Strengthening Africa’s Judicial Independence


04 Jan 2024

When Tanzanian Justice Paul Kihwelo considers what Africa’s legal system needs to improve its independence and integrity, one word comes to mind: training.

“The law isn’t static; Africa’s judges and judicial officers need continuing education,” said Justice Kihwelo, who directs Tanzania’s Institute of Judicial Administration, a legal studies center. “Our main aim is to build the capacity of our judicial officers. Working [with experts] beyond our borders is part of that process.”

Last month, Justice Kihwelo and dozens of judges from African common-law countries gathered in Prague for the sixth Roundtable Session of the African Judicial Exchange Network (AJN). The mission: sharing best practices and expertise to help AJN members devise strategies and pedagogies to tackle judicial challenges in their countries.

The AJN was launched two years ago by the CEELI Institute, with support from the U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. The Network focuses are knowledge sharing and skills development across 11 African countries: Botswana, the Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.

“Joining the network has been a great opportunity,” Justice Kihwelo said. “We share experience within the African continent, but thanks to CEELI’s connections, we’re also able to learn quite a lot from the European side.”

Jinx Bhoola, a Magistrate and Judicial Educator at the South African Judicial Education Institute, said that having access to CEELI’s legal resources has been a game-changer for training efforts in her country, especially CEELI’s resources on judicial independence, which “are phenomenal.” 

“I am involved in training, and when doing training with magistrates, my aim and goal is to ensure we live, breathe, and follow the constitution of the country, balancing the rights of citizens with those who appear before us,” she shared. “CEELI’s resources help to achieve that high standard.”

During the two-day meeting in Prague, AJN members discussed topics such as case management, building an independent and resilient judiciary, adjudicating corruption cases, and vetting and appointing judicial officers. AJN members also met with members of CEELI’s network of judges in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as international experts from Northern Ireland, South Africa, and the United States.

Even for countries where legal training is advanced, the AJN offers opportunities for growth. In Kenya, for instance, judicial training is a constitutional requirement. But while Article 172 (1d) of the Kenyan Constitution mandates continuous judicial education, availability of resources makes application of this law a challenge, said Justice Freda Githiru, High Court judge and deputy director of the Kenya Judiciary Academy.

The meetings in Prague were “invaluable,” Justice Githiru said. “Listening and discussing with other judges from the region, you realize that your problems are almost similar. Rather than reinvent the wheel, we want to learn from each other.”

One area of focus for AJN members was judgment writing. “It’s an area where we constantly struggle,” said Ellen Ofei-Ayeh, a circuit court judge in Ghana. “Judgment writing continues to be an area where we benefit from as much training as possible.”

At the November roundtable, the CEELI Institute officially released new guidelines on judicial writing, drafted by core participants of the AJN. The guide will provide a useful resource in both regards—as a practical handbook for individual judges, and as a tool to increase clarity and transparency in overall judicial interactions.

AJN members also discussed how the appointment of judicial officers is done in their country, often via a judicial service commission. However, the procedure vastly differs per country–some of them have an extensive public procedure for appointments, whereas other countries have a less transparent process. Conversations focused on how to bring more transparency to these processes while ensuring judicial independence.

“We have unique legal situations in each country,” Magistrate Bhoola said. “But when you come together as a continent, as we have with the AJN, we can work to create uniformity so that we can exchange best practices.”

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