Ajebodunde Ajenifuja has never been one to accept the status quo. This, coupled with a natural curiosity, saw him read for a law degree at the University of Lagos. Now, fresh out of Cambridge University, he is poised to take his place in a country and on a continent hungry for commercial success.
In this Q&A with Africa Legal’s Carol Campbell Ajebodunde, or Bodunde as he is known to his friends, reflects on Africa, Nigeria and his own inspirational journey.
You graduated from the University of Cambridge in June 2018, could you speak a little about it and how it unfolded?
My journey to Cambridge was one fraught with so many uncertainties and indecisions from the application process to the moment when I was offered an admission. Typical of an Oxbridge school, the competition was stiff, the fees were steep, and the spaces were limited. However, like other choices I have made in the past, I soldiered on with vague hopes of the best.
Unlike so many other Cambridge graduates, I never set out to attend Cambridge or even get a Masters degree at the time I was offered an admission. I had always thought about going for a Masters programme at some point but I never really devoted concerted efforts into such desire. My application was basically a try-out and, fortunately, I got in. When the offer finally came, I had ironically been so overwhelmed with other activities I had forgotten about the application. At the time, I was working at Olaniwun Ajayi LP and also actively involved with the planning of the biggest ever Nigerian Bar Association Annual General Conference.
I enjoyed every bit of my stay in Cambridge. Cambridge has a very rich historic tradition which made studying there more interesting and different from other places. Punting, formals, gowns, colleges, Cambridge traditional terminologies, bicycles, unique libraries etc, these are all the things that makes studying or living in Cambridge unique. It was very intense but also enjoyable. I met brilliant people and also made a good number of friends. I was in Darwin College which was a graduate, student-only college. Thus, most of the people I met were already professionals or were clear in their minds as to their career paths.
It’s the best thing that has happened to me in a long time.
What was your motivation for honing in on Commercial Law?
I naturally found commercial law modules more interesting than other modules during my undergraduate study. Coincidentally, all the firms I had had contact with were commercial law firms. My experience as an associate in a leading commercial law firm in Nigeria solidified my interest in commercial law, and as such for my Masters programme, I selected solely commercial law modules and I did enjoy them.
What aspect of Commercial Law is your focus?
My interests lie in finance, with particular bias for energy, natural resources and infrastructure finance.
Could you highlight a major issue within your area of specialization?
One that comes to mind is the currency exchange problem in Nigeria. Currently, at least four different currency exchange windows are being operated in Nigeria, making Nigeria’s currency exchange regime somewhat complex. The result is uncertainty for investors. Also, African countries generally are susceptible to a shortage of “liquid”, lack of adequate currency hedging markets and risk that comes with constant change in government. All these pose challenges to investors especially the not-too- risk-happy investors. Other setbacks likely to undermine investor confidence include the ease of doing business and the country’s reputation for corruption. However, there are few indicators of improvement - the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index 2018 reports that Nigeria is fast rising up the ladder with regards to the ease of doing business, and the present administration keeps emphasising its determination to reduce corruption.
What role can lawyers play in strengthening a country?
It is the duty of lawyers to act as strong catalysts for legal and regulatory reforms as well as domestic institutional capacity building. Depending on each lawyer’s focus, lawyers assist with the drafting and amendment of laws and policies. It is thus the role of lawyers to ensure our laws meet up with international legal regimes and, at the same time, correspond with the core and distinct values of the country. It also behoves lawyers to ensure they make their clients act within the dictates of the law, while striving to achieve their commercial objectives. The laws of a country must encourage enterprise, foreign investment, tourism, international trade and infrastructural development. All these must however not be at the expense of the security and/or sovereignty of the nation. Thus, it is the duty of lawyers to ensure adequate balance in that regard. Lawyers are well positioned to be effective problem-solvers who could facilitate state-led economic development, advise state enterprises on how best to realise their objectives and counsel commercial clients on how best to make profit while acting within the law.
What are some of the broader issues in Nigeria that impact your work?
One major issue is the length of time the Nigerian Courts take to determine the cases before them. While the courts are already overburdened by so many cases, Counsel worsen matters by seeking unnecessary adjournments or engaging in acts directed at unduly delaying the judicial process. However, Lagos State appears to be taking a very good lead in establishing both regulatory and infrastructural frameworks to ensure cases are decided speedily. But there is still a very long way to go as a country with regards to quick, effective and efficient justice delivery.
Another issue that comes to mind is the treatment young lawyers receive while trying to garner experience or work with law firms. Very few law firms pay adequate remuneration to their lawyers, especially the young ones. The reasoning could be because young lawyers are believed to be learning from the firm and hardly make money for the firm. However, I believe, every lawyer is a professional and an asset to the firm and must be respected and valued. I think a strong regulation should be introduced in this regard.
The regulatory body for lawyers in Nigeria should formally rank all law firms based on revenue, capacity and market recognition, and stipulate minimum remuneration that should be paid by firms falling within each rank.
Ideally, one should expect that market forces should regulate lawyers’ remuneration, but unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Other than some commercial firms and very few litigation firms who are doing considerably well as regards young lawyers’ remuneration, the situation is generally bad.
Could you comment on your ambitions for Nigeria in the global context?
Despite our current setbacks as a nation, I am hopeful for a new tide stirred up by a crop of selfless and innovative leaders willing to make a difference and alter the norm, as we know it in Nigeria. I intend to get involved in the administration of the nation in the nearest future with the aim of fostering geometric growth from the grassroots and proposing and implementing viable and permanent solutions to our energy sector. I believe this has the potential to sustain economic growth, foster foreign investment and engender economic development to a level that is capable of placing Nigeria as a world leader in her own right.
What are your thoughts on Africa’s global role?
Africa is gradually becoming very significant globally as a key emerging market. A good number of African countries have witnessed accelerated economic improvements. Despite the risk within most African economies, Africa offers opportunities for yield-seeking investors. However, leaders of individual African countries must demonstrate political support, openness to regional cooperation and opportunities in order to attract more investors.
I also believe individual African nations should strive towards changing the narrative. A lot has been said about our shortcomings as a continent. However, every African country with the desire to foster economic growth and sustainable development, has the potential to cause a ripple effect across the continent and, in so doing, impact the global economy.
On a personal note, where did you complete your undergraduate studies?
I studied at the prestigious University of Lagos, where I obtained my LLB degree in 2015.
Was there anyone who played a big part in your life, someone who inspired you and directed you?
I come from a very close-knit family, and my parents have played a major role in the man that I am today; including my core values, career choices, and professional goals. While they are both non-lawyers, a major part of my professional development can be attributed to the early choices I made as a young student, and which were primarily inspired by my parents. While at the university, I was fortunate to meet Professor Sope Williams-Elegbe who was my thesis supervisor at the time, she was the first person who stirred my interest in pursuing a post-graduate degree at a top-class school. Although our discussions were in relation to Harvard Law School then. Also, as I progressed in school, and even after my undergraduate studies, I became exposed to certain opportunities and individuals who I must say have shaped and re-defined my ideals as a legal practitioner. I must mention Professor Konyinsola Ajayi, SAN, and Mr Asue Ighodalo who are both leading commercial lawyers in Nigeria and have been central to my professional development.
Why did you study law?
I studied law because I felt it was the best course that reflected my personality and which I believed I would most enjoy. Growing up, I discovered I was very curious, constantly challenging the status quo, very confident about my beliefs, and highly cerebral. However, after getting into university, I realised that the field of law transcended beyond one's personality and discovered that true success in the profession would also require interest and motivation. In the early stages I fancied public interest litigation and international human rights. However, as my interest in the study of law grew, I began to nurse a strong penchant for commercial law, largely because I became more commercially minded almost about every undertaken I was involved in.
You do a lot of mentoring – something you have done since university. What is it that inspires you to give of your time like this?
I have quite a long list of internship experiences with highly reputable firms and corporate organisations in Nigeria. I started gathering internship experiences from my first year in university until my fifth year. This gave me a great deal of exposure and put me ahead of colleagues who didn’t have such opportunity at that time. Also, unlike the UK, where most law firms put together incredibly organised open days, insight events, work placements and vacation schemes, few firms in Nigeria make the effort. As a result, a lot of students are not prepared for practice or the corporate world. The student leadership of my faculty realised this gap and requested that I help set up a career office which had the primary focus on improving student employability and fostering the transition from school into the corporate world.
As part of my mandate, I, with my team, started a programme which paired high flying students with various leading law firms in Nigeria for a four-week internship programme at the end of each semester. This programme turned out successfully. Not surprisingly, the programme is still ongoing at the University of Lagos years after I graduated. Also, some students currently work for those firms - a result of the relationship they built during the internship. Naturally, as a result of my activities in school, the opportunity of working with the leading commercial law firm in Nigeria and the privilege of having a Cambridge degree, I regularly get a lot of mentoring requests which I happily oblige to the best of my abilities. Also, I think mentoring is something I naturally enjoy.
You have spent a lot of time in various places picking up work experience. Was there any one place that had a major impact on you?
I believe all the firms and companies I worked with impacted on me in an invaluable way but the greatest impact would be from the firm I worked with after qualifying as a lawyer, Olaniwun Ajayi LP. This is because of the extensiveness of my stay with the firm and, as such, I was able to imbibe the culture and values of the firm. One major thing I took away from this was the high standards of professionalism and finesse we were expected to imbibe and maintain. I also believe that my time there afforded me a lot of international exposure with regards to certain projects and engagements, which aided in choosing my modules during my Masters course.
What is next for you in your professional life?
I am planning to return fully into legal practice, deepen my knowledge and expertise and build a good portfolio of work experience.
Outside of work, what do you enjoy?
I enjoy trying out interesting dishes, meeting with friends and new people and spending time with family.
And, finally, what books are on your bedside table right now? (Any secrets there?)
I am currently reading All You Need to Know About the City by Christopher Stoakes. It’s a broad explanation of London’s financial markets. I also have my eye on a book written by one of my lecturers, Philip Wood, titled The Fall of the Priests and the Rise of the Lawyers. It’s about the decline of religion and the growth of law and whether the society would still work in the absence of religion.