The law firm, Udo Udoma & Belo-Osagie recently turned 30, and BusinessDay was on hand to celebrate with this great team of multi-talented practitioners.
The firm, which currently has one of the highest ratios of internationally recognised Partners per firm in the Nigerian market, has since evolved from its initial focus on oil and gas matters into an eight Partner, multi-specialisation full-service firm geared towards facilitating corporate and commercial business in Nigeria and Africa.
In this interview with THEODORA KIO-LAWSON, Managing Partner, SENATOR UDO UDOMA speaks on business in a highly competitive market, successes and economic developments in Nigeria.
Q:At 30 UUBO, is one of the oldest commercial law firms in Nigeria today, how would you describe the journey so far?
A.It was tough at the beginning having to generate business for a start-up operation. Also, at the time I started the Firm in 1983 many did not believe that Nigerian lawyers could work well in partnership. But I am happy that we have stayed the course. There is nothing more satisfying than being part of a team that is working well together.
Q:The firm has consistently been ranked as a band 1 (top tier) firm, by some of the most prestigious legal ranking and rating organisations in the world. This includes Chambers and Partners, IFLR 1000, Legal 500, Who’s Who Legal, etc. What got you there and what has kept you at the top?
A Such consistent ranking is a credit to the hard work of the lawyers in the Firm. No matter how hard you work as a head, or how bright you are, if you do not have a good team your law firm cannot provide consistent, quality service to clients.
Q.What informed your choice of speaker (CBN Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi) at the firm’s 30th anniversary event?
A.Some months ago when we were considering a possible speaker we heard that the Governor of the Central Bank, Lamido Sanusi, who, all agree, has done a good job, did not intend to serve for a second term. We therefore thought that as somebody in transition himself he would be an ideal person to speak on what next for him, and the country.
Q: As Senator, you worked on various committees in the senate, including the committees on Public Accounts, Judiciary, Banking & Currency, Science & technology, Privatization etc. Do you think our judicial system and judiciary is positioned to deal with the huge economic challenges that come with globalisation today?
A:.Even though we have some good and competent judges, many of them do not have the specialized knowledge needed to cope with many of the issues that are thrown up by complex commercial transactions. Many of us in commercial practice have advocated the establishment of more specialized judicial organs, such as the Investments and Securities Tribunal, as well as having special divisions of the Federal High Court, devoted to specialized areas such as financial crimes and so on.
Q: President Goodluck Jonathan’s Agenda is one of transformation. Three years on, are we anywhere close to this ‘transformation’ or have we indeed experienced this transformation? If so, what in your view, are the specifics?
A.I am impressed about the progress the Government has made in the deregulation of the power sector. I believe that the public sector is not very efficient at delivering goods and services so I support the deregulation and privatization of all sectors that can be better managed by the private sector.
Q. The theme for the firm’s 30th anniversary celebration as I gather is “Nigeria: What next?” As a corporate commercial lawyer and a businessman in that regard, do you think Nigeria deserves its place as one of the MINT countries?
A:I believe very strongly in the future of this country. Nigeria is blessed with many entrepreneurs and with the right policies I see the country flourishing. The main constraint to growth in Nigeria is lack of adequate infrastructure. We have many hard working people, who have energy, are very competitive, and have a can-do spirit. Once we can successfully tackle our lack of good infrastructure, such as power, roads, railway etc. , I believe our economy will truly take off.
Q. In February 2010, you were criticized for playing the role of both regulator and operator; as chairman of the Governing Board of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and retaining the posts of Chairman of UACN, Director of Unilever and Vice Chairman of the Board of Linkage Assurance, publicly traded companies. You did maintain at the time, that there was no conflict of interest. However I must ask, what real dangers and critical challenges (if any) could come from an individual playing the dual role of a regulator and operator?
A. The controversy was totally unnecessary. I was appointed as SEC chairman in 2008. At the time of my appointment I was serving on those boards, and declared them. Suddenly, two years into my term, in the middle of the reforms we were undertaking in the capital market, the issue was suddenly raised. Now there are two models of capital market regulation. There is one approach, epitomized by the United States, where the regulators are staffed with only full time commissioners. Under that model no commissioner is permitted to accept any other appointment. Under the alternative approach, which is epitomized by the United Kingdom, the full time commissioners are supported by some part time unpaid commissioners, who are to act as a check on the full time commissioners.
Under this second model, which Nigeria has adopted, some of the part-time commissioners are drawn from the industry. I was selected as a part time commissioner, and chairman, because of the roles I was playing on the boards of a number of companies. My predecessor also served on the boards of companies. At the time I was appointed at least 5 of the commissioners on the board of the British regulatory agency, the Financial Services Authority, were also serving on the boards of listed companies, including banks. Indeed, I was appointed because Government was desirous of selecting a chairman who, as a serving member on a number of boards, had the experience and exposure to act as an effective check on the full time commissioners. I was shocked that the very reason for which I was appointed was now being raised as a reason to disqualify me!
It was a rather strange, and unfortunate, controversy and I must say that I was tempted to resign. After all, this was a part time unpaid job which I accepted simply to serve my nation. In the end, I am happy I did not do so because to do so might have been interpreted as accepting wrongdoing where there was none.
Q. From your perspective, what is the biggest challenge we face as a nation? Is it one of Corruption or of leadership?
A. I am not sure that any purpose is served by ranking the two. It goes without saying that leadership matters. As for corruption, my view has always been that it should be tackled by introducing measures to reduce the opportunities for corruption. When a system has too many opportunities for corruption, it is difficult for the law enforcement agencies to cope with tracking down offenders. Let me explain what I mean. Generally any time you create a check point, sooner or later, a toll is extracted. I have always advocated fighting corruption by removing bottlenecks, and check points, so that transactions can flow, unhindered. For instance, there was a massive reduction in corruption when we abolished the import licencing regime. So Government can reduce corruption by deregulating and privatizing the various sectors of the economy. The reform in telecoms has been very successful, and I am happy that it is being followed by the power sector reform. The next big challenge is the petroleum sector reform.
Q.As someone who has been a key player in both the public and private sectors, Do you think Nigeria would ever make that leap from a ‘developing’ nation to a fully ‘developed’ one? What ingredients are missing in our progress towards becoming a first-world nation; one that accepts no aid from the West.
A I am not sure that even now we receive much aid from the West. But to answer your question I believe that we need to move faster in creating a more inclusive society, where opportunities are available to all. To do this we must improve the availability of high quality education so that we can improve the skills set of all our people. We must also continue to improve our democracy, and build our institutions. As I said, quoting Napoleon, in the speech I made whilst explaining my refusal to support the proposed third term amendment to the Constitution, ‘Men are powerless to secure the future; institutions alone fix the destiny of nations’. As a people, we should stop looking for a single saviour, whether as a president, or as a governor, who can lead us to the Promised Land. We should build our institutions to be so robust that as different leaders come and go our progress continues unimpeded. We should build and institutionalise a culture of what is acceptable behavior and what are acceptable practices, irrespective of who is there.
And all of us have a role to play in this evolution. We must make our elections work by not allowing ourselves to be used by those who wish to rig. We must stand by our convictions and do what is right, all the time. Many people wish to do the right thing but fear that they are alone. My advice is that such people should not worry. They are not alone. My experience is that the majority of Nigerians would actually like to do the right thing. The more we are able to encourage more Nigerians to do so, the more we will succeed in building our institutions and creating a just, fair and prosperous society.
Q.:On a final note, what are your views on the globalisation of legal services in Nigeria?
A: As the Nigerian economy continues to expand there will be increasing interest from top international firms in setting up in Nigeria. Under current rules it is difficult for them to do so. But, as Nigerian law firms, we cannot afford to be complacent. We must seek to improve the quality of our services so as to be able compete with the best anywhere in the world. If we cannot achieve this we may well find ourselves shut out of the most interesting, and sophisticated, trans-border transactions.