Mr. Seni Adio, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, is the Vice-Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association Section on Business Law. In this interview with RAMON OLADIMEJI, he attempts a review of the legal aspect of the efforts by the Federal Government to take the country out of economic recession
Upper week, the acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo (SAN), signed three executive orders that will enhance the ease of doing business and only last Thursday, the Senate finally passed the 14-year-old Petroleum Industry Governance Bill; what will be your reaction to these developments vis-a-vis the country’s struggle to exit economic recession?
Based on whatever objective criteria you may apply, the Presidency has done an outstanding job with respect to its drive to enhance the ease of doing business in the country. I doubt very much whether you will find any member of your audience who is not aware or has been impacted in some way regarding the bold steps that the Federal Government has taken in this regard. I strongly believe that these initiatives form an integral part of the socio-economic prescriptions required to propel the country out of economic recession. Indeed, I dare say that the country is already on the path of economic growth, although a lot of work still needs to be done and, admittedly, anxiety is still widespread amongst the populace.
Turning to the passing of the PIGB by the Senate, this could be a watershed assuming it is promptly considered and passed in the House of Representatives and, thereafter, assented to by the President. The dividends that the reform portends include inflow of foreign investments that have been withheld for many years, enhanced operational efficiencies, increased revenues for economic diversification, and enhanced indigenous participation and human capacity development.
As a legal practitioner and Vice-Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association Section on Business Law, what similar interventions do you think are required of government and private sector players to further solidify the country’s quest to exit recession?
The Federal Government still needs to address the fluctuations of the Naira vis-à-vis foreign currencies, particularly the United States Dollars, British Pounds Sterling and the Euro. It is crucial.
Another area is access to low-interest credit for SMEs, the agriculture and allied businesses sector, technology, and the arts. Technology is the future and can be so transforming that the possibilities are even beyond the contemplation of you and I. It is an area that the Federal Government should take special interest in because it can literally transform Nigeria into a first-world economy. Paying attention to this area is not limited to funding but also requires revamping the curriculum in our secondary schools and universities, particularly the technology colleges and institutes.
While on this subject, I will give you a few examples of how consumers and the society at large have benefitted from government funding of technology initiatives in universities and even the military. These include the microwave, which was originally developed by the military but is now being used in our kitchens; drones, which are now used at civilian functions to take photographs; the Global Positioning System that we now find in our smartphones, cars, etc.; nylon, Jeep 4×4, and night-vision goggles.
For those aficionados of fine audio sound, how many of them know the beginning of Bose Corporation– the electronics and audio equipment manufacturer – that it was developed by a professor at MIT in the USA, and the multi-billion dollar company is still majority owned by the university? Why can’t we have and support similar initiatives in our colleges and institutes of technology?
The NBA-SBL holds an annual conference, where ideas that can strengthen the nation’s economy are synthesised; how impactful have your interventions been; has government been welcoming and putting your advice to use?
As you may recall, the theme for last year’s conference was “Law Reform and Economic Development.” And, during the conference, a recurring issue was the dismal performance of Nigeria on the 2016 Ease of Doing Business ranking by the World Bank, where we ranked 169 out of 189 countries. Thus, it was quite fortuitous that although no silver bullet exits to fix the problem, one of the most effective mechanisms to transform our business environment is through law reform and, in particular, reform to enhance the ease of doing business. Coincidentally, the private sector under the auspices of the Nigeria Economic Summit Group had also come to the same conclusion, which culminated in the SBL and NESG collaborating initially on an ad-hoc basis and, subsequently, through a formalised structure to advocate reform in certain key areas.
Of course, we realised very early on the need to work closely with the executive and the legislative arms of the Federal Government. Notably, the leadership of the 8th Assembly of the National Assembly has also made the economic revitalisation of Nigeria its primary agenda. Thus, it made eminent sense to synergise our collective efforts, which resulted in establishing the National Assembly Business Environment Roundtable, NASSBER, which is an enabling advocacy platform comprising the National Assembly, the NESG and the SBL founded to foster law reforms including the repeal, re-enactment and amendment of laws, as well as review of bills pending before the National Assembly.
The Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Yakubu Dogara, have been very supportive and welcoming of our contributions. Indeed, the Senate President recently inaugurated a working group chaired by a member of our Section to provide recommendations on the repeal and re-enactment of the Companies and Allied Matters Act, and the Investments and Securities Act.
The Section has also, through NASSBER, been advising the National Assembly on other very important legislation and bills, including the impending and what would be the first Competition Act in Nigeria. Other bills/legislation in which the SBL has made contributions through NASSBER include the Secured Transactions in Moveable Assets Bill, which was recently passed by the Senate, and the Foreign Exchange (Monitoring and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act – the Forex Act.
Likewise, the SBL is privileged to be working closely with the executive arm of the Federal Government under the auspices of the Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council, PEBEC/the Enabling Business Environment Secretariat, EBES. Here, the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR has made great strides in implementing various transforming reforms to manifestly enhance the ease of doing business in Nigeria.
Importantly, it is fitting and, indeed, noble to acknowledge and applaud the achievements of the Federal Government through our Acting President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, GCON with respect to the hands-on approach of the Presidency and the remarkable achievements thus far including the Corporate Affairs Commission online and the 24-hour company incorporation process, upgrading the automated capacity of the Customs and Excise Service to inspect and clear goods, eliminating bottlenecks in the visa on arrival program, and the promotion of made-in-Nigeria goods.
More recently, the Acting President introduced three pivotal Executive Orders geared towards enhancing doing business in Nigeria, in terms of amongst other things, transparency, reduction of costs, reduction of time, and accountability. One of the orders relate specifically to transparent and prompt preparation and submission of budgets, while the primary objective of the other is to promote made-in-Nigeria goods.
So, will you say that the huge cost of organising the NBA-SBL annual conference in the last 11 years has been justified?
Your question presumes that the annual conference is the platform through which the NBA-SBL seeks to achieve its objectives. The annual conference constitutes one of a myriad of ways through which the Section is being impactful. As a precursor, it is imperative to state that the core of the NBA-SBL are its subject matter-related committees, which are 19 in number. Apart from those, there is also a standing committees and, occasionally, we set up working groups to address specific issues as the need arise. Amongst other things, the memberships of the committees are based on areas of specialisation. Consequently, members constitute an invaluable resource by providing expert advice to public sector regulatory agencies, policy makers, as well as market participants in the private sector.
The committees of the SBL conduct various programmes, seminars and workshops throughout the course of any twelve-month period. Therefore, even before holding the section’s flagship event, the Annual International Business Law Conference, the committees provide various forms of continuing legal education to stakeholders including corporate counsel, private legal practitioners and, of course, policy makers and regulatory authorities.
The conference itself presents a unique opportunity for discourse, the exchanging of ideas and experiences, and the proffering of solutions amongst internationally-acclaimed resource persons, as well as policy makers, regulators, judiciary, corporate counsel, entrepreneurs, and various other stakeholders.
The most prominent agendum of this government, arguably, is to fight and defeat corruption; some have opined that some of the strategies being used by government has the tendency to scare off foreign investors. If you share this view, as a lawyer, in what aspect of the Federal Government’s strategy will you recommend a review?
If I were to give advice to the Federal Government, I would do so through official channels. That said, good governance would attract, not scare off, foreign investors. Simply put, what investors, foreign and domestic require, is that the rule of law holds sway, and we preserve an independent and vibrant judiciary.
In what ways should the country’s system of justice administration be reformed to support the government’s quest to attract local and foreign investments?
Simply put, transparent and prompt delivery of justice. Additionally, there should be a certain level or, perhaps even a high level of predictability of outcomes, particularly with respect to issues that are not novel or, as trial lawyers aptly describe them, not recondite. Furthermore, I strongly believe in the awarding of substantial costs where warranted. Also, I will go a step further and state that we need law reform to explicitly provide for exemplary/punitive damages in certain circumstances. An ideal example would be in tort actions – where liability is clear and a liable party fails to make a reasonable offer of settlement, statutes should provide for the awarding of punitive damages and the recovery of attorneys’ fees and costs. There are established methods of determining the computation of and the circumstances in which punitive damages should be awarded.