An Interview with Onesimus Kipchumba Murkomen, Exchange Student and LLM, The University of Pretoria

During the Spring 2006 semester Onesimus Kipchumba Murkomen took part in the exchange program between WCL and the University of Pretoria. This semester, he returned to WCL to complete his LLM. Here, he tells us a little more about his background, his ambitions, and what drew him to the exchange program.

Tell me a little about your background

I come from Marakwet, Rift Valley Province in Kenya. I belong to a minority group of people called the Sengwer. I was privileged to attend university, as most people have not attended college there. Because of this I was more committed to studying and working hard. I chose to study law, and did well enough that I qualified to be supported by government grants. I was admitted to the University of Nairobi with a government scholarship to study law. The law school at the University of Nairobi is the best in the country. While I was studying for my LLB I became the President of the National Christian Student movement and the president of the law student organization. Through that, I was able to understand that law school is not only about studying books, but also interacting with your lecturers and opening your mind to the rest of the world. My greatest achievement as President of the law students was reestablishing the University of Nairobi Law Journal Board and successfully raising funds for the publication of the journal after it had been out of publication for seven years.

During my second year of law school I traveled to the Netherlands and attended a conference on international criminal law at the Hague the week before the International Criminal Court came into force. Because of this I attended the Milosevic trial at the International Criminal Tribunal of former Yugoslavia which was a fantastic experience. During my fourth year I was introduced to international trade law. My lecturer really emphasized the problems African nations have with international trade – especially the capacity to negotiate and to understand the technical issues. It brought to my attention that there was no one at the faculty who had specialized in international trade. I began to develop an interest in the WTO and trade issues and after my university education I got the opportunity to go to the Trade Moot Court competition at the University of Pretoria, the first trade moot court of its kind.

I have also had the chance to work with Constitution of Kenya Review Commissions as an Assistant Program officer and helped in the process of collecting and collating the views of Kenyans for purpose of rewriting our Constitution. Because of my qualifications I served in the Marakwet branch of the Electoral Commission of Kenya as the youngest deputy presiding officer during the 2002 Kenyan general elections.

After my studies I worked with the law chambers of Muthoga Gaturu & Company based in Nairobi. During this period I was seconded by the firm to work as a consultant for the leading Kenyan telecommunications company, Telkcom Kenya, doing a pre-privatization due diligence study. In the process, I applied for a scholarship to the University of Pretoria. It was a very exciting time for me as they wrote to me and told me that I had been short-listed. They then told me that I hadn’t made the cut. A few weeks later they told me that I could come, but I only had one week to pack for Pretoria!

How did you find out about the exchange program at Pretoria?

I learnt about the University of Pretoria through the human rights program, which has existed for a long time. After my Moot Court experience I got to know the school well and knew about the partnership with Washington College of Law. I had always wanted to study in the United States, so when our lecturer asked the students where we would like to study and why, I made it very clear that I wanted to study at WCL. I had realized that it was one of the top schools, and also wanted to live in Washington DC.

What is your opinion of the exchange program?

I think it is excellent. While you are in Pretoria, the course is designed in such a way that you accumulate all the knowledge from visiting lecturers who visit the university weekly. You have more work as well, as it is the first time most of the students are exposed to trade law. By the time I finished I understood the principles and basics of international trade law. When I got to WCL I had more choices over classes, and the workload was lighter as I only took two courses and my thesis. At WCL you have additional lectures and activities by staff, faculty and visiting professors. The advantage of studying in Washington is that you also have so many other forums for exploring your chosen specialization in town.

You took two internships over the summer. Tell me about them.

My first internship was with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. I helped a scholar research peace and conflict issues in the Great Lake Region of Africa. The relevance to me as a trade and investment law student was that I was able to look at the trends in investing, how the lack of rule of law affects investment, the protection of the environment, and how the environment can be a source of conflict. If you look at the internship from a wider perspective I also learnt about peace and conflict generally. Being at the Center also gave me the opportunity to attend lectures on trade issues such as trade for aid.

I also worked at Manchester Trade Ltd. over the summer. There, I was purely dealing with business. My favorite moment was dealing with the AGOA forum (the African Growth Opportunity Act). It is a trade arrangement between the United States and Sub-Sahara African countries. It is an arrangement that keeps preferential export of goods to United Sates and investments by American companies in Africa. They have a forum every year to review how far the exchange has progressed. I have participated in roundtable discussions about how China has affected American investment in Africa. Through this exposure, I was able to write a research paper for WCL using the first-hand information I received while at Manchester Trade Ltd. I was also helping my boss draft proposals that went to embassies, to help them work on the reform of AGOA. At the AGOA meeting I sat with the Kenyan Minister of Trade, and when I go back home I will build on enhancing that relationship.

I was also exposed to how the U.S. Congress works, how legislation is made, and how lobbying works. I went to the Hill and listening to a hearing. The U.S. lobbying system is good in that it allows people to participate, but in another way it is only good for those that have money and the ability to lobby. Such a system can easily be abused. But I realized the power that Congressional staff have – they are very qualified individuals who are almost making world decisions. The good thing is the participation however – the fact that Congressmen sit down and you can make a presentation to them as to why a law should be changed.

Do you think you will return to Kenya or stay in the United States for a while?

I meet a lot of people who are not sure whether they are going back or not. Some are still hoping to go back ten years down the line. For me the question of going back or not going back is a personal conviction. I certainly can’t condemn the people that stay however, they are making a great contribution to US society. And if they have no room to apply what they learnt in their country, they are better off staying. But I feel more useful in my country. I feel like I should be part of the process of building Kenya, and I am looking forward to teaching at my university in Kenya. Teaching gives me an opportunity to influence as many people as possible, and encourage them and give them hope. I have been helped by so many people here and I feel like I should give back.

What will you do when you finish your LLM?

If I get a job in Washington DC related to African commerce I might pursue that option, but ultimately I want to go back home. I would also like to do my PhD at Harvard, NYU or Stanford, ideally by winning a scholarship. Coming from a village, it means that you carry a whole lot of people with you and you are expected to support them. I feel like they are tired of waiting for me to give back because I have been in school for the last twenty-two years.

What are the big differences in legal education that you have experienced?

In Kenya the lecturers are very competent, but they have few materials such as books. Only since 2004 has the Internet been widely used by the faculty of law at the university of Nairobi. Research and other publications are also absent. The Student Law Journal I worked on when I was at the University of Nairobi doesn’t even have a website. The lecturers have a law journal. It does a little better than the student journal, but it still struggles for funding. In Kenya the practice of law does not depend so much on research than technicalities. The courts do not generate much debate which can sustain a great deal of writing and publishing. The courts must make compelling and well reasoned judgments in tandem with the growing nature of the law, and inform writing. Luckily with recent reforms in the Judiciary there has been a slow reversal of this trend.

South Africa is a more developed country and has more room for discourse and debate through journals and other articles. In Kenya, enforcement and protection of intellectual property protection laws is poor. This discourages people from writing books for teaching purposes because people would rather photocopy a book than buy one. Many students have no financial backing and you will find more than two hundred students relying on ten copies of a book in the library. I would love to see more partnerships between the Faculty of Law in the University of Nairobi and other school and institutions in United States that would donate books, especially on International Law

In the United States everyone buys their own books, which can get very expensive. But the quality of lecturers is high at all three schools. Plus, there is more interaction between lecturers and students here. This is because in Kenya, the lecturers are not paid much, and therefore have to spend time outside the faculty trying to earn a living. They come to the campus, lecture, and then go back to their law firms or other type of work. But here the Professors are paid to stay, research, teach and advise students at the university.

Obviously there is a large disparity in materials between Kenya and the United States. A part of this is the differences in culture – now that the internet is here, it must be embraced. People in Kenya are still unsure of how to use Google, for example. And of course the new technology is expensive, although I am told things are getting better.

What advice would you give to future exchange students?

I would tell them to interact more with ILSP staff as they will learn more about the program this way. If you come with the mentality of Kenya or Pretoria you will not think about applying to a think tank. Here there are many more think tanks, institutes and NGOs and you need to ask about them so that you can filter out what you want. I play soccer so I make friends this way, and they also tell me about other events.

Life can be confusing sometimes. You can think you know what you want, but it often takes a lot of perseverance in the United States. People also have to follow their own path by listening to what is in their heart, and not necessarily the path most traveled. You must be honest to yourself.

The best advice I can give to others in life is “listen and ask before you act.”

Last word.

I thank the World Bank for giving me the scholarship to study International trade and investment law and the Washington College of Law for the ILSP International Research Scholarship. I thank my family and friends for the unwavering moral support and last but not least David Misoi and his wife Beatrice for hosting me in their home while undertaking my ILSP LL.M. May you all find joy in the fruits of your labor.