John Mukum Mbaku has long been an expert on governance and economic development in Africa. He has written extensively about the continent’s democratization, its leaders, its sustainable development and entrepreneurship. And he consults for organizations like the African Development Bank and African Economic Research Consortium.
But about a decade ago, the Brady Presidential Distinguished professor of economics at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, and a nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution realized something was missing: A law degree.
He graduated from the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law in 2010 and has since used his skills to better advise governments, non-governmental organizations and other groups in Africa on how to promote peace and security and advance development.
And his advice revolves around his belief in the power of the legal system.
“My experience around the world has shown me that if people are not able to live together peacefully, they cannot engage in activities that allow them to pursue their own interests and create work for themselves,” he said. “We need the rule of law for people to live together peacefully. What lawyers do is to make sure the rule of law works, the judicial system works, law and order works. Lawyers are gatekeepers. Without an independent and full functioning legal system, it’s very difficult for a country to maintain the rule of law.”
Mbaku was born and raised in Cameroon, where he started his college career. He finished it in the United States, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, a master’s degree in international business and Ph.D. in economics. He has focused his work on improving the lives of Africans because of the poverty he experienced as a child.
“I struggled. When I had an opportunity to come to this country and go to school, I decided if I ever had the chance I’d do as much as I could to improve the opportunities for people in Africa, to improve their quality of life. Most of my career has been devoted to finding ways to improve economic development, human development on the continent,” he said.
Mbaku praised his law school professors—including Robert Adler and William Lockhart—for encouraging him in his passion for learning about natural resources and environmental law, for which he earned a graduate certificate. Mbaku is also thankful for his legal writing professor, William Richards, who helped him to improve his writing.
The U law professors “took their jobs very seriously. All of the professors there were very student-oriented and had an interest in making sure that the students graduated with the necessary skills and competencies to be good and effective lawyers,” Mbaku said.
Natural resources are a major source of conflict in Africa and his legal training allows him to advise on such matters. He recently published the book “Governing the Nile River Basin: The Search for a New Legal Regime,” one of 18 books he’s written.
Law school “made it possible for me to do things I didn’t think I would be able to do. I do a lot of writing on development issues in Africa, human rights, environmental problems. I understand those issues much better now,” he said.
He is also frequently interviewed by international news outlets, including the BBC, CNN International, NPR and China Global TV.
“My career has improved significantly” because of law school, he added.
He regularly donates to the law school both to help students who couldn’t otherwise afford to go and to ensure a functioning legal system—something that most Americans probably take for granted because it works.
“When you go to a country where the legal system doesn’t function, when you come home you start telling yourself, ‘I better make sure my legal system continues to function.’ If we are careless in this country, we can end up like other countries. That erosion of the system takes place slowly. By the time it has fully eroded, it will be too late to make a correction to it. That’s why lawyers are important.”