UK-Nigeria Enhanced Trade Investment Partnership Agreement and Matters Arising 

UK-Nigeria Enhanced Trade Investment Partnership Agreement and Matters Arising 

‘The Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment was reported to have expressed delight, over what she described as a “ground-breaking agreement” that will translate to ‘more money’ for Nigeria. The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) finds this statement credited to the Honourable Minister ridiculous, unpatriotic, and uninformed. It is indeed, unfortunate that this tragic reminder of our colonial past, is being gleefully celebrated at the highest level of the Government of Nigeria. What is more disheartening, is the fact that a decision of this magnitude that adversely affects the wellbeing and livelihood of millions of Nigerians, could be taken without any consultation, especially with the NBA. 

We know for certain that the British Government will not undermine its own body of legal professionals, in such spectacular fashion as this administration has done to the NBA in the matter of this agreement. It is truly tragic that while the government of the UK is seeking opportunities for its own Lawyers beyond its constrained environment, the Government of Nigeria is attempting to deprive Nigerian Lawyers and their millions of dependants of a means of livelihood. To embark on such a venture without recourse to the NBA is the height of insensitivity to the plight of the legal profession in Nigeria, and this is totally unacceptable. 

We want to make it very clear that the ETIP agreement, in so far as it relates to legal services is unacceptable in its entirety. The NBA will take all necessary measures provided by our laws in support of our position on this matter. As a starting point, I have today convened a meeting of senior Lawyers with a view to devising an appropriate litigation strategy. We intend to fully challenge the legality of this agreement all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. This is without prejudice to other intervention measures that may be necessary, to express our rejection of this agreement. I want to use this opportunity to call on all members of the NBA, to brace up for the struggle ahead. The NBA under my leadership will not allow any incursion into our legal space. “

…..Yakubu Chonoko Maikyau, OON, SAN , President, Nigeria Bar Association

A Ministerial X Posted in Error

Few events, at least in recent memory, have focussed the minds of Lawyers as did the Enhanced Trade Investment Partnership (ETIP) Agreement that was signed last week by the Governments of Nigeria and the United Kingdom. What particularly rubbed the vast majority of Lawyers the wrong way, was the initial post from the Minister of Trade and Industry that read ‘I am delighted to announce the official signing of a ground breaking agreement between the United Kingdom and Nigeria, allowing British Lawyers to practice within Nigeria’. 

Reading through the several Lawyers’ WhatsApp platforms, one would have thought Nigerian Lawyers had declared war on the Federal Government. The subsequent announcement that the post was unauthorised or posted in error, did nothing to calm the outburst of Lawyers. Without prejudice to the fine print of what was signed, one cannot but wonder how it is even possible, that a post from the official handle of a Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria would misrepresent the contents of an agreement that was announced even before the ink on the agreement was dry?  In her words, ’Regrettably, our earlier report erroneously suggests that Nigeria has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that allows Lawyers licensed in the United Kingdom to practice in Nigeria”. How was the outcome of an event of such magnitude, erroneously reported by the Minister? Does this not again call into question the quality of those appointed into the cabinet of President Tinubu, especially at this time in the life of our country when our people desire service delivery of the highest quality?  

Public Officials and Colonial Mentality

Then there is the knotty matter of absence of consultation with key stakeholders, at least at it relates to the provision of legal services. How could the Federal Government of Nigeria have entered into an agreement with a foreign government on the provision of legal services, without carrying along the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA)? Again, for a government that prides itself as being in sync with civil society, was this not a major minus? I completely agree with the sentiments of the NBA that the UK government will not treat its own legal professional body with such levity. What is it with us and ‘oyinbo’ countries, that anytime we want to enter into an agreement we abruptly forget who we are and revert back to our colonial mentality? One of my colleagues told me that the desire of our public officials for entry visa into these countries, is sometimes responsible for this state of confusion when we negotiate these agreements. It would seem that this ‘visa enabled confusion’ does not only happen at the Federal level, it also applies to the States. 

Recently, a Governor instructed my firm to vet three agreements between his State and a European Manufacturing Company. The State Ministry of Justice had approved the agreement, but the Governor wanted us to do a final review. The provision that caught my attention in all the agreements, was the dispute resolution clause. There it was stated, that any dispute that may arise in the process of executing the agreement will be resolved by the UK courts. I flagged this, and asked the Governor to insist that the appropriate court should be the Nigerian courts. If our environment is good enough for business, if our resources are good enough to be exploited, and money made in Nigeria is good enough to be repatriated, then our courts must be good enough to entertain any dispute. The Governor agreed with me, and the company had no choice but to agree that the place for dispute resolution will be Nigeria. I was told that I am not exactly very popular in that State now. I have been accused of blocking foreign travel opportunities, for the civil servants. Many of our public officials at Federal and State levels need continuous education sessions in patriotism, including reorientation that instils a sense of pride in our abilities. Our creed should be ‘Nigeria first’; ‘White is not better than black’. 

Standing up for Nigeria and Nigerians

We need our Governments and its officials, to stand up for us. When the Tinubu administration speaks about citizens and interest groups being stakeholders in governance, this should not be political speak. We should not be stakeholders of convenience. Consideration and consultation on matters that concern us, should be important components of having a stake in governance.  If the Lawyers did not raise a hue and cry about this agreement, it may have simply passed unnoticed. God help other interest groups, without the clout of the organised legal profession. Outside consultation, are we not embarrassed that while the Government of UK is creating opportunities for its own people, including its legal professionals, we are trying to run our own professionals out of business? A discerning person, looking at developments in the UK, will realise that since its ill-advised Brexit, the Government of UK has been bullish in seeking alternative opportunities for its people. This, is in addition to its quiet adoption of a protectionist attitude across its socio-economic space. 

To be sure Nigerian Lawyers are not inferior to UK Lawyers, our argument is that the balance of advantage is tilted in favour of the UK. We want to open our markets including financial and legal to the UK, but what opportunities exist for the average Nigerian Lawyer in the UK? Access to opportunities within the UK legal space must necessarily begin with physical access, especially these days when it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to obtain a UK Visa. How does the average Nigerian Lawyer have access, when he can’t get an entry visa to the UK? Will the UK Government show reciprocity by liberalising its visa regime, to enable Nigerian Lawyers explore opportunities in the UK market?  

Agreement Without Reforms

The other matter that is worth mentioning, is whether we can even begin to have any discussion on international cooperation in legal services, at a time when we are struggling to implement the necessary reforms required to lift our legal system. It seems trite that any agreement in the area of legal services, must first start with an acknowledgement of the need to undertake fundamental reforms in our legal system. There is popular dissatisfaction with our legal system. Our laws, practices and procedures require fresh rethinking. Thankfully, we have taken a major step concerning the Judiciary, at least, as it relates to the salaries and allowances of judicial officers, but we are still a long way away from where we should be. Our present reality is that our legal system as it exists today, is grappling with issues of rule of law, timeframes for legal resolutions, and the right tools to ensure that our people have access to justice. 

Can we agree to put our house in order, before we begin to go in search of international cooperation.

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