Homecomings: The Lawyer
Jacqueline Musiitwa was born and raised in Zambia until age 14, when she moved to the US to live with her father. But it was on her visits to Zambia that she felt called to return to Africa one day to make a difference on her home continent. By Kate Stanton.
THE LAWYER: JACQUELINE MUSIITWA (JD 2005)
“Every time I came for a holiday I would get really upset at the daily difficulties and inconveniences they experience,” says Musiitwa, who was often appalled by the lack of infrastructure and opportunity she saw in her birth country.
“Seeing street kids begging or spending every weekend at a funeral because people died from HIV-related disease,” she says. “It made me feel upset but also amazingly blessed that I was in this position to help.”
Musiitwa is now a prominent figure in efforts to develop Africa’s economic and trade prospects around the world. She founded the Hoja Law Group, representing clients such as the governments of Rwanda and Liberia, on matters relating to trade, corporate governance and financial services.
She has served as legal counsel to the head of the Eastern and Southern African Trade and Development Bank (PTA Bank) and as an adviser to the director general of the World Trade Organization.
Though she initially wanted to be a human rights lawyer, Musiitwa says her experience has taught her that strengthening Africa’s financial and government institutions is key to its prosperity.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done at the micro level, but unless we strengthen institutions or create laws where they’re lacking, we’ll never reach any of the goals we set out to achieve,” she says.
Musiitwa’s legal career started in 2004. She had just graduated in the US with a degree in political science, and was considering a law degree, when she learned of the Melbourne Law School through a friend. She also wanted the opportunity to learn from Professor Cheryl Saunders AO. “To be able to study under one of the world’s foremost human rights lawyers – and a woman at that – was a main drawcard.”
Musiitwa thought she would study human rights, but became “fascinated” instead by regulation and administrative law.
She moved back to the US after graduation and wound up in New York City, eager to work as an international lawyer and travel the world. She started her own practice at the relatively young age of 25.
“A year-and-a-half out of law school for most people is absolutely insane,” she says. “At the time, I think it was the ignorance of youth.”
As Musiitwa’s practice expanded, she travelled so regularly to Africa that she decided she needed a change. When the Rwandan government signed on as a client, she moved to the country to advise its Ministry of Justice and Attorney General on government contracts.
While running her New York-based practice from afar, Musiitwa continued to work to influence economic development and trade policy across the African continent. She took up a one-year position in Switzerland as a Mo Ibrahim Foundation Leadership Fellow, worked as legal counsel to the CEO of PTA Bank in Nairobi, Kenya, and founded her own non-profit organisation, Transitional Trade, to promote entrepreneurship in post-conflict countries.
Musiitwa technically lives in Nairobi now, but she says she spends most of her time “on planes and in hotels”. Musiitwa was particularly inspired by her mother, a professor in education policy and gender who could have worked in the US but stayed in Zambia to educate others in her native country.
“I’ve always found that to be inspiring. If we don’t do it here I’m not sure who else will.”
Read all of our Homecomings stories here.