Trained as a human rights lawyer, Tokunbo Ige is promoting legal literacy among the disadvantaged so that they can use the legal system as a positive force for social and economic development in Nigeria.
The New Idea
In a society where law is typically seen as a set of rules to be imposed, Tokunbo is applying legal education to encourage widespread understanding of the legal system as an enabling force for the protection of human and civil rights. She seeks to convey the positive aspect of the law, to counterbalance the prevailing sentiment that the law is a repressive instrument. Her idea is to train leaders among disadvantaged groups as "advice volunteers" and to create new materials about various fields of human rights law. She seeks not only to educate people about their rights, but also to give them practical measures they can take to resolve rights-related problems in their daily lives.
The advice volunteers scheme is designed to enable members of any community to obtain training in the basics of the law and the structure of the Nigerian legal system, its usage, and the methods of assimilating and disseminating legal information. Advice volunteers are trained to identify problems, to refer aggrieved persons to agencies and other organizations responsible for providing redress or solutions to their problems, and to help them learn how to deal with these agencies.
In Nigeria, more than 60 percent of the population is illiterate and an even larger majority are ignorant of their basic rights and obligations under the legal system. Moreover, the traditional legal system tends toward the conservative, and vigorous advocacy for human rights is only just beginning to take place in the private voluntary sector.
Although the Nigerian legal system theoretically provides for the defense of the fundamental human rights of all Nigerians, regardless of gender, women are a particularly vulnerable group. A large proportion of women at the grassroots level do not exercise their rights because of their ignorance of these rights and their lack of access to legal services. For many, legal services are inaccessible not only because of lack of awareness, but also because of cost. Even where legal aid services do exist, experience has shown that, to be effective, the people who use such services must have a basic understanding of the law and the skills to handle legal and quasi-legal problems and disputes.
These problems are compounded by a widespread tolerance for injustice in Nigerian society. If greater awareness and effective action were encouraged, it is likely that positive social change and development would also follow. Tokunbo senses that the time is ripe for her idea and that she will now be able to spread it without official interference. It is also possible, especially if the idea leads to class actions on behalf of major groups, that many permanent improvements in societal norms will be achieved with relative ease.
Inspired by her internship at Inter Rights in London and exposure to the Harare Legal Services Project in Zimbabwe, Tokunbo has established a Legal Research and Resource Development Center (LRRDC) in Lagos. The Center's mission is to bridge the gap between human rights theory and practice by promoting mass awareness of human rights, especially among targeted, disadvantaged groups.
She is experimenting with several approaches for achieving her objective. She has organized paralegal training programs for rural workers and has established a legal aid clinic. In a recent pilot project with market women in Lagos, she assessed their legal needs, offered workshops and training of advice volunteers selected by the women's wing of the Nigerian Labor Congress and the Market Women's Associations, and established a legal aid clinic for needy men and women.
She is currently exploring with local government area councils the possibility of their providing space for legal aid clinics and making their staffs available for training future volunteers.
She knows that she and her center cannot achieve national impact without promoting their specialized knowledge and their ability to design and adapt new delivery approaches (e.g., advice volunteers). Working out alliances with large, well organized national groups such as the Market Women's Associations is central to her strategy.
Her training of advice volunteers, from whatever group, is conducted in local languages and uses role playing and skits as means of illuminating issues and demonstrating alternative approaches to resolving them. Seeing examples of legal issues drawn from daily life enables trainees to relate the issues to their own experiences. Discussion of the concept of law and its role in society demonstrates the importance of a basic understanding of law, how it operates, and how to make use of it.
Tokunbo is planning a series of annual summer seminar courses to introduce members of the armed forces, the police, journalists, government officials, and students to basic human rights principles. She hopes the summer seminars will inspire participants to return to their respective organizations and encourage positive changes in both attitudes and practices. She is also producing a training manual on human-rights law for other organizations to use and a series of "Know Your Rights" pamphlets on such issues as how to get bail, the court structure and personnel of the law, methods of resolving disputes, and how to investigate and prepare facts for lawyers.
The LRRDC is also pursuing research in four areas: Access to Legal Services, the Role of Law in Developing Societies, Women's Needs in the Developing World, and Human Rights Education.
Tokunbo's long-term goal is to extend her education outreach to a sufficient number of target groups so that legal literacy is widespread and a significant number of people among various disadvantaged groups are aware of their rights and able to take whatever steps might be necessary to protect them.
Born (and now married) into a family of lawyers, Tokunbo had inspiring role models in her youth. She became particularly interested in human rights law during her undergraduate years at the University of Lagos. After receiving her law degree there, she pursued a masters program, specializing in international human rights law, at the University of Essex. As part of her masters program, she served as a volunteer at Inter Rights, a human rights advocacy group in London, and made a commitment then to work for the promotion of the economic and social rights of the disadvantaged through the private voluntary sector.
In addition to her responsibilities as Executive Director of the LRRDC, Tokunbo teaches law at the University of Lagos and is Nigeria's country coordinator for Women in Law and Development in Africa (WILDAF).