The Nigerian judiciary was in the news recently when the then-chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Muhammed Tanko was forced out by allegations of corruption made against him by his colleagues in the Supreme Court. It left many wondering how low the Bench has fallen, but recent happenings have shown that the Bench is not alone in the mess.
Principal members of the Bar have also been in the news lately, over the inappropriate conduct of members of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). Against the rules governing the legal practice in Nigeria, a lawyer in the Chambers of Chief Wole Olanipekun(SAN), Ms. Adekunbi Ogunde had written a letter to a foreign firm – Saipem – on June 20, 2022, to lobby and ask that Saipem disengage from its current contract with the chamber of Chief Odein Ajumogobia, SAN, and engage the firm she represents, a move that backfired and is the origin of the current crisis rocking Nigeria’s judiciary.
How did it backfire? Ogunde, in the controversial letter, had lobbied Saipem’s top executive, Francesco Caio, to offer legal services in a criminal case instituted by the Rivers State Government against Saipem SPA, Saipem Contracting Nigeria Limited, Mr. Walter Peviana, and four others. The Rivers State Government had accused Saipem and other defendants of conspiring to cheat and with intent to defraud it of the sum of $130m being advance payment for the construction of the OCGT power plant in Port Harcourt. But unknown to Ogunde, both parties had reached an out-of-court settlement.
How did it become an issue?
In the case, Saipem SPA (first defendant), Saipem Contracting Nigeria Limited (second defendant), Mr. Walter Peviana (third defendant), and Vitto Testaguzza (6th defendant) had been represented by the law firm Ajumogobia & Okeke, belonging to former Minister of Petroleum, Chief Ajumogobia. In her letter, Ogunde acknowledged being aware that Saipem had engaged another law firm, but argued that Saipem would be better represented by the firm where she’s a partner (Wole Olanipekun & Co). Strangely, in addition to arguing that her law firm is the best in the country, Ogunde emphasized the influence and reach of her principal partner. “The presence of our lead partner, Chief Olanipekun, SAN, OFR, in the matter will significantly switch things in favour of Saipem”, she wrote.
How did it become news? According to Ogunde, “Chief Olanipekun, SAN, OFR is currently the Chairman of the Body of Benchers which is the highest ruling body in the Nigerian legal profession”. In reaction, Saipem forwarded a copy of the letter to their counsel, Chief Ajumogobia, SAN, who was, “as expected”, angered by it. Ajumogobia then expressed his displeasure in a mail to Chief Wole Olanipekun, denouncing how Ogunde violated the rules governing the legal practice. Ajumogobia demanded a written apology to the firm of Ajumogobia & Okeke from Wole Olanipekun & Co, “for this most deplorable conduct of Adekumbi Ogunde and your firm”, as well as a letter to Saipem retracting the lobby letter.
Olanipekun & Co expressed shock at the content of Ogunde’s letter and denied involvement in the matter, insisting that Ms. Ogunde acted on her own. The law firm subsequently apologized to Ajumogobia and did as demanded. Ogunde also sent an apology. But while both parties tried to manage the controversy, correspondences got leaked to the press, leading to the involvement of the NBA, which initiated an investigation into the matter for possible punishment of the culprit. In addition, the NBA president Olumide Akpata, in a leaked letter, demanded that Chief Wole Olanipekun recuse himself from the chairmanship of the Body of Benchers, leading to another imbroglio as Olanipekun cried foul.