September 02

 

African Christian Lawyers - An Oasis of Hope
for a Continent in Transition

by Samuel E. Ericsson, President
Advocates International

 

At the African Christian Lawyers Network conference in August 2002, a South African lawyer, Teresa Conradie, told us that she awoke at 3:00am one morning several weeks before the event with an acrostic etched in her mind:

G-H-A-N-A = God Has A New Agenda

By the end of the conference held in Accra, Ghana, the 310 lawyers, judges and national leaders from 17 nations - up from 85 participants from nine nations in 2001 - all felt that God indeed has a new agenda for Africa and that Christian lawyers and judges have a vital role to play.

THE W-H-Y TO VOCATION: One strategic player is Jonelle Tetteh-Ocloo, the other lawyer on our two-lawyer staff at Advocates' home office. She serves as Staff Counsel and Africa Liaison. Jonelle and I are about as opposite as two people can be. I am not short and Jonelle is not tall. I came to the U.S. as a Swedish import when I was eight years old and Jonelle arrived as a Ghanaian immigrant at age six. Jonelle speaks Ga fluently, while I stumble through Swedish. She is also proficient in Japanese and sign language, while I do very poorly at Spanish and German. Jonelle graduated from Yale Law School in 2001. I graduated from Harvard in 1969.

Although we are very different, Jonelle and I share a passion to encourage, enable and equip lawyers, judges and national leaders to "do justice with compassion." When Jonelle began her new job with us in October 2001, I asked her the "W-H-Y questions" I often use with people wrestling at career crossroads. W-hat is your life's vocational mission statement? H-ow would you describe your dream job? Y-our legacy is up to you, so what will it be?

For Jonelle, the answers to all three questions focused on helping Africa in practical ways - as a lawyer. I told her, "Jonelle, Africa is yours! Go for it!" How can a fresh law school graduate working in a two-lawyer office in Northern Virginia impact a huge continent with over 500 million people? The plans started where Jonelle's life began - in Ghana.

GHANA AGREES TO HOST 2002: The African Christian Lawyers Network (ACLN) held its 2001 conference in East Africa on Lake Victoria. The decision was to hold the next conference in a West African country. When Jonelle joined our staff, we approached the five Ghanaians who had attended Advocates' 2000 Convocation to see if they were willing to be the host. Despite the great challenge in hosting such an event, the 50-member Ghanaian Christian Lawyers Fellowship agreed to do so. The Host Committee eventually raised an incredible $20,000 from Ghanaians for the conference. The Ghanaian network also grew to over 250 re-energized lawyers and judges by the end of the conference. Ghana sowed and reaped. Africa will not be the same.

AN OASIS OF HOPE: The theme of the conference was: Christian Lawyers - Oasis of Hope in a Continent in Transition. Hope was central to every presentation. On opening night, Sam Okudzeto, the conference chairman and one of Ghana's most respected lawyers, along with Ghana's Chief Justice and Attorney General, challenged the 300 lawyers and judges to be channels of hope and reform in Africa. The transparency of the speeches underscored the freedom of religious expression enjoyed in many parts of Africa but not in our secularized West. If American or European judges were to share their hearts as we heard in Africa, they would probably not survive professionally. There is much we can learn from our African colleagues on being salt and light. They have not lost their saltiness.

 

COUNTRY-BY-COUNTRY HIGHLIGHTS

Benin: Three third-year law students, Victor, Elizabeth and Jean-Marc took a long bus-ride from Benin to attend the conference. They have already reported to us that they went back home and organized a Christian law student fellowship. They have also encouraged the lawyers in this French-speaking republic to organize a fellowship. In Benin, law students are sowing.

Botswana: Kwame Frimpong has both a Masters and Doctor of Law degree from Yale Law School where his daughter is currently a student. He has taught law for 15 years in Botswana. Kwame is a gracious, energetic brother who has now organized a national fellowship. He invited the African Network to hold its 2003 conference in his beautiful country in South Africa.

Burkina Faso: Paul Dipama was part of our 2000 Convocation in DC who returned home to organize a national fellowship which now has more than 35 active members. The Ghana conference re-energized Paul to continue his networking in this French-speaking nation.

Cote d'Ivoire: Michel Kokra attended the 1999 Convocation. At the last minute he was unable to attend the Ghana conference, but he sent reports that there are 25 lawyers in the fellowship engaged in conflict resolution and religious liberty matters.

Democratic Republic of Congo: Felicien Thumbasa lives in Goma where eruptions from an active volcano burned down his home this spring. During the eruptions, he and his wife had to flee to neighboring Rwanda on foot carrying their three young children and little else. It took Felicien two full days to get from his war-torn nation in southeast Africa to Ghana, with flight connections through Ethiopia and Nigeria. When he finally arrived at Accra's airport, the Ghanaians would not give him entry because he did not have $100 for a border visa. I had just gone to bed when I received a call at about 11:00pm from Felicien. Since French is his mother-tongue, he tried to explain his predicament to me in broken English. When I finally understood what was happening, Jonelle and I went to the airport but the guards refused to give us access to see him. At midnight they let Jonelle in to the transit section of the airport with the $100 visa fee. Felicien is a remarkable young lawyer and vibrant believer. After the conference, our "ransomed alien" returned to the DRC encouraged and organized a DRC fellowship with 25 other lawyers.

Ethiopia: This was Nardos Lemma's third Advocates' conference. He is a former Supreme Court Justice who was sent to prison in the early 1980's, along with his wife who is also a lawyer, because of their faith. Nardos leads the Ethiopian Christian Lawyers Fellowship with over 35 active members. He has offered to take the lead in building bridges to Christian lawyers among the mostly Arabic nations in northern Africa.

Ghana: Without any doubt, the country that reaped the most from the conference was the country that sowed the most, Ghana. As the 2002 Host nation, their Chairman, Sam Okudzeko, will hold the African Network President's chair for 2002-2003. The key organizers of the Ghana conference included five alumni from Advocates' 2000 Convocation: Nene Amegatcher, Chris Dadzie, Fred Deegbe, Beatrice Duncan and Kobla Glymin. The conference was the spark that re-energized over 250 lawyers and judges in Ghana, and impacted Africa for years to come.

Kenya: Kamotho Waiganjo, a past president of the Kenyan Christian Lawyers Fellowship, led a delegation of seven Kenyans who flew to Ghana from Nairobi. Kamotho recalled the luncheon at the 1998 Advocates Convocation where he and nine other African lawyers launched ACLN. By 2002, ACLN links over 8,000 lawyers and judges in about 25 nations. The Kenyan Lawyers Fellowship has 350 members with several programs including legal aid for the poor and needy.

Liberia: The delegate from this troubled and war-torn West African nation was Othello Payman, an energetic and articulate lawyer. He told me that he has not heard from his mother for 11 years because she lives in a part of Liberia controlled by the rebels. Despite huge problems, Othello trusts God and remains very upbeat. He called recently to tell us that there is now a Christian lawyer fellowship in Liberia.

Namibia: John Green Odada returned home from Ghana and organized a fellowship with about 15 lawyers. He and delegates from other nations in the region - South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia - plan to meet to address issues that Christians face in their region.

Nigeria: Nigeria sent 40 delegates to Ghana including eight judges, justices and law professors. Dr. Bankole Sodipo - a Nigerian Chief - is the dynamic President of the Christian Lawyers Association for Nigeria and led their delegation. CLASFON has branches in most of Nigeria's 36 states with an aggregate membership of about 7,000. The week after the Ghana conference, Jonelle and I attended the CLASFON conference in Nigeria with over 400 conferees. I challenged them to be salt and light by taking the initiative in addressing the corruption and bribery that is common in many courts and government offices. Nigeria needs a Rosa Parks, the small, quiet black woman, whose refusal to sit in the back of the bus in Birmingham, Alabama in the 50's launched the modern civil rights movement in the U.S. Martin Luther King, Jr. followed Rosa Parks lead. CLASFON should launch a "Yes to Integrity, No to Bribes!" campaign at every courthouse where clerks demand bribes. Others will follow, but someone must take the lead.

Justice Nikki Tobi of Nigeria's Supreme Court has been one of the leaders of CLASFON. He has 10 children and has authored 13 books including a recent one titled, "The Christian Lawyer." He spoke at both the Ghanaian and Nigerian conferences on "The Role of the Judiciary in a Continent in Transition." Justice Nikki has been a mentor for years. He is thrilled to see followers of Christ in the legal profession take a more active role of being salt and light.

Rwanda: Jean Musafiri was the delegate from Rwanda, a nation that suffered incredibly in the 1994 genocide that claimed nearly one million lives. Jean works with World Vision and has organized the Rwandan Christian Lawyers Fellowship. Rwanda is one of the 16 French-speaking African nations. Jean agreed to be the linguistic bridge connecting the 16 French-speaking African nations with the English-speaking African nations and Advocates International.

South Africa: Teresa Conradie and Rufus Malatji represented the 350-member Christian Lawyers Association of South Africa. Teresa has had a significant impact on several cases impacting believers in South Africa, including cases involving threats to close an AIDS-babies hospice and a highly effective Christian high school. Rufus serves as one of the highest-ranking civil service lawyers in South Africa. He is a potential national leader.

Uganda: Paul Asiimwe was the primary organizer for the 2001 ACLN conference held on Lake Victoria. He has served as our Africa coordinator. He came to Ghana with five other Ugandans, including Justice Julia Sebutinde of Uganda's Supreme Court. She gave an inspiring challenge "The Role of the Christian Lawyer in Combating Corruption in our Society." At the request of the President of Uganda, Justice Sebutinde has chaired three major anti-corruption commissions. Justice Julia is not a tall woman, but she is a fearless advocate for justice and righteousness. Michael Chibita, the legal advisor to the President of Uganda and Paul recently organized the Institute for Peace & Justice as a vehicle for the Ugandan Christian Lawyer Fellowship to engage in major issues.

Zimbabwe: Daniel Molokela, a 2000 Convocation alumnus, is President of the Christian Legal Society of Zimbabwe which has grown from inception to 100 members in less than two years. Daniel works with Transparency International. Daniel and his colleague, Davison Kanokanga, returned to Zimbabwe eager to help facilitate ACLN efforts in southern Africa.

WHERE TO FROM HERE?

The African Christian Lawyers Network is on the move promoting justice, religious freedom, human rights, reconciliation and the integration of faith and profession.

Advocates International and ACLN will have five regional hubs this year: 1) East Africa's office will be in Kampala, Uganda; 2) West Africa's hub will be in Accra, Ghana; 3) South Africa's office will be in Zimbabwe; 4) the French-speaking hub will be in Rwanda and 5) the Arab African office will be in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Jonelle's first year after law school has been incredibly fruitful. Some might say that it can't get much better than this. We believe that this is only the beginning. The best is still to come.

September 2002