In this edition, the Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association Section on Business Law (NBA-SBL) and Lead Solicitor at Details Commercial Solicitors, AYULI JEMIDE, speaks with BusinessDay Law Editor, THEODORA KIO-LAWSON about COVID-19 and the implications for Africa, economic stimulus across the world, developments in Nigeria’s justice sector, the recent virtual hearing by the Lagos State judiciary, as well as the changing face of legal practice in Nigeria.
Let’s start with the relaxation of the lockdown by the federal government. Why has your firm chosen to fully operate remotely even after the lockdown was relaxed?
Detail Commercial Solicitors takes responsibility for its staff and must act responsibly towards them at all times. We will therefore continue to work remotely until we can see from the graphs (new cases, daily deaths etc) that the curve is being flattened. All the countries who have opened up gradually have done so on the basis of monitoring the graphs so this is best practice.
Nigeria’s graph is currently spiraling, so we are far from flattening the curve. Our staff commute and are exposed everyday, so they are at risk. Interestingly, before Covid-19 Detail already worked remotely every Friday since January 2020. So we already set up the infrastructure for remote work before Covid-19 and are comfortable in that mode.
Some have said Africa is in danger of becoming the epicenter of the virus, do you agree with this or do you think we’re handling it fairly well? If not, what can we do different?
Africa will surprise the world and it is already beginning to happen. If you see what is happening in South Africa, where the level of testing competes with countries in the world; or Senegal where local test kits have been developed; or Madagascar where they have flattened the curve by developing a local herbal cure. This remedy has worked despite WHO not approving it. Note also that most of Africa has a young population so the deaths will be less since they are not that vulnerable. If you take Nigeria, where we have had a lot of recoveries, you will note that majority of the patients were below the age of 50.
Lawyers are gifted at being intelligent yet pedantic
In line with current realities, the Attorney General and Minister for Justice recently rolled out plans for how the justice sector should function post Covid-19. He proposed the use of digital platforms such as skype, zoom and having courts that are fully ICT-compliant, particularly with facilities to fast-track the process of taking evidence from witnesses. Do you think this will hasten the long-awaited reform the judiciary needs to get to the next level?
It is my sincere hope and desire a new culture of technology pervades the judiciary. Many trials are ongoing online in other parts of the world so Nigeria needs to latch on. I think the Federal Attorney General from all I have heard about him is well-poised to see this through and we should all support him. Interestingly, the Lagos State Judiciary has recently delivered its first virtual judgment so this is laudable.
That said, some legal practitioners have come out to fault the move by the AGF saying his plans are outside his authority, and remains the business of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), the National Judicial Council (NJC) and the heads of courts. Is this a fair argument and if not, what sort of interventions or adjustments should the AGF and indeed the judiciary be making at this time?
Lawyers are gifted at being intelligent yet pedantic. I think we should focus on where the bus is going to as opposed to who is driving the bus. And I think the destination of this bus as stated by the AGF is a great aspiration. In any case, the CJN and NJC can speak for themselves if they feel their powers are being usurped.
In response to the outbreak of COVID-19 disease, Nigeria’s Emergency Economic Stimulus Bill, 2020 seeks to provide temporary relief on corporate tax liability among other fiscal and monetary palliatives to alleviate the sufferings of citizens in the wake of an economic crisis. However, some business analysts and legal experts seem to think that there are quite a few grey areas with the Bill. What are your thoughts?
An economic stimulus bill is a laudable initiative. The key thing to note is that it has intrinsic limitations, in the sense that government cannot legislate on private contracts but can only offer incentives. So for example the bill proposes a tax rebate for companies who don’t retrench staff in this period. Any company will do the cost benefit analysis and could decide that a retrenchment serves their financial goals better than a tax rebate.
Also note that, employers whose businesses are partly or wholly regulated by the Petroleum Profits Tax Act are also excluded from tax rebate under the Bill. Unfortunately those companies regulated by Petroleum profit tax Act are also hit by the crash in oil prices so we hope a different kind of palliative would apply to them.
The Bill proposes for a deferral on all payment of mortgage obligations on residential mortgages obtained by individual contributors to the National Housing Fund be deferred for a period of One hundred and eighty (180) days subject to a majority vote of the National Assembly. This is good but note that majority of home financing is from commercial banks and this is excluded.
Given our history as a nation, how practicable is a law of this nature and what are the intricacies of implementing such an emergency law?
Emergency laws are standard all over the world. As with every law the key is not enforcement, it is citizens buy-in. When VAIDS was introduced a few years ago it was voluntary but a lot of people thought it made sense and so they obeyed. We can only wait and see how citizens react.
The United States’ Senate recently passed a $2 trillion economic stimulus plan and various other countries have done same. Do you think the monetary and fiscal palliatives offered in Nigeria’s Economic stimulus is quantifiable? If so, can you attempt an estimate?
The sums set aside as government palliatives are publicly knowledge. Unfortunately what is not public knowledge in this age of Freedom of Information is the disbursement criteria, the level of disbursement and the beneficiaries. The direct benefits include the provision of N1 trillion in loans to boost local manufacturing and production across critical sectors. When this disbursements are made it behooves government to publicize the sectors, the beneficiaries and then monitor how this has succeeded as an economic stimulus. Most of the palliatives are indirect – tax rebates for example – that can only be quantified as they are applied for.
In the face of this global pandemic, how do you think the current realities would impact local businesses and the ‘ease of doing business’ in Nigeria?
One of the key problems with doing business in Nigeria, is that Nigerians have a culture of face to face meetings. People fly to Abuja or Lagos just to have a one hour conversation that could have been done virtually.
Post-Covid a lot of people will be more disposed to virtual meetings and this will apply to government agencies as well. This will surely be a positive development for ease of doing business. On the back of this I think government systems will begin to look to electronic filings and responses as we have in Dubai. The systems will begin to operate in such a way where you don’t need to see anybody at a ministry to get a permit. This will increase speed and also check indolence because IT will show your pending files every week. I also think that courts will start virtual hearings and filings. I saw a recent release by the Attorney General of the Federation that is indicative of this possibility.
Interestingly, the Lagos State Judiciary has recently delivered its first virtual judgment,
so this is laudable.
As a lawyer and a business owner in the COVID-19 era?
This pandemic has taught us to harness all our assets and restructure our businesses. As a person I have come to realize over the last two months that I did not work effectively and even worked harder remotely than sitting in the office. I also realized that as a firm we engaged each other more than we did when people were running all over the place having face to face meetings.
My new normal is a conversion into a virtual CEO – living in Zoom meeting rooms and building Teams on Microsoft Teams. My new normal is learning how to live in the cloud and generate income from cloud based activities. I think lawyers are lucky that a lot of what we do can be virtual unlike those in, say construction for example.
The NBA-SBL recently launched its Business Law Competency Framework, which as we understand, aims to set minimum standards for business lawyers across the country. What is the plan for its implementation? And how soon would we begin to measure its impact?
Plans for implementation include getting law firms to start using it. This is ongoing. The feedback will come over the months post implementation by the law firms.
What is your ‘Top Five’ daily habits in this ‘pandemic era’?
I. Daily Exercise
II. Find Alone Time
III. Find Laughter
IV. Catch up with corona virus stats and news online – Lagos and major cities on worldometer.
V. Update To Do list