‘The SBL Conference will Serve as Catalyst to Economic Advances’

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The Nigerian Bar Association’s Section on Business Law is unarguably a pacesetting section of the NBA. Every year it has continued to deliver a world-class business law conference which has attracted speakers and conferees from other jurisdictions. This year’s conference with the theme ‘Law Reform and Economic Development’ promises to be no less impressive than previous years. Dr. Babatunde Ajibade SAN is the Chairman of this year’s Conference Planning Committee and he explains to May Agbamuche-Mbu, Jude Igbanoi and Tobi Soniyi why Abuja will be the place to be for all Nigerian lawyers from June 21 – 24

You have been appointed the Chairman of this year’s NBA-SBL Conference in the same manner and following the pace-setting shoes of Mr. Ayuli Jemide among others before you. What do you want to be the defining character of your Chairmanship? How should attendees expect this year’s conference to be uniquely different from the years before it?

All the previous SBL conferences have been very well organised, well attended and successful. The SBL conferences have always raised the bar in terms of their organisation and content. My intention is to ensure that this year’s conference maintains this tradition. We are building upon the structures, databases and other information that have been generated in the organisation of previous editions.

Having said that, we are making every effort to address and eliminate any shortcomings that may have been noticed with previous conferences. In particular, we aim for this year’s conference to be run strictly by the clock. We will not pander to that ubiquitous concept, known as “African Time”. Time is time, and last time I checked, it did not have a passport so as to be designated African or otherwise!

Every year for a decade now the Section on Business Law (SBL) of the NBA has hosted a conference that uniquely brings together regulators, lawyers and business executives- a powerful forum for influencing the way business is done in Nigeria and for shaping economic policy. These are tough times for the Nigerian economy. Can the Conference still influence the Nigerian economy today?

There is no doubt that these are tough times for the Nigerian economy. However, it is in times of crisis that some of the greatest and most far reaching economic advances are made in any country. We expect that the current economic crisis in Nigeria will serve as such a catalyst and we are seeing signs of this already. We have positioned this conference to assist in this process as best as we can. This is evident from the theme of the conference and the line-up of sessions and topics that we have put together. As the saying goes, “we must not waste a good crisis!”

This year’s theme is ‘Law Reform and Economic Development.’ To what extent will the present global economic downturn feature as a subject in the conference’s events and programs, given the current reality of shrinking economies and of tumbling oil prices, for us in Nigeria?

The global economic downturn and Nigeria’s response to it are central features of some of the conference’s events and programs. Nigeria has long paid lip service to the need to diversify its economy away from being a monoculture economy solely focused on oil revenues for economic development. This is the reason why some of the conference sessions focus on some of the priority areas the current administration has identified as essential drivers for the diversification of the economy – namely the agriculture and solid minerals sectors. This is also why we have dedicated sessions to areas that deal with our investment laws as well as the ease of doing business in Nigeria. These sessions will deal with the legal regime in these areas and consider if and what law reform is needed to enable us achieve our economic goal of a robust and well diversified economy. The importance of these initiatives is underscored by the support we have received from the current administration and I am pleased to advise that the Ministers heading all the relevant ministries, Finance, Agriculture, Solid Minerals, Trade & Investment, amongst others have all confirmed their participation at the conference and will be playing prominent roles.

The Vice-President Prof. Yemi Osinbajo SAN, GCON will be a Guest Speaker at the Opening Ceremony speaking on “Africa Rising – Managing Africa’s Economies for the Benefit of its Peoples”. How should attendees expect the Government and regulators at the conference to demonstrate the tangible transition from good ideas to good policies that encourage good business practices in a productive economy?

I have great faith in the sincerity of the leadership of the present administration with regard to its genuine desire to manage the Nigerian economy for the benefit of its people. This, in my view, is a marked departure from the past. However, those in governance do not have the monopoly of wisdom and it is important that fora are created in which they can exchange ideas with the governed and with the economic intelligentsia and use them as a sounding board for some of these ideas even before these ideas crystallise into policies. Organisations such as the SBL and its parent body, the NBA, must create the platform for such exchanges to take place and that is what we expect will take place at this conference.

For the first time in many years the NBA-SBL is taking its annual conference back to the nation’s capital, Abuja. What informed this move?

This move was informed by the fact that this is a milestone annual conference, our 10th; by the fact that the NBA President, Mr. Augustine Alegeh, specifically requested that the conference be held in Abuja; and by the nature of the theme of the conference, Law Reform and Economic Development. We came to the conclusion very early on in our planning that it would be ideal to discuss Law Reform within earshot of the authorities that have the power to reform the law.

No matter where you are in Nigeria today doing business is extremely difficult. The World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business Index’ measures different sets of indices that are comparative across 189 countries globally showing how businesses thrive or falter in different nations due to available infrastructure and ability to obtain regulatory/administrative approvals. Nigeria is 169th in that ranking. This perhaps is the most visible and globally transferable character of business in Nigeria, ‘difficulty’. So how does the NBA-SBL intend to tackle this poignant theme in this year’s conference?

The issues you have identified are the reason why we have a high powered session solely dedicated to addressing this topic and assessing the areas in which we may need to reform our laws in order to improve the ease of doing business in Nigeria and our rankings in this regard. This session will be chaired by the Honourable Minister of Trade & Investment Dr. Okechukwu Enelamah, who I am aware has also identified this as a priority area for his Ministry. I am also aware that the Senate and the House of Representatives also have on-going initiatives addressing this topic and our speaker for the session is one of the consultants who have been working on identifying the modalities for addressing these issues. We also have a distinguished panel of discussants made up of business persons, local and international, who feel the brunt of the difficulties in this area. We are hopeful that this session will provide insight into the causes of this challenge as well as proffer workable solutions that can be implemented immediately to ameliorate the situation.

There should, necessarily be a special relationship between Lawyers and Legislators. Lawyers make a practice of the law, Legislators make the law. It therefore goes without saying that when Lawyers want to influence business the starting point is dialogue with the Lawmakers. Can attendees at this year’s conference expect to find out about how Lawyers and Legislators are working to encourage business in Nigeria?

They most definitely can. Indeed, I make bold to say that the engagement between the Legislature and the business law community, as represented by the SBL and its parent body, the NBA, is currently at its highest level. There are on-going initiatives both at the Senate and at the House of Representatives to carry out a holistic review of all our business laws and both legislative houses have engaged actively with the NBA and the SBL to secure our input into this process. This process is on-going and will form part of the discussions at the opening premium plenary session on Thursday 23rd June 2016 on the conference theme, “Law Reform and Economic Development”.

Beyond creating the necessary legislative framework to support thriving business at both large and SME levels, it is imperative to actually ensure that good business practices are created and protected by Government Policy. No one can legislate for how to do good business but the spirit of enterprise can be protected in Government Ministries and Departments integral to enabling business in Nigeria. Is this an approach worth taking? How can the NBA-SBL encourage Government to do this?

This is a truly significant point you make. It reminds me of the adage that “you can force a horse to the water but you can’t force it to drink”. I agree that putting the proper legislative framework in place is necessary but not a sufficient solution to establishing good business practices. There are a myriad number of other factors that come into play in establishing the right environment for business to thrive. Primary amongst these are a prompt and efficient system of commercial dispute resolution; a fully functional judicial system; and an efficient public service. Whilst some of these can be put in place administratively by Government, a significant part of the success or otherwise of such initiatives will depend on a change in our orientation and attitude. Except we all, as Nigerians, take a collective decision to change our orientation and attitude away from one in which self-interest constantly and consistently takes precedence over the common good, it will be difficult if not impossible to create an environment in which good business can thrive and grow.

What format will this year’s conference be taking with regards to speaking arrangements and sessions?

The Conference Programme is very robust and covers a wide range of legal, economic and socio-political issues for deliberations. The Conference will kick-off in earnest on the 22nd of June, 2016 at 6.00pm with an Opening Ceremony/Dinner to be addressed by our Guest Speaker and Special Guest of Honour, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, GCON, Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He will also declare the conference formally open.

The conference sessions will commence at 8.30am on Thursday 23rd June 2016 and they will all be plenary sessions. There will be 5 plenary sessions on Thursday 23rd June 2016 and another 5 plenary sessions on Friday 24th June 2016. These sessions will be interspersed with tea-breaks and lunch to provide adequate time for networking amongst participants at the conference. The topics to be covered in the order in which they will appear on the programme are: (1) LAW REFORM AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT – Is this the missing link?; (2) MANAGING NIGERIA’S ECONOMY – Is there a need for institutional reforms?; (3) VEHICLES FOR DOING BUSINESS: Is the CAMA fit for a modern growing economy?; (4) FUTURE PROSPECTS FOR THE OIL & GAS INDUSTRY – The challenge of reforming this slippery sector; (5) RESOLVING DISPUTES – Is the Arbitration and Conciliation Act still fit for purpose?; (6) MOVING NIGERIA UP THE LADDER IN THE EASE OF DOING BUSINESS METRICS? –Has anybody got a magic wand?; (7) PROMOTING COMMERCIAL AGRICULTURE AS AN IMPERATIVE – What is required to awaken this sleeping giant?; (8) NIGERIA’S SOLID MINERALS AS A SOURCE OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT – Tapping a latent resource; (9) POWER SECTOR REFORM – When will the lights come on?; and (10) VISION FOR NIGERIA’S INFRASTRUCTURE DEVELOPMENT – What do we need to get there?

There is also a rich array of social events planned, which include a Cocktail and night of entertainment on Thursday and a Closing Party on Friday at which one of Nigeria’s most celebrated artistes will be performing.

Participants should expect an engaging, rich, diverse, deep, informative and far-reaching conference, where a carefully selected panel of speakers and discussants will be x-raying topical issues in great detail. The conference, as you will experience, is structured to bring value to a large target audience, the public sector, the private sector, the international investment community, the Judiciary and those in the informal sector of the economy.

What is this year’s conference’s approach to engaging the Young Bar? How will the conference take advantage of this energetic segment of the NBA and perhaps tap into the enthusiasm and refreshing appeal they can bring to the NBA-SBL and this year’s conference?

Since inception, young lawyers have always been at the heart of the SBL and they traditionally form the bulk of our conference attendees. They have continued to show strong demonstrable passion and commitment to learning from and interacting with their senior colleagues. At every SBL conference, we give a substantial discount to young lawyers to encourage their participation and this year we have reduced the registration fees for young lawyers to N15,000. As we speak, we already have over 200 young lawyers who have registered online for this year’s conference.

One complaint lawyers have had over the years is that the NBA-SBL conference fees are on the high side and out of the reach of junior lawyers. Would there be differential fees this year taking this consideration into mind?

Yes there will be. As stated above, the conference fees for junior lawyers is a discounted fee of N15,000 as against N40,000 for more senior lawyers who are NBA-SBL members and N45,000 for non-members.

There are always a number of outstanding topics and compelling speakers at the NBA-SBL conference. What speakers and what headline sessions should we look out for this year?

Aside from His Excellency the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, GCON; other notable speakers and personalities who will be speaking at the conference are: Mr. Babatunde Raji Fashola, SAN – The Honourable Minister of Power, Works and Housing; Mrs. Kemi Adeosun – The Honourable Minister of Finance; Chief Audu Ogbeh – The Honourable Minister of Agriculture; Dr. Kayode Fayemi – The Honourable Minister for Solid Minerals; Dr. Okechukwu Enelamah – The Honourable Minister for Trade & Investment; Honourable Justice Mahmoud Mohammed, FNJI, GCON – The Chief Justice of the Federation; Mallam Abubakar Malami, SAN – The Honourable Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation; Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila – The Majority Leader of the House of Representatives; and many others too numerous to list here.

The NBA-SBL conference and other conferences such as the NBA’s Annual Conference provide a unique opportunity to organisers like yourselves, for sampling, surveying and interacting with large and sometimes unprecedented audiences of lawyers, professionals and niche demographics within the wider body of these professionals. Does the NBA-SBL look to leverage these audiences by engaging them through new means, interactive tools, discussion breakout sessions, crowd surveys and so on?

This is not something we had considered. However, now that you have mentioned it, I consider it an idea well worth looking into. We will seize the opportunity of this conference to conduct a survey to find out how the delegates think our future conferences and events may be better organised and how the SBL may better serve their needs in general.

Registration and Logistics can make or break a conference of this size and importance. What are the plans for registration and how has the NBA-SBL planning committee ensured that the process is seamless and hassle free for attendees?

We are working hard to ensure that the logistics around this issue are adequately addressed. Our desire is to have as many delegates as possible register for the conference online and reduce registration at the venue of the conference to the barest minimum. In order to encourage this, we have offered discounted registration fees to all delegates who register online, prior to 1st of June 2016. Online registration will continue to be available up until 19th June but this will be at the full rate. We encourage as many delegates as possible to take advantage of the online registration. We have an experienced team dealing with registration and we are confident that the process will go smoothly.

Part of the NBA-SBL’s objectives has been to elevate the conference to allow for the building of unique international partnerships and the creation of a network of lawyers and business people from all over the world that provides access to Nigeria and Africa as a market. How is the NBA-SBL showcasing this achievements and objectives this year?

As you note, the NBA-SBL is an international business law conference and always attracts participation from our international colleagues and the international business community. This year is no different. We have speakers from neighbouring African countries of Cameroon and Ghana and also from the United Kingdom. We also have participation from several multinational organisations with operations in Nigeria. We have marketed the conference to various organisations such as the Law Society of England & Wales and the Ghana Bar Association amongst others and we expect a good turnout of international delegates.

Does attendance at this year’s NBA-SBL conference confer Continuous Legal Education (CLE) points?

Yes, through the NBA’s Institute of Continuing Legal Education.

The Bar should maintain a healthy appetite for growth, development and diversity and with that in mind are there any new segments of the NBA-SBL not seen before, niche areas of practice gaining interest and presenting a new perspective on the SBL?

The leadership of the NBA-SBL is always keen to promote the development of new segments of practice and areas of specialisation. However, these developments have to be driven by practitioners who practice in or would like to develop practice in that area of the law. Currently the NBA-SBL has 19 sub-committees dealing with diverse areas of specialisation ranging from Arbitration and ADR to Travel, Hospitality and Tourism. If members show interest in developing new sub-committees, the NBA-SBL leadership is always willing to support such initiatives.