By Onome Amawhe
A leading corporate lawyer, NJ Ayuk has a keen understanding of the commercial objectives of his clients, which he uses to pursue vigorously successful outcomes. This African dude practices exclusively corporate and commercial law, particularly on transactions involving structuring, negotiation and implementation of petroleum, mining, LNG, and other natural resource. He has worked extensively in Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Chad, South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Angola, Congo and other Sub-Saharan countries; advising major companies on investment strategies, the establishment of joint ventures and cooperation structures, privatization, licensing and related tax, OHADA, Equatorial Guinea law, oil and gas, local content, litigation, governance and other matters.
His oil and gas expertise led him to author a book, Big Barrels—Africa’s oil and gas and the Quest for Prosperity, which chronicles Africa’s flashes of hope. Similarly, he has been highlighted as one of Africa’s leading oil and gas lawyer by the international Who’s Who of Oil and Gas Lawyers. Chambers and Partners also recognized him as an “important player” and a “tremendous resource”.
NJ Ayuk, a graduate of University of Maryland College Park and the New York Institute of Technology, is the partner responsible for coordinating one of Africa’s leading law firms. Centurion Law Group operates at the cutting edge of its practice areas from its headquarters in Johannesburg, South Africa, and from outstation offices in Lagos, Nigeria; Malabo, Equatorial Guinea; Accra, Ghana; Douala, Cameroon; and Port Louis, Mauritius. With proven capacity to act effectively and successfully for the very largest corporatesm bodies, Centurion Law Group also works with governments on judicial modernization, rule of law issues, training of judges, prosecutors and lawyers in Equatorial Guinea, Chad, South Sudan, Uganda and Niger on a pro bono basis.
How did your firm come to be named Centurion?
The idea of Centurion was that when you look at the old Roman soldiers, everybody believed that the Centurions were a group of 100, but they were really only about 25.
What it means with us in life is that we are not going to be 100 percent right in life all the time. Even if we are 70 percent right, we are still going to give our 100 percent. For us, we like that idea because it keeps us striving, knowing we are going somewhere. We might not have everything in place, but we are going to work hard and know that there is always room to improve. And that is what shapes our lives and what we do at this firm.
What are the rewards you’ve found practicing corporate law?
It is that, as an African, I can actually influence policy from a corporate perspective. We need to have people who have an African view in the boardrooms to really influence corporations that make decision that affect everyday people.
I went into corporate law knowing clearly that I also belong to the streets. And understanding that the African streets never had an advocate within the corporate environment to advocate for them. When you look at issues like empowerment, local content and entrepreneurship and ensuring that Africans become part of the business environment, that is what corporate law means to me — to be a voice for those who have been left on the roadside.
Corporations in Africa have a lot of power to really influence public policy, because our opticians in Africa listen to people with money.And if you can swing corporate decisions to promote policy that can lift people up and create a more people-focused environment, then you are doing well. That is what makes me happy with what I do.
What do you consider to have been your big break?
When it came to practicing law, my big break was negotiating contracts for African companies to be in the oil industry when nobody gives them a shot. The biggest break for me was when Pan-Atlantic hired me, giving me an opportunity to work with them across African continent.
What difference do you see in today’s legal market compared to when you started?
The big difference, and this is good for us, is that African lawyers are becoming better. They are becoming more creative. The use of technology is becoming really prevalent around the African legal market. But what is also growing is the role of women in the legal field. You have more women getting into the profession, more women taking their rightful place and taking a part in law, and I think that is good. The more women you have in the profession, the more beautiful the profession will be in terms of ethics and professionalism. I am hopeful and proud of where this profession is going.
Who is your legal hero?
My legal heroes are Thurgood Marshall, an African-American lawyer and the first African-American to serve on the United States Supreme Court, and Charles Hamilton Houston, a lawyer and teacher during the civil rights movement. Houston, for example, empowered young lawyers and he taught everyone by saying a lawyer is either a social engineer or a social parasite. He trained a group of people that went out and changed the world we see today. They left the profession better than they found it. They trained people to become social engineers and defeat the evils in their society.
What were some of the struggles you have faced during your career?
Struggles have included people having the confidence that you can do it, or sometimes not having the money to accomplish all of the things you want to do. Some of the struggles are also not being able to attract the best talent that I need in order for us to go forward.
How did you overcome those hurdles?
What is really important is to never give up, to always work hard and continue looking forward to finding good talents and working with them.
How would you characterize the state of legal practice in Africa?
It is challenging and there is a lot left to be desired. The countries that have done really well and have the best lawyers, like Nigeria, have shied away from going out of their countries. Because of that, it has left the quality of the legal practice in African very poor. But there is hope, because many countries have picked up where the Nigerians have left off. At this stage, Africans need to do better. We need to have a better bar and a better legal practice, because at the end of the day, it is not about doing legal work. It is about training and building up the lawyers that will become engineers of society and build an Africa we really want to see.
Tell us about your new book: Big Barrels – Africa Oil and Gas and the
Quest for Prosperity.
In Big Barrels we try to talk about Africa’s story. Big Barrels is about looking at Africa’s flashes of hope, and that you can look around Africa and use those flashes of hope to make the industry better. We do recognize the faults of the past, but the past is the reference, not a resentence. We want to go forward, so this book looks at the solutions we can go forward with.
What was the biggest challenge during the write up process?
I think sometimes you think you know too much, but the beauty about this book is that it was a collaborative effort. That is something that young writers and African writers should learn — that they can seek help. I love the idea of seeking help, because it helps expand my own worldview. I came out of this learning more than I put in, and that is a success. I became a better student of Africa.
How do you envisage corporate law developing over the next few years?
It is going to get even better, and here is why: Africa is a continent of growth. Africa is improving rapidly — there is more inter-African trade and more international investment coming to the continent. It is going to force everybody to get a grip on getting things right. I am very hopeful, but we have to keep a watchful eye to ensure that corruption, mismanaging and poor government policies do not ruin our profession.