The fascinating story of Tunji Gomez’s SAN Abolition Movement- How it all started- Anthony Atata

The Nigerian Bar Association, Lagos branch will on 16th of March 2018 begin an event to celebrate the 90th birthday of Tunji Gomez. Tunji Gomez is well known among the present generation of Lawyers as the man who rattled the legal community in Nigeria in 2009 with his movement to abolish the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria(SAN).

Anthony Atata who followed the struggle, shares a documentary presentation of one of the biggest stories to come out of Nigeria’s legal community.

“For your information, we have started a Movement by lawyers calling for abolition of SAN title. We have just started and we mean business”.

When this statement was made by 82 year old Mr. Tunji Gomez on the 3rd of February 2009 in an interview with a national daily, only very few lawyers believed that a revolution was burgeoning.

Mr. Tunji Gomez popularly called Pa Gomez, at the onset of this struggle had a dream. A dream that one day, lawyers will rise up and live out the true meaning of their creed. The creed to do justice, the creed that all lawyers are equal except may be the acceptable hierarchy of age the bar. Courtroom Mail Founder, Anthony Atata, a young lawyer at the time saw a big story unfolding and began to follow it

Within Days, hand bills persuading lawyers to join the agitation began to spread in the court rooms. Many reasons were given to support the movement for the abolition of a title that once enjoyed a “sacred status” among lawyers. At this stage, some lawyers saw this as a struggle of deluded and misguided lawyers. Within weeks, the agitation started to garner supporters and allies alike.

The disciples of the cause began to lunch fierce campaign via the media and started a massive mobilization of all lawyers in Nigeria to support a worthy cause. Within months, the sanctity of the S.A.N title began to wane and the unity of Nigerian bar association was to be greatly jeopardized. A revolution was under way.

This flag became a symbol of the movement,Courtroom Mail took a picture of this flag on the 10th of December 2009 while it was hanging at the Zodiac Hotel Enugu during the NBA NEC meeting

Lagos, the premier branch of the N.B.A was the first to be conquered. A motion to the effect that the status of S.A.N should be abolished was moved and was readily passed by members. This might not be un-connected to the fact that whatever disadvantages lawyers in Nigeria felt by the existence of the status, the Lagos branch felt it more because of the number of S.A.Ns that practice law within that jurisdiction. Lagos was just one out of the 88 branches of the Nigerian Bar association. A task, a very difficult one was ahead.

The status of S.A.N is a statutory creation and therefore must be repealed by status but before then, the agitation to abolish must be supported by a majority of lawyers. Alas! The national conference of N.B.A 2009 has been scheduled for august and the movement decided to cash in on it and reach the 88 branches in one venue. They laid ambush and waited patiently.

Tunji Gomez Was the First person to emerge as Courtroom mail person of the year in 2009

AUGUST 20:  Perhaps, this is the most historic day of 2009 for lawyers. The day the historic motion to abolish the status of S.A.N. was moved by Pa-Tunji Gomez. Shocked doesn’t begin to describe how the Pro S.A.N group felt in the wake of the motion moved by Pa Gomez. It was a hurricane Gomez headed their way. To the amazement of the allies of Pa Gomez and to the bewilderment of the Pro S.A.N group, the motion was gladly received by almost all the lawyers present. The N.B.A President Rotimi Akeredolu though overwhelmed only managed to control the support by referring the matter to the National Executive Committee of the N.B.A. Pa Tunji Gomez has won the first part of the agitation. At least seeing that lawyers embraced the revolution inspired the revolutionaries. The Euphoria was only to last until the 12th of October 2009.

AUGUST 27: When the N.B.A President wrote a letter dated the 27th day of August 2009 to the Chief Justice of Nigeria about the overwhelming support the motion to abolish the status of S.A.N received, he did it in good faith unknowing that he has just made the first step that will threaten his stay as the president of Africa’s biggest bar association. With the letter also, he set in motion a chain of crises that will vibrate the foundation of the N.B.A.

OCTOBER 14: While the letter of 27th August was causing severe disaffection among the ranks of the N.B.A, a very important meeting was going on at the High court in Lagos. Two days before, the Legal practitioners privileges committee has released the names of will be SAN for 2010 in national dailies. This ended the euphoria of Pa Gomez group. Pa Gomez over time has found kindred spirit in prominent lawyers in Nigeria. Dr. Tunji Braithwaite, one of Nigeria’s most influential lawyers and one of Nigeria’s most influential citizens was at the meeting of the movement for the abolition of S.A.N. The morning rain that threatened to prevent the meeting scheduled for 1.30pm stopped just few minutes before the time for the meeting. The lord was on their side. The secretary promptly sent signals to all members assuring them that the meeting must hold. Other prominent lawyers like Pa Tunji Gomez, Peter Okoye, Foluso Fayokun a former chairman of N.B.A Lagos, Chief Ofulue also a former chairman of N.B.A were there with Dr Tunji Braithwaite. They all pledged their support to stand by the cause.

Anthony Atata,Publisher,Courtroom mail with Tunji Gomez

Of course, the Pro S.A.N lawyers did not fold their arms to watch their territory fall to the growing army of Pa Gomez. They began a fierce attack against the abolitionists. They argued that lawyers who were in Pa Gomez camp were lawyers who did not do well in practice. They also argued in favour of the need for lawyers to look up to something for excellence. The Gomez group replied and argued that Federal character {quota system} which was being used was inconsistent with merit therefore could not guarantee any good lawyer the title especially if he comes from a state where lawyers were doing well. One S.A.N who was a former scribe threatened to bring scud missiles (not literary though) to the N.E.C conference to stop the abolitionists. Another member of the legal practitioner’s privileges committee blackmailed when he said that lawyers do not become S.A.Ns by popular agitation thereby giving the impression that those agitating were trying to gain popularity so as to be compensated with the title.

When those attacks failed to crater the Gomez Campaign, neither the Pro S.A.Ns nor the S.A.Ns had long to wait before a new front page story would emerge on the 25th of November 2009.

OCTOBER 15: On this day, Usman Alhaji Musale the secretary of the legal practitioners’ privileges committee, the body responsible for awarding S.A.N title replied Akredolu’s letter to the CJN describing the president’s letter as baseless, unmeritorious, and disrespectful to the Chief Justice of Nigeria.

OCTOBER 21: The letter of October21st was the straw that broke the Carmel’s back. This engineered the crises that shook the foundation of the N.B.A. Some members of the N.B.A National Executive headed by the Secretary Ibrahim Eddy Mark, wrote to the CJN and denounced the President’s letter. The letter was signed by the secretary Mr. Ibrahim Eddy Mark, the 3rd Vice President Mr. Barth Okoye Aniche, the Welfare Secretary Chief Garry Ajape and the Assistant Financial Secretary Mr. Steve Onyechi Ononye. The letter was further copied to all members of the LPPC, the president and all past presidents of the N.B.A.

On the same day, the president replied the letter of Usman Musale and expressed surprise at the dimension a personal letter he wrote to the CJN was taking. With the letter already breeding bad blood, the stage was set for the N.B.A to sail smoothly to the rocks.

NOVEMBER 25: Barely five weeks to his retirement, the CJN Idris Kutigi took a step which many lawyers hail as voux populi voux dei. He cancelled the award of S.A.N for the year 2009. Members of the movement for the abolition of the status of senior advocate of Nigeria and many other lawyers alike popped champagne to celebrate another victory. On this day, the pessimists of the revolution began to succumb. The S.A.Ns began to jitter. The forty eight lawyers listed among whom was Chijioke Okoli, the incumbent chairman of N.B.A Lagos were gravely disappointed. Chijioke Okoli was to be in the centre of another storm in the New Year. The tanks of Pa Gomez’s army were advancing faster than everybody thought. Liberation looked possible and the fall of the S.A.N looked imminently probable. The voice of the people is the voice of God.

Rotimi Akeredolu was the President of the Nigerian Bar Association in 2009 when the movement began

December 9-11: A hastily constituted forum raises a question of usurpation.

By the time the National Executive Committee of the N.B.A converged in Enugu, the crises arising from the S.A.N agitation has reached a boiling point. The president and the secretary of the N.B.A were at the verge of impeachment. Three motions were ready for passage. A motion to impeach the N.B.A president,  a motion to impeach the secretary and the motion for the abolition of S.A.N. The N.E.C meeting recorded a huge number of observers who flew in from different parts of the country to watch the N.B.A crumble at the coal city. On arrival, N.E.C members (the highest decision making body after the A.G.M) began to lobby fellow members on the three motions. Little did they know that another body hastily constituted laid ambush to their interest. A coup was in the offing.

As soon as the meeting started, T.J Okpoko S.A.N a former president of the N.B.A led a group of past N.B.A leaders under the name of elders of the bar mounted the podium and addressed  N.E.C members and observers that the first two motions have been mediated on and consequently will not be a subject matter of N.E.C deliberation. He gave reasons and details of the mediation as the N.E.C members gazed in dismay as their powers were being usurped right under their nose. The motion to abolish the status of S.A.N now stood alone. The coup has been executed successfully but the speech of the president minutes later was to leave doubt as to whether a détente has actually been brokered.

The meeting progressed, everybody waited impatiently for the big issue, S.A.N Abolition. Before the meeting, there had been threats and counter threats by the many anti and few Pro S.A.N groups. A former N.B.A scribe, himself a S.A.N threatened to come with a scud missile. By the morning of 10th December, the beautiful banner of the abolitionists, the symbol of the revolution was already flying at the venue. No missile was insight.

The president urged members to be fair in discussing the S.A.N abolition motion and handed over the microphone to Pa Gomez who flew in from Lagos. Pa Gomez spoke, opening up the cans of worms, the rule in some organization that non S.A.Ns should not be briefed, the arrogance of the S.A.Ns, the fact that the S.A.N title was a fake copy of the queen’s counsel in the U.K etc the crowd rose in excitement, a senior advocate Dele Adesina moved to retrieve the micro phone from Pa Gomez, the crowd shouted him down and the president helplessly urged Gomez to continue. The N.E.C members were ready to abolish there and then. The president again referred the issue to the branches to take decisions and report to N.E.C. A jangle over of the matter has begun. Many people rose and few lawyers were left behind to discuss the remaining issue. As long as they were concerned, the business of the day has been concluded. No scud missile went off. In fact, non was seen.

By the morning of December 11, many lawyers have left Enugu. The abolitionists with a strong resolve to fight on had a private dinner on the night of December 10th where they thanked the leaders and founders of the revolution (Pa Tunji Gomez , Mr. E. Otohkina, Mr. Afro Fayokun, Dr Tunji Braithwaite, Mr. Ofulue and Mr Folusho Fayokun). Anthony Atata, the founder of Courtroom Mail was there documenting the struggle.

.By the end of 2009, the wakeup call of August 20th 2009 made by Tunji Gomez for the abolition of the title of S.A.N was still reverberating and a mass hysteria gripped the S.A.Ns as the call to abolish the title continued to provoke an avalanche of attention. The suspension of the S.A.N title by the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Idris Kutigi was still being applauded and by the 31st of December 2009, something happened that will change the cause of the struggle to abolish the status of S.A.N in the following year.

As 2009 gave way for 2010, lawyers all over the country saw a new hope in the horizon. It seemed that the Gomez campaign was successfully pounding the S.A.Ns into submission. Many more fence sitters began to reconsider their options. The S.A.Ns had been badly mauled and public opinion was in favour of abolition but this was not to last.

While the majority Gomez group were still experiencing the hangover from their victory and Christmas celebration of 2009, the badly mauled pro. S.A.Ns were planning a blistering assault which the Gomez group never envisaged in their plan for conquest. It was not until the 5th of January 2010 that the Gomez group saw the missiles coming, they watched defenselessly as the pro-S.A.Ns launched their attack on a platform which many lawyers in the Gomez group had on the 31st December supported.

The New Year came with the heralded arrival of a new Chief Justice of Nigeria who was sworn in under controversial circumstances on the 31st of December 2009. Many lawyers have argued in favour of the swearing-in which was not performed by the president of Nigeria who at that time was away on a medical trip to Saudi Arabia. Among the supporters of the swearing in were some lawyers who supported the abolition. They were to be shocked when the new C.J.N after swearing in vacated the suspension. It took less than a week for them to realize that the swearing in they have supported will greatly hamper the course of the struggle.

The swearing in of Justice Katsina Alu as the new Chief Justice of Nigeria automatically changed the leadership of the legal practitioners privileges committees. The LPPC is the body responsible for S.A.N award and the Chief Justice of Nigeria is the chairman.

Given the antagonism the S.A.N title has stirred, many lawyers believed that the new Chief Justice will maintain the status quo as ordered by his predecessor but that was not to be.

On the 5th of January, 2010, The Punch newspaper reported that the forty eight prospective S.A.Ns listed three months before have been called for screening at the Supreme Court. By the afternoon of Wednesday 6th January, the movement for the abolition of the rank of senior advocate of Nigeria[MARSAN] convened their first meeting of the year and after investigating the information realized that the pro-S.A.Ns had successfully launched an offensive. This gravely affected the anti-S.A.Ns as they were only to recover four months later.

As the New Year unfolded into weeks and weeks into months, the reason behind the screening of the S.A.N title which the previous C.J.N had honourably suspended became increasingly hard to fathom. The Gomez campaign slipped into a low point.

On the 11th of January 2010, the N.B.A Lagos branch, the home of the struggle, held their first meeting for the year. The branch in the previous year when the S.A.N abolition movement was still patchy had taken a decision to abolish the title even before the Nigerian Bar Association National ordered that branches should take a position. The next chairman of the branch was to put this issue to dispute.

Convinced that they have passed the motion in Lagos, the Gomez campaign began to take the campaign outside the shores of Lagos branch via Ikeja branch the sister branch. Ikeja was to take over the leadership of the struggle from the hands of the Gomez group based in Lagos who at that time were still fighting to have a firm grip of their territory which was now under threat from the position of the chairman of the branch who had sympathy for the pro-S.A.Ns.

On the 14th of July 2009, a new government whose leadership was sympathetic to the pro-S.A.Ns cause was elected to navigate the affairs of the branch. The pro-S.A.Ns began to call into question, the motion passed by the branch to abolish the status of S.A.Ns and the anti-S.A.Ns defended the motion vehemently. One man stood in the middle of the chaos. Chijioke Okoli. Chijioke Okoli was elected as the chairman of the branch after the disputed motion has been passed. As his administration began, he started forging a path that was not compatible with the agitation of the members calling for S.A.N abolition. He was finding it difficult to come to terms with the agitation of the anti-S.A.Ns. The reason was to be known on the 11th of October 2009.

On the 11th of October 2009, the LPPC has published the names of prospective S.A.Ns, the name Chijioke Fredson(sic) Okoli conspicuously stood out. The Gomez campaign then realized that a big battle to capture their home ground was in the offing.

 

On the first N.B.A Lagos meeting of the year in January 2010, the Gomez group made a desperate move to have the motion of the previous year adopted as the position of the branch in furtherance to the instruction of the N.B.A National. Chijioke Okoli promised to call an extra ordinary meeting for that purpose. He sure did and history was made though neither in favour of the pro-S.A.Ns nor anti-S.A.Ns.

 

That extraordinary meeting was to come on the 28th of January 2010. The meeting was historic in two ways. First, more than ten senior advocates of Nigeria who usually disregard the branch meetings were present. Secondly, the meeting recorded an unprecedented high level of attendance. Accordingly to a study conducted in March 2010 by Courtroom Mail, two hundred members were present at that historic meeting. This was more than the attendance ever recorded in any extra ordinary general meeting in the annals of the branch. Many lawyers believed that the chairman mobilized the S.A.Ns and their juniors in chambers to come for the meeting to cow the angry lawyers amid the rancorous debate over S.A.N abolition.

The lawyers were not cowed because the Gomez campaign in the previous year had made many lawyers realize that there was a moral imperative to close in on the S.A.Ns. This belief helped them to overcome their inhibitions and they spoke out radically against the oppressive title whose respect has plummeted. The branch on that day could not take a position. The chairman continued to mount a strong defence of his territory in favour of the S.A.Ns but his spirit was to be broken by the morning of 2nd February  2010 when the final list of selected S.A.Ns was released and the name Chijioke Fredson(sic) Okoli was conspicuously missing.

The national executive meeting of the N.B.A was three weeks away. Between the 17th and 19th of February 2010, Yola the Adamawa State capital was to host the National Executive meeting of the N.B.A. One of the things on the Agenda was the report of branches on S.A.N abolition.

Chijioke Okoli did not attend. Tunji Gomez and his group were there defying the distance to Yola.

At the N.E.C meeting in Yola, the Gomez group and many other lawyers who were interested in the outcome of the S.A.N vote waited impatiently. The meeting started with other things on the agenda taking precedence while that of the vote for S.A.N abolition was carefully filibustered. At the end, the president of the N.B.A, Rotimi Akeredolu adjourned the issue of S.A.N abolition to the next N.E.C meeting giving the reason that only twenty six branches submitted their positions out of the eighty eight branches of the N.B.A. Lawyers did not take it lying low. They argued that such a decision was very flawed. They pointed out that it was unfair for the president not to have at least announced the position of the twenty six branches that submitted their positions. The president, a critic of the procedure for S.A.N conferment though not in support of total abolition was to encounter a bitter experience on the 12th of April 2010, four months to the end of his tenure.

 

The Ikeja branch was one of the branches that voted in favour of S.A.N abolition. That vote was not just historic; it provided the rocket fuel, the Gomez group needed to drive the cause at that low point in the history of the struggle. The Gomez campaign initially believed that they were going to encounter a strong resistance in Ikeja branch because of the influence of the S.A.Ns on the branch. Ikeja later proved it wrong. On that day, more than 96% of lawyers in Ikeja branch present voted for abolition. This greatly boosted the morale of the Gomez campaign that was at that time in the battle front in Lagos branch fighting desperately to retain their homeland. Ikeja bar, tiger bar as they are fondly called broke the strong holds of the S.A.Ns on their branch and marched out their army against the oppressors. At that moment, Ikeja seemed to be leading the struggle while Lagos followed. The S.A.Ns stared in disbelief while the Gomez group got a new lease of life popping champagne. The S.A.Ns in Ikeja could not believe their eyes as the tanks of the branch headed their way. It felt like at Tsunami.

 

On the 12th of April, the day came for the conferment of the rank of senior advocates of Nigeria on the chosen ones. This day will record the most controversial conferment ceremony in the history of Nigeria’s legal system. The conferment was not controversial only because the generality of lawyers had kicked against it but it brought into perspective the seeming manipulation in the award of the title.

On that day, the president of Nigerian Bar Association who is widely known as a critic of S.A.N conferment procedure was edged out of the agenda. He was denied the right to read his speech apparently for fear that he might publicly condemn the S.A.N award. When he complained, a Supreme Court judge to the utter bewilderment of all Nigerian lawyers and the entire nation told him to get out if he was not comfortable with the relegation meted out to him. With this unfortunate comment, the approval rating of the president of Africa’s biggest bar climbed to the peak as lawyers vehemently condemned the Supreme Court judge for making such a reckless statement. He made an attempt to walk away from the venue but some self acclaimed elders of the bar stopped him. More lawyers  condemned the self-made “Elders of the bar” who prevented him from staging a walk out which was the most dignifying thing to do in that circumstance.While these were going on, an email came in from South Africa in support of the Gomez group. Weeks later, a suit was filed in the North Gauteng High Court, Johannesburg. The movement began to take a global dimension. To be continued.

Anthony Atata is the founding editor of Courtroom Mail; he has been documenting the activities of Movement for the Abolition of the Rank of Senior advocate of Nigeria and other judicial reforms (MARSAN)

Courtroom Mail

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *