Francis M. Ssekandi

A Storied Career

Francis M. Ssekandi ’66 has honed his international law expertise in courtrooms, boardrooms, and classrooms around the world

By Joy Y. Wang

Winter 2010

Speaking with international law expert Francis M. Ssekandi ’66 about his life and career is like opening up a pager-turner: Hours fly by in a blur of stories that take place around the world, spanning continents and eras. He talks about living through a revolution in his native country of Uganda, elaborates on his efforts to help reform the justice sector in Rwanda and rebuild the economy of East Timor, and describes what it was like dodging landmines while on a United Nations mission to Southern Lebanon. Ssekandi, who will celebrate his 70th birthday this September, has the energy of a man half his age, and he seems to have accomplished enough to fill two lifetimes.

Ssekandi returned to his alma mater nearly 10 years ago to serve as a lecturer-in-law, and he currently teaches the African Law and Development course at the Law School. “I have [moved] back and forth between practice and teaching almost throughout my career,” he says. “The fact that I have a Columbia degree has opened doors that would not have otherwise been opened. You run into very kind people [at the Law School] who are unassuming giants in their field.”

A well-liked instructor in his own right, Ssekandi made a discernible mark on Uganda’s legal arena when he helped establish the law faculty at Makerere University in 1968. Then, in 1972, he set up the country’s first bar training course at the Law Development Centre, where he served as director. Before Ssekandi helped establish the bar course, students had to travel to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to earn their legal qualification, which was previously only obtainable in England. Now, students from Makerere University go to the centre for their Diploma in Legal Practice, which is required for practicing law in Uganda. “Now, more than 30 years later, it’s still running very strong, and every lawyer in Uganda has gone through that course,” Ssekandi says with discernible pride. “There were 20 to 30 students originally, and now it’s bursting at the seams with 200 to 300 students.”

Ssekandi remained at the Law Development Centre until 1974, when he was selected to serve as a judge on the Uganda Supreme Court. Four years later, though, the country was awash in political turmoil with the fall of the Lule administration. Ssekandi and his wife, who he met when she was studying at Rutgers’ Douglass College, ended up moving back to New Jersey, where his wife’s family lived.

Back in the states, Ssekandi spent time teaching at Wayne State University Law School in Michigan, before returning to the northeast to serve as a deputy director in the United Nations’ Office of Legal Affairs. His relationship with the organization has continued intermittently for the last two decades, and he currently works as a consultant to UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women.

After 15 years working at the U.N.’s Legal Affairs office, Ssekandi signed on as the general counsel of the African Development Bank in 1996. At the time, the bank was struggling to emerge from near bankruptcy and restore its credit rating. “Three-fourths of the legal staff was gone,” says Ssekandi, explaining that he was shouldered with the task of building a new legal department and overhauling the bank’s charter. After a pause to reflect, he happily adds that nearly 10 years later, “the legal staff I left hasn’t really changed that much.”

As a result of his experience with the African Development Bank and at international organizations like the U.N., Ssekandi was recently selected to serve as a judge in the World Bank’s Administrative Tribunal. He is one of seven members on the panel, which settles disputes between the staff and the bank. He has also been nominated by Uganda and appointed to the Panel of Arbitrators of the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), which settles international investment disputes brought to the bank, under the ICSID Convention.

Ssekandi is delighted that he was selected to serve in both capacities. “I feel like I’m at the top of my profession now,” he says, “but it hasn’t been easy. It’s been a rollercoaster career.”
 

Photographed by Jon Vachon