Prof Damilola Olawuyi, 37, is the youngest academic to become a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. He tells TOFARATI IGE about his career, family and other issues
How do you feel being the youngest Senior Advocate of Nigeria?
I thank God for the wonderful opportunity and privilege of being recognised as a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. Being the youngest legal academic ever to receive the rank makes it even extra special, and I hope it serves as a positive inspiration to all youths out there that great things happen when we stay positive, dedicated and committed to our goals.
What stirred your interest in Law?
Growing up in a family of six, myself being the last, I was generally seen as very energetic and vocal from a young age. I was the one that spoke when others were timid, the one who called for fair distribution of household chores and the resulting benefits (food, in most cases), and the one to settle fights and disputes. I also had a strong interest in current affairs, so I became involved in debating right from the primary school stage. My father noticed my interest in social justice issues at an early age and he began to encourage me to read newspapers. He would buy different newspapers and bring them home for me, and also discuss the key contents with me. I read about famous lawyers such as Aare Afe Babalola (SAN) and Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN) of blessed memory, and I secretly admired their commitment to justice and societal development. These naturally developed in me a strong passion for social development issues.
However, my path to studying law was not as straightforward. I actually studied Law by mistake. And that is easily the best mistake I have ever made. I made very good results in the junior secondary school examination― one of the best in Oyo State at the time. Consequently, I was compelled to enroll in the science class, based on the cliché at the time about what intelligent people should study. However, given my interest in social sciences, I insisted on adding Literature in English and Government to my combinations as a science student, which was seen as abnormal at the time. After succeeding in the West African Senior School Certificate Examination, I was very close to enrolling for Computer Engineering at the university but I was told that the course was not commencing that year. At that point, I called my father with great disappointment, but he asked me, ‘Do they have Law’? The answer was yes, and I had the required combinations to be admitted. That was how I transformed from a science student to a Law student. I have never looked back since then.
What is the most challenging case you have ever handled?
In my practice, I provide legal representation and expert advice to governments of different countries, especially in oil and gas and environmental law matters, which comes with different challenges. The most complex case I have been involved in was when a client had a major operational blowout and had over 700 claims filed against them at the same time. In such a circumstance, it takes a lot of time, patience and careful negotiations to separate the wheat from the chaff and to get the client back to a good position. Also, in such cases, negotiating with affected local communities and stakeholders can be very complex and challenging, especially when emotions are still high. It was indeed a good learning experience that has greatly prepared me for handling complex environmental and oil and gas related cases.
Which do you find more fulfilling― practising Law or teaching it?
I find both law teaching and practice to be equally stimulating and fulfilling. My continued engagement with practice gives me fresh perspectives on the workings of the law, which allows me to provide my students with fresh real life examples and scenarios. My students, therefore, gain practical and commercially relevant knowledge from an early stage. In the same vein, my research and publications provide the sharp insights and analysis that help my practice in very significant ways. Working on different academic publications and research projects means that I can be aware of the latest developments in law at every point in time, which enriches my practice, especially the process of preparing for court cases and arbitrations. I also like the serenity and collegiality of the university, which allows scholars to think, innovate, and unearth new ideas through society-relevant research.
What are your duties as the Deputy Vice Chancellor of the Afe Babalola University?
As the Deputy Vice Chancellor, Academic, Research, Innovation and Strategic Partnerships, I oversee all academic and research programmes of the university. I also chair a number of university committees, especially the University Research and Innovation Board, which implements programmes to promote research, innovation and societal impact in the university. As a world class and research active university, our goal is to ensure that the high number of research publications produced by our faculty and students are widely disseminated across the world, and influence decision making in key sectors and industries. I work closely with the Vice Chancellor and all colleges to ensure that we achieve this goal, while also attracting international grants, partnerships and collaborations with other research minded universities across the world. Some of the results of our high energy approach to research and innovation are already evident in the number of high impact publications generated by our faculty members. Some of these publications have shaped discussions on COVID-19, solid minerals development, agriculture, oil and gas, climate change and public health, to mention but a few.
What are the challenges you face in the course of doing your job?
The COVID-19 pandemic has posed big challenges to all universities worldwide. For example, several of our planned in-person conferences and outreach activities have been affected. We are, however, very fortunate to have a team of dedicated and supportive staff that have made the process less daunting. Through their innovation, we have been able to move several of our activities online through teleconferencing, webinars and telework. I am indeed proud of the leadership role that ABUAD is playing in spearheading innovative and ICT-driven education in this country.
What are your short-term and long-term goals for the university?
We have a bold vision at ABUAD, which is to achieve the highest standards of excellence in societally-relevant research, innovation and enterprise development, and to become one of the world’s top tier research intensive universities. With exceptional strengths in agriculture, medicine, law, entrepreneurship and engineering, among others, our strategic plan for the next five to 10 years will be to consolidate this leadership, while continuing to raise our profile, presence and reputation as an internationally engaged world-class university. Under the leadership of our able Vice Chancellor, Professor Elisabeta Olarinde, the university has recorded significant strides in areas of functional ICT-based learning. ABUAD is one of the few institutions in Nigeria that have been able to continue functioning seamlessly despite the pandemic. When you walk around (the campus), you also see our emphasis on entrepreneurship and practical learning. Many thanks to the innovation, sagacity and foresight of our founder, Aare Afe Babalola (SAN), ABUAD has a Talent Discovery Centre, where students immerse themselves in innovation and skill development. We are never afraid to push the boundaries of knowledge. We believe that innovation is the primary function of world class and research-driven universities. So, very soon you will hear more about our post-COVID 19 innovations, publications, and programmes.
Some people feel that despite the high fees paid by students, the quality of lecturers in private universities is not as good as those in public institutions. What is your reaction to that?
I think that erroneous sentiment has now been permanently laid to rest due to the several significant landmark achievements and contributions of private universities to the Nigerian education landscape over the last two decades. I am a living proof of the highest quality of education provided by private universities. I graduated from Igbinedion University, Okada (Edo State), did a Master’s degree at Harvard University (a private university in the United States), and now, I teach at ABUAD. I am a product of private universities and I have been able to attain the peak of my profession due to the high quality of education and support that I have received.
What makes a university world class is not whether it is public or private. It is the high quality of its research staff and the available infrastructure for research and innovation.
As the Vice Chair of the International Law Association, what do you do?
The International Law Association was founded in Brussels (Belgium) in 1873, and it aims to promote the study and clarification of public and private international law worldwide. The ILA is headquartered in London (United Kingdom) under the chairmanship of the Right Honourable The Lord Mance, a former Deputy President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. As a Vice Chair, I sit on the Management Committee and the Executive Council of the ILA, and provide insights and contributions to the functioning of the association worldwide. I also serve on special committees that are created from time to time to advance the development of international law in different parts of the world.
What were the highlights of your time as a visiting professor at Columbia Law School, New York?
It was a great privilege and honour to serve as a David Sive Visiting Scholar at the Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law at the Columbia Law School, New York (United States of America). Firstly, I enjoyed the rich culture and energy of New York― a very vibrant and multicultural city known for being a hub of entertainment. More importantly, I enjoyed the warmth and reception of my colleagues at the Columbia Law School who made the task of settling in and conducting research less stressful. I also enjoyed my interactions with the students in class, especially the very intelligent questions they asked which further enriched my own research projects. In all, it was a wonderful experience which greatly allowed me to transplant some important notions on climate justice in the United States to inform and influence the development of the law in this area in Nigeria. Some of the articles and books I developed during that time have received accolades and awards.
You were recently appointed as an Independent Expert on the African Union’s Working Group on extractive industries, environment and human rights. How has the experience being so far?
It has been an enriching experience so far. The working group comprises foremost thought leaders and policy experts in natural resources law in Africa, with the mandate to examine the impact of extractive industries in Africa within the context of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. For over 11 years, the working group has played an active role in informing the African Commission on the possible liability of non-state actors for human and peoples’ rights violations in the extractive industries, especially oil and gas, and solid minerals development. Among other functions, the working group formulates recommendations and proposals to African governments on the appropriate measures and activities for the prevention and reparation of violations of human and peoples’ rights by extractive industries in Africa. One important initiative that we are currently working on is to establish more guidelines and awareness on how to address problems of illicit financial flows in the extractive industries in Africa. The working group also recently published a detailed newsletter that aims to create awareness across Africa on how to address adverse human rights impacts of the extractive industries.
What are some of the most notable books you have published?
I have several books in areas of natural resources, energy and environmental law. I will however mention some of the few that have received national and international awards. My most famous books are The Principles of Nigerian Environmental Law (2015), Food and Agricultural Law in Nigeria (2016), The Human Rights Based Approach to Carbon Finance published by the Cambridge University Press (2016), Extractives Industry Law in Africa published by Springer Switzerland (2018), and most recently, Local Content and Sustainable Development in Global Energy Markets, also published by Cambridge University Press (2021).
From your perspective, what qualities make a good lawyer?
I often tell my students that Law is a service profession. Just like restaurants, our value is intricately tied to how well we serve our clients. So, diligence and hard work are very vital to building a successful law practice. For lawyers and law students, hard work simply means leaving no stone unturned in preparing for every case or examination. The best Law students read as if their entire lives and futures depend on it, while advocates that devote themselves to comprehensive and multi-jurisdictional research often find the missing piece in their clients’ cases. This means when facing their work, they shut out all distractions and prepare vigorously. Also, good lawyers master the art of amiable networking. It is very important to actively build relationships with colleagues within and outside the profession, in order to widen one’s horizon and knowledge base. Consistent diligence and hard work breeds reliability. Reliability, in turn, breeds an increased network of viable contacts and allies. An increased network brings boundless opportunities, and opportunities ultimately open the door for success.
You have practised and taught Law in Europe, North America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. What are the peculiar differences in the way law is practised in each of those places?
Teaching and practising law in multiple jurisdictions requires an in-depth knowledge of the key legal traditions of the world, namely common law, civil law, and Islamic law. In Nigeria, as it is in many commonwealth countries and former British colonies, we largely apply common law principles in legal drafting and contractual interpretations, as well as in case preparation and in courts. The first time I had to work in civil law jurisdictions such as France, China, Russia, and Qatar, it was a significant transition as their oil and gas laws have strong influence from the civil codes. In those jurisdictions, law is as written in the codes and a lot of things are not opened to wide interpretations. Being a global lawyer means one must be ready to learn fast and one cannot be set in one’s ways. I have been able to immerse myself in those legal traditions to such a point that I now have the temerity to author books on civil law and Islamic law. For example, my co-edited book titled, Negotiating Joint Operating Agreements in Civil Law Jurisdictions, is a compendium of best practices on oil and gas law from 21 civil law countries. Furthermore, given my experience working in the Middle East, I have also authored an environmental law book for Arab countries, which explores the influence of Islamic law and principles on environmental protection. As I tell my students, being a global lawyer means one must have an in-depth understanding of the comparative law principles that underpin the multiple but convergent legal systems of the world
Did you actively (intentionally) work towards becoming a professor of Law at 32?
The honest answer is ‘no’. I have never put any age limit on anything in my life, whether completing a degree, marriage or career achievements. However, God has been very faithful. Setting age limits for things can come with significant pressure which might be difficult to manage, as several achievements depend on factors beyond one’s immediate control, even when one has done everything right. I realised very early that I had age on my side, especially when I completed my law degree at 21, became a lawyer at 22 and completed my Master’s degree at 23. I then decided to continue working very hard and without distractions, in order to sustain the achievements that came very early in my life. I thank God I have been able to build on those achievements and accomplish several professional milestones at a very young age, which includes becoming a full professor of law at 32, Deputy Vice Chancellor at 36, and Senior Advocate of Nigeria at 37. I however continue to avoid setting age limits or targets for anything, as God is the ultimate planner and decider.
What are some of the personal qualities that helped you get to this stage of your career?
I am a firm believer in the principle that whatever you find yourself doing, do it very well. I therefore do not believe in doing things in half measures. If you ask me to paint for you, and I say I would do it, you can be sure that you would get the best painting that is humanly possible. I would not go to bed until I achieve just that. This basic principle of putting one’s very best in everything, even the most basic and simple things, including one’s dressing, appearance, relationship with others and in completing professional tasks, has been a fundamental cornerstone principle that has allowed me to thrive in various settings.
Also, I have been fortunate to be surrounded by kind mentors who believed in me and have helped me to grow. At ABUAD, I am extremely fortunate to have the greatest mentor of all times, Aare Afe Babalola (SAN), a highly cerebral, versatile and supportive father, whose love for mentoring young people is unparalleled. I think my head and brain size has enlarged at least 10 times more since I met him. This is an exemplary and selfless man who, without formal classroom education, has become globally recognised as the father of university reform in Nigeria and the founder of the fastest growing university in Africa. My goal in my current role is to be an inspiration and support to others just as he has been to me.
What advice do you have for young people as regards career advancement?
My simple advice is that there are no shortcuts to success. Success requires absolute devotion and commitment to whatever one finds oneself doing. No matter how small, simple or unattractive a task or job may seem, it is the foundation for a better tomorrow. I hope my story will inspire them to realise that good things happen when one is dedicated, focused and committed to one’s chosen endeavors. The challenges we face today are the essential aspects of tomorrow’s success story. So, keep moving.
Secondly, the value of sound professional mentoring cannot be overemphasised. Everyone needs a good mentor that can guide and support them to achieve career satisfaction and development. So, in addition to seeking out knowledge and professional guidance from those ahead of them, young people will also need to stay committed and hard working so that their mentors can observe and take pride in their progressive development and advancement.
Finally, as Aare Afe Babalola always tells us, ‘He prays most, who works hardest’. Our level of commitment and hard work must be matched by our devotion to prayers. Impossible feats are possible when we work tenaciously and also fervently seek God’s guidance and grace.
You graduated with First Class degrees in Law from the university and the Nigerian Law School. Did you have time for social activities while in school?
While in school, I was totally married to the law. I was absolutely committed to reading and learning more about the law, very much so that they kept books for me in the law library. This is however not to suggest that I had no social life, but then, even my social activities were law related. For example, I was elected to serve as President of the Law Students’ Association and President of the University Press Club while at the university, and while at the Nigerian Law School, I served as a member of the Student Representative Council, in addition to serving as tutorial leader for law students in the campus fellowship. Those activities allowed me to continue learning both within and outside the classroom. For example, while teaching others, I gained more knowledge of the law while also developing my public presentation and leadership skills. I think such absolute devotion, commitment and serious mindedness are required to make a First Class degree in any discipline.
Not much is known about your private life. Are you married?
Yes, I am happily married. I got married 10 years ago and we are blessed with two children.
How did you meet your wife and what were the qualities that endeared you to her?
My wife completes me. She is a truly beautiful and wonderful woman and I was indeed very fortunate to have met her while I was in the United Kingdom. Interestingly, we had both attended Igbinedion University but she was in the sciences, so I only knew her from a distance back then, before she eventually left for the United Kingdom. As fate would have it, I met her again in the United Kingdom when I was a PhD student. We connected immediately as former schoolmates as we had a lot to talk about. What started as old school ‘gists’ transformed very quickly, and the rest, as they say, is history.
What can you recall of your childhood?
I grew up in Ibadan (Oyo State) as the last child in a family of six. It was a very disciplined Christian family and my father played a very strong role in our formative years. He told us a lot about how he was very intelligent but could not go beyond primary six due to lack of finances. Consequently, he was very determined that all his children must enjoy the best education. I owe a lot to his determination and love for education. He spent the entire earnings from his welding and construction business on our education, and today, all of us are successful professionals― two medical doctors, three engineers and myself as the only lawyer. With the active support of my late mother, our upbringing was very much regimented as it was all about studying, praying and participating in household chores. Even though it was quite tough then for us as kids, I am glad we all eventually embraced this disciplined approach and it has truly worked out very well for all of us. My humble beginning and childhood is a constant reminder that there is absolutely no limit to what a child could achieve with the right parental guidance and support.
What were your childhood ambitions?
I had the childhood ambition of travelling to different parts of the world as a lawyer. When I read about the exploits of people like Aare Afe Babalola (SAN), Prof Fidelis Oditah (SAN), Prince Bola Ajibola and Prof Taslim Elias, I became really interested in taking law across borders as these great people had done. I am really delighted and thankful to God that this childhood dream has indeed come true for me in many ways.
How do you unwind?
I am an avid traveller. In addition to work-related travels, I like to discover new destinations, new cultures, new languages and new food. I take my time to try out new things in every country I have visited. Similarly, I am a passionate football fan, and I actively support Manchester United and the Super Eagles of Nigeria.
How do you like to dress?
My style is warm and contemporary. I pick out warm colours that enable me to maintain a professional but very sophisticated look. I also actively try out new fragrances and colognes that allow me to always complement the professional look with a dash of contemporary and fresh