By Onome Amawhe
A leading energy lawyer, NJ Ayuk has a keen understanding of the commercial objectives of his clients, which he uses to pursue successful outcomes vigorously. This African dude practises exclusively corporate and commercial law, particularly on transactions involving structuring, negotiation and implementation of petroleum, mining, LNG, and other natural resources. He has worked extensively in Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Chad, South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Angola, Congo and other Sub-Saharan African countries; advising major companies on investment strategies, the establishment of joint ventures and cooperation structures, privatisation, licensing and related tax, OHADA, Equatorial Guinea law, oil and gas, local content, litigation, governance and other matters. His oil and gas expertise led him to co-author a book, Big Barrels—Africa’s oil and gas and the Quest for Prosperity, which chronicles Africa’s flashes of hope. Similarly, he has been highlighted as one of Africa’s leading oil and gas lawyer by the international Who’s Who of Oil and Gas Lawyers. Chambers and Partners also recognised him as an “important player” and a “tremendous resource.” NJ Ayuk, a graduate of University of Maryland, College Park and the New York Institute of Technology, is the partner responsible for coordinating one of Africa’s leading law firms. Centurion Law Group operates at the cutting edge of its practice areas from its headquarters in Johannesburg, South Africa, and from outstation offices in Lagos, Nigeria; Malabo, Equatorial Guinea; Accra, Ghana; Douala, Cameroon; and Port Louis, Mauritius. With proven capacity to act effectively and successfully for very large corporate bodies, Centurion Law Group also works with governments on judicial modernisation, rule of law issues, training of judges, prosecutors and lawyers in Equatorial Guinea, Chad, South Sudan, Uganda and Niger on a pro bono basis.
How did your firm come to be named Centurion?
The idea of Centurion was that when you look at the old Roman soldiers, everybody believed that the Centurions were a group of 100, but they were really only about 25. What it means with us in life is that we are not going to be 100 per cent right in life all the time. Even if we are 70 per cent right, we are still going to give our 100 per cent. For us, we like that idea because it keeps us striving, knowing we are going somewhere. We might not have everything in place, but we are going to work hard and know that there is always room to improve. And that is what shapes our lives and what we do at this firm.
What are the rewards you’ve found practiaing corporate law?
It is that, as an African, I can actually influence policy from a corporate perspective. We need to have people who have an African view in the boardrooms to really influence corporations that make decisions that affect everyday people. I went into corporate law knowing clearly that I also belong to the streets. And understanding that the African streets never had an advocate within the corporate environment to advocate for them. When you look at issues like empowerment, local content and entrepreneurship and ensuring that Africans become part of the business environment, that is what corporate law means to me — to be a voice for those who have been left on the roadside. Corporations in Africa have a lot of power to really influence public policy, because our politicians in Africa listen to people with money and if you can swing corporate decisions to promote policy that can lift people up and create a more people-focused environment, then you are doing well. That is what makes me happy with what I do.
What difference do you see in today’s legal market compared to when you started?
The big difference, and this is good for us, is that African lawyers are becoming better. They are becoming more creative. The use of technology is becoming really prevalent around the African legal market. But what is also growing is the role of women in the legal field. You have more women getting into the profession, more women taking their rightful place and taking a part in law, and I think that is good. The more women you have in the profession, the more beautiful the profession will be in terms of ethics and professionalism. I am hopeful and proud of where this profession is going.
What were some of the struggles you have faced during your career?
Struggles have included people having the confidence that you can do it, or sometimes not having the money to accomplish all of the things you want to do. Some of the struggles are also not being able to attract the best talent that I need in order for us to go forward.
How did you overcome those hurdles?
What is really important is to never give up, to always work hard and continue looking forward to finding good talent and working with them.
How would you characterize the state of legal practice in Africa?
It is challenging and there is a lot left to be desired. The countries that have done really well and have the best lawyers, like Nigeria, have shied away from going out of their countries. Because of that, it has left the quality of the legal practice in Africa very poor. But there is hope, because many countries have picked up where the Nigerians have left off. At this stage, Africans need to do better. We need to have a better bar and a better legal practice, because at the end of the day, it is not about doing legal work; it is about training and building up the lawyers that will become engineers of society and build an Africa we really want to see.
Tell us about your new book: Big Barrels – Africa Oil and Gas and the Quest for Prosperity.
In the book, we try to talk about Africa’s story. Big Barrels is about looking at Africa’s flashes of hope, and that you can look around Africa and use those flashes of hope to make the industry better. We do recognise the faults of the past, but the past is the reference, not a resentence. We want to go forward, so this book looks at the solutions we can go forward with.
Ok. Talking about oil and prosperity, Nigeria’s Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, in a Financial Times interview last November, stated that Nigeria was “really a gas nation with some findings of oil.” That may have sounded strange to those that view Nigeria as Africa’s biggest oil producer. Do you think the minister hit the mark on that one?
Nigeria is indeed a natural gas nation — it just hasn’t acted on it yet. With an estimated 186 trillion standard cubic feet (SCF) of natural gas reserves, Nigeria is by far the biggest reserve holder on the continent, and could, if it made use of its resources, be the gas powerhouse of Africa. Yet, it’s natural gas sector remains underdeveloped. Despite all the existing potential for using natural gas for transportation, power generation and other uses, the country suffers from constant, chronic and crippling power outages. Businesses and citizens suffer from a lack of electricity, which hinders economic development.
There’s been so many opportunities missed in years past, with political leaders constantly focusing on the development of other sectors, even in a time when crude oil fails to fill the coffers. In your opinion, which areas should Nigeria be focusing on more?
It’s got to be in its natural gas reserves. And Nigerian officials are finally recognising that it constitutes one of the biggest lost opportunities for economic development in the country. Gas flaring, in itself, represents the biggest flagrant waste. In 2015, Nigeria joined the World Bank-led Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership (GGFR) in the “Zero Routine Flaring by 2030” initiative, which aims at putting a stop to the routine flaring of 5 trillion SCF of natural gas globally every year. On a global scale, this activity causes the emission of 300 million tons of CO2 per year, and could be used to produce 750 billion kilowatts hour of electricity, enough to power the whole of Africa. Nigeria is one of 24 nations endorsing the programme, but it stepped up its game by setting its own zero-gas flaring goal deadline a full decade before the GGFR by 2020. It has also committed to forbid any new oil wells from flaring natural gas. I think that Nigeria can also learn strategies and policy ideas from neighbours that have prioritized gas monetisation, like Equatorial Guinea.
The Buhari administration recently announced the introduction of the “National Gas Flaring Commercialisation Programme,” an initiative that will find solutions to use the resources to power the nation rather than pollute it.
It’s a great initiative and one that will reward companies that are compliant with zero flaring policies while harnessing that power to use for cooking, power generation and industrial use. The estimates is that the programme will create 36,000 direct and 200,000 jobs. All of this is brilliant news for a problem that has lasted for far longer than it should. However, the programme remains without an official launch date, and policy approval has proven to rarely be enough to fix problems in Nigeria. After all, in Nigeria, natural gas flaring is completely forbidden.
Lastly, how do you envisage corporate law developing over the next few years?
It is going to get even better, and here is why: Africa is a continent of growth. Africa is improving rapidly — there is more inter-African trade and more international investment coming to the continent. It is going to force everybody to get a grip on getting things right. I am very hopeful, but we have to keep a watchful eye to ensure that corruption, mismanagement and poor government policies do not ruin our profession.