Law school course focuses on Africa in the global legal system


By Lori Atherton
Michigan Law

Michigan Law Professor Laura Beny has long studied Africa and its development. That interest led to the creation of a new course, Africa in the Global Legal System, that marries her teaching and research interests in Africa, law and economics, corporate finance, and international development.

Taught for the first time in fall 2018, the course focuses on Sub-Saharan Africa and how it was influenced by—and influenced—the international legal system. It is one of the first of its kind among law schools, according to Beny.

Beny’s goal for the course is to enable students to “embark upon legal, policy, business, and/or nonprofit careers that engage with the African continent from legal and strategic perspectives.”

Many Sub-Saharan African countries are emerging markets with huge growth potential, Beny noted, making it ideal to study.

“There’s a growing interest in Africa, especially from the financial community, because there is a movement away from aid to trade,” said Beny, the Earl Warren DeLano Professor of Law and the associate director of U-M’s African Studies Center. “Africa is one of the fastest-growing areas in the world for financial technology, including mobile banking and bitcoin.”

Beny didn’t start her class talking about contemporary African issues, however. She first dove into Africa’s history, giving students a “launching place” from which to understand Africa’s development.

“I started the class by talking about some of the earliest civilizations in Africa and what they considered their political, economic, and legal systems to be,” Beny said. “It’s good to start from the basics to understand Africa’s evolution and how it becomes part of the international legal system over time.”

Other discussion topics included the legal and political economy justifications of the slave trade and colonization by Europeans; the legal processes of colonization and state formation, including the introduction of Western common law and civil law systems into Africa and their interaction with and displacement of indigenous legal systems; and the international legal doctrine of self-determination and its implications for decolonization and self-rule.

Beny also focused on Africa’s place in the global legal system during the post-independence period, including Africa within the United Nations; Africa in the international trade and investment legal regimes; legal justifications and practical effects of foreign aid to Africa; and interactions between the International Criminal Court and African nations.

Beny, who has been teaching at the Law School since 2003, said she appreciates the opportunity as a law professor to develop new courses that introduce students to broader legal topics.

She said she is particularly pleased that three of her students’ research papers from the course were published as notes in two recent Michigan Law journals. The 3Ls and their scholarly works are Danielle Coleman, “Digital Colonialism: The 21st Century Scramble for Africa through the Extraction and Control of User Data and the Limitations of Data Protection Laws” (Michigan Journal of Race & Law, 2019); Christa-Gaye Kerr, “Sovereign Immunity, the African Union, and the ICC: Legitimacy Undermined” (Michigan Journal of International Law, 2020); and Jingwei Xu, “Chinese Resource-for-Infrastructure (RFI) Investment in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Future of the ‘Rules-Based’ Framework of Sovereign Finance: The Sicomines Case Study” (Michigan Journal of International Law, forthcoming 2020).

Beny already is looking ahead to fall 2020, when she will next teach Africa in the Global Legal System. “I’ve had time to reflect on the class and what worked and what didn’t work, as well as to expand my own knowledge of Africa,” Beny said. “I’m excited to be teaching the course again.”.