Africa Summit Program sends BLSA members to Botswana

BY CLINTON DICK

While most students spent their spring break catching up on sleep, studies or the sun, several Black Law Students Association members traveled to the African continent in order to develop ties with another community while also learning about a legal system that combines the traditions of the people of Botswana with both the common and the civil law.

The students were participants in the Africa Summit Program, which was established by BLSA in 1995. In previous years students have visited South Africa, Kenya and Ghana. Due to travel concerns after 9/11 and budget issues the summit was cancelled last year.

Three-L Trevor Gardner, one of the this year’s participants, said the purpose of the summit “is to create bonds between the U.S. and various African countries and to understand another legal system while also giving students something meaningful to do during their spring break.”

“You really do walk away with a better understanding of another culture,” Gardner said. This was his first year participating in the Africa Summit Program.

The students spent much of their time in the capital city of Gaborone where they attended meetings with legal officials, NGOs and even high school students who were conducting a play on South African apartheid.

One highlight of the trip was a visit to the Botswana High Court where students met Justice Unity Dow, the first woman named to the court and the recipient this year of the William J. Brennan Jr. Human Rights Award.

One-L Joe Carrol called Dow a “remarkable human being” who has “previously worked in women’s rights and was actually a fervent critic of Tswana traditions and their implication for women’s rights.” Mentioning Dow’s surprise at her appointment to the bench despite her criticism of the president, Carol said, “The fact that the president was willing to appoint someone who was a well-known critic speaks to the sophistication of their governmental system and their true desire to accelerate the development of high quality jurisprudence.”

Students also went to the Attorney General’s office for a question-and-answer session with government lawyers. A major difference between the U.S. and Botswana, said Carrol, is that their Attorney General “is appointed for life and is therefore more independent from the rest of the government than the [Attorney General] in the U.S.” Carrol also noted that only ten percent of the cases the Attorney General’s office handle are plea bargained, meaning the rest are either dismissed or litigated.

Students were particularly impressed with the University of Botswana, which was established in 1982 and claims about 90 percent of the practicing lawyers in the country. Currently the law school has 200 students, although it is trying to expand.

One-L Walter Mosley described the legal system as one divided between customary courts and traditional courts. The customary courts are for minor crimes, said Mosley, such as trespassing, and the chief of the village mediates the dispute and orders the punishment, which can range from lashes to injunctive relief. Citizens who are not satisfied with the decision may appeal to the high court system, which “uses the common law of the English in criminal proceeding and Roman-Dutch common law in civil proceedings,” Mosley explained.

Other meetings included an AIDS panel that addressed privacy rights for those infected with the disease, a reception at a Botswana law firm, a weekend at a nature preserve and a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador to Botswana Joseph Huggins. Huggins called the African country “one of the most promising economies in the world.”

Reflecting on his trip to the African continent, Carrol said, “It was a phenomenal opportunity to learn about the judicial realities of another country, particularly one that has kept much of the customary bases of its law. Although Botswana is a rather small country, it seems to have a rich legal tradition.”

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