Orji Agwu Uka (the author of this piece) is a Senior Associate at Africa Law Practice NG & Company, Lagos. He holds a Masters’ Degree in International Business Law from King’s College London and an LLB from Abia State University, Uturu Nigeria.
Over three score and ten years ago, Professor G. C. Cheshire, then Vinerian Professor of Law at the University of Oxford, issued a clarion call for the wider study of private international law in general and the renaissance of English private international law in particular. As explored below, it is pertinent for African States to respond to that call today, especially within the context of the need to actualise the Agenda 2063 of the African Union, which aims for the establishment of a continental market with the free movement of persons, goods and services which are crucial for deepening economic integration and promoting economic development in Africa.
The Agreement establishing African Continental Free Trade Area
In January 2012, the 18th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union, which held in Addis Ababa – Ethiopia, adopted a decision to establish an Africa wide Continental Free Trade Area. On 30th May 2019, the Agreement establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area (“AfCFTA”), entered into force. With an expected participation of 55 countries, a combined population in excess of 1.3 billion people and a combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of over $2.5 trillion, the AfCFTA will be the largest trade area since the formation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995.
Despite the benefits that the AfCFTA is widely expected to bring, Nigeria curiously delayed at first in signing the Agreement. Thankfully, reason ultimately prevailed and Nigerian signed the agreement at the 12th Extraordinary Session of the African Union (AU) Heads of State and Government held in Niamey, Niger. Very recently, the Federal Executive Council of Nigeria has also taken the decision to ratify the AfCFTA. What is now left is for the Nigerian National Assembly to domesticate the Agreement as required by the Nigerian Constitution.
It is pertinent to note that although the AfCFTA has justifiably received – and continues to receive – wide publicity, what is seldom talked about is that the Agreement is only a part of a larger long term plan, christened Agenda 2063, to ultimately establish an African Economic Community with a single Custom Union and a single common market to “accelerate the political and socio-economic integration of the continent” in accordance with Article 3 of the AU’s Constitutive Act.
The case for Harmonisation
The economic integration and the concomitant growth in international relationships that are sure to result from these integration efforts will undoubtedly lead to a rise in cross border disputes, which call for resolution using the instrumentality of private international law. When, not if, these disputes arise, questions such as what courts have jurisdiction, what law(s) should apply, and whether a judgment of the courts of one member State will be recognised and enforced by the courts of the other member States, are just some of the key questions that will arise.In the words of Professor Richard Frimpong Oppong, a well-developed and harmonised private international law regime is an indispensable element in any economic community.Curiously however, the role of private international law in facilitating and sustaining the on-going African economic integration efforts is conspicuously missing.
It is against this backdrop that this writer joins others in calling for the establishment of a pan-African harmonised private international legal regime as an instrument of economic development in general and as part of the modalities for the actualisation of Agenda 2063 in particular. Incidentally, one of the first of such calls predates the adoption of the decision to establish the AfCFTA. As far back as 2006, Professor Oppong had argued that given the significant divergence in the approaches to the subject of private international law in Africa, if the idea of a common market is to materialise, African countries must embark on a comprehensive look at, and reform of, the regime of private international law.He specifically stressed the need for harmonised private international law rules to govern the operation of the divergent national substantive rules.Very recently, Lise Theunissen has stated, and rightly too, that the non-harmonised state of private international law in Africa forms an important obstacle to international trade and to cross-border economic transactions and that for this reason, it is crucial for the African economic integration to strive for a harmonisation of private international law.Beyond these, harmonisation has other benefits.
It has been argued that harmonisation helps promote equal treatment and protection of citizens of an economic community as well as other economic actors transacting or litigating in the internal market by subjecting them to a uniform and certain legal regime.As the learned authors of Dicey, Morris and Collins, The Conflict of Laws observed, part of the rationale behind the EU Judgments Regulation and its predecessor Convention is, “to avoid as far as possible the multiplication of the bases of jurisdiction in relation to the same legal relationship and to reinforce legal protection by allowing the plaintiff easily to identify the court before which he may bring an action and the defendant reasonably to foresee the court before which he may be sued”.Accordingly, it has been said that harmonisation boosts certainty in the law, thus reducing transaction and litigation costs for economic actors within the Community.Africa is in dire need of this certainty.
Potential Challenges to Harmonisation
This writer is not unmindful of the challenges that such a project will pose especially having regard to the diverse legal traditions in Africa; the underdeveloped nature of the subject of private international law in Africa;and the diversity of approach to the question.These challenges are however not insurmountable. Thankfully, there are precedents and successful examples that the relevant actors can point to, for inspiration. And the first that readily comes to mind is the well-established harmonised private international law system applicable within the European Union. There are also other examples like the Organisation of American States with its Inter-American Conference on Private International Law. Similarly, within the Common Market of the Southern Cone (MECOSUR) [comprising Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay] Article 1 of the Asuncion Treaty 1991 expressly recognises the ‘harmonization of legislation in relevant areas’ as cardinal to the strengthening of their stated integration process.
Recommendation on the Modalities for Harmonisation
In considering the above examples, however, the question must be asked whether it is desirable to import, for instance, the tried and tested European Union private international law model into Africa or whether it is necessary to develop an autochthonous private international law system that responds to the socio-economic, cultural, and political interests of countries in Africa. In my view, the answer is in the question. It is pertinent to state at this juncture that what this writer advocates at this stage is the harmonisation of the private international law rules of the various member states in the African Union as opposed to the unification of the substantive laws which is the subject of other efforts, a case in point being the Organisation for the Harmonization of Commercial Law in Africa (OHADA).
Lise Theunissenhas very helpfully recommended a four-pronged approach to tackling the issue of the underdeveloped and non-harmonised state of private international law in the African Union as follows – (i) sensitization of national courts and the enlargement of regional economic community courts to ensure a harmonised and authoritative interpretation to relevant private international law legislation; (ii) a methodical continent wide engagement effort including the establishment of a private international law orientated body under the African Economic Community; (iii) the ratification of international conventions by African Union member states for instance the United Nations Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards or the Hague Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Judgments in Civil or Commercial Matters; and (iv) the exploration of a potential collaboration with non-State actors for instance the Research Centre for Private International Law in Emerging Countries at the University of Johannesburg. At the very least, these suggestions deserve to be accorded close consideration.
Before now, Oppong had equally suggested the establishment of a specialised body with the specific mandate to deal with private international law regime. He also advocated for the establishment of a court empowered to provide authoritative and final interpretation of the unified rules of private international law and the entrenchment of the principle of mutual trust and respect by all African Union member states of each other’s national judicial competence.Above all, urgent steps must be taken to elicit the requisite political will and obtain the institutional support necessary to actualise the harmonised rules of private international law in Africa. As a starting point, however, this paper calls for the immediate convocation of an Inter-African Conference on Private International Law.
Despite the enormous challenges that is sure to militate against the harmonisation of the private international law rules in a divergent community like Africa, the general belief is that the African Union and the people of Africa stand a better chance to actualise the aims of establishing a common market, deepening economic integration and promoting economic development in Africa with a harmonised private international legal regime. Since Professor Cheshire issued his clarion call in 1947, European courts, lawyers and academics have largely heeded the call, but the same cannot be said of their African counterparts. The best time to have heeded the call was in 1947, the next best time is now.
*This Paper was first published in Law Digest Journal Spring 2020
G. C. Cheshire ‘Plea for a Wider Study of Private International Law’ (1947) Intl L Q 14.
African Union, Agreement establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area, available at https://au.int/en/treaties/agreement–establishing–african–continental–free–trade–arealast accessed on 14 February 2020.
Chukwuma Okoli, ‘Private International Law in Africa: Comparative Lessons’ available at http://conflictoflaws.net/2019/private–international–law–in–africa–comparative–lessons/last accessed on 15 February 2020.
Richard Frimpong Oppong, ‘Private International Law and the African Economic Community: A Plea for Greater Attention’ The International and Comparative Law Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Oct., 2006), Cambridge University Press pp.911-928 available at https://www.jstor.org/stable/4092623
Richard Frimpong Oppong, (n 5 above).
 Richard Frimpong Oppong, (n 5 above).
Richard Frimpong Oppong, (n 5 above).
Lise Theunissen, ‘Harmonisation of Private International Law in the African Union’ available at https://www.afronomicslaw.org/2020/02/08/harmonisation–of–private–international–law–in–theafrican–union/accessed on 15 February 2020.
Richard Frimpong Oppong, (n 5 above). See also A. Dickinson, “Legal Certainty and the Brussels Convention Too Much of a Good Thing?” in Pascal de Vareilles-Sommieres (ed), Forum Shopping in the European Judicial Area (Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2007), ch 6.
L Collins (gen ed), Dicey, Morris and Collins, The Conflict of Laws (London, Sweet and Maxwell, 14thedn, 2006), observed at para 11-062.
Richard Frimpong Oppong, (n 5 above).
Chukwuma Okoli on his part believes that there has been significant progress and that is a growing interest in the study of private international law in Africa. See Chukwuma Okoli, ‘Private International Law in Africa: Comparative Lessons’ available at http://conflictoflaws.net/2019/private–internationallaw–in–africa–comparative–lessons/accessed on 15 February 2020. While this is true, he must however acknowledge that there is still a lot of room for improvement.
In this regard, Lise Theunissen, (n 8 above) has lamented the lack of any efforts to establish a private international law orientated body under the African Economic Community, despite the necessity and urgent need for same.
Lise Theunissen, (n 8 above).
Richard Frimpong Oppong, (n 5 above).