The International Association of Judges’ Africa bloc conference in Cape Town earlier this month was a landmark event in many ways, highlighting the various and crucial needs of judicial officers across Africa. At the Judicial Institute for Africa we recognized the role that this conference could play and so we were determined to offer what help we could to support the initiative. And indeed, many of the issues which Jifa has been concerned about, were raised and flagged by participants as crucial. Some of these relate to judicial officers themselves, some concern governments and a third category deals with issues where outside intervention and help is needed.
The proper place of magistrates within a constitutional state came under the spotlight again at the closing ceremonies of the International Association of Judges’ African region conference, held in Cape Town. It had been a recurring theme throughout the conference, with delegates from a number of countries complaining that magistrates were often treated as civil servants, and their judicial independence ignored or undermined by government.
One of the most crucial sessions of the conference called by the International Association of Judges' Africa region dealt with reports by the countries represented at the event. This provided an opportunity for all delegates, and top officials of the International Association of Judges who attended the conference, to hear the particular challenges faced by judiciary and the justice system of each country. Several outlined serious difficulties, but the plight of the judiciary in Lesotho touched delegates particularly deeply, and had people talking right to the end of the five-day gathering.
Africa’s courts are getting wise to the strategy of Big Tobacco in trying to fight off strict control over issues such as the size of health warnings on packaging. Uganda’s Constitutional Court has just dismissed a major attack brought by British American Tobacco (BAT) on laws that increase the size of health warnings, impose tough restrictions on where smoking is lawful, and hold tobacco company officials personally responsible when certain sections of the law are infringed. In its judgment, the court referred to a report on how such companies fight tobacco control, and the list of strategies included many that were in evidence in this case. Dismissing the petition, the court said it was “part of a global strategy” by BAT and its tobacco-selling peers to undermine laws in order to increase profits despite the risk of tobacco to the health of the “human population”.
The positive role that judges could play in Africa has been hampered by the increasing politicization of the judiciary, judicial corruption, lack of resources and judicial conservatism, according to Professor Charles Fombad of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa at the University of Pretoria. In a challenging address to the International Association of Judges’ Africa region conference in Cape Town, Fombad urged judges to take note that if these issues were not properly dealt with, the “reverse winds” of authoritarianism and the decline of good governance and constitutionalism, caused by politicians clinging to power, might prevail.