Benchers Crisis: Why elders of legal profession must wade in now—Stakeholders


In this report, Ise-Oluwa Ige examines the background facts and the politics that triggered the on-going crisis at the Body of Benchers led by a prominent silk, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN and harvests the perspectives of stakeholders on the situation with prescriptions on how to avert its recurrence.


For almost three months now, two respected top lawyers in the country including the incumbent Chairman of the Body of Benchers (BoB), Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN and a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr Augustine Alegeh, SAN, have been at daggers drawn over who should preside over the Appointment Committee of the BoB.

Alegeh, SAN is claiming to be the incumbent chairman of the BoB’s Appointment Committee while Prof Yusuf Ali, SAN is contending that he is the rightful owner of the seat.

Both of them at separate times were issued letters of appointment by the Secretary to the Body of Benchers, Mr Daniel Tela.

Alegeh’s letter was dated March 28, 2024, and was issued few hours to the expiration of the tenure of office of the immediate past Chairman of BoB, Justice Mary Peter-Odili while Prof Ali’s letter was issued shortly after Chief Awomolo, SAN took over the helms of affairs of BoB from Justice Mary Ukaego Peter-Odili.

The issuance of two letters to two separate top lawyers by the BoB Secretary, Daniel Tella, within a 30-day period to serve as Chairman of the Appointment Committee of the BoB without withdrawing one for the other or using the latter to countermand the former, appears to have watered the ground for an imminent crisis.

Cause of crisis

It would be recalled that on March 21, 2024, the Body of Benchers (BoB), at a well-attended meeting, unanimously endorsed a prominent silk and life bencher, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN as its new helmsman. The silk however formally took over the mantle of leadership of BoB on April 1, 2024 from a former Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Mary Ukaego Peter-Odili whose one-year tenure expired on March 31, 2024.

Within one month of his emergence as BoB helmsman, Chief Awomolo, SAN reconstituted some of the standing committees of the Body including its Appointment Committee hitherto headed by a former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Umaru Abdullahi following expiration of his tenure of office.

The committees included Infrastructure Development Management and Security Committee formerly called Building Committee; Finance Budget and Investment Committee formerly called Finance Committee; Publication, Information Technology Committee; Elders Committee; Screening Committee; Legal Practitioners Committee; Human Resources Management formerly Appointment, Promotion and Discipline Committee and Benchers Appointment Committee.

Other committees are Ethics Compliance and Disciplinary Committee, Special Duties/Historical and Archives Committee; Mentoring Committee; Rules and Regulation Committee; Judiciary Advisory Committee with Welfare, Events and Benchers Programme Committee. Two Adhoc Committees were also reconstituted.

By a correspondence dated April 29, 2024, the BoB through its Secretary, Daniel Tela, mailed all members of the Body of Benchers on the issue with an explanation that the reconstitution of the committees was done to reposition them for optimal performance in line with the mandate of the Body.

The mail also said that all reconstituted committee members shall spend two years in office while those who have been serving in one committee or another would remain in office to spend their remaining tenure, adding that the terms of reference would be handed over to committee members in due course.

Three days after Chief Awomolo-led BoB announced its decision on the reconstituted committees, a life bencher and former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Augustine Alegeh, SAN fired a 4-page letter to the BoB’s Secretary, Tella to protest the purported unilateral reconstitution of the committees, particularly the Appointment Committee in which he has been made an ordinary member instead of listing him as the Committee’s chairman.

Awomolo can’t unilaterally reconstitute BoB committees—Alegeh, SAN

In the letter, he said he was appointed by a letter dated March 28, 2024 during the administration of Justice Peter Odili as the Chairman of Benchers’ Appointment Committee with three-year lifespan but that even though his tenure was still running, another name—Prof Yusuf Ali, SAN, was erroneously published as the new chairman of the Body’s Appointment Committee.

He further said that whereas, the 2024 BoB Regulation does not empower its Chairman to unilaterally reconstitute or rename its committees; that the term of office of committee members cannot be unilaterally reduced by the Body’s chairman from three to two years and that he would continue to perform his function as the chairman of the Appointment Committee and not as mere floor member as dictated by the committee’s reconstitution.

Although Alegeh sent the protest letter to Tella through whom the issue of committee reconstitution was conveyed, no response came from him, a development that made him forward the same letter to Chief Awomolo, SAN who also did not reply him.

Frustrated, Alegeh forwarded his protest letter to all the BoB members who received the original mail on the reconstitution of the committee on May 10, 2024.

I have no intention to hurt your feelings, lets work together—Awomolo, SAN

Upon reading the mail, Chief Awomolo responded to Alegeh explaining that it was the spirit of service to the legal profession and his desire to raise the bar that motivated his decision to reconstitute the committees and that he was never aware that he was appointed at anytime as chairman of the Benchers Membership Committee.

“I had no intention to hurt your feelings. Membership of committees is a call to service and I know you are competent to serve in any committee of the Body. I asked in the circumstance for your understanding if I had wronged you. I apologize and plead for your cooperation and support for my projects presented today to the executive committee of the BoB,” he added.

My grouse with you not personal, it’s about rule of law—Alegeh, SAN

But on May 13, 2024, Mr Alegeh, again replied Chief Awomolo, SAN to pledge his support but that he felt he should address the issues he raised in his letter which he said bordered on due process and respect for the rule of law and not in any way personal.

Following the position of Alegeh that the issue should be revisited, Chief Awomolo sent a text message to Alegeh on May 15, 2024 and invited him for a discussion in his office the following day at 11:00am. Alegeh said though he was in the BoB Chairman’s office on May 16th, he said Awomolo didn’t get to office early enough which made him leave since he had to travel out of Abuja that day.

But he however said that shortly after he left Awomolo’s office, the BoB chairman called him on phone during which both of them spoke but could not resolve the issue.

That was the situation when Alegeh approached a Federal high court in Lagos on May 22, 2024 with an originating summon and an exparte application to stop Chief Awomolo from removing him as the Chairman of the Appointment Committee of the BoB and to invalidate the reconstituted committees with the prescribed two-year tenure attached, being in purported violation of the 2024 Regulation of the BoB.

The court had already issued an interim order stopping Chief Awomolo from temporarily removing Alegeh as the chairman of the Appointment Committee while the matter has been adjourned till July 8, 2024.

Twist as ex-Supreme Court Justice, Mary Odili disowns ex-NBA chief’s appointment

While the case in court is subsisting, Chief Awomolo, SAN had formally asked a former Justice of the Supreme Court and immediate past Chairman of the Body of Benchers (BoB), Justice Mary Peter-Odili, to throw light on the purported appointment of Alegeh, SAN as the Chairman of BoB’s Appointment Committee.

Justice Odili, in a letter of clarification dated June 3, 2024 and addressed to Awomolo, SAN, categorically denied giving any directive to issue the appointment letter and that she was just seeing the controversial letter of appointment for the first time which content she described as shocking.

Specifically, Justice Odili said that as the outgoing Chairman of the Body of Benchers, she could not have authorized the said appointment for three reasons including that she had made it known to the administration that she had no interest in reconfiguring the Appointment Committee during her tenure; that embarking on such a process on the day she chaired the last meeting would mean that the appointment would not be presented to the House for approval before the letter would be given to the candidate and that she could not have entered into the restructuring of the Appointments Committee without reference to the vice-chairman with whom she worked with as a team

Odili who said the clarifications became necessary to place her views on the matter on record and to clear all embarrassments that the purported appointment letter might have caused urged Awomolo-led BoB to quickly rectify the anomaly and remove her from being part of the said appointment of Augustine Alegeh, SAN as chairman of the Appointment Committee.

Awomolo queries Tela

Following the clarification made by Justice Peter-Odili, Chief Awomolo issued the BoB’s scribe a query to explain why he unilaterally appointed Alegeh as the Chairman of the BoB’s Appointment Committee.

BoB Secretary, Tela, sings

In a long reply to Chief Awomolo’s query,  Tella denied that he unilaterally appointed Alegeh as the Appointment Committee Chairman.

He said although there was no written instruction from the BoB chairman on the appointment, he yet claimed that he orally got Justice Odili’s consent which the jurist had vehemently denied.

According to Tela, “Regarding the appointment of Committee members, I wish to clarify that the Secretariat acts only on the directives of the Chairman issued orally or in writing. I say this on my honour. The Secretariat sometimes makes suggestions to the Chairman who is the final authority.”

Awomolo, SAN, Alegeh, SAN should settle it out of court—Ahamba, SAN

A top lawyer and respected member of the inner bar, Chief Mike Ahamba, SAN who expressed worry over the crisis rocking the Body of Benchers, said the issue at stake is a minor one which should not have gone to court in the first instance.

He however said that since it has gone to court, they should find a way of sorting it out amicably more so when the immediate Chairman of the BoB had denied making the appointment.

“What are they quarrelling over again. Are they paying them? The person who signed the letter of appointment has no power to appoint. And at that level too, I do not expect that such matter cannot be resolved amicably,” he added.

Elders of the profession should intervene—Olalekan Ojo, SAN

Another respect silk, Mr Olalekan Ojo, SAN said, “It is unfortunate. We are hoping that the elders of the profession will have the crisis resolved.”

Combatants should sheath their swords—Ngige, SAN

Also speaking on the crisis, Emeka Ngige (SAN) urged the parties involved in the disagreement to let peace reign.

“We pray for peace to reign. We don’t need a crisis in the Body of Benchers because we will be sending the wrong signal to lawyers and Law students. The BOB is a body of lawyers with the highest distinction. This is strange and it has never happened before. My advice is that the combatants should sheathe their swords and let peace reign.”

NBA politics is at play—SAN

A respected silk and serving state Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice who spoke with Vanguard on condition of anonymity said in the circumstance of the fresh revelations by Justice Odili, the matter should be quickly settled out of court as it is capable of dragging the integrity of the legal profession in the mud.

He said ordinarily, such matter should not have been taken to court but that what is happening is politics, adding  “Don’t forget, during the tenure of Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, this was how they rose against the top lawyer. NBA politics is here again. The fight is not against Awomolo but against the interest that he represents,” he said.

How we can stop the crisis from recurring—Tella

 Also speaking on the way forward, Tela, the Body’s Secretary said he is worried over the implications of the crisis on the integrity of the legal profession.

Tella who said he was merely obeying orders given to him by successive chairmen of BoB said he is hopeful though that the matter would be sorted out one way or the other but that with the recent development, “should the Secretariat only act upon written directives given to it for the records? To my mind, the answer should be yes. This way, the records will speak for itself.”

The BoB regulation should be the guiding light—Salawu

Another lawyer, Olatunji Salawu, simply said: “I am not a member of BOB, so I cannot tell how it completely works there and I am not familiar with their rules or if the chairman has the power to constitute but my opinion is if he has the power to constitute, then he can also reconstitute. He can choose to reconstitute committees and put those he can work with or those who can make his tenure effective. In other words, he can choose to rejig it if he doesn’t think the committee is strong enough but if there is a written down rule on it or the committee’s tenure, then, he cannot. He has to follow the written down rule.”


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