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Chief Justice Irene Chirwa Mambilima: A Legacy of Justice and Service

By J. Jarpa Dawuni, Ph.D.


"Chief Justice Irene Chirwa Mambilima, we thank you for your service, your tireless efforts for justice, equity, and women’s rights. Your legacy will forever be remembered. Rest in the peaceful embrace of your maker." J. Jarpa Dawuni

The first whatsapp message came at 1:4pm US/ET. In utter disbelief, I quickly called my friend in Zambia who had just sent me the message. I asked her if it was true (and hoping she would say it was not true), but she confirmed it. Soon after, the messages started coming from all over. I began to cry. I called Judge Ann Claire Williams (retired Judge of the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh District) to inform her, and she confirmed she had not heard the news.

Justice Irene Chirwa Mambilima was the first judge interviewed by Judge Ann Claire Williams for the African Women in Law Legacy Project. We were still in discussions to re-record her interview because the first recording had technical issues which gave us a poor video quality. Chief Justice Mambilima was so kind and generous with her time, and she agreed that she would make the time for us to record it again. Alas, that time will never happen.

Chief Justice Mambilima was a pioneer woman in many ways. As the first woman Chief Justice of Zambia, her journey to the top judicial position had been marked with many other successful stories as captured in her pioneer women in law profile. The first of five children, she grew up from humble beginnings, and witnessing the injustice around her spurred her on to pursue a law degree and fight for justice for all.

As with all interviewees, Judge Ann Claire Williams posed the final question to Chief Justice Mambilima “what do you want your legacy to be?” How do you want people to remember you?

Chief Justice Mambilima responded:

“I think from the time I was a High Court Judge up to now, my passion has been only delay reduction, backlog reduction. And when I became Chief Justice, the high courts were inundated with a lot of cases, we had so many delayed cases. So, I did appoint a task force to deal with delayed cases, first find out how many cases do we have? Was it up to 2016? How many cases do we have which haven't been completed? We got all those cases. And then identified a panel of judges. And we came up with more than 4600 cases. And the that was in 2018. I was just being briefed last week that we have disposed of 4300, remaining with 300. That is up to 2018. So why don't we have that effort going on at the same time I'm engaging the judges, so that in the matters, which are now active before the courts, we can apply the new rules which we have just improved upon. And we avoid creating the backlog which we had of this more than 4000 cases. And also in the Supreme Court, I found a lot of backlog of appeals which had not been heard and the judgments which have not been delivered. As I'm talking to you now, we are current on the appeals.

We do not have backlog. We are just dealing with what some colleagues left behind those who have gone. So, if you say how do I want to be remembered? When I go? I think I would want to be remembered as a hands-on person. Because my passion is the case flow. Under case management, and backlog and delay reduction, also, I would like to be remembered as a person who had the passion for access to justice. You know, I worry so much with the cost of litigation, and how much the common person is unable to access the judicial services. So, I've been on the neck of the executive, that the court system must really be decentralized to the remotest part, so that people don't have to walk very far, in order to access judicial services, the issue of the computerization, which has become so important now, because of COVID-19. That one, I think I'll leave it to those who are coming after me, because our landscape is such that the digital literacy is not so much advanced. And the women are the ones on the receiving end, most of them are not on any digital platform.

So, this is an area which we now have to deal with, in view of the COVID pandemic situation, because if we have to avoid people, meeting unnecessary, doing remote work, I know that thing can happen. But in our landscape, we need to tread very carefully. So, I guess these are my passions, and of course, the GBV issues. Those are my passions, because I could see the derailment of justice in that way. You can decide the case of somebody coming from a toxic environment. Where do you take them after the case is completed? What do you do with them? Yeah, so at least the Act, which was passed the new anti-gender-based violence act, has provided for the creation of shelters, and so forth, to address the issues of those women who may want to leave their abusive environments, and also even the children, they want to leave with.”

Chief Justice Mambilima’s passion and legacy extended beyond her work on the bench. Judge Williams pushed her for more by asking a follow-up question;

“If I might add one other passion of yours, I think, at least from what I've observed, you are such a good sponsor and mentor to women, and younger judges, and to other people. You know, there were so many hands that extended in your life to help you become what you are. I have observed that you extend your hand to so many and give advice and provide sponsorship and nurturing. Could you just comment on that as well because I've seen that you haven't mentioned that as a passion? Because I've seen what you've done for others.”

To which Chief Justice Mambilima responded:

When I mentor the young women, I tell them that, you know, the sky really is the limits. You should not fear to take responsibilities. You know, you can fear from afar. But take these issues head on. As the saying goes, it takes a storm to know who a good sailor is. So, if you're just on the fringes all the time, it won't help but don't fear, to take on challenges, take the challenges, but just understand what it is that you're in for. Understand what is required of you. And look up to people who can assist you to be a strong person, because I believe that everybody has potential, but with us from this part of the world, I think there is this belief that women certain jobs are not for women, they are just for men. So, you'll find that some women are self-defeated even before they begin. Somebody just says, Oh, no, no, no, I can't do that. You know, I can't manage making money if you just understand what it is that is required of you. So, when I mentor the women, I tell them to strive for the best. No, don't limit yourself. Don't limit yourself. Of course, you will meet the toxic people you will meet the doomsayers, but who doesn’t?

You can watch the full interview here:


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