Chisom Cynthia Umezulike, a Constitutional and Administrative Law lecturer at the University of London with a track record in activism. She was the president of Drama and Debating Society, and won the WACOL Prize in drama, poem, and poetry and the British Council prize in best-written prose and short stories. In this interview, she talks about her career as a lawyer and activist in the UK.
Could you tell us more about yourself and your journey into the Law profession?
I graduated from Igbinedion University with a Bachelor of Law degree and got called to the Nigerian Bar in 2009. I subsequently obtained my first Master’s degree from the Queen Mary University, London, United Kingdom, focusing on ‘International Human Rights Law and later had another Master’s degree in ‘International Law and Criminal Justice (with distinction in International Criminal Law.) Recently, I completed the research work for a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in Law, focusing on the human rights implication of committing anorexic patients to involuntary treatment. My core interests lie in the application of various human rights instruments with a strong focus on the nature of legal protection, liberty and policy powers, privacy and freedom of expression. I am a recipient of the Gilchrist Trust Special Notation, which recognizes an outstanding PhD research across the Birkbeck University of London and also the People’s Choice Winner of Birkbeck University of London 3MT PhD competition. I am a Constitutional and Administrative Law lecturer at the University of London and the founder of the Child’s Rights Advocacy Journal, which champions the rights of young children living in abject poverty to obtain free, quality and formal education. In addition to in-house law practice, I have held key positions as Head of Legal, International Research and Governance in one of Europe’s most prominent private aviation firms at London Stansted.
What best describes you?
I describe myself as a liberal feminist, all time nerd and activist.
What would you say has been the specific impact of your activism?
I had an incident with the driver of a car hire company in London, United Kingdom. It was a situation where my safety was compromised, and the driver of the vehicle was culpable. I realised that if the incident escalated, I had no evidence to substantiate my report to the authorities because the car had no CCTV cameras to accurately relay the chain of events. I immediately started researching into the frequency of such incidents occurring between young women and drivers in the UK. I was overwhelmed by online reports by young women who had experienced more severe physical abuses, verbal abuse, abduction, assault and battery. A horrifying discovery was the attitude of the authorities towards these victims and the glaring reality that 99 per cent of the time, the perpetrators are not held accountable due to lack of visual evidence. I immediately started a digital campaign to compel the UK government to legislate on CCTV cameras in private hire vehicles (PHVs). The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, in a written response to my petition directed Transport for London (TFL) to urgently look into the matter and consider licensing action against the driver in question. A further directive was given to the Department of Transport (DfT) to consult on new statutory and best practice guidance on taxis, which will cover the use of CCTV in vehicles. Also, I was given the assurance that additional measures would be put in place to improve public safety standards by introducing new regulations governing the private hire industry. For example, ensuring all private hire operators must provide a booking confirmation to the passengers, including photographs and the registration mark of the vehicle, before the start of the journey. I consider this outcome a necessary first step; the second step is to hold the UK authorities accountable and ensure they follow through with implementation.
Why did you choose to study law?
My late father Justice Innocent Azubike Umezulike (OFR, FCIArb, FIIAN) ushered me into my first tutelage and dance with the law. I watched my father progress from an attorney to Law professor, to a Judge for over 20 years and Chief Judge of Enugu State for over 13 years. My father was always passionate about the law and what it stood for and worked extremely hard to fulfill the demands of the profession. I remember his law library at home with nostalgia: an assortment of millions law books, articles and journals on shelves, tables and sometimes on the floor. Often he would ask me to help him find and highlight a section of a journal, law report or book. I found the whole process very fascinating and resolved to tread that legal pathway. My father had always preferred me to take to his area of expertise – Property Law, however, when he discovered my preference for Human Rights Law, he encouraged me and helped me develop interest in the fundamental and liberating principles of human rights focusing on the autonomy, fairness and equality of every person regardless of their socio-economic, cultural and political status or background.
What aspect of human rights law interests you?
I have always been conflicted and for a long time resisted been pigeonholed into an area of law. Over the years, I have actively engaged with International Human Rights Law, International Law and Criminal Justice and Medical Law and Ethics. In an in-house law practice at a private jet firm at London Stansted, I dabbled into company law and aspects of aviation law. I also taught Constitutional and Administrative Law at Birkbeck, University of London. Today my curiosity is not necessarily settled. However, I have come to realize that carving out a niche is not crucial in so far as I always possess the necessary tools to fight injustice, remedy wrongs and promote human rights.
How best do you think your father’s legacy will be sustained?
My father is the greatest man I know and the best in his field. A Professor of Land and Property Law, Judge for over 25 years of which he was the Chief Judge of Enugu State for over 13 years. In his lifetime, he authored 23 books including the critically acclaimed ABC in Land Law currently in use at the Nigerian universities. At the time of his untimely demise, he had written three more books on Conveyance, Adverse Possession and on his experience as the longest-serving Chief Judge in Southern Nigeria. My father was the last in his generation of jurists – a crop seasoned academics and intellectuals who advanced through sheer hard work, dedication and diligence in service. He lived an exemplary life, shunned corruption in all its facets and bowed out unapologetically as a brave apostle of justice. My family and I have now established the Justice Innocent Umezulike Foundation to ensure that his intellectual property remains relevant and is easily accessible to the public. Amongst other charitable initiatives, we have also inaugurated an annual memorial law lecture coming up on the 27th of September 2019 at the Justice I. A. Umezulike Auditorium, Enugu High Court, Enugu State. We are also currently breaking grounds to build a membership only law library to immortalize his name and ensure his essence is not forgotten.
Is there anything you feel the government in Nigeria should do to promote human rights?
Chapter Four of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria outlines the fundamental rights of the Nigerian citizen, yet the average Nigerian continues to experience the misery of human rights disasters. Nigeria has not shown any significant progress in the protection of fundamental human rights in a way that can guarantee human security. Section 3(1) of the 1999 constitution explicitly guarantees the right to life, which was interpreted in Gbenre v Shell (referencing Maneka Gandhi v Union of India) to include the presence of fundamental social, economic and cultural necessities to stay alive with human dignity. Human rights activists and NGO’S are overwhelmed with the magnitude of rights violation and continuously struggle to address these issues. The Nigerian government must acknowledge that the role of human rights in chaos and take the necessary steps to ensure that rights violators are held accountable. There is, therefore, an urgent need to address the relationship between the right to life and human security to ensure that the rights of the average person are protected and dignity is preserved in all situations.
What other causes do you lend time to?
I work pro-bono as a global lead for women empowerment on various charity boards across the United Kingdom. I am committed to advancing rights of women and youngsters through education, encompassing lectures and awareness efforts. Also, in my role as Co-Chair and Trustee of Hon. Justice Innocent Umezulike Foundation, I ensure that the foundation is at the forefront of digital activism by implementing online campaigns and programs focused on highlighting the current and past legal rights issues. I lead a team of diverse, forward thinking and talented creatives in planning and delivering active campaigns, which ensure the “Law in School Programme” is useful, practical, well implemented and impactful both at the grass-root level and internationally. I am a member of the UK Human Rights Lawyers Association, International Bar Association, and Justice Human Rights Network.
Who are the women you admire?
I am drawn to the blueprint of Eleanor Roosevelt, a 20th century influential civil rights activist and human rights proponent. I am always in awe of the strength, tenacity and a sense of purpose of the beautiful Linda Chuba-Ikpeazu, a veteran lawmaker and grass root philanthropist. British-Ghanaian, Adwoa Aboah, is an exquisite workhorse but most importantly is the founder of ‘GurlsTalk’, which encourages girls to communicate more by authentically expressing feelings and generally having open conversations on issues of sexuality, existence and mental health. I also admire US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an unrelenting voice on issues of diversity, racism and discrimination. I adore Condoleezza Rice, a strong, powerful and intelligent black woman.
What is your advice for young girls?
To the young girl, struggling with self-confidence, I promise you will blossom and develop the power of self-love. Do not overthink the process of self-development; be open-minded, adventurous but restrained. Education will remain the passport to the future and knowledge an essential instrument to effect change. Achieving your dream will require endless sacrifices, resilience, dedication and hard work. Always have a voice and promptly speak up when your human rights, personal space or liberty are violated or encroached upon. Value self-awareness, self-actualization and protect your bodily integrity at all cost.