2022 NBA-SBL CONFERENCE: Obianwu, CPC Chair, Gives an Update on Preparations

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CHAIRMAN, CONFERENCE PLANNING COMMITTEE, 2022 ANNUAL CONFERENCE OF THE NIGERIAN BAR ASSOCIATION’S SECTION ON BUSINESS LAW (NBA-SBL)

A Partner at the law firm of Templars, Chike Obianwu runs the firm’s Finance, Capital Markets and Mergers and Acquisitions Practices and also serves as Deputy Managing Partner of the firm.

Obianwu was recently appointed as Chairman of the Conference Planning Committee (CPC) for the 2022 NBA-SBL Annual International Business Law Conference, which will hold in Nigeria’s federal capital, Abuja from Wednesday, July 20 to Friday, July 22, 2022. In the run-up to the Abuja Conference, he sat down with the editors of NEWSWIRE Law & Events Magazine to give a preview of what to expect at the event.

Excerpts:

NEWSWIRE: What are your expectations for the forthcoming SBL Conference, and what should attendees expect?

A: The SBL Conference has become an indelible feature in the Nigerian legal and annual Conference calendar. It is an event at which we raise topical issues affecting the business environment and the legal services, policy-making and law-making communities in Nigeria. It essentially tries to create solutions to problems ailing the economy, the business environment, and in the smooth delivery of legal services in the country. One thing that is unique about this year’s gathering is that it will be our first post-Covid mostly physical Conference. Just to clarify: although this year’s Conference will be accessible to remotely to those who are unable to attend physically, our priority at the CPC is to make it as physical as possible – with at least 700 delegates attending physically and possibly thousands of virtual participants from all over the world. We expect to see people re-converge in person and experience the Conference differently from what we saw in the last two years when we went either fully virtual or semi-hybrid on account of COVID-19. So I encourage everyone to go to our website: www.nbasbl.org and register for the Conference.

Q: What impact is this Conference projected to have on the commercial law ecosystem?

A: Consistent with the vision of this Conference, and more broadly the NBA-SBL as a specialist Section of the Nigerian Bar Association, the Conference is geared towards the promotion of the commercial law abd the development of the business environment. We will be raising issues of pertinent importance to the market and engaging with lawmakers, policymakers, the business community and legal services providers from Nigeria and elsewhere in order to devise solutions to problems. Based on the outcomes of previous Conferences, the SBL has embarked on such impactful collaborative efforts as the establishment of the National Assembly Business Environment Roundtable (NASSBER) in conjunction with the National Assembly and the Nigeria Economic Summit Group (NESG). This year, in keeping with that tradition, we expect to take that engagement at the Conference from the realm of a mere talk talk shop to actionable plans. We will be assessing the impact of some of the major legislative and regulatory changes that have taken place in the last one or two years; trying to figure out  how effective they have been in practice,  identifying flaws and challenges, and pointing out what further improvements may be needed – all with a view to enhancing the development of the market.

Q: What impact do you expect this year’s Conference to have on the interests of young lawyers trying to make their way in commercial law practice?

A: The growth of young lawyers is at the core of the SBL’s vision. In addition to proceedings at our Annual Conferences, the SBL, through its various specialist committees,  regularly conducts Continuous Legal Education programmes designed to benefit our young lawyers in terms of capacity development as they go into law firms, learn how to become better lawyers and grow in the industry. This year’s Conference specifically, we are sponsoring 25 young lawyers to the Conference.  The SBL will pay for their attendance and accommodation in Abuja, as well as provide ground transportation for them to and from the Conference venue and their hotels throughout the period of the Conference. This will enable them to maximize their participation at the event. There are also quite a number of specific sessions at the Conference targeted at young lawyers. At the end of each Conference day, there will be a session that we refer to as ‘Learning Curves,’ and it is aimed at bringing both young and experienced lawyers into the room to do a recap of  what has been learned from the different sessions that day. That way, young lawyers are clear as to what the key takeaways from the day are, and hopefully they would be able to better appreciate and assimilate the content of the Conference no matter how advanced or technical some of it may be.

Q: Give us a brief profile of the speakers and resources persons being expected at this Conference.

A: Our keynote speaker is Mrs. Kosi Antiwaa Yankey-Ayeh, who is the Chief Executive Officer of the Ghana Enterprises Agency, which provides business development, advisory and financial support services to micro, small and medium scale enterprises in Ghana. Apart from speaking to the theme of the Conference, which is ‘Recent Developments in the Business Law Environment,’ Kosi will speak to us about the challenges of startups and small businesses in an environment like Ghana, and initiatives that her agency and her government are deploying to deal with these issues. Hopefully, we can learn some lessons from there about how to address similar challenges here in Nigeria. Then there are various other speakers from within and outside Nigeria – notably the Global Senior Partner at the leading international law firm of Clifford Chance, Jeroen Ouwehand, who is going to speak to us on ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) issues. We will have the Executive Vice Chairman of the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission speaking to us about the relatively new Merger Control regime in Nigeria under the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission Act. And there will be speakers from the newly created National Upstream Regulatory Commission to deal with issues arising from the newly enacted Petroleum Industry Act. We will also have speakers who will talk about the Startup Bill. All in all, our faculty for the Conference is an exciting mix of speakers from both public and private sectors, from Nigeria and abroad, from academia, legal services, technology, financial services, the petroleum industry, and so on and so forth.

Q: Is this Conference open to effective participation by non-lawyers?

A: The Conference is open to everyone – regardless of professional background. The vision behind SBL Conferences in general and this one in particular is to make every possible effort to improve the business environment in Nigeria. It is all about trying to catalyze the growth of the economy. And you do not have to be a lawyer to either contribute to the discussion or benefit from the insights and recommendations. For example, we’ll be talking about the impact of the Petroleum Industry Act, which was signed into law after more than a decade in the making. Now that it is in operation, where do we go from here, and what are the challenges going forward? We will also talk about the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) of 2020 – which is a 2020 replacement of a law that regulated businesses of all kinds in Nigeria for all of 30 years. Now has this replacement enhanced and simplified the formation and the regulation of business? Has it enhanced the ease of doing business in Nigeria? All these are to be How about recent changes in tax laws and tax administration and enforcement? All of these are questions that should be of interest to a wide range of people, and that interest has little or nothing to do with whether you are a lawyer or not.

Q: As a critical stakeholder in the commercial law ecosystem, are you satisfied with the outcome of past SBL Conferences in terms of pushing the envelope in terms of law, policy and regulatory reform in Nigeria? If not, what more needs to be done?

A: When it comes to the pace of change in Nigeria, especially in the areas of law reform, lawmaking and policy, one is almost never satisfied. But having said that, if you look at the real world, what tends to happen, more often than not, is incremental change. So from the perspective of incremental change, I would say that all the SBL Conferences to date have been largely successful; among the outcomes of these engagements was the National Action Plan on Ease of Doing Business in Nigeria and related initiatives coming out of the Vice President’s office a few years ago. Those were particularly impactful. And we found that as a result of our engagements with the Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council (PEBEC) and other stakeholders, Nigeria’s Ease of Doing Business ranking in the World Bank Doing Business Report improved dramatically, so that’s a plus for the SBL. Of course, the World Bank has recently discontinued that report because of certain data irregularities in the 2018 and 2020 editions, but the improvements that we recorded working with PEBEC are undeniable. Also, there is NASSBER, the product of the SBL collaboration with the National Assembly and the Nigerian Economic Summit Group that I spoke about earlier. That collaboration gave rise to our involvement in the drafting and passage of the CAMA 2020, as well as the ongoing review of the Investment & Securities Act. We have recorded progress in a number of other important areas, of which we are justifiably proud. But of course, we’d be much happier if change happens at a much faster pace. We would certainly appreciate seeing more responsiveness on the part of government and policymakers in relation to issues highlighted at our conferences.   

Q: What are the highlights of the Conference?

A: Even if we do things at this Conference that have been done in previous Conferences, the offerings will be different in how we execute those things this year. For example, in 2020 and 2021, our gatherings were virtual, but our interactions this time will be almost totally physical. As I said, we’re housing these young people in Abuja and moving them from place to place, and they are going to be looked after in a different manner. The learning curves I mentioned earlier are essentially a creation from last year, but in a new improved way this year. Not only are we going to give young lawyers a wrap-up of some of the issues discussed during the day – because some of those issues may be above their heads because of a lack of familiarity – there will be specific sessions targeted at them to enable them get a fuller appreciation of what is on offer. Also, there is the social side of things, which is always a huge attraction for young people generally. We will be starting off with a welcome dinner on Wednesday, July 20. We will take the keynote speech at this dinner. We will have several dignitaries address us and of course there will be lots of entertainment. On Thursday, which is the first day of the Conference proper, we will delve into the various sub-themes of the Conference. We will close out the day’s proceedings with a social event. This will give everyone the opportunity to unwind, network and interact in informal settings. On Friday, July 22, the final day of the Conference, we will delve further into the remaining sub-themes of the Conference. we’ll finish the day with the learning curves of that day – in which they’ll have the opportunity to run the sessions, except for the Moderator who’ll be an older person. This way, the younger lawyers will be learn presentation skills and effective communication, and engage with one another in trying to wrap the day’s proceedings. After that, we will end the Conference programme with a Closing Party. For now, though, we will keep people guessing as to who will be performing at the Closing party – whether an artiste, or a Band or a DJ. All I can say for now is: Watch this space.

Q: Can you tell us some more about some of the sub-themes of the Conference?

A: I have already mentioned changes in Company Law, the Petroleum Industry Law and Regulation, and of course Competition Law. We will also be discussing issues around regulation of Over-the-top Services or lack thereof. This is an ongoing debate about service providers who may not necessarily physically present in-country but who bypass traditional media channels to provide media services and content, typically though the internet, satellite and sometimes over the top of the platforms of incumbent providers telephony, messaging and entertainment services, etc. So we’re going to have a lively discussion about the regulation or otherwise of such services in Nigeria. And then there are three or so sessions that will look at Law as a business in its own right. And it is important to stress this, because the Conference is not just about looking after our clients’ business interests, or our interventions in the larger economy, or governance and regulations generally.  Instead, in addition to these issues, we would also be looking at Law and Practices as a business in terms of preparing them for succession, as well as exploring new practice frontiers for Nigerian lawyers and law firms. There is a trend now of law firms transitioning from being led by their founders to new leaders. Where is that going, and what new frontiers are there for such businesses to thrive? So we will have some recently appointed Managing Partners of leading law firms, as well as mid-sized and younger ones coming together to address these issues. In the same vein, we will discuss the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) and its impact on legal services. What opportunities or threats does that Agreement present to the Nigerian lawyer – not just as a practitioner dealing with legal subject matters, but as a businessperson?

Still talking about the business of law, we will be having a panel of in-house lawyers looking at the relationship between in-house lawyers and law firm practitioners in terms of defining clients’ expectations and how lawyers as service providers can meet these expectations.

We will also be addressing issues such as Insolvency and Ponzi Schemes, and changes in Tax Law and Administration. We have invited the Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS and other tax experts to come and address burning  issues relating to tax and taxation in Nigeria.     

All these sessions, and so much more, will help non-lawywrs who attend who attend the Conference to become more kowledgeable and better empowered to operate in the business environment. And as for lawyers in attendance, these sessions  will definitely help them to retool and scale up their game as providers of services in terms of knowledge, client care, responsiveness, standards, and so on and so forth.  

Q: What would you like your CPC to be remembered for at the conclusion of this year’s SBL Conference?

A: If, at the end of the day we deliver a Conference that is a seamless integration of both the physical and virtual offerings given that though we’re largely physical, a few of our speakers will be participating virtually, and a lot of people will be joining in virtually as well – if the Conference is not plagued by the type of technical challenges and inefficiencies that we unfortunately tend to see when  curating large-scale events of this nature; if we are able to conclude the Conference without any major security concerns or breaches; if we are able to ensure that our guests from Nigeria and elsewhere  are comfortable and can return safely to the various places they came from; if we can ensure that people are able to take away from the Conference the key messages we set out to impart in terms of content and insights, then I would be a very happy person. And the Committee that I lead and I would have met – and perhaps exceeded – the expectations of the Council of the NBA Section on Business Law in appointing us to the CPC.  

NEWSWIRE: Thank you, sir, for your time.

OBIANWU: It was my pleasure. And please do not forget to go to our website www.nbasbl.org to register for the Conference.

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