By Agatha Emeadi | sunnewsonline.com
Beverly Agbakoba-Onyejianya is a lawyer, who chose focus on arbitration and mediation as alternative means of conflict resolution despite her highly respected father, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and legal luminary, Olisa Agbakoba, being a distinguished litigator. Interestingly, she has made a name for herself as a highly sought-after expert in corporate regulatory compliance in areas of sports, entertainment and technology law practice. In the course of her trajectory in law practice, she was appointed chairperson of NBA SBL (Nigerian Bar Association Section on Business Law) Committee on Sports, Entertainment and Media. She is also a public speaker, writer and trainer.
Where did you study?
My primary school was at St. Saviours, Ebutte-Metta, where I finished at 10 to 11 years. That same year, I went to Atlantic Hall Secondary School which was a very new school at the time in Sam Shonibare Estate, Lagos. It was a very good school and from there I went to do my Advanced Levels in the United Kingdom in a school called Rise in Anthony’s Girls School, a Catholic Girls school. From that point I knew I was going to study Law. I don’t know, sometimes I wonder if I didn’t really think about it. Maybe I didn’t give it enough thought or I was so strongly influenced by the people around me that I didn’t really think …what do I really want to do? I just said I want to be a lawyer and that was it.
Could it be that you were looking at your father’s antecedents?
Maybe because my mum too is a lawyer, and my grandfather was a High Court judge. By the time I was leaving secondary school, everyone including myself knew I would study Law. In those days conventional courses ruled the world, unlike today that there are other interesting lines of work. However, I am not regretting that I studied Law, but I do not know where my decision came from, rather it was generally accepted that I would study Law which I obviously did in the United Kingdom. I took strong interest in corporate regulatory compliance which ensuring a company complies with rules and regulations. I worked with PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC)) and Checkpoint. PWC gave me the facilitating opportunity because they are so big on training, you are either trained or learn how to train. So, I remember being told to go and do induction training for graduates which I loved so much; at the end of the training, I got feedback that said, “She really knows her stuff”. The opportunity that came to me to facilitate courses in-house laid a path for me to do a lot of training now. From PWC, I moved to another global asset management company in the UK as a compliance officer. Thereafter, I returned to Nigeria. Corporate compliance legal practice was not too common. I was like a pioneer then unlike now that it is everywhere. I actually set up a compliance company.
Being the daughter of Olisa Agbakoba, who is a distinguished and well respected litigation lawyer, one wonders why you did not follow his footsteps in the litigation aspect of law practice. Please shed some light on this.
Well, I think the problem we have in Nigeria is that we only lean on one form of dispute resolution, one that can only be done by lawyers and it is territorially restricted. I cannot go and act as a lawyer or seek audience in the Canadian court, except I have been called to their Bar. But with the way the world is changing, there are others forms of dispute resolution that are no longer tied to territories. So, for me not being a litigator is of no consequence because the idea that it is only litigators that are lawyers has been floored. Not all arbitrators are lawyers, but some lawyers are arbitrators. Not all mediators are lawyers, but there are lawyers who are mediators. I am a mediator and also an arbitrator, and those are internationally recognized for some dispute resolution situations. Not going to court does not make me less of a lawyer. Ultimately, being a lawyer means solving problems, have some contracts and solve party disputes etc.
Your father Olisa Agbakoba started law practice as a human rights activist. Are you following the same terrain?
No, he did not start his practice as an activist, rather a regular commercial lawyer with an interest in Maritime Law. It was all the civil issues, detentions, human rights breaches, especially during the military era, that led to his interest in human rights. I found out that is the circumstances happening around you that tend to shape who you become. Assuming he was practising in the United Kingdom, human rights probably might not have come into it. Not because there are no human rights issues in UK, but the way it is glaring in Nigeria pulled him out. One’s circumstance defines his or her path. He saw what was going around and was not happy; that was how he got labelled as a human rights activist. He does more than activism; he is passionate enough to voice out his opinion on general issues that are of concern to the public, but that is not all what he does. In a way, I think I am an activist too because I believe in true governance, equality, and I hate corruption. I speak about those things in the context of sports. Recently, I was in Abuja at an anti-corruption conference because I speak a lot on governance. Now I speak about it in sports and that is more unique; one takes an advantage in the niche because when an area is niched, the voice gets louder. I am also an activist in Corporate & Commercial Law because one puts out a lot of articles that help small and medium scale enterprises (SMEs), business founders and entrepreneurs. I also teach and train which is a form of activism.
What have been your high points?
Some of them I cannot begin to talk about because I do international pro bono cases and doing this is really great and one of the high points of my career. I am also proud that within a short time, I have been able to raise awareness in Nigeria about the kind of work I do, especially relating to sports and being appointed a FIFA mediator in February 2022 is a high point. I saw the opportunity, applied and was happy that it was based on my experience from Nigeria. It made me understand that Nigerians are so talented and we deserve a lot more than what we are getting. Another highpoint was getting appointment with the Commonwealth Games Court. As periodic as the Commonwealth Games are, with every international game, there is a panel, not actually constituted except there is an actual dispute. So, they know who the members of the court are, it is only when an issue arises that the court will assemble and hear the matter. So, fortunately or unfortunately, not one single case arose during the last entire Commonwealth Games tournament. At least it is a record for me that I was appointed then.
What challenges did you have with high profile jobs?
Well, doing a high profile work in sports in Nigeria can sometimes be a bit anti-climatic because one is working far and above what is happening here. Unfortunately, Nigeria is not that advanced in sports matters like the way it is in the entertainment industry. One cannot really implement what you do in international countries even when there are games like constituting panels. Even as a sports lawyer, I do a lot more work in technology; I can say that I am a multi-faceted person and it has helped a lot. If I was on one track like a litigator, where some feel choked and unfulfilled because that is all they do, day in, day out. For me, I have multiple areas in sports, entertainment and technology. I wish that the domestic sports industry will be a bit more buoyant so I do not have to rely more on other areas to keep me busy. One cannot survive being a sports lawyer full time. Most people combine it being an agent. I personally cannot be an agent; lawyers in the UK combine it with agency.
When you do anti-corruption teachings, what exactly do you talk about?
Generally, the message is that we need to bring back values such as integrity, transparency which sounds old, return to where we used to do things before. Money should not be the focal issue that motivates people. Rather, we should be motivated by the desire to do things right for the sake of doing it; if money is the only motivator, there is tendency to do things haphazardly. There is tendency also to do more. I also teach that corruption might be enjoyed in a short time, but in a long time, corruption defeats the victim and others, including communities. Corruption is everywhere not only in Africa but we just have to do our best to improve our image.
How did you meet your husband, Onyejianya?
He was actually introduced to me. I was working at the Law Society during one summer in the UK. I met Obi, who is now my brother-in-law. He said to me, ‘I know someone who will be great for you.’ I said, ‘no, I have heard that before.’ Eventually Obi had his daughter’s first birthday party and invited me. That was where we met for the first time. So, I actually met Obi first before my husband and then the wider family. With time, things fell in places and we came back home and married on August 9, 2008. We will be 15 years in marriage and are blessed with three children.
How have you been able to have a balance between the home front and being a very busy person handling high profile jobs?
We all need a support system. I had people who lived with me, a very supportive family. No one can be successful alone. It is a collective effort. I remember that when I came to Abuja to attend Law School, my sister-in-law was the support plug who took care of my children. The children were with her all week while I would come during the weekends to see them and we all were happy. I could not have had that comfort and peace of mind if she wasn’t there for me. Even recently when I had a three weeks course in the UK, my parents were with the kids. One cannot do it alone, we all need each other, be it family, close friends, etc. The home-front is really a joint effort to achieve dreams.
What advice will you give to very young girls?
First, I would congratulate them because their big part of life is just completed because secondary school is not easy. It is full of distractions and looking to the future. I will say to them, ‘do not panic;’ it can be both exciting and quite daunting; I will tell them to have mentors who they can confide in and speak to. Again, I will ask them what they want to do the next stage of their lives? Why are they taking such steps? I would tell them, do not carry other people’s negative energy on your head; do not lose yourself in the process of trying to please others because women sacrifice a lot for others. Find a way to put yourself first. With that you will help others because if you do not live an authentic life, you will pay that price. You will still be the one that will be stressed, traumatised and unfulfilled. So, crossing over from 16 to 18 years is a huge responsibility on yourself, not even on any one else. So, you must think carefully of what you want between going to the university or pursuing an amazing talent or skill. The world is changing rapidly; many people who studied Law and Medicine are doing other things now. It is also important to lean on other people for support and wisdom. At 18 years, you cannot know it all. Therefore, be cautious and make decisions that will benefit you. If you do not have a mentor, read books about other people’s experience. You can avoid certain mistakes by reading about other people’s lives. Engage in yourself in rewarding and purposeful activities, develop your skill, conferencing and writing. Personal development is what takes one from being a regular professional to a top-notch super star professional. It is the unique qualities that sets one apart. At the end of it all, one would be the first beneficiary of her success.