A leading legal advisor to the Nigerian government says strong laws and effective implementation thereof must be the basis for Africa’s future progress. Chinwe Uwandu is a former fellow at one of the world’s top academic institutions, Yale University in the United States. She represents Nigeria at various international forums, including the United Nations, and has helped secure Nigerian input into a number of continental and international treaties. In the third part of a series on African fellows at Yale, Darren Taylor reports on some of Uwandu’s achievements.
Born as she was on 31 May 1960 – a few months before Nigeria achieved political freedom from colonial Britain – Chinwe Uwandu laughingly refers to herself as an “independence baby.”
She says growing up when she did during great turmoil in her home country helped shape a “spirit of independence” which has been a significant part of her character ever since she was a young girl in her village at Umuahia.
“I grew up in several parts of south-eastern Nigeria, because my father being a schoolteacher in those days moved around quite a bit…. My father was the most constant figure of stability in my life. I had a very exciting childhood!” Uwandu exclaims.
She says her father, Anthony, encouraged her to embrace education, and she’s always “loved learning.”
Following her schooling at Umuahia, Uwandu studied at Nigeria’s Calabar University, where she completed a Bachelor’s degree in English – preparing herself for a long career in teaching, as her father had done before her.
Later, she excelled as a professor of English language and literature in Lagos, and thereafter served as an education officer in Nigeria's Federal Ministry of Education.
But Uwandu then decided to take up law at Lagos State University, and subsequently completed her masters in law at the University of Lagos.
After cementing her reputation as a legal mind in the Nigerian capital, Uwandu successfully applied for the post of prosecutor with the federal government.
“In the late 1990’s, I worked in the Department of Public Prosecutions, in the office of the attorney general, prosecuting a diverse range of cases, even up to the appellate court.”
She was appointed principal legal officer in the Federal Ministry of Justice, where she prosecuted criminal cases on behalf of the government and defended the government in a number of civil cases.
“I think the highlight of my work as a prosecutor was as a member of the federal government task force on the World Bank (corruption) cases…. I was part of a task force that dealt with prosecutions of those who were indicted with banking fraud.”
In the 1990’s and prior to this, says Uwandu, organized crime brought the Nigerian banking sector “to its knees” and scandal after scandal emerged when top officials were accused of stealing World Bank funds that had been earmarked for development.
After her work in the economic sector, then-President Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999 appointed her lead counsel for Nigeria’s Human Rights Violations Commission. She organized public hearings into more than 400 gross human rights violations that had taken place over 30 years of military rule.
“I was empowered by (former president Obasanjo’s) mandate to investigate the causes, nature and extent of gross violations of human rights committed in Nigeria between 15 January 1966 and 28 May 1999,” Uwandu explains.
“The Commission received 10,000 petitions. All these matters ranged from unlawful killings – including state-sponsored assassinations, abductions, disappearances, mass rape of women and girls and many other forms of abuse.”
She was responsible for “gathering and evaluating” all the evidence presented to the Commission, and also helped to draft its final report and recommendations.
Uwandu describes the Commission as a “significant step” towards creating a “more just” Nigerian society – even though it was heavily criticized when three former military rulers - Ibrahim Babangida, Muhammadu Buhari and Abdulsalami Abubakar – refused to recognize its authority and evaded public testimony.
Nevertheless, Uwandu emphasizes, the Commission included in its final report the recommendation that they be investigated for suspicious deaths and prevented from governing Nigeria again.
She’s adamant that the Commission achieved a “great measure” of reconciliation in Nigeria.
“The Commission also, in the course of its public hearings, had special hearings, where all the ethnic nationalities of Nigeria had the opportunity of venting their various grievances. So to the extent that the Commission presented a platform for that to happen, for all those who had been victims of gross human rights violations – and even perpetrators had their days (to testify – to that extent I think the Commission was faithful to its mandate.”
She says she’s proud of helping to play a “small role” in revealing a “new history” of her homeland.
“The Commission made far-reaching recommendations in respect of every case, which also led to strengthening of accountability and institutions, like the Nigerian police, the Nigerian prisons and even the courts.”
In March 2004, Uwandu was assigned by Nigeria’s attorney general to set up the Legal Unit of the Nigerian Country Office of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).
“I rendered legal advice to all the departments of NEPAD, and all matters relating to the organization and its duties. I also represented NEPAD at various international forums, and presented NEPAD’s strategies at these forums. NEPAD is a wonderful platform to raise awareness about Africa and the good things that are happening in Africa,” she says.
“NEPAD as a vision is a fantastic template to provide the most needed opportunity for Africa to make a fresh start in terms of struggling to break the cycle of conflict, poverty and underdevelopment.”
Over the past three years, Uwandu has also represented Nigeria at various UN meetings, and has negotiated, drafted and vetted agreements between Nigeria and other countries. She ensures that Nigeria observes its obligations regarding international treaties it’s party to, specifically those dealing with a “wide variety of domestic and international human rights issues.”
In 2004, she was selected to be a Fellow at Yale University, and she’s now recognized by the institution as one of only 106 visionary leaders in various fields throughout the world.
“Yale has always had a tradition for training world leaders. The Yale World Fellows program is basically Yale’s contribution to globalization,” Uwandu enthuses.
“Yale is enhancing world understanding of Africa. Fellows have the opportunity of expanding their professional and personal horizons, and contributing to international cooperation.”
But her thoughts are always with modern-day Nigeria. “Many challenges” confront her homeland, she acknowledges, and then adds: “Happily, Nigeria is putting her past behind her and forging ahead. The country is cognizant of the fact that the choices it makes have a huge impact on the rest of Africa, given the leadership role that Nigeria plays in Africa. Nigeria has taken the lead role in attempts to promote good governance in Africa.”
“All is not perfect in Africa, but I’m proud of the role Nigeria is playing in anti-corruption efforts, the cancer that has plagued most of Africa,” she tells VOA.
“The economy is picking up in many ways; the banking sector is very strong now; telecommunications is very strong.… (But) There’s no magic bullet to solving the problems of Africa.”
According to Uwandu, Nigeria and Africa “do not have to look far” for the reasons behind their economic and political problems.
“The reasons range from lacking respect for the rule of law. Then there is endemic poverty, and struggles over resources that make it seem as if the continent is on a path of self-destruction.”
However, she’s convinced that Africa is on the “right path” and that increased efforts are being made to harness the continent’s rich resources for the benefit of local communities, improve rural agriculture, curtail the flow of small arms, and empower African women.