It’s a Konnect Africa Interview with Dr. Olufemi Elias, Legal Adviser and Director at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the Hague, Netherlands.
For more than two decades, Dr. Elias has served within academic and international circles, driving change and making huge impact. He is an Associate Member of the Institut de Droit International and the Secretary General of the African Association of International Law.
A prolific writer and a music enthusiast, Dr Elias has authored and co-authored several books and articles published in different international journals. He is currently a Visiting Professor in international law at Queen Mary University of London.
In this interview, he talks about his passion for International Law and his role at the OPCW among other pertinent issues.
Great way to start the week. Enjoy!
Kindly tell us about yourself, ethnicity, family, education…
My family is from Lagos, and I grew up there. I attended Igbobi College in Lagos, and subsequently did my legal studies in England.
You are deeply entrenched in various aspects of international law; what was the initial attraction for you?
I come from a family of lawyers. Both my parents, my four siblings and myself are all lawyers. It was almost an assumption that I would do law, and I never seriously considered any other profession. I always liked international law, and am pleased to be able to have worked on various aspects of it.
Kindly tell us about the OPCW.
The OPCW is a UN-related organization whose main function is to assist its member States in implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention (1993). The Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty with 192 States Parties, sets out four key objectives:
destruction all existing chemical weapons under international verification by the OPCW;
monitoring the chemical industry to prevent the re-emergence of new weapons;
provision assistance and protection to States Parties against chemical threats; and
fostering international cooperation to strengthen the implementation of the Convention and promote the peaceful use of chemistry.
What does your job as legal adviser entail?
I am the director of the legal division of the OPCW. My office provides legal advice to the various organs of the organization on all legal issues arising, including the interpretation of the Convention, the rules of procedure and the decisions of the policy-making organs, the OPCW’s internal legislation, the negotiation, conclusion and interpretation of relevant international agreements and commercial matters such as the negotiation and conclusion of contracts for the procurement of goods and services. Our role is to defend the legal interests of the OPCW.
How would you rate the study of law in Nigeria vis-a-vis other Western countries?
I believe it is the ability of individual students that really counts. Great law students will thrive in most settings. For fields of study like law that do not depend on access to elaborate infrastructure (unlike the sciences and others subjects that depend more on access to technology). This is not intended to minimise in any way the evident challenges that are to be faced in studying law in Nigeria, the legal world abounds with examples of first rate and successful Nigerian lawyers who studied in Nigeria.
Does your nationality ever stand in the way of your job/career?
It is possible that it may have happened but I cannot point to any specific examples of which I am aware. In some ways it may also have been an advantage. In the world of intergovernmental organisations, it is normally a requirement that due regard is paid the importance of recruiting staff on as wide a geographical basis as possible. Particular in more senior positions, the need for a wide geographical distribution is even more important, and being a Nigerian may in such cases be an advantage. However, I do not mean to suggest that that it is easy.
Working with the UN is the dream of many young Africans? How did you achieve this feat and what advice do you have for those following behind?
My advice would be that they should identify positions that are commensurate with their qualifications and experience and to apply for such positions. They should not be disheartened if it does not work out immediately. It is important to be persistent, because the competition is usually fierce as many candidates from all over the world will apply. It is also important to try to find people who are familiar with international organisations like the UN for advice. There are certainly many Nigerians working in various international organisations both within Africa and elsewhere.
Many Nigerian universities teach international law as an elective; would you change that if you could?
It is not only in Nigeria that international law is not a “core” or compulsory subject. Yes, I would change it to require international law studies, for two related reasons. First, I think it is important for law students at universities to gain some understanding of the fundamentals of international law. The way international law operates is different from the way other kinds of law operate, and it should be a part of a general legal education. Secondly, issues of international law can and do arise in cases and disputes that involve other issues of law, so there is also a practical aspect to this issue.
Have you ever lectured in a Nigerian university? Why or why not?
Regrettably, the opportunity has not presented itself just yet, but it is something I would greatly welcome. I am sure it will happen before long.
What would you say has been the most defining moment of your life?
I would have to say the birth of my son.
What’s your typical day like?
It would be a simplification of sorts to call my day typical because it is rarely that. Working with international organizations, one comes to expect the unexpected and therefore, even the quieter days, rare as they are, come with some expectation. I believe I am fortunate to be in the happy position of liking what I do and therefore, if I had to qualify my day as typical, it would be as one without a dull moment.
What challenges have you faced in your career so far and how have they shaped your disposition to life?
Like anyone else, I would like to say that all challenges shape us into who we are. I’ve always believed in tackling challenges and issues with head-on but with sound judgment, and this has generally proved to fine.
What has been your motivation over the years? What keeps you going?
I am grateful that I have often been in the fortunate position of liking what I do. Liking what I do has been my main motivation. If one can make a positive contribution in doing what one likes, that is an important additional motivating factor. But I realise one cannot always be in that situation.
With a B.L, LLM, doctorate and more under your sleeve, one must ask, do you have spare time to pursue other hobbies?
I am a reasonably serious musician. I play the bass guitar and the acoustic bass, and have done so since secondary school in Lagos. I currently play and co-write music in the band of a friend of mine from school, Dele Sosimi. We started playing in the school band at Igbobi College, and he used to play in both Fela Kuti and Femi Kuti’s bands. It is not always easy to make the time, but it is always most rewarding whenever I get round to doing it.
You are also a lecturer and a published author, how do you juggle all these and where can your books on International law be obtained?
I try to keep my hand in academic pursuits. I write and teach when I can, but it is sometimes difficult to balance these activities with my full time job. But as I said before, it is important to like what one does; when that is the case, the difficulty is worth it. The few books with my name on them can usually be found in usual outlets for international law books.
Africa will rise when…
we believe it has.
Kindly inspire a young African in one sentence.
Do the best you can, with perseverance, focus and humility.