After 12 months at the helm, Khumbo Soko leaves office this month-end as Malawi Law Society president. The 32-year-old became MLS president at a challenging time, when reports of lawyers malfeasance were high. Our reporter FATSANI GUNYA engaged SOKO on the experience of leading such a prestigious institution and also some of the stand-out legal issues that have been rocking the country.
What was your first impression when you first learnt you would be heading the Law Society?
One goes through all sorts of emotions frankly. You are immediately humbled at being entrusted with such an enormous responsibility and of course excited at all the possibilities that lie ahead for the organisation.
Rising through the ranks, did you ever anticipate to lead such an umbrella body of legal practitioners?
Well, you honestly wouldn’t find yourself in this position if you are wanting in ambition! So yes, I did dream of leading the Society at some point in my professional life. If I am being honest, I did not think that that time was going to be last year. I would be speculating really if I were to specifically say why I think people opted for me to head the institution. I have always thought though that the singular thing that most qualifies one to be a leader of the society is an unequivocal passion for what it stands for. For if one truly believes in the objects for which the society exists and sees it as a critical co-occupant of the civil society space, then they will not hesitate to volunteer their time and talents to it. Maybe this is what my learned brothers and sisters saw in me. The circumstances demanded that I step up and I was glad to. It’s been a journey of quite some consequence and I will always cherish this opportunity that my colleagues gave me to lead them. It’s been an incredible honour.
How would you respond to assertions that the country’s legal profession is not ‘growing as earlier anticipated’?
The numbers are rather abysmal, I must say. Last year, the society only had 407 members. These are lawyers with valid practice licences and who are, therefore, able to represent people in courts. Even if you add to this figure those currently employed in the public sector and others who possess legal qualifications but have not been admitted to the bar, I doubt if the number would exceed 1 000. For a country of close to 18 million people, this situation is rather desperate. Of course, things are likely to change with the coming in of the Malawi Institute for Legal Education and the prospective accreditation of more law schools. But one must admit that our numbers could certainly use some beefing up.
What outstanding issues did you inherit from the previous administration that needed to be acted upon and how did you deal with them?
I think the immediate challenge was to ensure that the momentum that our predecessors had built in dealing with the issues of indiscipline amongst some of our members and the restoration of our battered public image was maintained. We, therefore, had to ensure that we acted decisively by ensuring that the work of the disciplinary committee resumed. One consequence of our intervention was the unprecedented and somewhat controversial step that we took in publishing the recommendations that the disciplinary committee had made to the Attorney General. We also had to ensure that the challenge of the confusion in the High Court, as to which rules of procedure were applicable, were resolved as soon as possible by lobbying for the quick promulgation of our own Rules of Procedure. In October of last year, the rules were delivered to the bar. We also inherited from our predecessors a litany of complaints from our members gathered through practice surgeries that they had held throughout the country. We immediately set out to attending to some of the issues that had been highlighted by our members as requiring our most urgent attention.
What can you point to as some successes/strides the society has made during your tenure of office?
I reckon we have done some decent amount of work in dealing with cases of indiscipline in so far as having those matters resolved by the disciplinary committee is concerned. I am aware that the headlines in the media in the recent past have been rather unflattering, but believe me, those belie the serious progress that we have made in dealing with complaints from the public. Furthermore, I think the society’s standing, as a body charged with protecting and assisting the public on all matters to do with the law, has also been emboldened.
I particularly saw our intervention in the Salima-Water Project case as a refusal on the society’s part to allow wanton lawlessness in the name of sheer convenience. Through our public lecture series, the society also set the agenda for a national conversation and possibly reform on sticky and critical issues such as judicial accountability and management of public resources.
It is widely said that justice is supposed to be seen to be done. In view of this, what’s your take on the issue of alleged fraudulent activities on the part of the Deputy Speakers of Parliament; something that recently [through your predecessor] required various stakeholders, to request the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP [Mary Kachale] to act on the same?
I would rather refrain from commenting on this issue because it is something that is still very much live and which my successors may wish to revisit. It would be irresponsible of me to constrain them one way or the other through my comment.
Then there is the fight against corruption in the country amid wide-spread assertions that it favours the ‘big fish’. Is the country doing enough to fight corruption?
The answer is obviously no. when you look at every succeeding survey of public perception on incidences of corruption in the country, you will notice that the view of the majority of those responding is that corruption is on the rise. There still remains a massive room for improvement not only in interventions that will prevent corruption from happening in the first place but also in so far robust and quality investigations and prosecution is concerned. As a nation, we will never really begin to win the war on corruption unless we are bold enough to follow the evidence of wrong doing wherever it leads us. This requires us to unleash our law enforcement and prosecution agencies so they work without any kind of interference, overt or subtle. It also obliges us to ensure that we put at their disposal adequate resources for their work. I doubt we have reached that stage where we can say we are winning in the fight against corruption. In fact, if we are not careful, corruption will soon completely overwhelm us.
Would you say there is enough political will to ensure that justice is seen to be done in this regard?
Talk is cheap. I think folks should be judged on the basis of what they actually do. And if you begin to subject politicians to judgment and scrutiny on the basis of what they are actually doing rather than on their compelling lyrics, you will easily come to the conclusion that the will is half-hearted at best or totally non-existent at worst.
Now, as you leave office, what legacy do you think you are going to leave behind and where would you have to see the society at, say in the near future?
Last time I was asked about what legacy I wanted to leave behind, I borrowed from Wole Soyinka and said that that is for historians and critics to determine. I think our task when we come to these honourable roles is to give them our all. To leave everything on the field as they say. If you do that, you can live with whatever verdict comes about how you fared. But my dream for the Society is for it to be an effective and robust regulator of the profession of law, doing right by its members while protecting members of the public who utilise their services.