Nciko Wa Nciko: The Capable Son of Thunder

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Arnold Nciko is an alumnus of the Strathmore University Law School (SLS) – Class of 2020. He has served as an Academic Representative in the Student Council, led the Strathmore Law Review, sang in the SU Chorale, headed the SU Toastmasters gavel, and worked as a Graduate and Research Assistant at SLS.

He was a recipient of a partial merit SLS loan and bursary and was a beneficiary of the Strathmore Financial Aid Office’s Grad-Prep Program. The Grad-Prep College Counselling program is a platform that provides guidance to SU students to study overseas on scholarship at a top global university, get support for GRE or GMAT/TOEFL exams and to get support for graduate school scholarship or Financial Aid applications.

Nciko successfully applied to the Geneva Institute of International and Development Studies and received a full merit tuition scholarship. He begins his studies in September, 2022. While there, he will be pursuing a Master of Laws (LL.M) in International Law, with a specialisation in Environmental Law, International Trade and International Investment Law.

He is currently an early career researcher for the United States Institute of Peace – looking at the interplay of Chinese involvement in the DRC mining sector and the mitigation of the climate impact of their activities. He is a Senior Fellow at the African Sovereign Debt Justice Network Summer Academy where he is researching the unfair sovereign debt burdens imposed on African countries. His current research paper focuses on a particular loan that some Chinese public companies took on behalf of the DRC government and the complexities pertaining to the contract, including corruption. Nciko is also a volunteering Editorial Intern at the Kabarak Law Review where he is trying to revive the academic publication.

One word that describes him is: ambitious. He is truly an inspiration and a great ambassador of Strathmore University’s reputation for excellence.

When we met for this interview, he was sharply dressed in an elegant blue suit and red tie. He wore a big, warm smile beneath his bright, observant eyes. He has a warm personality, an optimistic outlook on life, and a humility that makes his many achievements even more impressive. In our conversation, I learnt that his campus experience has been very instrumental in shaping him into the person that he is today.

Indeed, the following chronicle is an account of determination, hope and courage. It is also the evidence of his love for his Congolese people, and how this capable son of thunder is posited to bring the much-needed change that the DRC yearns for. This is the story of Arnold Nciko:

Background

My name is Arnold Nciko Wa Nciko. The name Nciko means capable, or thunder. I come from the DRC. I am the first born in a family of six.

I am lucky to have people in my life that bring the best out of me, including my mother who is my biggest inspiration. She gave birth to me at 16, and still completed high school while concurrently raising me. She proceeded to finish her degree and has since then started her own businesses. She inspires me to have faith in my achievements. Another source of motivation for me are my siblings who look up to me. As the first born, I must show direction and leadership.

The fact that I was among the first Congolese to come to Nairobi and do a Law program at SU gives me the imperative to blaze the trail well. Additionally, I am eager to give guidance to the Congolese and other international students who might be going through similar challenges as I did, as well as to encourage them to take advantage of opportunities offered here. I challenge them that having a different culture and background should not be a barrier to your aspirations. I use my experience as a Student Council member to show them that Kenyan students can vote a Congolese student as their student leader, if they display leadership skills.

I am also a staunch patriot and statesman. My ultimate motivation is my country – the Democratic Republic of Congo. I want to be the type of change that I want to see in my country. Although I want to serve in the leadership of my nation, I am cognizant of the fact that my country is not so meritocratic, so it might be challenging to climb up the rungs of the ladder to eventually achieve meaningful national transformation. Therefore, my approach is to gain a sufficient level of recognition for my work in international law so that I can become a credible and potent actor in initiating constitutional reforms in the DRC.

Some people have written off Congo. However, I am optimistic that change is coming and hope to usher in the right kind of change – that is responsive to the needs of the Congolese people, that tries to solve our challenges and safeguard our resources. Hope is an important thing as it keeps us going, hence in my lifetime I shall be a bearer of a constructive vision of the DRC.

I am optimistic to see the success of the African integration agenda, and I support the DRC joining the East African Community as the EAC will pave the way for employment opportunities for Congolese workers by resolving the problem of work and study permits which raises the cost to the employer, something that has affected me personally. Additionally, DRC’s membership in the EAC will increase competition and eliminate monopolies in the DRC that take advantage of people.

As a law professional, I also believe that the jurisprudence of the East African Court of Justice will protect Congolese people from climate change impact and safeguard the environment, especially the Congo rainforest and basin, something that the national government has failed to do. This is a crucial area of my research and I look forward to actionable steps being taken in that regard.

My Life at Strathmore

I went to College Alfajiri in Bukavu, DRC, which is a high school run by the Jesuits. Initially, I wanted to go to Kwa Zulu Natal University in South Africa but due to the high level of xenophobia at that time, my uncle advised me to come to Nairobi. In contrast to the present time when Strathmore has extensively engaged in branding and marketing operations across the region, at the time, the Strathmore University name was unsung in DRC. On that account, I had to engage in rigorous campus searching when I got to Kenya.

I ended up choosing Strathmore University because of its superb infrastructure and the level of professionalism I observed during the interview, especially in how people dressed. Another push came from my parents who supported my decision to come to Strathmore University because it was sponsored by Opus Dei, and they supported their values of excellence, integrity and hard work.

I needed a bit of prodding and direction to choose a career in the field of Law. It was challenging at the beginning, but I eventually ended up liking it.

Given my Francophone background, I had a language barrier, which manifested when I was required to speak English in class. I received a lot of support from my classmates and lecturers, but what helped me most was joining Toastmasters after my first year. The gavel not only taught me English, but also how to speak articulately and confidently. I was initially self-conscious of my French accent, but my Toastmasters mentor, Ms. Angela Rarieya (who is currently a managing partner at Upscale Africa), advised me to be proud of my French accent as it is my identity and culture. She looked me in the eye and told me, ‘there is nothing wrong with your accent. Whenever you speak, be proud of it– but you need to give it power!’

By second year, I was comfortable with the way I spoke. Toastmasters also taught me the value of preparedness, inculcated in me leadership skills, and inspired me with confidence. Ultimately, I ended up serving as the President of Toastmasters Gavel.

Strathmore University provides a myriad of opportunities for extracurricular activities, which equip us with professionally relevant skills that you cannot get in class, such as public speaking, writing, project management, managing a business or even mobilising a group of students. One of the highlights of my campus life was when I was honoured to make an address in the presence of the President of Toastmasters International in his visit to Strathmore University.

Strathmore Law Review (a student-run journal by the Strathmore Law School) consumed a lot of my time. As an editor, it helped me develop writing skills and I used those skills to write and publish papers in recognized journals and represent SU in research events abroad. I engaged in a lot of reading in order to provide quality feedback for the papers I edited.  I finally ended up as the Editor-in-chief of the Law Review. By far, this is the most important position I have occupied in my short career, as this triggered my academic research career.

The first paper that I wrote was on how to run a Law Clinic. The findings of that paper were picked up by Abdullahi Ali Abdulrahman, who found my recommendations relevant and used them to revamp the Strathmore Law Clinic. He implemented the ideas in that paper. That was an empowering moment for me, as it showed me that my research work was socially relevant.  My engagement in the Strathmore Law Clinic as the head of Human Rights Unit was an opportunity to implement these theories and translate them into practical initiatives and create social impact.

Another major highlight was being the first Congolese student leader in the Strathmore University Student Council where I served as an Academics representative. As part of the Student Council, I appreciate the work we did during team building for international students where I was involved in showing them around and familiarising them with Kenya. I was also involved in community service initiatives such as the Macheo program.

I believe I have had my fair share of a quintessentially ideal Strathmore experience.

Mentors

I have been lucky to get a couple of mentors, including John Osogo Ambani, the current dean at Kabarak Law School, who first tried to know you closely, and then tried to bring the best out of you. My mentors were really interested in me, and they really understood me.

They were also humble enough to allow me to guide them as well, something called reverse mentoring, where we both learn from each other.  Mentors such as Dr. Francis Kariuki empowered me on a spiritual level and taught me alternative dispute resolution and traditional knowledge. They helped me improve my self-esteem and they brought the best out of me, making me confident. They transformed me to a large extent such that despite being an undergraduate student in high-level research conferences, I had built enough confidence and had faith in my work, which I had done thoroughly and rigorously, to persuade people to listen.

Post-graduate ambitions

Before I applied for a LL.M program at the Geneva Graduate Institute of International and Development studies, I had served as a graduate assistant for one and half years at the SLS. There is a general trend in SLS for many graduates to go to the US and South Africa for their LL.M program. I was contemplating this decision when my friend, Mr. John Nyanje Wa Nyanje, who is currently studying there, advised me that their LLM (International Law) program is among the top five in the world.

He also pointed out that Geneva is the heart of international affairs as it hosts more than 250 United Nations based international organisations. In essence, Geneva is a diplomatic hub, and a place where international law is made. He also posited that going to the US or South Africa was not maximising my potential, because being fluent in both English and French gives me an added advantage. He also made an interesting point that Switzerland is a bilingual country – French is one of the most widely spoken languages. Additionally, French is a language of international law, and some courses in the institution are offered in French.

I was fortunate to receive a partial scholarship from the Financial Aid, which came in handy to enable me to complete my undergraduate studies. When I made up my mind to apply to the Geneva Graduate Institute, I reached out to the Financial Aid office, who recommended and supported my merit scholarship application, and covered all the costs associated with my application. I am grateful and indebted to the Financial Aid Office’s Grad-Prep Program for this gesture.

I also got a lot of support from Afro-nomics – an academic movement and forum for early career researchers who are trying to understand International Law from a global south perspective. The forum has some leading international professors and practitioners, who also mentor us, and two of them, Mr. James Thuo Gathii, and professor Makane Moise Mbengue recommended me to the Geneva Graduate. Prof. Makane, who is currently teaching at the Geneva Graduate Institute, also hired me as his research assistant.

Future Prospects

My research project on the Congo is looking at the fact that Cobalt mining in the DRC is conducted by Chinese companies and Glenco, a Swiss mining company, which are cumulatively responsible for about 65 percent of global cobalt production. These extraction processes are not sustainable nor are they eco-friendly. Therefore, they have significant environmental impacts that are not borne by the companies, but by the Congolese people.

Moreover, most of the proceeds from the cobalt production do not go towards the provision of social services for the ordinary citizens. Instead, they line the pockets of the elite class who work in complicity with mining investors, predominantly the Chinese. A report called ‘the Congo Hold-up’ revealed that dishonest and corrupt deals have plundered vast amounts of resources from the Congolese people.

These monies could have been invested in education-promotion, infrastructure-development, malaria-prevention, and hunger-eradication programs. That these profits are diverted to enrichen a small group of political and business elites is a disservice to the DRC, Africa, and the world at large.

The problems associated with the DRC are very complex, and there are intertwined with foreign interests. The issues of DRC are the issues of Africa and the whole of the Global South. The East African Community, the African Union and the United Nations have a role to play to find practical, feasible and urgent solutions. Some of these solutions, such as re-negotiating the contracts that the DRC government has made with these Chinese multinational corporations must come from international law, and this is an arena I want to specialize in to help my people of DRC realize a more sustainable future.

 

This article was written by Kennedy Karanja

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