Legalbrief Africa marks twenty years of promoting rule of law across the continent

Pat Sidley, IBA Southern Africa CorrespondentWednesday 9 November 2022

IBA Legalbrief Africa has passed two major landmarks, having published 1,000 editions as it also marks its twentieth year. The publication, distributed by email has 37,000 readers, mostly in Africa, but also further afield. IBA Legalbrief Africa was initially conceived at the IBA’s annual conference in Durban in 2002, the first to be held in South Africa.

The IBA’s deputy Executive Director, Tim Hughes, explains that it was originally an ‘entrepreneurial’ idea conceived together with a South African journalist, William Saunderson-Meyer. At the time the IBA’s Human Rights Institute was expanding its focus on Africa and Nelson Mandela was its Honorary Life President. There was though, says Hughes, an information gap in Africa at the time.

But, says Saunderson-Meyer, events were moving at a pace. ‘In the 90s, African countries were moving towards democracy,’ he says. ‘Constitutions had to be written. And at the time of the conference in 2002, the International Criminal Court had recently come into operation. And in Africa there was tremendous suspicion about it.’

A publication, such as IBA Legalbrief Africa, then germinating in the minds of Hughes and Saunderson-Meyer would be able to show how countries in Africa were developing law applicable in the context of the continent. The International Criminal Court would be relevant to Africa. ‘What we had seen in different African countries at the time was that lawyers in those countries were facing the same issues,’ says Hughes. ‘We were seeing and hearing very similar issues, similar cases and similar defences of the rule of law.’

Saunderson-Meyer recalls that local newspapers in Africa were not able to cover all the issues in many countries. While it was impossible to foresee how social and electronic media would grow so dramatically, markedly improving the reach of publications, IBA Legalbrief Africa stepped into that space. The publication was to have been, and still is, ‘an aggregation of published material which extracted the core of the stories published,’ says Saunderson-Meyer.

Hughes emphasizes the importance of the publication for students as well practitioners. ‘The thing that surprised us were the non-African readers. Some are of the African diaspora,’ he says. ‘But many others had an interest in the African scene. This brought them stories of and an awareness of Africa.’ Certain countries feature more than others, he says. This was partly because of differences in the media in some countries, and that Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa have the biggest legal markets.

The publication also gives attention to certain important political and regulatory events in Africa, as well as policy issues. ‘Africa had lessons also for other countries wrestling with challenges to the rule of law as well as changes within the profession,’ says Saunderson-Meyer in the anniversary edition.

IBA president, Sternford Moyo, is a practicing lawyer in Zimbabwe. ‘IBA Legalbrief Africa has become one of the leading secondary sources of legal information in Africa,’ he says. ’Lawyers use the judgments in courts as persuasive precedents. Although judgements from another jurisdiction may not be binding on one’s own jurisdiction, they are highly persuasive authority before the courts.’

‘Reporting significant judgments in this manner has made IBA Legalbrief Africa a monitoring tool which enhances the quality of judgments in significant matters,’ says Moyo. ‘The knowledge that these judgments will be reported upon whether or not the Judge classifies them as reportable, enhances accountability and independence in matters in which the local executives may have an interest. Judges, lawyers and executive authorities are now aware that these decisions will be published and read in jurisdictions other than their own. That compels consistency, reasonableness, independence and accountability in decision making.’

It was important to the IBA’s Executive Director, Mark Ellis, for the Association to leave a legacy in Africa after the IBA annual conference in Durban in 2002. This was among the important motivations for the publication. ‘It’s a really great publication, significant for readers and appreciated which is reflected in the growth of the publication,’ he says. ‘What is brilliant is on a weekly basis it is able to assess key issues and important new trends.’

The editor, Craig Urquhart, describing how the publication works says that, thanks to weblinks, one could combine various reports into one publication and edit them, including judgments, legislation and policy. In the anniversary edition IBA Legalbrief Africa announced the launching of several new features. ‘These include interviews with prominent African legal personalities and a detailed diary of weekly events around the continent. It features court dates, diplomatic visits, pending legislation and conferences and other events.’

Looking back at the early stages of the publication, Urquhart says they could not have known newspapers would run into the difficulties that they have. ‘It is not a major operation,’ he says. ‘We haven’t got people on the ground to cover events in Africa.’ But he and some of his team would do a daily electronic newsletter for events.

Asked if the publication had run into any problems in Africa - which last year had 35 journalists in jail and, in certain trouble spots, electronic media frequently closed down – he says they hadn't. He explains that, while a country like Togo does not have a free media, publishing from South Africa, which does, means there has been nothing standing in the way of the publication reaching its 37,000 subscribers.

Image credit: view over Accra, Ghana. Stefanie/AdobeStock.com

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