When her 26-year old stepbrother went missing seven years ago in Nigeria, USC alumna Sharon Obuns searched for days throughout the city of about 900,000. At a police station, a woman finally broke the news to her.
“Forget about him,” the officer said. “He’s dead.” It was the briefest of statements, a string of words, delivered without compassion or comfort.
The encounter haunted Obuns long afterward — and not just because she would never see her stepbrother again.
“This shouldn’t be how you pass on a message like that,” she kept thinking. “There must be a different way of talking to people.”
The desire for a more sympathetic form of communication sparked an interest in becoming a mediation attorney. It has since only grown stronger. On May 11, she graduated from the USC Gould School of Law with a Master of Laws in Alternative Dispute Resolution.
Dispute resolution and court backlogs
The only woman from Bamba, a community of about 35,000, to become a lawyer, Obuns studied at the University of Jos and at the Nigerian Law School in Abuja before spending a year as an intern in the office of the chief justice of the Ekiti State.
While there, she became keenly aware of a backlog in the courts, with people as young as 13 spending five to seven years in prison waiting to be heard. Already trained in alternative dispute resolution, Obuns rallied support from a few colleagues and together they were able to negotiate the release of six young inmates.
Half a decade later, her resume includes experience in private practice and as a senior business executive for the government of the Cross River State. But she still sees the dispute resolution success during her internship as pivotal.
“It enforced my zeal for mediation,” she said.
As a student at USC Gould, Obuns faced difficult challenges — with her husband pursuing an MBA degree on the East Coast and funds often short, she was raising two sons, ages 1 and 3. But she also found abundant material to feed her passion.
The class she most benefited from was the Practical Mediation Skills Clinic taught by Professor Richard Peterson, who taught her to consider the underlying feelings and the basic interests of the parties, such as if what they really want is an apology rather than money, a financial resolution of the dispute will still leave them feeling dissatisfied.
“[Peterson] works with your humanity,” she said, “and makes you put yourself in another person’s shoes. He makes us realize that everyone is human.”
Obuns, who recently received the USC Gould Graduate and International Programs Award, plans on staying in the United States one more year. After returning to Nigeria, she wants to work with the Cross River State government to raise awareness for the benefits of alternative dispute resolution processes and of training more people as mediators.
Reforming the system won’t be easy. But Obuns knows that her goal is worth the effort. Her ambition is about more than efficiency for the courts; she wants to change how people talk to each other.
“If we get the mediation system running well, it’s a win-win,” she said. “It will mean faster access to justice and less backlog for the judges.”