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AfCFTA: Nigeria lawyers urged to prepare for partnerships with African peers

…power sector, fintech top interest areas – Etomi …asks Nembe lawyers to specialise, promote business for win-win

Renowned business lawyer and a former head of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Section on Business Law (SBL), George Etomi, has alerted Nigerian lawyers about inquiries by lawyers from other African countries eyeing the Nigerian market on the back of the coming onstream of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

Etomi, who was lead speaker at the Nembe-Se Lawyers Forum in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, urged Nigerian lawyers to get ready for partnerships with African lawyers in the coming months and years.

According to the business lawyer, when clients of African lawyers back home want to venture into Nigeria, they need Nigerian lawyers to work with.

“They eye the power sector, fintech, etc,” Etomi said at the forum held at the Serenity Legal Union & Partners in Port Harcourt.

He also advised on the need to specialize after about 10 years of general practice, urging lawyers from oil-rich areas to try and specialize in the relevant aspect.

“Find out how to relate with businesses coming to your areas. Business goes to area where it is welcome and protected. Lawyers must lead the rest society to reject attacks on business people. It’s the only way lawyers can win,” he said.

The 1976 University of Ife law graduate also warned against lawyers sticking to local practice. He said except anyone wanted to opt out of the world, globalization is a reality and affects every aspect.

He also urged lawyers to prepare for virtual courtrooms, saying globalization and Covid-19 have made this a sudden prospect.

“Courts have been kept backward. Democracy cannot grow without the judiciary growing. That’s why I support the strike by the judicial workers to press for some attention to the courts. Submerging the judiciary (judges) is the reason why insecurity has taken over. Politics is the cause,” he said.

Etomi, who is the founder and principal partner at the law firm of George Etomi & Partners, said law practice is a business and that the emergence of business schools has helped. He also urged young lawyers to pursue law practice from a three-pronged perspective of getting the brief, executing and delivering it perfectly, and getting paid.

READ ALSO: How insecurity cost Nigeria’s economy $10.3bn in 2020

He mentioned charging or billing as another area of crisis, saying a true lawyer must resolve the bill before setting out, not starting free service only to resort to sending bill later. He admonished lawyers on issue of integrity, saying it is the only product lawyers sell.

The host, David Serena-Dokubo Spiff, a royal father and chief executive partner of Serenity Legal Union & Partners, threw a challenge to Nembe-Se lawyers, lamenting that the Nembe man who was the first point of contact with the Europeans has walked backward. He said squabbling back home has affected unity and development. Nembe is one of the oceanic towns in Bayelsa State.

“Our intelligent men are going nowhere. We must begin from the beginning. Let’s use the instrumentality of lawyering to cause a change in our community. The Nembe man can contribute to the development of Bayelsa State. Squabbles rob us of foreign direct investments (FDIs). Peace is the number one ingredient we need to turn things around. So, let’s all go back to the swamps and beckon on our people to tread the path of peace,” Spiff said.

“Complaint is everywhere but do we have the capacity to take on big cases? How many of us are ready to receive training on transactional lawyering? If an international oil corporation (IOC) needs such service, they cannot pick on you. This is because others have superior credentials. Let us go back to the basics such as training. The forum is ready to share knowledge,” he said.

The royal father said the first female Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) in Bayelsa State is from Nembe. She was practicing in the UK and rose to be head of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association before she was made to relocate to Nigeria.

“My ambition is that before I retire from the Bar, may these young lawyers acquire the skills and methodology some of us acquired so they can achieve more than we did. This interaction will help us achieve a peaceful momentum. This is about pushing us to be better neighbours. We need better Nembe lawyers to be better neighbours to others. This is the only way to create a peaceful society,” he said.

Ayebaesin Beredugo, chairman of the forum, said Nembe lawyers were ready to fight for resource control. He said the forum has under 200 members, and their core priorities hinge on matters of justice, rule of law and fundamental human rights, including the rights of indigenous people to their God-given resources, self-determination and development.

“The legal fraternity plays vital role in advancing peace, stability and socio-economic progress of society. We have chosen to play public-interest role and to hold governments at all levels as well as businesses operating in the Niger Delta and in our communities accountable to their legal and moral responsibilities to the wellbeing of our people and our natural environment,” Beredugo said.

“There will be no compromise on these hallowed principles, neither will we be afraid from stepping in and stepping up to the challenges that we face along the way. But this we promise: no matter the extent, depth and height of injustice and impunity perpetrated against our people or interests, we will never depart from the path of sanity and the rule of law as our battle sword and shield. For us, this is the new way to go in the battle for equity and justice in the Niger Delta region,” he said.

Beredugo said the gathering was to execute part of their mandate, which is to promote professionalism and excellence in legal practice among the members of the forum.

“In this era of rapid changes, lawyers must constantly endeavour to keep abreast with modern trends in practice building and adapt to cope with the challenges thrown up by these changes, including the role of information communication and their impact on legal practice in both physical and virtual worlds. This is the essence of this conference. This is to expand our knowledge and create opportunities for young lawyers,” he said.

Kate Abere, Chief Judge of Bayelsa State, said she was worried about young lawyers and lack of competences, stressing on the need for excellence in the law profession. This, she said, was because the respect and honour that law practice had seems to have been eroded.

“We do not know where it will end. We can’t take up arms to change the society. This forum is indeed apt. This rather strengthens the NBA. Each time I see the first female SAN, I am happy because she has proved that you can make SAN without moving over to the bench,” Abere said.

Youpele Beredugo, founding vice president of the Nembe-Se Congress, commended the forum, saying it comes at a time AK-47 era is taking over from law and order.

“We have lawyers who have stood to defend us, Nembe-Se Lawyers Forum (NLF) has come to help us. Nembe has stood the test of time from the likes of Robert Akprakasa who graduated in 1888,” said Beredugo, who is also a professor of engineering at the University of Port Harcourt.

He mentioned that from 1942 to 1946, Ernest Ilobi, a Nembe man, represented Lagos in the National Legislative Council. The first chief judge of Rivers State was Nembe and the first military governor of Old Rivers State was Nembe (Alfred Diete-Spiff).

“We cannot sit back and expect others to fight for us. So, Nembe lawyers are out to fight for us,” he said.

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