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Why Good Laws Hold the Key to Africa’s Transformation

Cherie Blair, Think Africa Press, 24 January 2011

Next month will see the launch of the Africa Justice Foundation, a new charity to support legal capacity building in African governments. Co-founder Cherie Blair and board member Jonathan Kewley explain its significance.

To view the original article and to find out more about Think Africa Press click here

These are exciting times for Africa. Democracy, despite some all too-familiar exceptions, is on the march. In the past 12 months, nearly a quarter of sub-Saharan countries have gone to the polls. A new generation of progressive leaders are running their countries effectively and fairly in the interests of all their citizens.

The continent is recovering strongly from the impact of the global recession. Africa’s abundant natural resources, rapidly diversifying economies and potential market of over one billion people promise a period of immense growth and opportunity.

But there are, of course, major challenges still to overcome. And the chronic under-development of the justice system in many countries remains a major brake on Africa’s hopes of realising its ambitions. Indeed, while the Ibrahim Index measuring African countries’ development against governance and economic goals charts significant progress in many areas, it has found little movement when it comes to strengthening the rule of law.

This is deeply worrying. For without confidence in the law, trust breaks down, corruption goes unchallenged, inward investment dries up and human development suffers. Despite its importance, the rule of law is an area which, until now, has often received too little attention and support. It is an oversight which we hope the Africa Justice Foundation, which is formally launched on 1 February, can help correct by helping prepare young lawyers across the continent for the crucial responsibility they have.

And it is a heavy responsibility. Lawyers in Africa working within Government have to draft their countries’ laws, work with business to create the conditions where they can operate successfully and ensure that social justice and human rights are enshrined in legislation. They are, in many ways, mapping out the future of their countries.

But all too often these small teams have little support or training for the tasks which face them. Rwanda, our launch country, is a case in point. The genocide in 1994 saw the massacre of 800,000 people in just 100 days. Many were from the professional classes. It left the country with just a handful of lawyers responsible for implementing a new constitution and re-instating the rule of law. Over the past 15 years stability has returned, with strong and consistent economic reform resulting in rising GDP and renewed interest from foreign investors. But for the next stage in its development Rwanda needs to upscale its legal capacity.

That’s why, through the support of City law firms such as Freshfields and SNR Denton, and other businesses interested in Africa, we are funding Masters training in commercial law and legislative drafting for Rwanda’s lawyers at some of the UK’s leading universities, including UCL, Queen Mary and Liverpool. Over the next year the aim is to roll out this programme to other east African countries.

In parallel with the government capacity building project, we have also set up in-country advocacy programmes and legal mentoring schemes which will help to build skills and confidence in lawyers, regardless of gender. It may come as a surprise to some that women in Rwanda outnumber men in the Ministry of Justice and in its Parliament. Strong law, and support for lawyers in Africa, will not only drive prosperity but also help to empower women and break down gender divides.

And over the coming year, we have plans to expand and extend our work into new areas and countries. They range from a programme to develop case reporting systems in countries where currently nothing is recorded, to working with the Open University to develop internet-based legal training.

What impact do we hope all this will have? Better-prepared and supported lawyers can help translate the big ideas of government into transparent, effective and robust legislation which stands the test of time. If you’re a business wanting to invest in an African country, you’ll have more confidence knowing that the government legal team is familiar with applying commercial legal principles. Training will feed into legislation which protects inward investment, ensuring stable business relationships and sustainable in-country infrastructure development.

And if the concept all seems a bit abstract, consider this small example. In Rwanda in 2005, registering property took 371 days and the transfer fee amounted to 9.8% of property value. Today, through legal reform and streamlined administrative process, registration takes 2 months and costs 0.4% of value. Changes to law, overseen and implemented by government lawyers, directly impact on prosperity and fuel a nation’s economic progress.

This is not about imposing ideas or a single judicial system and mechanisms on a continent made up of 53 nations, each with their own diverse cultures and traditions. But it is about recognising the crucial importance of the rule of law for these countries, and their citizens, to achieve their ambitions.

Without good laws fairly enforced, these hopes will not be realised. The rule of law is critical for economic and social development. By working in partnership with lawyers across the continent, the Africa Justice Foundation hopes to play its part in helping them fulfil their role in building a stable and prosperous Africa.

You can also view this article on The Times

For more information on the Africa Justice Foundation click here