This story has been brought to you by WorldRemit in partnership with Rootencial. Rootencial is a social initiative celebrating the roots and potential of African and African diaspora communities, while also aiming to create opportunities for them.
We spoke to Jacques Jonathan about the role that he believes the law can play in social, economic and political transformation in Africa.
Please tell us about who you are and what you do.
I grew up in Cameroon and moved to France to study law. I completed my master’s degree in banking law and financial regulation at the London School of Economics. I was in the UK right around the time of the financial crisis, so people were questioning themselves, our global systems, and how the crisis happened. It was intellectually transformative.
After working for an American law firm in Paris, and then spending a year studying at Harvard University, I moved back to Douala to work at my father’s law firm, Cabinet Nyemb.
What inspired you to become a lawyer?
I was always very close to my grandmother. She told me stories about my grandad, a police officer who – like many others from that era – was deeply involved in Cameroonian independence activities. These stories provided strong inspiration for me in terms of values.
At first, I wanted to join the army. But as I grew up, I saw that law is a transformative tool. The law can really be an instrument for change in Cameroon and Africa – in fact, it’s at the centre of everything we do as a society. So I switched my ambition and goals.
“It’s very important that, as Africans, we are able to design our laws based on our values and philosophy. If we can’t do that, we won’t achieve anything.”
What makes a successful lawyer?
You need ethics to guide you when dealing with the unexpected, for example, if counterparties try to reach out and influence you. In countries where corruption is a challenge, you can’t get very far as a lawyer without a strong ethical base. Lawyers also have to be creative.
Clients are going to come to you with complex issues and you’ll need to be creative enough to navigate the existing legal framework. And finally, in order to be a great lawyer, you also have to be collaborative - talking to others and engaging people.
"If you want to be a great lawyer, you need strong ethics, creativity, and collaboration."
What challenges have you faced since returning to Cameroon?
Many Cameroonians think that lawyers are needed only for court cases. And then even for court cases, they always hire a lawyer. It’s hard to get people to understand the value of the intellectual service that lawyers bring – even in setting up a new company!
Cameroonian legal ecosystem throws up many challenges. For example - in the US or in France, you can easily find a law review and everything you need to be a great lawyer. But here, just finding the right law can take days. As a legal community of professors, publishers, and lawyers, we have to make more effort to collectively develop and transform the Cameroonian legal ecosystem.
What important lessons have you learned from your diverse experiences?
Before I left Cameroon, I had no idea about how non-Africans perceive Africa. When I did move - I have to say, it was a real shock. I’m a very proud Cameroonian - proud of what our country has been able to achieve.
It was shocking to hear that many people overseas regard Africa as a poor place, where people have no knowledge. But my experiences have strengthened my conviction that Africa has so much to offer to the world.
People these days talk about ideas like sustainable development and collaborative economies. Africa has mastered these things already. People everywhere are realising that we’re done with the excesses of capitalism that we’ve seen for decades.
“Africa can offer the world so many lessons to shape the decades to come.”
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
My mother always told me that the most important thing is your dignity and that whatever you do, you should try not to lose it. That’s very important advice for me. Dignity means being proud of our history.
As people of African descent, we need to put a greater emphasis on that. African people need to play a key role in solving the world’s challenges. If we find strength in our history, we’ll be able to achieve great things.
As always, we at WorldRemit want to hear your thoughts! Let us know your opinion in the comment section below.