GROUP LEGAL COUNSEL, AIRTEL AFRICA
Former clinical research scientist Akinfela Akoni downed his pipettes and followed the call of law. It took him from London to Lagos via Nairobi, where he now works for telecoms company Airtel Africa, managing a pan-African legal team of internal and external counsel.
G C I N T E R V I E W
EDITOR AND FEATURES WRITER
GC: You used to be a clinical research scientist – what was your field of expertise and how did that turn into a legal career?
Akinfela Akoni (AA): I started life thinking I was a scientist. I did sciences for A Levels and I went to Sussex University to read biochemistry. Thereafter I got a job with Glaxo Wellcome for three and a half years doing clinical research, specifically into herpes viruses – for Zovirax and Aciclovir. My father was a pharmacist, so there was always the intention to read pharmacy. But I guess somewhere along the line it wasn’t my chosen career path, and in 1996 I got admission to Cambridge to read law. The rest is history, as they say.
GC: What was it that attracted you to law over pharmacy?
AA: Perhaps the independence. I always felt that in being a lawyer I would be independent, and that has been borne true.
GC: Having come from a commercial background, did you always think that you’d end up in-house?
AA: That I did not foresee at all. I was practising at Linklaters and one of our clients then was Celtel, a Dutch company specialising in telecoms in Africa (mobile phone network operator specifically). I was doing the work as a mid-ranking lawyer and one of the first tasks was due diligence in Lagos, Nigeria. Nobody put up their hand wanting to go and I was asked very politely if I would not mind going. That was 2005. We closed the transaction in Nigeria and Celtel then enquired whether I would not mind joining Celtel. That was how I became an in-house lawyer - although I had stints as a trainee or junior lawyer with Centrica (AA) and Greenhill & Co, but that was just part of my training as a lawyer.
GC: What’s the best thing about you role?
AA: I would say it is the diversity, because I look after essentially common law countries in Africa. So on any given day you can be dealing with a litigation matter, registering IP across the board, or a financing agreement. There is so much variety in the role, which is quite nice. And of course you get the opportunity to experience different cultures professionally and personally. There is never a dull moment.
GC: What are the challenges of working across a number of different African countries?
AA: I would say the common denominator is common law. That helps because being English law-qualified, you have a fairly good understanding of common law. Each of them will have their nuances on the corporate side, but essentially that common law thread goes right across the relevant countries. Now, doing business generally, I think you need to appreciate the nuances per country; professional nuances, cultural nuances. And working closely with the legal counsels is important as well - they are part of the team, and you sitting in the centre will not be able to address every single point. You have got to rely on and trust your legal counsels to raise the flag (if there is a red flag to be raised), and keep you posted as things go along. So that aspect of creating a good working relationship with members of the team is key, otherwise you will be forever on planes, trying to resolve issues.
GC: What is the highlight of your career so far?
AA: I think that would have to be the Celtel transaction. Working out of London at the time it was pretty much unchartered territory to do a cross-border transaction, and Nigeria is a fairy complex terrain to do business, let alone the legal issues that we faced. The transaction itself was highly complex. But we managed to get the deal through and eight and a half years later we’re still very much in Nigeria. I think the Celtel transaction was perhaps a defining moment.
GC: What are the main economic challenges and opportunities of working in Nigeria?
AA: The instability of the currency is always a challenge to the business. At the moment, the Naira is being devalued.
There are, I would say, security challenges generally - issues perhaps not so much in Lagos, more in other parts of the country. To relate that to the business: you could have issues of sabotage and vandalism which necessitate quick legal action locally. I sit more in the centre, so I may not have the daily intrigue, but you need to understand the issues and when colleagues report to you, you can appreciate where they are coming from, and you can tell which issues are more important or less important.
GC: What legal challenges or issues do you anticipate that you and your team are going to be dealing with in the near future?
AA: In telecoms, the big issue is multiple taxation. The various government agencies all across Africa are each trying to do the best for their own regulatory body, but in the process there will be a great deal of overlap leading to multiple taxation. Although the governments are trying to mitigate this, it’s there.
The other big issue is that of litigation. There is a strong push now for arbitration which will expedite the resolution of matters, as opposed to remaining in court for several years. I think that is a positive step for in-house work, especially where most of the disputes are commercial disputes. For the managers of the business, expediency in resolution, either way, is better than the lingering reputational damage that may arise when matters drag on in the courts for several years.
GC: Do you cover litigation matters as well?
AA: Yes. Most of the shareholder litigation I handle personally, however we have a good oversight of all litigation as part of the role, especially litigation that has a consequence on the business itself.
GC: How would you describe your management style? What do you think the secret is of being a good leader?
AA: I think patience is the thing you really need to have. I think a good knowledge of the subject matter is very useful, because you then lead by example. I typically spend more time getting things done, making sure not much sits on my desk. My turnaround time is very quick because that builds confidence with the business units/stakeholders. Of course, it has to be accurate advice.
I think ultimately it is for others to determine the type of leader you are, but I see myself as having a supportive role, and I am fairly hands-on as a leader. I’m also the President of the Oxford and Cambridge Club of Nigeria, so that gives me experience in leadership, albeit a different type of team where you have the executive committee and you have members. Trying to lead a diverse membership can be a challenge in itself. The combination of working with your team and also supporting the team is a good skill to have for our role in-house.
GC: If you could go back in time and give your junior self some careers advice, what do you think you’d tell yourself?
AA: I think to work hard and to build relationships with people: your team, your business colleagues, and, in this modern world where there is always a bit of fluidity, not losing touch of former relationships as well. This is important because you just never know where your paths will cross. I know it is an old adage, but it is quite true.
GC: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
AA: I am quite busy with my role at the Oxford and Cambridge Club of Nigeria. I have two daughters and my wife, so I like to spend a lot of time with my girls to be part of their growing up, and try to plug any gaps - opportunities I may not have had when I was growing up. We enjoy each other’s company, so it is not unusual to see all of us going around together.
GC: Do you have a favourite book?
AA: I read biographies actually. They tend to be leadership-focused biographies. So you would see me reading Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela, the Kennedys. I try to understand what defines the person, the subject – that is my real quest when I pick up a biography. No two people are the same. There is always some kind of experience that defines that individual and I try to understand the character and the subject very well.
GC: If for some reason you didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore, what would be the alternative career for you? Would you go back into science?
AA: I think I would always remain a lawyer now – that defines me.
GC: If money wasn’t a factor, where would your heart be?
AA: I would open a restaurant, club or some sort of entertainment outfit. Be a bit more nocturnal!!!