Osinbajo tells young Nigerians to reverse negative impact of COVID-19 pandemic through innovations

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Though the COVID-19 pandemic presents the most challenging times in recent history, it can also be a turning point for innovative thinking especially towards resolving the numerous challenges faced by humanity, according to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, SAN.

Prof. Osinbajo stated this on Thursday at the virtual Townhall meeting of the Law Students Association of Nigeria (LAWSAN) themed “How to build the right mindset for a better Nigeria, post COVID-19”.

According to the Vice President, “We are faced with a two-fold global crisis. First is a health crisis and then there is an economic crisis and the combined effects have resulted in possibly the greatest socio-economic crisis in recent history.

Continuing Prof. Osinbajo noted “…at the moment, we are also at a turning point with new opportunities to turn under-consumption into thriving business models if only we effectively innovate. We are seeing some of this emerge already.”

Below is the full text of the Vice President’s remarks:

KEYNOTE REMARKS BY HIS EXCELLENCY, PROF. YEMI OSINBAJO, SAN, GCON, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA, AT THE LAW STUDENTS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA TOWNHALL MEETING ON THURSDAY, 6TH OF AUGUST, 2020.

Let me just express my sincere thanks to the Law Students Association of Nigeria for the very kind invitation to be here today and to speak to you on this very important subject. I was specifically asked to speak within the context of this summit on the topic ‘How we can build the right mindset for a better Nigeria, post COVID-19’.

I must say that amidst the very depressing forecasts pervading the airwaves, it is a major task to talk about how exactly to get to the right mindset. But one thing that is clear is that the forecasts are quite bleak. And I don’t think there is a way of diminishing some of the economic forecasts and even some of the forecasts regarding what the social situation may be.

We are faced with a two-fold global crisis. First is a health crisis and then there is an economic crisis and the combined effects have resulted in possibly the greatest socio-economic crisis in recent history. We are convinced that this is the case, there are many who would say that nothing like this has ever happened to the world.

The crash in global oil prices is particularly a problem for us, the Nigerian government because revenues have plummeted, foreign exchange earnings, in particular, are very depressed on account of the fact that the prices of our major source of forex which is oil, are much lower than ever before. So, we are looking at a 40% loss in revenue than what we had projected. Even what we had projected in itself, we were going to have some difficulty funding it, but now there is a 40% loss in revenue.

So, we see the impending slowdown in the economy shrinking our GDP.
However, I think that where the needle will ultimately fall will depend on how well we respond to these crises; how well we work within the current circumstances; and how well we manage to adapt to these changes, as opposed to wallowing in trepidation and worry.

Because we don’t realistically know when this pandemic will end, speaking of a ‘post-COVID Nigeria’, is not actually of much use. The better approach, in my view, is to ask ourselves where the opportunities in this global crisis lie.

I think it was John F. Kennedy, who said, “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity”. Although I am told that linguistically, this isn’t completely true, there is a valuable lesson here for how we must reset and what our attitudes ought to be in times of crisis.

The good thing about this particular crisis is that no one has been this way before and everyone is searching for answers. So, there are no experts. No one can say ‘I am an expert on how to resolve socio-economic crisis in a pandemic. All over the world, people are literally scrambling for answers. Even in the most developed economies of the world, they are still scrambling for answers. So, I must say to you that there is no minimum age to seek solutions to the problems of these times. And you are certainly welcome to begin to think through what the solutions should be and how we should be responding.

As a government, this reality dawned on us much earlier on. And faced with the prospect of unprecedented unemployment figures and business closures, we had to get creative about solutions: to build resilience into our economic growth structure and to take bigger and bolder steps in our approach to creating wealth and opportunity.

So, for about two months, at the direction of Mr President, I led an inter-ministerial team mandated to look specifically at how to resolve some of the issues around the pandemic, its impact and draw up a response plan.

That response plan is what we call the Economic Sustainability Plan and we have a committee called the Economic Sustainability Committee which is to implement this pIan and I also have the privilege of chairing this committee. What we tried to do in the Economic Sustainability Plan was to design strategies that will save jobs and create new opportunities. And we looked at certain broad areas. We looked at mass housing and mass agriculture where we are focused on using local resources and innovation.

The whole point of mass housing and mass agriculture is that this will provide jobs. They provide jobs for small groups of engineers, architects etc. And of course, local production of some of the raw materials will also be an advantage. We are looking at both mass agriculture and mass housing as opportunities to create significant numbers of jobs.

We have also looked at technology as a major opportunity for providing several jobs. We also considered the huge deficit in our power sector at the moment especially the deficit in the availability of power to millions who have never been on the grid and have never had power. So, we focused on renewable energy and solar power in particular because high radiation, as you know, is a resource that we have in abundance. We thought that this crisis will be an opportunity to do something more significant about solar power – to provide solar power through the private sector, and second to increase local capacity to assemble, to repair, and to service solar equipment.

So, Solar Home Systems which is part of the Economic Sustainability Plan will power up to 5 million Nigerian households, who previously had no power. The systems will be provided by local private solar companies who have also worked out digital metering and payment methods.

So, to give another example of the sort of things that we are trying to encourage, Nigerian companies such as LifeBank and 54gene have been making waves in health technology for some time now. However, it has taken a global pandemic as we have now, for the government to develop truly collaborative solutions building on existing work that they had already done.

So, 54gene and LifeBank are both running NCDC-licensed COVID-19 testing centres across the country. LifeBank is also delivering emergency oxygen equipment and working with the government to create a database of available ventilators and respirators across the nation.

The infectious disease centres that we have both government and private sector, have come together to build some of them. Many of them will outlast the pandemic and thus, ensure that we have durable healthcare infrastructure provided for our future.

We might not have experienced the depth of such collaboration had it not been for the urgent needs created by this crisis. Today we have well over 54 testing centres across the country, we are converting the testing machines that were used for Tuberculosis and the machine used for testing AIDS, changing the cartridges and introducing the reagents for testing COVID-19, so there is a lot of innovative solutions going on at the moment.

The thing that we will always keep in mind is that this is a huge country. So, sometimes when things are done, you hear people say ‘I don’t even know that things are being done.” So, you will always have a situation where it will never seem like it’s covering the entire country.

I give you another example. When we decided that we were going to provide micro-credit for two million traders across the country, in fact, we did, eventually, over two million. So, in a country of this size, many will even say, we didn’t get anything.

So, every time you think, in terms of solving the problems of Nigeria, we have to think in terms of scale, scale is it. You can do 200,000 of anything and it won’t make a difference in Nigeria. So, scale is very important as you think through solutions.

As you are also thinking of solutions, in innovative ways, I feel that one of the things that you must be thinking about is how to ensure that you are thinking on scale.

One of the things that we experienced in the 1990s was mobile phones. In the 1990s, mobile phones were limited to more affluent who could afford them. The unmet need that existed amongst the rest of Nigerians then was seen as an opportunity for entrepreneurs to introduce business models that would make owning mobile phones affordable for the average Nigerian.

So, today, it has not only connected us with the rest of the world, and provided millions of jobs in the process, but it has even become a medium for us to effectively engage other industries such as mobile banking and the likes. Because there was a need, there was a problem with the telephony system in Nigeria, entrepreneurs got into it, thinking people got into it and today we have mobile phones and we have one of the largest in terms of mobile phone ownership across the world- something in the order of 114 million mobile lines in Nigeria and that is increasing practically every day.

This is a story of innovation and I just mentioned that because at the moment, we are also at a turning point with new opportunities to turn under-consumption into thriving business models, if only we effectively innovate.

We are seeing some of this emerge already and I can refer to a few examples to demonstrate a real basis for hope. The closing of schools, for example, with the lockdown has forced us to get creative about how we can replicate learning environments outside of the classroom. So, we have a lot of Edtech startups like uLesson – one of the new startups, leading the way, merging online and offline features to ensure the provision of a learning experience that spans the digital divide. Those kinds of innovations are crucial.

E-learning isn’t new, many of us are familiar with e-learning but the challenge in Nigeria is how do you do e-learning on scale especially when you don’t have broadband technology across the country. So, there is a need to take e-learning offline, there is a need to take e-learning so that it can be used on our devices without necessarily having access to broadband all the time and there is a need to do it on scale.

So, the challenges we have are slightly different from the challenges more developed economies may have. We have millions of people who need to access education. The real question is how do we get this education across to them, especially without in-person learning and where you may not have broadband technology.

Some have done well with the use of radios and many are using all sorts of offline type devices. For those without, we know already that states are incorporating radio, TV lessons, and some schools are even delivering work to their students by WhatsApp. With regards to accessibility to the internet and technology as a whole, there are abundant opportunities, in my own opinion, for what can be done.

But these are broad areas that we must all be thinking about. And as I said, no one can say I am too young to think about this. All over the world, solutions are thought through and being implemented by young people. It is very difficult to find a 63-year old man like myself that will say I have discovered a new app that can teach law to law students across the country without the use of broadband technology.

But perhaps of importance to us as lawyers or lawyers in the making is what these times mean for lawyers and where the opportunities lie. And I think we have to think through this especially like yourselves who in the next couple of years will be out there in practice. A few examples will tell you that you are living in the most interesting period in the history of our profession.

So, the Supreme Court has recently endorsed virtual court proceedings. This means that there will be plenty of opportunities for new technologies adapted to the dynamics of the courtroom. You can share documents on Zoom but for courtrooms and for practice, you need more nimble technology to tender documents or cross-examine a witness from a remote location on a bundle of documents. So, Zoom will not be the best technology for court proceedings although it is being used now but it is not the best technology because sometimes you have a bundle of documents to tender and that may be difficult. So, there is room there for innovative technology that will be suitable for use in the courtroom and I know that there are so many ideas that people are coming up with but there is plenty of room for thinking that through.

We also have to think about what the new rules for protocols will be. Virtual court proceedings are not the same as in-person or live court proceedings. When you are sitting in your office, conducting a case, the record-keeping will be totally a different issue. What will the protocols be for cross-examination, for making submissions? How does the judge look at the question of demeanour? It is a bit more difficult to look at people’s demeanour when you are using virtual processes such as we are using today. So, we need to be able to define what the rules will be.

What sort of pre-trial advice do you give clients now? When witnesses are giving evidence from outside Nigeria, maybe from the US, from Greece, which is possible now if we use virtual court proceedings. In the past, a witness had to be physically present in Nigeria, but now with virtual court proceedings, a witness can sit in Denmark and give evidence in Nigeria.

So, the question that will arise is, what are the jurisdictional problems? Do we need to change our rules as regarding jurisdiction? Can the witness truly without being present in Nigeria, give evidence? How do we assess that in terms of current legislation?

How about the future of the law firm itself? We know that the law firm is one of the busiest places you’d find. Lawyers are always seen cramping all over the place but the workplace is changing. With COVID-19, most law firms are working off-site and working from different other locations. What will remote working mean for a law office? What sort of technology will work best? We, lawyers, deal with documents all the time; we are forever re-drafting, sending drafts back and forth. What technology will be nimble enough to handle all of that traffic? I think there is plenty of room for us to do so much around that area.

What are the changes required in employment laws and in the practice of remote work? Everybody is working from different locations, are employment laws fit for purpose today? Or do we need to change something around it? These are the kinds of thoughts and ideas that we have to be thinking about.

How about cybersecurity in this new world where sensitive documents will be constantly moving around on the internet? How do we ensure that documents going back and forth are safe?

I want to say that innovation is itself, a mindset, and this is the only mindset that is going get us through this time of crisis in a manner that puts us ahead, rather than behind. Innovators, by their very nature, build much out of seemingly little and I believe that there is a bigger lesson here for all of us that we can make a difference ourselves.

I must say for lawyers, especially the young law students listening, I believe there is already a paradigm shift in the very concept of who a lawyer is today. In my own day, a lawyer was a person who understood the law, read the law, citing the sections, he was more or less a legal technician.

Today, a lawyer that would be fit-for-purpose must be multidisciplinary, multitasking, digitally strong man or woman of affairs. By that, I mean that a lawyer can no longer be a legal technician.

He must be a person capable of understanding the broad dimensions of everything; business, technology, the environment and various things that are at play today.

Such a person is comfortable in the board room, he is also comfortable talking to people who want to sell music on digital platforms, or advising on the regulatory environment for FinTech companies. Such a person is not restricted to “all I can do is go and argue a motion in court”.

So how do you prepare yourself, aside from your regular law curriculum for this new world? I think you must educate yourself in new ideas, read widely, take up the enormous resources available online on practically any field of human endeavour.

You must be intentional about understanding technology, information systems and artificial intelligence. This sort of radical versatility is the new normal, you can’t be a lawyer such as we were. You are in a completely new world.

If I come to you and I say that I just recorded a new gospel song, and I need advice on how to sell, smartly, you the lawyer ought to be able to tell me that there are jurisdictional issues; I know the copyright issues that are involved in this, I know if we have to market and how it will be done, the exposure needed. There are a variety of questions that a lawyer today must be able to answer.

I think it is a brilliant challenging new world that we have out there and I am sure you young people know that the days ahead are exciting, we are in the best moment in history, you have all the resources. I always say that never listen to the people who tell you of ”the good old days”, they have memory loss. There is no such thing as good old days, today is the very best day possible.

Every generation has its own challenges; the next 20 years, there will be different sets of challenges. You can’t say that my father told me that when he got out of school, he didn’t need to look for work. You’d need to ask him how many people were in Law School at the time? In my set, we were only 300 in the entire country. If I come out of school and say I found a job, so what? Today, there are thousands of people but there are also thousands of opportunities and the world is open.

In my day, I couldn’t seat in my office and talk to you, I didn’t have a mobile phone and even our regular phones were not working.

So, the days ahead are exciting and I hope this interaction will be one that will give you greater insights into the opportunities they are and I noticed that there are going to be many speakers even from the private sector.

I thank you very much for this wonderful opportunity and to say that I wish you all very well and I hope we get another chance sometime soon to talk again.

Thank you and God bless you.

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