The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has asked legal luminary Wole Olanipekun to step down as the Body of Benchers (BOB) chairman over the Saipem saga.
NBA President, Olumide Akpata signed a July 22 letter addressed to the Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN).
Akpata made the call following a petition against Ms. Adekunbi Ogunde, a partner at Wole Olanipekun & Co.
Ogunde is accused of engaging in “conduct incompatible with her status and in flagrant disregard of rules of professional conduct”.
Akpata informed Olanipekun that the NBA had taken the matter to the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LPDC).
The LPDC is a panel under the BOB which Olanipekun, a former NBA President, heads.
Akpata said he is in a situation where his continued occupancy of the office would conflict with or influence LPDC processes.
“I am constrained to invite you to recuse yourself from the chairmanship of the BOB and to emplace and interim leadership.
The NBA believes this would ensure the panel carried out its investigation of Ogunde, “without coming under the suspicion of impartiality”.
“I am pained that I have to make this call, but in this circumstance, it is in the best interest of our Association and of the legal profession in Nigeria ”, Akpata added.
She sent an email to Saipem Contracting Nigeria Ltd soliciting a brief after the Rivers state government preferred charges against the company over allegations of $130million fraud.
Though the firm of Henry Ajumogobia (SAN) is defending Saipem, Ogunde told the management to consider hiring Olanipekun & Co.
The partner informed CEO Francesco Caio that Olanipekun has more “influence” with judges across all courts.
“We are aware that another law firm is currently in the matter but you will agree that highly-sensitive and political matters require more influence.
“We are happy to work with the current lawyers to achieve the desired results. Chief Olanipekun SAN, OFR, will significantly switch things in favour of SAIPEM.”
Ogunde included that Olanipekun chairs the BOB comprising “supreme court judges, presiding justices of the court of appeal and chief judges of all state high courts, including the Rivers state high court.”
In a protest letter, Ajumogobia declared that the action was a breach of mandatory rule, especially the acknowledgement that Saipem had a counsel.
“That I and my firm of Ajumogobia & Okeke were retained in the matter, was a matter of public record and was personally known to you and your firm, since you had asked me about the matter during our Unilag Law Faculty Alumni dinner at Harbour point in February,” he wrote.
Ogunde apologized to Ajumogobia: “My email of 20th June 2022 (although done in exuberance, but in good faith and with altruism) has caused great distress, embarrassment and trauma to the people I hold and will continue to very dearly.”
On June 24, Olanipekun again apologized in a rejoinder, stressing that no one authorized the email by Ogunde.
“First, let it be known without any equivocation that the said letter was written without the instruction, authority, mandate, approval or consent of Wole Olanipekun & Co.; it was also not brought to our attention by the writer.
“Second, it has never been the practice of our law firm to solicit for cases or clientele, and we shall never indulge ourselves in this disturbing practice and trend.”
The letter said Ogunde acted on her own, “and we do wholly dissociate ourselves from the letter and its contents: internal measures would immediately be taken to address and redress this very unfortunate situation.”
“The writer never discussed her intention to write the letter or showed it to any person or counsel in the office, either before or after sending it to Mr. Caio.\
“We unreservedly apologize to the highly respected H. Odein Ajumogobia, SAN, OFR, and the entire law firm of Ajumogobia & Okeke for the embarrassment which the letter might have caused them”.
Olanipekun added that the matter has also caused his chamber “a lot of embarrassment as well”.
In petition BB/LPDC/901/2022 to the LPDC, John Aikpokpo-Martins, NBA vice president said the issue brought shame to the justice system and legal profession.
The body wants to know whether Wole Olanipekun & Co. “are not liable to be disciplined…seeing that the Respondent has the ostensible authority to act as a partner, and indeed acted for and on behalf of the said firm”.