Aluko & Oyebode, Nigeria’s formidable commercial law firm, at No.1 Murtala Mohammed Road in Ikoyi, Lagos, Nigeria, is unusually empty for a Saturday.
It gives one enough time to admire its plush interiors. Describing it would be taking a page out of a John Grisham novel.
The imposing building houses three floors of prime real estate in the heart of the city and on one of the most expensive strips in Lagos.
As you walk in, the blood-red walls are juxtaposed with grey metallic fixtures and fittings. The décor of the building is reminiscent of past cultures of various African countries.
Each floor is delightfully curated with Afro-centric artefacts and in the middle floor of the building is the firm’s seat of power, the office of its leader, Gbenga Oyebode.
For a sweltering Nigerian afternoon, Oyebode is dressed like no other in a 100-mile radius of the elite Victoria Island hub of Lagos: in a two-piece power suit, his signature outfit. Today, it is in black, accented by a deep blue tie.
Oyebode is cordial and pleasant with the team as he takes his position on the ground floor for the first set of pictures for the FORBES AFRICA cover.
He is the Chairman of Aluko & Oyebode, one of the largest integrated law firms in Nigeria with over 70 lawyers and three offices in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt.
The firm provides a comprehensive range of specialist legal services to a highly diversified clientele including top-tier Nigerian, international and multinational clients. In his capacity as chairman, Oyebode coordinates the various practice areas of the firm.
Described as a consummate dealmaker who has received plaudits from clients and peers alike for his corporate acumen, Oyebode’s areas of expertise cover energy and natural resources, power projects, foreign investment and privatization, telecommunications and project finance.
It is not just his formal dressing that is unusual.
Law firms in the country, family-owned by tradition, almost never run their firms like well-oiled machines providing solutions for several sectors at the same time. Oyebode was one of the pioneers of this concept. And it has not been an easy journey.
“It exposed me to these great minds I read about in the The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and I said very quickly to myself that I wanted to be like them,”
The 59-year-old spent the early years of his life musing over the promises of life in the civil service, a path taken by his father. It was a stable and comfortable job and one had guaranteed employment as well as a good salary. But he was compelled to ponder the possibilities of a riskier career.
“In those days, being a civil servant was the dream of every young person due to the stability of the job. However, as I started reading law, it became clear to me that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and for a lawyer that means opening a law firm,” says Oyebode as he takes a break from the photoshoot to begin our interview.
And that is exactly what he did. But not just any law firm, he wanted to leave behind a dynasty of great lawyers whose work would carry on long after he was gone.
If he had worked for any Nigerian law firm, his future would not have been guaranteed.
“The history of Nigerian law firms in the early 80s and some of them today was that they were set up by great minds essentially to be kept in the family. Their children went to law school and even if you were a great lawyer who worked with them, they make it very clear that you shouldn’t be thinking about your future at the law firm, because they were going to hand over the business to their children. So I understood that it was not going to work for me,” says Oyebode.
At well over six feet, Oyebode has a towering presence in any room, yet his calm and cordial disposition immediately sets you at ease and makes you feel as though you are having a conversation with an old friend.
Sitting in the conference room of his eponymous firm, Oyebode recalls a series of events that shaped the course of his career.
Like the time he was going to university and struggled to get guidance from mentors who would have advised him on the best path to take to become a successful legal entrepreneur.
The prominent Nigerian lawyers at the time were not strictly lawyers who worked at the firm but were mostly also involved in other professions.
According to Oyebode, the earliest nationalists of Nigerian politics were all lawyers, who used the law that they had learned abroad to change the system in Nigeria to gain independence and push the envelope against colonialism.
That would later become the real motivation for Oyebode to become a lawyer. For him, the ability to use law to change the political system with democracy or creating value was a calling he wanted to be a part of.
After graduating from the University of Ife in 1979, he immediately went to the Nigerian Law School and thereafter, completed his postgraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in the United States (US).
“What UPenn did for me was show me that there was a different way to do things and that the world was bigger than the opportunities I had in Nigeria. One of the most significant things about going to an Ivy League institution is how they draw from great minds around. So we went to conferences where great minds in the capital markets were and it was a game-changer. It exposed me to these great minds I read about in the The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and I said very quickly to myself that I wanted to be like them,” recalls Oyebode.
His journey is a textbook case study on how to systematically build a business step by step. He eschews convention. From the minute he finished primary school, his father signed up to a subscription of Reader’s Digest that was to become his monthly diet.
“He thought that it was important for us to read. He said it was important for us to understand what happened around the world. So one of the things that I do continually even today is I read the Reader’s Digest every month. It shaped my view of the world and created for me a situation where I learned more about the things that were happening around me and I was not limited to Nigeria,” says Oyebode.
His tenure as an associate at White & Case, one of the world’s leading law firms, helped him visualize the type of law firm he wanted to build of his own.
“American law firms were the type of law firms I thought we could replicate in Nigeria. Their vision for building big partnerships and for those partnerships to survive named partners was impressive. So it was very clear where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. I worked with White & Case for a year and I said to myself it was time to come back home,” says Oyebode.
Home had changed a whole lot while he was away. Nigeria had returned to democracy after years of military rule. The business environment was growing and there was a need for competent people to push the envelope and help with the development of law and business.
Furthermore, there were less than 10,000 lawyers admitted to practice law and Oyebode decided he would rather be one of 10,000 in Nigeria than one of a million in the US.
Soon after making that decision, disaster struck. No sooner had he returned to Nigeria did the crude oil market collapse and the Nigerian economy took a dip for the worse. The democratic government that had motivated Oyebode to come back was very quickly removed in a coup d’état in 1983.
“Before we knew it, the [Muhammadu] Buhari government was in power. To make matters worse, the naira had collapsed and the country was looking at a structural adjustment program with the World Bank. So contrary to my plans, things changed very quickly. I couldn’t go back to the US and I had to make do with things in Nigeria,” says Oyebode.
But where there are clouds, there is also a silver lining. Oyebode chose to keep faith and stick it out. He applied to work for the Gulf Oil Company, which later merged with Chevron, and spent two years learning about the oil and gas industry.
“That was very instructive because it gave me an opportunity to work in an industry, which was Nigeria’s biggest foreign exchange earner. I essentially cut my teeth working in Nigeria’s oil industry. I saw through the merger of Gulf and Chevron and then decided it was time to go out and do my own thing.”
In 1985, Oyebode went into partnership with friends and started his first law firm
Ajumogobia, Okeke, Oyebode & Aluko. After eight years of success, the firm was dissolved due to internal challenges. The string of such incidents, be it the country’s economic downturn or disagreements with partners, have all contributed to the success story Oyebode is today.
“What is impressive about Oyebode is his calmness and composure in times of crisis. He has the ability to look beyond that problem and says ‘how do we move on from this and get to the solution’,” says Tunde Folawiyo, Managing Director of Yinka Folawiyo Group in Nigeria.
That steadfastness has been an invaluable trait for Oyebode over the years.
He went on to establish Aluko & Oyebode with his other partner. Perpetual wins translated into mammoth personal gains for the legal mastermind.
Oyebode’s is also the story of a smart entrepreneur who, spurred by the increase in the proliferation of Western companies in Nigeria, spotted an opportunity in corporate law and has methodically worked to cash in on it.
He is currently advising on the Brass LNG Project, a joint venture between NNPC, TOTAL, Conoco Philips and Agip for the construction of a $3.5 billion Liquefied Natural Gas plant. He has also advised on key transactions like the $1.275 billion financing of the Exxon Mobil Natural Gas Liquid II Project, the $1.06 billion financing of trains four and five of the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas Plant Expansion Project and the $3.5 billion financing of the NNPC and Mobil Producing Unlimited Satellite Oil Field Project. He sits on the boards of MTN Nigeria, Nestle Nigeria and CFAO, among many others.
“Corporate law was something I was good at. It’s something that is dependent on your network and it is something that comes naturally to me. At White & Case and at Gulf Oil, that was my forte. I had invested a significant amount of my time around that so I was able to very quickly develop as a good oil and gas lawyer,” says Oyebode.
His wife, Aisha, attests to this. “What I admire most about Gbenga is he is very kind and warm and he is a people’s person. I do not know anybody that doesn’t like Gbenga.”
It was what Oyebode did next that distinguished him from his peers.
“One of the people that I studied a lot was Chief Chris Ogunbanjo. He ran the biggest law firms in town and was a lawyer who represented all the multinationals and was a lawyer who got involved in the businesses he represented. So when I came back [to Nigeria], I saw his model as one that I could emulate. I saw that he was able to achieve his objective, which was essentially run a significant law firm and become the advisor of the biggest corporates in the market as well as the repository of knowledge of what it means to work in Nigeria,” says Oyebode.
And that was to become Oyebode’s operating style over the next two decades. His modus operandi was simple.
Find opportunities, which he could maximize, and provide professional services and legal advice to top-tier corporate clients and where there was an opportunity, take a chunk of the business.
“One of the things as an entrepreneur that you tend to look at is opportunities around you, so long as those opportunities don’t divert your from your chosen path. If you ask me what I want to be known as, I would say a lawyer first, then an investor,” he says.
Oyebode sits on boards of companies that he has invested in as well as boards that he has been invited to join due to his significant expertise in corporate Nigeria.
The last two decades have seen a veritable boom in the business. For Oyebode, the key is passion for what you do.
“I am driven to build a big firm. We have 85 associates in three offices. There are 16 partners in the firm across the different practice areas that you expect a full service law firm to have, from legislation to corporate law to intellectual property, to risk and governance. So these are all key sectors that are sectors for growth of the Nigerian economy. The rationale is building a legacy that is driven by return,” says Oyebode.
Ever the opportunist, Oyebode is also looking to capitalize on the growth in demand of global companies looking for local partners in the real estate sector. He has a two-hotel deal with the Fairmont Group to establish hotels in Lagos and Abuja. Given the size in the number of tourists and business people in the country, Oyebode believes there is tremendous growth opportunities in this sector.
“The view is that there is still a gap around the hospitality business in Lagos. I go to Accra and I see the Kempinski and Movenpick hotels and I know that if Accra can do it then Lagos certainly has significant scope to develop hotels. Abuja only has the Hilton.”
But it has not all been smooth sailing. No sooner had he started his second stint at a law firm that tragedy struck.
“Life is about tripping and falling and learning from mistakes, pulling your strengths and moving on. My partner, Bankole Aluko, had a mild illness and called in sick for a couple of days. I decided to pay him a visit after work and on my way there, I was told he had passed away suddenly. It was a big shock because we had built everything together and most of the lawyers that joined us did so because of our strength as a firm. I had the corporate law expertise and he was a litigation expert. I thought it was all over at the point,” says Oyebode.
It was dark times for Oyebode.
“In those days it was very difficult to get clients. They came to you because they knew you and your reputation so it was very personality-driven. Today, clients look at your brand and your track record. So losing Bankole both as a dear friend and a professional was devastating.”
He vowed to continue the legacy they had started together and leave his name on the business as a named partner, which still stands today. These days, Oyebode is more interested in giving back. He mentors the next generation and is finding ways to give back. He has also turned his attention from corporate boards to philanthropy boards and actively seeks out opportunities to contribute to the community.
On the issue of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission’s (EFCC) fight to retrieve Nigeria’s stolen loot, which is estimated to be billions of dollars from state coffers, Oyebode offers some practical advice.
“My concern about Nigeria is not the lack of law or policy but always about execution. I think we have a robust legal system, we have laws and policies in place and we have a strong civil service. Do people obey the law around the world? Yes, and that is because they are afraid of sanctions. So if you do not obey the law or sanctions, then you pay the price. So our problem is a lack of execution of good policy, inconsistent application of the laws and sometimes, we have allowed federal character and the process of rotating positions to trump skill and expertise so therefore mediocrity is able to rise to the very top.”
But that is an ongoing fight, which Oyebode believes will not be solved overnight. Presently, his focus is on leveraging his expertise as one of the most formidable and accomplished legal minds to add value and give back to Nigeria.
His legal firm is a victim of its own success. And this is a happy problem to have.
Herbert Wigwe, the CEO Access Bank, one of Nigeria’s top banking institutions, calls Oyebode one of the strongest legal minds, not just in Nigeria but also across the world.
“And I say this because I have a strong personal relationship with him, apart from the fact that in Nigeria, he runs the strongest corporate law office. The existence of what is a modern Access Bank would never have happened but for people like Gbenga….All of these attributes have led him to sit on most of the large corporate boards in the country…Saying Gbenga is the new face of business in Africa is not something that is far-fetched; it is something that he has proven over and over again in his career.”