By Dayo Benson & Bartholomew Madukwe
The recently concluded 57th annual conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) emphasized on the need for strong institutions as panacea for economic recovery continues to reverberate.
The conference had its theme as African Business: Penetrating through institution building and six plenary sessions. Its sub themes were: Conversations with the Vice president; Institutionalising African investment; the great debate: We need help to grow; and Transboundary infrastructure development and weak institutions.
The conference which was held in Lagos from August 18-24, 2017, commenced with Church and Jumat services, and visits to the Nigerian Stock Exchange, the Oba of Lagos, a welcome cocktail, a novelty match and medical screening.
About 146 speakers, including Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, SAN; former Georgian President, Nika Gilauri, governors, ministers, law makers, financial and investment experts, corporate icons, academia, judges, past NBA presidents, senior advocates of Nigeria. The minister for power, works and housing, Babatunde Fashola, represented the vice president, while attorney general of the federation and minister of justice, Abubakar Malami, SAN, spoke through Dayo Akasa.
The event featured showcase sessions from five states including Lagos, Rivers, Bauchi, Kano and Ondo States. Governors of these states spoke on investment opportunities in their states. However, the conference ended with the annual general meeting of the NBA where their officers presented account reports and other activities of various agencies.
The agencies included the Nigerian Law Reform, Commission, the Nigerian Law School, the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (NIALS), Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). Vice President Osinbajo who expressed optimism on the development of Nigeria, said the government is making effort to build strong institutions that will ensure efficiency and transparency.
Osinbajo said the country is witnessing prosperity through agriculture, citing Kebbi and Lagos rice initiative as examples. He also said that Nigeria has made big steps in business adding that regulations in business environment in Nigeria is making it investment friendly and attractive for direct foreign investments.
NBA President, Abubakar Mahmoud, SAN, said the topic of the conference was chosen to underscore the challenge of bringing prosperity to Africa’s most populous country and to the continent. He said “The decline of our country’s economic fortunes in the last few years has exacerbated tensions along our traditional fault lines whilst unmasking new ones, making the task of nation building seem even more daunting. To rebuild confidence in our country, it is clear that we must address the challenges of institution building. It is only strong institutions that can guarantee social protection, bring about political stability and engender economic prosperity”.
The Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode, in his welcome address, challenged the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, to lend its voice to calls for devolution of powers to states. He said Africa’s underdevelopment is attributed to weak institutions, adding, “Weak institutions constitute a major disincentive for investment which is extremely important for the efficient and effective harnessing of the huge resources that nature has blessed us with. Our institutions are weak because in most cases, their establishment is influenced by personal and short term considerations.”
Minister of Works, Power and Steel, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, SAN, who represented Osinbajo at the opening ceremony said building strong institutions takes time, stressing that Nigeria must put in place structures that can compete globally. He said “Institution building encompasses an array of steps and procedures, each one building on and reinforcing the other to create a desired whole.
Strong codes of corporate governance
“These may include creating and implementing strong codes of corporate governance, taking the business of audit seriously, listing on the capital market and consummating mergers and acquisitions where necessary.”
The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen, in his goodwill message, explained that in building institutions that would sustain African business, lawyers, through formulation of legal standard or implementation, are key players. He stressed the need for regulatory institutions to supervise African businesses, the CJN said it is important to have a well liberated corporate governance regime to build the confidence of investors, prevent financial crises and control corporate failures.
Onnoghen added: “Sound corporate governance practises are building a strong and qualified Board of Directors, reviewing both mandates and stating clearly defined roles and responsibility of board members. CEOs or Executive Staff of Management is a sure way to foster growth of the enterprise. In like manner, a good ethical dealing by directors, as well as effective risk management, is an aid in their growth. In my view, however, there is a need for regulatory institutions for better supervision and monetary, so as to be able to detect corporate inefficiencies and minimize vulnerability to financial crisis.”
The CJN opined that in a highly competitive environment of a global world, most Nigerian business enterprise were either failing or becoming relieved. According to him, a few successful ones are the companies that boldly engineered their governance and workforce structure and concentrated on building institutional growths.
“While it was reported in 2015 that sub-Saharan South Africa accounted for the largest number of regulatory reforms, aimed at making it easier to do business, in the previous year, 75 percent of the 230 documented worldwide challenges still persists in countries in the region, hardly improving in their ranking on the cost of doing business. In my view, however, there is a need for regulatory institutions for better supervision so as to be able to detect corporate inefficiencies and minimize vulnerability to financial failures.”.
Some other topics presented in different sessions of the conference were, “Essence of a Strong Legal Brand,” “The Rise of the Digital Economy and the Law firm it needs”, “What is the Plan: Managing Client Expectations”, “Being relevant in emerging Practice Areas”.
Other side attractions: According to one of the participants, Al–ameen Abubakar, the discussions were rich, the debates were thrilling, and the topics were very timely. “In about two sessions we argued whether the prohibition of advertisement for legal practitioners has outlived its usefulness. It was even suggested that a position paper will be sent to the NBA executive on the need to review the rule against advertisement for legal practitioners. Some of us entertained the fear that removing the rule totally might not do well for the profession.
“The most traumatising part of the lectures for me was the arrangement of the breakout sessions. At a point I wished I could divide myself into two or three and each part should attend a different session at a different time. I pray in due course, the organisers of the conference will make available all the sessions on a dedicated YouTube channel.
“I cannot stop dreaming about what those sessions I missed looked like. I think in the next conference, putting delegates in such kind of dilemma should be avoided. Every break out session should cover different interests at a time. For example choosing between“Essence of a Strong Legal Brand” and“The Rise of a Digital Economy and the Law firm it needs” was a nightmare for me,” he stated.
Abubakar noted that the tablet given as the conference souvenir was a remarkable improvement on previous conferences. Apart from the unprecedented giving out of tablets to conferees, the fact that every delegate got his tablet was yet another milestone in the recent history of the NBA.
He maintained that in previous conferences only luck and might would make a delegate get his conference bag and writing pad. “For many delegates the 2017 conference is the first time they ever owned a tablet. This is a remarkable achievement towards digitalising legal practice in Nigeria. The conference ought to have been pre-loaded with Legalpedia application, Lawbreed Application and CLRN direct.
“However only CLRN was properly functional, the other two applications had to bring their staff to manually install the applications for delegates one after another. It appears the applications were hurriedly prepared to catch up with the conference and this affected the performance of the Applications.
“I also noticed that the applications were not as free as the providers claimed, in reality the applications are embedded with advertising wares that annoyingly prevent peaceful enjoyment of the applications. The health check-ups was also a new touch for the conference. At least most lawyers have finally been told that they are overweight,”Abubakar said.