An Interview with Angela Uwandu, Activist & Intl. Human Rights Law Advocate

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It’s a Konnect Africa Interview!

Career woman, Angela Morgan-Uwandu is a lawyer, an activist and an expert in international human rights law, who has a strong passion for excellence and impact. She works as the Head of Office of ‘Avocats Sans Frontieres’ [ASF] France, and is a self motivated and innovative lady who believes in making impact, because for her, life is about positive impact.

Enjoy her chat with Konnect Africa, learn about the work of the ASF in battling the death penalty, and be spurred to developing yourself for maximum impact.

Angela Uwandu

KA: Psychology argues that people are shaped by nature and nurture; what experiences do you believe have had the most effect in shaping your value system?

I would say nurture. I have been nurtured into becoming the woman that I am today. Obviously, my family played a strong role in that. I was also fortunate to come in contact early enough with amazing mentors who inspired me to become well motivated and focused in life. Reverend Chris Oyakhilome is one influence that has greatly shaped the way I look at life. I came in contact with him at a very young age and his teachings played a major role in guiding me even on the path of my career. On a professional level, I also had mentors that I looked up to.

The course of study I choose also widened my horizon. So I strongly belief more in the enabling force of nurture because while with nature you can’t control factors like the circumstances of your birth or the family you are born into or even the privileges you automatically inherit if any, with nurture you can make the most of it. Nurture basically allows you to choose the opportunities that come your way with care and make the most of it. So nurture allows you become someone that is great irrespective of what nature bestows on you.

KA: To pre-empt you, we know you are a Legal Practitioner; what influenced your decision to become a learned gentleman?

Well, as a child I was rather opinionated. I was one of those children who had a strong voice about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Family tales have it that when I was as little as 3 years old, my response to the question “what do you want to be when you grow up” was always consistent: a lawyer; so even when I wrote jamb in my final year as a senior in secondary school, I didn’t have an alternative course. Both choices for course of study were law. That is how enamoured I was with the idea of being a lawyer. For me being a lawyer was the perfect outlet for my strong personality.

KA: Do take us on an educational tour; was there ever any pressure to follow a certain path or lean towards a particular profession?

I went to Sunrise Nursery school in Umuahia Abia state for my nursery education and then proceeded to School Road Primary School for my primary Education. My junior secondary education was at Girls secondary school (Holy Rosary) Umuahia as well and my senior secondary education at the Federal Government College, Okigwe in Imo state.

The same year I wrote the university matriculation exams, I got admitted into the  University of Nigeria Nsukka to study Law. Now as to whether there was any pressure to follow a certain path, there never was. My family was very supportive. I didn’t read the same course as my twin sister who is a medical doctor because I needed to establish my own distinct personality and being a lawyer came easily to me.

KA: If you could re-live your professional training, would you do it exactly the same way and in the same institutions?

I have no regrets whatsoever.  The law department of the University of Nigeria was a tough environment. I once met a lecturer from a law department in another university who had a good laugh when I told him where I studied law. He tagged the lecturers at my school as being “stingy” with marks.

You had to work hard to earn good marks and that was the truth. But it was worth it. I don’t regret my experience at the law school in Abuja either. My educational training is far from over because I still intend to avail myself of the boundless educational opportunities that exist within and outside the country in due time.

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KA: Working in your organisation would require a reasonable proficiency in the French language; was this a thought you always harboured or did you become multilingual on a whim?

Well, growing up, I had always seen French as a romantic language so it had always appealed to me. I actually took decisive steps to learn the language during my undergraduate days alongside my law studies. I once attended a leadership conference where Chris Oyakhilome said some really profound thing. He spoke about improving your person by making an investment in your personality and it was one of the things that stuck with me.

I knew I didn’t just want to be a lawyer but an international lawyer and so I worked at gaining knowledge of an international language. So it was far from a whim. It was a conscious choice. ASF France is a French organization which requires French as an added advantage so I am well situated.

KA: Avocats Sans Frontières …kindly translate.

Avocats Sans Frontières France (ASF France) literally translated means “lawyers without borders France.”

KA: What is the vision and mission of ASF; first on a global scale and particularly in Nigeria?

The vision and the mission of ASF France on a global level is many folded but can be summarized simply. ASF France is a French organization that seeks to unite stakeholders in the criminal justice system on the basis of common values, promote the right of due process and promote the knowledge of international human rights.

In Nigeria, ASF France seeks to improve the knowledge of international human right standards within the criminal justice system and increase access to justice particularly for people who cannot afford it through the provision of legal aid.

KA:. What is the modus operandi of ASF’s work in Nigeria, and how do you measure the impact/effect?

 ASF France works through a team in Abuja with a focus on 8 states in Nigeria in collaboration with indigenous partners with like minded orientations. We focus on implementing human rights projects in Nigeria. This is done by teaming up with a network of support lawyers in each target state as well as the legal team comprising of French lawyers at the headquarters in Paris France and. Our focus is mainly provision of pro bono legal aid at the national and regional level, capacity building, human rights advocacy and communications with the aim of improving the criminal justice system in Nigeria.

The impact of our projects is measured using both qualitative and quantitative methods. The extents to which our trainings can be applied in their everyday jobs are often ascertained through established methods using tools designed for this purpose. Also, databases and specific templates are used to keep track of cases handled by our support lawyers and progress made on each of the cases. We have external evaluators who come in on different projects to determine their effectiveness, efficiency and Impact. Court rulings are also ways that we determine the reach of our legal interventions.

We recently had positive rulings on two landmark cases by the ECOWAS community court of Justice. Thankgod Ebhos was a death row inmate who faced the threat of execution in Edo state while Maimuna Abdulmumini is a death row convict on death row in Katsina prison. She was sentenced to death for an offence she was alleged to have committed as a minor an obvious violation of her rights.

ASF France intervened in their cases and filed several applications in the ECOWAS court on their behalf. We had favourable rulings. Thankgod Ebhos has since been released from prison after spending 19 years on death row. The ECOWAS Court held that Maimuna’s rights had been infringed upon by the Federal republic of Nigeria and awarded N5 million Naira damages as compensation to her. Outcomes like this tell us that we are on the right track, we are making impact.

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KA: I gather ASF is averse to the death penalty which is still operational in Nigeria…aren’t there crimes that need to be punished by death? For instance, the perpetrators of the ongoing cases of terrorism in the country?

 Firstly, we need to understand that campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty is not saying that offenders should not be punished. We are saying perpetrators should be held accountable but the type of punishment needs to be efficient. Is it serving as a deterrent? Is it proportionate to the crime sit too absolute? Can it be reversed if the need arises? If the answers are more negative than positive, then the death penalty should not have a place in any criminal justice system.

When you visit the prisons in Nigeria, you would discover that majority of detainees on death row are persons who cannot even afford the services of a lawyer. This gives the impression that this type of penalty is used disproportionately against the poor. All crimes no matter how heinous should be sufficiently punished by life imprisonment. The irrevocable nature of the death sentence deprives the inmate the chance to reform character and deprives the society the chance to show mercy.

We are witnessing more and more exonerations of persons on death row across the retentionist countries. Persons sentenced to death but later found to be innocent even after executions. ASF France has handled cases of persons released from prison after spending up to 20 years on death row. The death penalty does not serve as a deterrent to crime, it is too absolute, irrevocable once carried out. It is not error proof especially in a justice system such as ours in Nigeria which has several flaws.

Apart from our work on the death penalty in Nigeria, ASF France is currently implementing a project on torture aimed at promoting the principles of the United Nations Convention Against Torture in Nigeria. On the platform of this project we provide free legal services to victims of torture and capacity building to stakeholders on how to curb the practise.

KA: Is the ASF in league with other organisations to implement its policies and notions?

Yes. ASF France does not work alone. As I mentioned earlier, we work with local partners; organizations that have similar mandate to ours such as the National Human Rights Commission, Nigerian Bar Association and Access to justice.

KA: What challenges do you encounter in dealing with the Nigerian legal and judicial structure?

Firstly, the laws in Nigeria need to be reviewed starting from the constitution and the criminal and penal codes. They should be more suited to the current realities of our times to make them more effective.

Also, the process of entry into the criminal justice system which includes arrest and investigation is a deeply flawed and ineffective process. It needs to be overhauled entirely. Forensic structures need to be put in place that enhances more professional evidence collation processes. Delays in trials, missing case files of detainees, poor documentation and corruption at the registries, lack of understanding of human rights principles etc .

The process is sometimes too slow and often expensive especially with regards to procuring records. The unofficial cost of processing cases in pro bono instances can be a huge hindrance to our work.  The system is also slow.

KA: To come back to you; young lady, at the helm of affairs of a global organisation in Nigeria can’t have been an easy feat. How would you describe your career growth? Was it slow and tedious or vice versa?

My career growth was a quick progression. I joined ASF France in 2009 and worked in different capacities. I was a Legal assistant in the ProCAT project which is an EU funded human rights project that seeks to obtain justice for victims of torture in Nigeria.

I then moved on to become the Project officer of the SALI project SALI which means saving lives. This project was funded by the EU, the French development agency and the Netherlands embassy in its 3 year run. It was focused on addressing the issue of the death penalty.

Before I became the Head of Office, I was first acting head of office for six months during which I learned the ropes of the job. Prior to my experience at ASF France, I worked with an NGO called the Civil Resource Development and Documentation Centre for three months. It is an NGO that works on women’s rights and development.

KA:  You must have a bundle of experience and lessons under your belt; kindly dish out some advice for young career women in West Africa.

Firstly, you need to be focused. You need to believe in yourself and know that you are relevant and make positive contribution wherever you are. Being a woman in a career setting does not make you secondary. You can still be the best you can be even in a male dominated environment.

See yourself as an equal and don’t get into unhealthy competition just to prove a point. Do not hold back because you are woman and don’t expect favours simply because you are a woman. There should be a fair playing ground for both women and men.

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KA: What is the best perk of being the ‘Head of Office’ of ASF Nigeria?

I wouldn’t say the best perk but I would say there are a lot of responsibilities that come with being the head of an organization. You have to execute good and quality judgement in a timely manner. It entails providing leadership to the entire team in Nigeria, across 8 target states, project management; fundraising, advocacy with stakeholders…. it’s a huge responsibility administratively and otherwise.

For me, the exposure and international experience I get on the job is the best perk. By virtue of my position I have been afforded the opportunity of making humble impact in the field where I work and I don’t take it for granted.

Making presentations at international conferences, working in a multi cultural environment, exchanging with colleagues from a different jurisdiction and continent has really been quite an educating and inspiring experience. I now view issues from a wider perspective.

KA:Talking about Africa; what are your thoughts on the role of women in ensuring that Africa does indeed rise?

I believe African women do have a great role in the African society. Any society that is yet to recognise the role of women in development is not ready to and cannot indeed make progress.

Women are taking up more responsibilities and are excelling in different areas. More recognition is being given to the African woman today but it is not enough yet. A lot more needs to be done.  Women need to be educated. More women need to be aware of their rights as individuals. All the rights afforded to women must be made knowledgeable and must be implemented fully.

Information like this will give them the gusto to demand the treatment that they deserve. More women also need to be bold, not to shy away from positions of leadership. They need to believe in their abilities as well. In every mother lies the innate ability to manage. They can bring it bear in the professional and entrepreneurial milieu.

There must however be an enabling environment, condusive enough to enable the African woman realize her full potentials.

KA:   Kindly inspire a young African in one sentence.

Make positive investments in your personality today, you will need to draw from that investment in the future to be that you that can change your world.

© 2015 – 2017, Jennifer Nkem-Eneanya. All rights reserved.

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