"Lawyers open Africa to the world" Ian Mutibwa of Signum Advocates
“It’s what I love most about Africa. Innovation and attitude can mean everything you touch turns to gold…the possibilities are endless.” Ian Mutibwa, a partner at Signum Advocates in Kampala, speaks to Africa Legal
As the world turns to Africa for new opportunities, it is the continent’s lawyers who are playing a major role in enabling countries excluded from their share of the global economy to take their rightful place.
Ugandan lawyer, Ian Mutibwa, a partner at Signum Advocates in Kampala, is one of those who has coupled his expertise in corporate and commercial law including banking, finance and tax, with regional know-how to open the gateway for international investors.
“Ugandan law is based on the English legal system because of its colonial history, but there are specific practises and local regulations that multinational businesses may need to know before set up,” he says.
Mutibwa says he is buoyed by the new confidence in lawyers in Africa and the eagerness to understand the local way of doing things. However he is also well aware of the unfriendly business environments that dog foreign investment on the continent and contaminate good companies that drop their guard.
“Brushing up against this kind of thing happens and we have spoken about it here at Signum Advocates and discussed how we would handle such a situation. We are all very clear – if you work with us then everything MUST be above board and we do it properly without compromising on quality and timelines.”
Aside from the legalities and the rough and tumble of business Mutibwa says what touches him deeply is the yearning for innovation among Africa’s people – a hunger that makes anything possible.
“If you come into a place like Uganda with an investment or a good idea, have done your homework and have a positive and flexible attitude, you will make money.” He equates Africa to what it must have been like in America at the height of its innovation boom in the 19th century.
Relationships, he says, are key to success on the continent. Signum Advocates has an established cross-border regional network with affiliate offices in Rwanda, Malawi and Ghana but is also in partnership with firms around the world. Most importantly, it is currently looking at expanding its network to other commercial centres in the country and possibly in the East African region.
While civil war and poor leadership in the 1970s has left a legacy of poverty, with Uganda still on the World Bank’s list of most heavily indebted poor countries, it is stable and has enjoyed consistent economic growth. The Bank of Uganda’s Money Policy Report of 2016 said in the 2105/16 fiscal year the GDP grew by 4.6%, continuing a trend.
There is a Taxation Treaty Network with double taxation treaties in place with major trading partners including the United Kingdom, Mauritius, Netherlands, India and South Africa (among others).
“It’s a healthy investment environment with good investment incentives,” says Mutibwa.
The economy is driven by the services sector and agriculture (coffee, fish, flowers) with some tourism. Reserves of natural gas and oil have recently been discovered with infrastructure now being put in place for their exploitation. Uganda’s “black gold” is estimated to equate to 6.5 billion barrels of oil, 1.4 billion of which are recoverable. When production starts in 2020 it is expected that the overall wealth of the country is expected to rise and the middle class to expand.
Mutibwa said the country is developing a Local Content law that emphasises inclusion of Ugandans in all business but is not specific to ownership of the business. (Empowerment laws in other parts of Africa demand a percentage of ownership).
In 2016 Mutibwa was one of two Ugandans chosen to take part in the International Lawyers for Africa Flagship programme. This involved spending time in London training and working with Latham and Watkins LLP where he worked with the International Tax and Project Finance teams.
“It was a turning point for me because I realised that there is a confidence in lawyers from Africa and that we can play a major part in what happens on the continent and in our countries.”
Mutibwa graduated with a Bachelor of Laws Honours degree from Makerere University in Kampala. He was a senior tax and legal consultant at KPMG and worked with Shonubi Musoke & Co Advocates before moving to Signum where he is a partner heading the Tax and Banking and Finance teams.
For Mutibwa and his fellow lawyers watching their nation blossom, and being part of the sector that has enabled it, has been overwhelmingly rewarding.
“It’s what I love most about Africa. Innovation and attitude can mean everything you touch turns to gold…the possibilities are endless.”