekun to leave the presidency of BOB? This appeal is all the more curious since the LPDC is an independent committee and appeals go directly to the Supreme Court.
Furthermore, an analysis of the LPDC 2020 rules shows that some of the prescribed steps were not followed in this material case. Rule 5 provides the following: (1) An application made pursuant to Rule 4 shall initially be considered by a Committee Member (“the Initial Committee Member”) at the direction of the Chair for consideration of whether there is a case to answer with respect to the allegations made in the originating application.
(2.) If the original member of the committee considers that a response should be made with respect to any or all of the allegations made and is not of the opinion that the question is one of doubt or difficulty, the initial committee member must certify that there is no case to be answered.
(3.) If the original member of the committee does not agree to certify that a response should be made in respect of all or part of the allegations made or if he is of the opinion that he t is a question of doubt or difficulty, the question must be examined by a panel of three members of the Disciplinary Committee. The initial committee member may be a panel member. If the committee finds it appropriate to respond to the allegations made, then it must certify that it is appropriate to respond to those allegations.
(4) If the Committee decides that there is no need to respond with respect to any of the allegations made, it may refuse or dismiss the statement of claim, or any part thereof, without requiring the defendant to respond to the allegations and without hearing the plaintiff. must receive written reasons explaining the decision.
(5) If a member of the panel or committee certifies that a response should be made to all or part of the allegations made, the secretary must serve a copy of each of the documents referred to in rule (4) , (5) or (6), as the case may be, on each respondent.
Again, under section 12(7) of the Law Practitioners Act, appeals against decisions of the LPDC can only be heard by the Supreme Court of Nigeria and not by any tribunal or body. , not even the Body of Benchers. The BOB has no role to play in the LPDC disciplinary process. It has no statutory competence to approve, verify or modify.
Curiously, Ogunde who is the respondent of the petition has not yet been served because the stage of service has not yet occurred. Yet the weekend letter called on the chairman of BOB, who has nothing to do with the LPDC process, to step down.
It’s believed that the NBA needs to be circumspect about this issue, so it doesn’t look like a witch hunt against the former NBA president. Asking him to stand down is now tantamount to pronouncing him guilty even if he is not. Olanipekun has a strong moral compass and is a firm believer in justice, justice, and fairness. He would recuse himself as BOB chairman if need be, without anyone telling him. The NBA and Akpata need to be careful in their approach lest they disparage the legal luminary or appear to have a vendetta against him.
Olagoke, a public affairs analyst, wrote from Lagos.
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