In May, three students of the Faculty of Law, University of Calabar, Cross River State in Nigeria emerged winners of the 8th African Regional Round of the Manfred Lachs International Space Law Moot Court Competition which was held in Pretoria, South Africa. The students (Ebruka Nelly-Helen Neji, Kaunda John and Ushie Augustine) will be representing Africa at the finals coming up during the International Astronautical Congress in Washington D.C, USA later this year. This is coming a few months after a team from the University of Pretoria, South Africa won the World Finals for the first time.
Space in Africa had a conversation with the team lead, Ebruka Nelly-Helen Neji, where she discussed her expectations as the team prepares for the finals in Washington DC.
You recently led a team of three from the University of Calabar, Cross River State to win the African regional finals of the Manfred Lachs Space Law Moot Court Competition. How does it feel to be on the winning side?
How I feel is somewhat hard to describe. But I know I’m happy, I am grateful and I also feel motivated to do more.
You also emerged as the best oralist at the regional finals. Is oratory ability an innate skill from your teenage years? Have you always believed that you would make a good lawyer while growing up?
(laughs) I guess oratory ability has always been an innate skill, however I had to harness it and work a lot on myself in order to be more professional. As for the question of always believing that I would make a good lawyer, I would say: no, I haven’t always known that I will make a good lawyer, However, after frequently participating in debates, moot and mock competitions at school, and receiving the award of best speaker in a few, I have been greatly encouraged and now I believe that with more effort, I will make an amazing lawyer.
How did you learn about Space Law?
Well, I’ve always been a space enthusiast, so every now and then I do research on any subject in astronomy that interests me. A few years ago, I came across an article online about the legality of lunar exploration and I was intrigued. After digging further, I just found out there was this fascinating field of law I had no clue about, so I can say I found out ‘space law’ by myself.
Could you tell us about your journey and that of your team to winning the Regional Finals?
I could write a long epistle about my journey from UNICALs’ main gate to the Department of Trade and Industry in South Africa, where the competition held. However, in a nutshell, I would say it was a challenging experience for me and my teammates (Ushie Augustine and Kaunda John). One of the major difficulties we faced was the academic disadvantage, considering the fact that we do not offer space law at all in my faculty, and no one was even interested in it. Secondly, we had the issue of finance; we had to make a lot of personal sacrifices from a financial perspective until we finally got the sum of ₦500,000 (about USD 1,387) from our university for our return flight tickets.
It was a true test of passion because we had to stay awake during the night and abandon our regular academic work for a period of time, while researching and writing memorials for a competition we were barely sure of participating in. From an individual point of view, I went through a lot and now, I’m just glad it was worth it. As a matter of fact, on several occasions, people told us to our faces to quit, but as one of our lecturers said, we were “incurably optimistic” and still are.
What are your expectations of the Global Finals in Washington D.C, USA?
I am hoping it will be an opportunity to share ideas, learn and compete in a friendly environment. Taking into consideration the calibre of teams participating, I’m certain it would be a very challenging but ultimately interesting contest, so my team and I are warming up already. However, we sincerely hope we get the necessary funds for travelling expenses and on time too, so we could concentrate and dedicate more time to preparing for this stage of the competition.
Are you considering pursuing further professional or academic goals in Space Law and Policy?
Absolutely I am. I’ve always wanted something extra and more scientific as a lawyer, and apparently, space law is just perfect. I’m glad I have been able to merge my passion and my chosen profession. I’m an interested applicant for the prospective membership of the International Institute of Space Law, and I also hope to attend the European Centre for Space Law and Policy summer course coming up in September if admitted.
How do you think a postgraduate space law program can help in grooming Africa’s future space lawyers? Do you consider this a perfect timing for the introduction of Space Law programmes across African research institutions?
The importance of a postgraduate program in space law can never be over-emphasised, considering the fact that it is a fairly intricate and technical field of study. I think the program will promote in-depth research, giving interested lawyers and students the opportunity they never had as undergraduates to learn the tenets of space law. It will also encourage specialisation and professionalism. In the long run, it will breed seasoned lawyers and policymakers in this area of law as it has in other climes.
Furthermore, I’m positive that there couldn’t have been a better time for the inclusion of space law programs across African institutions. Bearing in mind the recent establishment of the African Space Agency and the impressive gravitation of different African countries towards space-related projects, one can say that in addition to the space graduate programs, space law should (as it ought to be) introduced into the curricula of different institutions, as to enable its future lawyers lead Africa’s space policy in the right path.
What are your thoughts on the African Space Policy?
I think the goals and objectives of the African space policy are perfect and are capable of resolving the myriad of problems faced by the continent as a whole. Personally, I applaud the fact that it is intended to promote space in Africa, for Africans by Africans. Furthermore, I’d say that as a guiding framework for the formalisation of the continent’s space agenda, it is more than satisfactory.
What are your thoughts on addressing the gender imbalance in the Space industry and other STEM fields?
This is an issue I am deeply concerned about. Earlier this year, I took part in the essay competition organized by Space in Africa and it focused on the question of what could be done to enhance the participation of African women and young girls in space, and I still hold on to some of my opinions. Summarily, I think we can address the problem from the roots by enlightening young women on the relevance, need and benefits of venturing into STEM and especially space technology because the fact is, we have bright minds that aren’t aware of its societal importance.
There is also the wrong mindset and prejudice that such a demanding field is reserved for the male folk, and we have to change this narrative by sensitising young women that they are more than capable to explore and excel in the fields of STEM and space technology. In addition, it will be greatly helpful if scholarship schemes could be made available at the tertiary level to assist young women that have an interest in space-related courses but have financial challenges.
Finally, in a bid to inspire young girls, special incentives and recognition should be awarded to African women who are willing and able to navigate this sector. I strongly believe that due to the importance of STEM and space technology to the development of the society, no gender should be discriminated, as diverse views and contributions will be needed for giant strides to be made.
Thank you so much for this opportunity, I’m indeed very grateful!
Joseph Ibeh is a Mandela Washington Fellow and Senior Editor at Space in Africa. He writes about Africa’s NewSpace companies and emerging national space programs.