When Mike Flowers attended his first American Bar Association meeting in 1984, he had no way of knowing that the ABA would send him across the ocean to enjoy dinners of crocodile in Zambia and ostrich meat in Kenya, take an African safari, or help shape emerging democracies in several African nations.
“I tell younger lawyers, ‘Join the ABA and see the world,’” says Flowers, who co-founded the ABA Africa Law Initiative. It’s clear from his smile, however, that the Initiative means so much more to him than the chance to continent-hop.
Flowers, a partner at Bricker & Eckler in Columbus, is a veteran achiever. The first person of color to lead a section of the ABA, he recently finished up his term as the head of the 58,000 lawyers in the business law section. He meets the needs of his clients and still finds time to trade e-mail messages and phone calls with other volunteer board members of the ABA Africa Law Initiative Council, which coordinates a dizzying array of projects, including an anti-slavery project and an effort to protect the human rights of women and children with HIV/AIDS in Rwanda.
Flowers, however, has used his background in corporate law to train his sights on a weighty target: fighting government corruption and making a place for stable commerce in Africa.
He took his first African trip in 1998, visiting Zambia, Uganda, Tanzania and Malawi as part of a team invited to help establish commercial law courts, with the goal of attracting investors to stabilize African economies. In 2000, he traveled with a delegation to Zimbabwe to provide advice about constitutional reform, but violence and the seizure of white farmers’ land by squatters cut short the ABA project. “That country, which had one of the strongest economies in Southern Africa, is now completely bankrupt,” says Flowers. “Starvation and a terrible distribution of resources have all come from this failure of democracy and democratic ideals to take hold.”
Even before Flowers saw the East African coastline for the first time in 1998 and rolled up his pant legs to wade in the Indian Ocean, he knew he was in an environment holding enormous challenges as well as enormous opportunities.
“Africa is a world of contrasts,” he says. “You’ll go to capital cities and see a downtown as modern as Columbus, but just a mile away you’ll see shanty towns and abject poverty that we cannot really comprehend here in the United States.”
This poverty also extends to the judicial systems. “The courts didn’t have computers. The judge would literally take notes on a pad, and that would be the record of the proceedings,” he says. This lack of resources sets a perfect stage for corruption.
Flowers saw the results of government corruption firsthand during a visit to Kenya in June 2004 for a regional conference focused on corruption in East African nations. Taking a break from the meeting halls of the conference, the attendees filed onto buses for a trip around Nairobi. Instead of historic sites and prominent buildings, they were shown scenes of waste and desolation.
“We saw gutted apartment complexes that were uninhabitable. The contractor who had received government money to build these units built them on land that was basically swampland. Just across the road there were literally miles and miles of slums, people who were living in cardboard boxes, tin shacks, with no water, no electricity, nothing,” he says. “Sometimes people think corruption is a faceless crime,” says Flowers, “but it has real-world consequences.”
Flowers finds cause for hope in the Kenyan government’s new anti-corruption laws. He wonders whether the United States knows just how much potential Africa holds for change. “I saw a number of folks from India, China and Europe. These countries all have a much bigger presence in Africa than the U.S. does,” he says.
His leadership as an African American did not go unnoticed by African dignitaries. “The African lawyers and judges I met,” he says, “were somewhat surprised, but very pleased, that African Americans had achieved significant leadership positions within the ABA.”
Flowers, who grew up in Columbus, graduated from what is now called the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University in 1979. He then worked at Porter Wright Morris & Arthur in Columbus before joining Bricker & Eckler in 1995. Flowers has clearly appreciated the opportunity to expand his horizons as his hometown has expanded.
Opportunities and potential continue to beckon to Flowers from overseas. “Taking what we have been blessed with here in the U.S. and sharing it around the world is humbling,” Flowers says, “and yet very satisfying.”