Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law


Okechukwu Oko

First Page



African countries during the post-colonial era have struggled to establish democratic governments, too frequently succumbing to authoritarian, usually military, rule. This instability, as nations swing from one regime to another, has hindered the economic growth and respect for civil rights that citizens had hoped would be the legacy of independence. Despite such abuses, both the elite and the masses in Africa recognize that democracy represents the best hope for future stability. In countries like Nigeria, citizens are demanding the replacement of corrupt, paternalistic military officers with democratic, civilian rule.

Even the election of civilian administrations, however, offers no guarantee that democracy will take root. African nations continue to confront challenges from politicized militaries, fragmented civil societies, and dysfunctional institutions. To negotiate their way through such obstacles, these countries require institutional changes consistent with democratic ideals, including passing new laws and educating citizens in democracy.

The legal profession, more than any other segment of society, is in the best position to lead African nations to these goals. Lawyers play a prominent role in checking arbitrary governmental power, protecting civil rights, and reforming legal institutions. Yet most observers have largely ignored this role that the legal profession must play in building African democracies. Unfortunately, lawyers too often have tainted themselves by their association with despotic regimes, thus requiring the legal profession to regain the public trust.

This Article examines the necessary role of lawyers in democratic transitions in Africa, offering suggestions for addressing the inadequacies of the legal profession and for improving the public perception of the legal profession in these countries. Ultimately, the Article argues that despite their current weaknesses, lawyers are well suited to solve the problems that the transition from authoritarianism presents.