‘Merging Nigeria’s foreign missions will help eliminate waste’



Opinions about the performance of President Muhammadu Buhari in his first 100 days in office and the propriety of his public declaration of assets are as divided as the argumentators. Views are mostly held based on one’s ethno-religious and political positions. The principal counsel, ESQ Legal Practice and convener of Nigerian Legal Awards, Lere Fashola, in this interview with GODWIN DUNIA expresses his own views about the President’s 100 days in office, his decision to merge foreign missions, probe alleged corrupt officials and public asset declaration. He also spoke about Nigerian legal awards. 

HE is just about 100 days in office. Do you think President Buhari is moving in the right path?
100-day is too short a time to begin to appraise any administration. There is a lot that needs to be understood about this government and the way Nigeria is structured. Don’t forget too that the government in power still have to deal with the rots of the past. Nigeria was at her lowest ebb during the last administration and there is need for a huge clean up. I feel this government has been doing that, but there is now need for them to move away from rhetoric to action. We should talk less of the wrongs Goodluck Jonathan did and talk more about the rights we can do. If there are corrupt people in the system, we should follow due process and bring them to book. It makes no sense prosecuting people on the pages of the newspaper because it is not doing the country any good. I have heard so much about Deziani Alison-Madueke and as a lawyer I believe that it is so wrong to continue to say certain things without effecting her arrest. The woman is still in the country; it is not that she has evaded arrest. I want to see people being tried. Jonathan is still in the country; if he did anything wrong, he should be arrested and tried.

But Buhari before his inauguration urged Nigerians not to be scared, promising not to dig deep into certain activities of the past?
Well, I didn’t hear that from him. I only read that on the pages of papers. But I feel he is on the right track and I encourage him to keep to his promises. I also think the people in his party are not doing him any good. I am not a politician and I have a lot of respect for Buhari and Prof. Yemi Osinbajo who is also a mentor, but I feel the presidency and his media team should come out now and let us not only know his promises but see and feel them. I have no doubt that Nigeria is going to experience change and Buhari would lead that change.

Are you satisfied with Buhari’s asset declaration?
Since people have made public asset declaration part of his manifestos, it became imperative that he should declare his asset. He didn’t say it himself; people said it on his behalf.  I am happy he has done that and the whole world is extremely happy with him.

The president is also trying to shrink the number of our foreign missions. Don’t you think it could have negative effect on our foreign relations?
Nigeria is going through cancerous situation. Nigeria requires a lot of chemotherapy. The rot is huge and the first thing to do is to block all avenues of waste. Then, you would build process that will not allow such things to happen again. I applaud Buhari’s decision to cut down and merge foreign missions together. It happens when you have an ambassador overseeing two countries that are very close. It happens everywhere in the world, so there is nothing wrong with that decision. We should also try to inject professionalism into our foreign mission. Sometimes, you get to Nigerian embassy abroad and to do things become a tug of war.

You are also an entrepreneur, who organises legal awards. What will be different in this year’s legal awards when compared with the last edition?
Following the success of last year’s Nigerian Legal Awards, we met at the level of the award committee and introduced new innovations. The first is the introduction of the corporate counsel category which takes a look at the role of lawyers who are working internally in companies. We see legal departments of every organization as an important part of it. They don’t just assist organizations to comply with the law, but also help in mitigating risk. Traditionally, lawyers in legal departments have been seen as ‘deals’ killers’ but they are now very strategic and an important aspect of organizations. In recent times, organizations promoted corporate counsels to the position of business counsels and that explains why more corporate counsels have attained the position of executive directors. Some even feel more comfortable to appoint them as CEOs and Chairmen. We are looking at the role of these in-house lawyers in strengthening and promoting corporate governance and general business development organizations.

Going by the successes, would you say the award ceremony has achieved its objective?
I would say yes. Legal Awards is achieving the objective for which it was established. The objective is to recognize, honour, and celebrate the important contributions of Nigerian lawyers to the development of businesses in the country. Despite the general economic challenges in the country today, you still find out that Nigerian lawyers are doing a lot in strengthening businesses. When Dangote begins to expand its commercial capacity, it employs the professional expertise of law firms and lawyers. He has his own lawyers who advise him on transactions. Strongly supporting Dangote is a law firm like Olaniwun Ajayi Limited Partnership. Similarly, the business growth of Access Bank to many parts of the world could be largely attributed to the indispensable impact of law firms such as Aluko & Oyebode. Ditto the opening out of SEPLAT to the London’s stock exchange is a function of the tremendous and useful advice of Nigerian law firms. The business growth and commercial spreading out of the likes of Azura Power, Ladol Integrated Logistics and Skye Bank, to mention a few, all came off with the solid support of Nigerian lawyers. So, Nigerian lawyers are already taking charge, one way or the other. When ConocoPhilips was going to divest, they had Nigerian lawyers behind them. Gone were those days when they would go bring a London law firm to come handle sophisticated transactions. If you look at transaction of firms like G. Elias, you would also find out that it has almost 90 per cent of Nigerian content in a way. We did our research and saw that the growth of Nigerian law firms is phenomenal. Today, we have many big partnerships that are structured along the line of multinationals with a corporate governance framework.

Is this the second edition?
We officially started in 2010, but it was rebranded and launched last year. For us, last year was like a testing ground for the more credible and restructured award. So, I would say that this year’s edition which will hold on Friday, September 18, is the second edition after the rebranding took place. It takes place at Muson Centre, Onukan, Lagos.

The likes of former Governor of Lagos, Babatunde Fashola SAN and Funke Adekoya SAN were awarded last year. Who are the people shortlisted for this year?
Based on merit and appraisal, we gave an award to the former Governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola, who I also called a role model and a mentor. It was based on the visible growth Lagos experienced during his administration. Without sentiment, you would agree with me that Fashola stands out in this country. Even his toughest critics haven’t been able to say he didn’t perform. It is very encouraging to be associated with such individual and we have no regrets that we awarded him.  Mrs. Funke Adekoya, SAN, is respected by many and most people see her as a role model. This year we are going to award other exciting individuals like Dr. Tunde Ayeni who recently bagged the Thisday’s award for Mergers and Acquisition. Since he became the Chairman of Skye bank, we can all see the growth in the bank. They just acquired Mainstream Bank too. So, he would get an award as the Business Icon of the year. We are awarding Professor Fidelis Oditah QC, SAN, Nigeria’s pride, I must say. He is respected both in Nigerian and the UK. We would award the first female senior advocate of Nigeria, Chief Mrs. Folake Sholanke. She is our mother; we have so much respect for her and we love her. She would get a Lifetime Achievement Award. We would also award Chief Wole Olanipekun SAN, who is at the leading front of legal advocacy in Nigeria. He doesn’t have a rival and we are happy to align ourselves with him. Malam Yusuf Ali SAN has his law firm in Ilorin and he is competing with lawyers in Lagos and Abuja. His story teaches us that success is not a function of geography and that it could meet anyone anywhere if one could apply integrity and professionalism at all time.

You are also the organizer of ESQ Oil and Gas conference, but it seems the last edition was two years ago. Why did you decide to suspend it?
What we are trying to do is also to restructure our Oil and Gas conference. We would be coming out with a more structured conference next year and we believe it would aid the reforms going on in the Oil and Gas sector.

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