"Lawyers are playing a central role in changing Africa" Dapo Otunla
Many African countries have the legal framework to encourage investment but do not use it. The consequence is that the impact of inflowing capital is not felt by all citizens, says Lagos lawyer and respected transactional lawyer, Dapo Otunla
“There is a big difference between having the right legal framework in place and the implementation of that framework. The latter stage is where a lot of the issues exist in Africa and where hard work needs to be done,” he added.
Otunla listed Nigeria, Rwanda, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Tunisia Senegal and Ivory Coast as examples of countries which had a strong legal framework.
“If the bridge is crossed, from having a framework to using it, there will be a marked improvement in achieving the balance between what these legal frameworks provide and developing and protecting the rights of such countries and their people.”
It is on this point that Otunla believes the legal profession can play a major role by influencing policy and polity. “Emphasis must be placed on the rule of law, respect for the rule of law, the administration of law and policy and this should drive everything else.” This would dispense with selective administration, minimize violations and infractions and boost efficiency, he said. The impact would be reflected on indices such as ‘the ease of doing business’ which measured business regulations.
As a conduit for the legal profession to increase its influence, Otunla established an online network of 25 general counsel, company secretaries and heads of legal departments of major companies in Nigeria who regularly exchange ideas and discuss information on developments in the law.
“It is my hope that this group will eventually seek to influence policy as it concerns the law and that it will spread across the continent. I believe that lawyers can achieve a lot in the realm of policy development and thereby impact legal developments and society positively.”
In his own career Otunla recently joined the mobile communications infrastructure company, IHS Nigeria Limited as its legal director. For a decade before that he was group general counsel for Notore Chemical Industries in Lagos. For many years before that he worked as a lawyer in the United States.
Otunla completed his undergraduate studied at the University of Ibadan before studying law at the University of Sierre Leone. He completed his Master of Law at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law in Chicago.
When asked where “home” is, he is philosophical.
“Home is wherever I find myself. I have lived in Africa, Europe and North America and feel comfortable in most environments and with people of diverse backgrounds. It helps that I am by nature a person who is content so long as I have the basic comforts that engender performance in my role. For now, Africa is home.”
It is his love for Africa and understanding of the West that has enabled him to straddle both worlds and open communication where none might have been before. The person who does well in Africa, he says, is determined, driven and positive minded.
“Over the last two decades we have seen the emergence of the new African business elite who are well educated and schooled in business and corporate finance. There has also been a positive departure from the time when “opportunities” arose solely on the basis of friendship with officials. The continent and the business world have been changing rapidly for a while now and they continue to evolve for the greater good.”
His advice to new business players wanting to come into Africa is to dispense with any negative notions they have about working on the continent.
“Hear those voices but form your own opinions,” he says. “The continent is a beautiful place with opportunities, which is why you are here. There is a reason why the potential returns are what they are. But, as we improve our structures and processes, the margins will reduce; it is no-longer better returns at any cost.”
Otunla says there is a vibrancy to Africa that is potent and which makes working on the continent and the opportunity to contribute positively to society a privilege that should not be taken for granted.
“To give back through mentoring and other initiatives should not be overlooked. This is what gives meaning to life outside of work.”