Justice is key to realising the Africa We Want, but we’re missing the mark

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To meet the challenges the world faces today brought on by systemic injustices and the ongoing health crisis, we need to put people at the center of justice.

This guest blog, published on the occasion of the Global Week for Justice 2021, focuses on the importance of justice as part of the 2063 agenda of the African Union. The authors argue that we cannot deliver transformational outcomes for Africa’s people if justice is left behind.

Our Justice for All guest blogs are written by justice leaders from around the world and across sectors, including grassroots, civil society, national and international. Their contributions highlight the ways in which people-centered justice creates meaningful change and helps us move from justice for the few to justice for all.

A guest blog by Aimee Ongeso (Senior Network Officer, Namati) and Dr. Annette Mbogoh (Executive Director, Kituo cha Sheria)

Photo: Oni Abimbola / Shutterstock.com

The African Union (AU) is on an ambitious path to transform Africa into the global powerhouse of the future. The AU 2063 agenda is based on seven aspirations that will bring us closer to the “Africa we want” by 2063.

Justice is one of the aspirations of the AU 2063 agenda — and deservedly so. But as we approach the end of the agenda’s 10-year mark, the situation on the ground remains dismal.

Access to justice is associated with greater financial security for people, gender equality and better socio-economic opportunities, which are all necessary for fair and sustainable developmental outcomes[1]. On the flip side, a lack of access to justice is associated with increased conflict, inequality, and economic insecurity. A continent that does not prioritize access to justice undermines all other aspects of life including the social contract between the state and its citizenry.

Lawyers are often seen as the way in which someone gains access to justice, yet there are too few to serve the general population, in addition to often being too expensive, too specialized, or too far away for the millions in need of assistance.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation worse. Courts throughout AU member states were temporarily closed or scaled down to contain the spread of the Coronavirus, with virtual court sessions set up in their place. This has served to put justice further out of reach for those with inadequate technical know-how or access to the internet.

Community-based paralegals help to resolve the imbalance between the supply of, and demand for, legal services. They are the ones on the front lines, collaborating with communities to resolve and prevent justice problems. They work directly with communities to raise awareness of rights, laws, and policies; help clients to navigate legal and administrative processes in the pursuit of remedies; and support citizen engagement in law and policy reform. The important role they play in promoting and protecting the right to justice came into sharper focus during the pandemic as more people, unable to access justice due to the digital divide, turned to them for legal assistance[2].

In spite of the critical work being carried out by community-based paralegals in Africa, legal recognition and financing remains a challenge that hinders their effectiveness.

Some AU member states, such as Zambia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Malawi, and Nigeria, among others, have laudably enacted national legislation that recognizes community-based paralegals as access to justice actors. These legislations also see to it that the State provides adequate financing for the provision of legal aid services. Implementation of this legislation, however, has been slow and ineffective.

In other member states, there is no such national legislation meaning that community-based paralegals are not legitimized and thus cannot receive State financing to sustain their work.

Partially as a result of these inadequacies, the continent’s combined efforts towards realizing its 2019 targets for good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law, was given a dismal performance score of 16 percent.

Increased financing for grassroots justice is particularly important now as Africa seeks to recover and build back better from the COVID-19 pandemic. Africa has and continues to experience several repercussions of the coronavirus measures. Left unaddressed, the repercussions will endure far beyond the current pandemic. Ensuring an inclusive response and recovery to the pandemic is crucial.

As the first decade of the AU 2063 Agenda comes to an end in 2023, the African body should explicitly include targets that address the justice needs of everyday Africans in the next 10-year plan. This includes accelerating the development of legal aid laws and committing resources that will fund legal empowerment models that recognize the central role of paralegals in delivering affordable and timely access to justice for all. Crucially, this government funding must not affect the independence and autonomy of community based paralegals.

If we are to deliver transformational outcomes for Africa’s people, justice cannot be left behind

[1] Laura Goodwin & Vivek Maru, ‘What Do We Know about Legal Empowerment? Mapping the Evidence’, Hague Journal of Rule of Law, vol.9 (1), 2017. See also studies referenced in text box on pp. 6–7

[2] Findings from Gender Justice During and Beyond the COVID 19 Crisis: Institutional Responses to Gender Based Violence and the Role of Legal Empowerment Groups, 2021.

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