Just a few days ago, I recalled that it was quite a number of Novembers ago that I was called to the Bar to practice as a solicitor and Barrister of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. Studying and practising law in Nigeria is quite a unique and often bizarre experience. Our insistence on speaking Latin in our Nigerian English accents, the wearing of a pound of horsehair over our very contrastingly dark afros, while being weighed down by a kilo of black clothing as we swelter in 35 degrees Celsius heat… these are just some of the practices that make legal practice in Nigeria seem out of kilter with the realities on the ground.
The content of the laws of Nigeria also make for interesting reading. The fact that the North and South of Nigeria have different criminal codes is something I always found interesting. Adultery (it may have changed now) is a crime in the North but not the South. As someone who lived in the south of the North, I often joked that if you lived near the border of Kwara State (Northern Nigeria) and Osun State (Southern Nigeria), all you needed to do to not be guilty of adultery was walk 10 minutes South, do the deed and then return home! One of the notable points (to me, if not anyone else) about the Nigerian criminal laws in Nigeria is that they are a modification of the Griffith Code introduced to Queensland Australia in 1899. Most of Nigerian legal practices, content and processes reflect external colonial imposition and very little in these actually reflects the norms/customs of the people. My interest in this short article is particularly, the language of the law and the language of the court.
As Nigeria was colonised by the British, English is the lingua franca (language used as common or commercial communication among peoples of diverse speech) of the country. It is used on television, it is the language of educational instruction and used in almost all official communication. But of course, English in Nigeria is spoken very differently from what we would call the Queen’s English. There are also very different Englishes within Nigeria. As Chinua Achebe once wrote:
The African writer should aim … at fashioning an English that is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience. [1967: 29]
I believe that this is what the Nigerian English speaker has done, for the most part. She has adapted English to her own experience and crafted a tool of communication that is unique to the borders of Nigeria… To quote Achebe once again. ‘Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it’
But this should not detract from the fact that English is still the language of privilege in a country with widely divergent opportunity and over 500 different languages. Not everyone has the privileged choice to learn and speak in English… and in many parts of Nigeria, where there are indigenous languages in common, there is very little need to do so. Which means that for many people, English is a language of officialdom, of unease, of trouble… and often of sanction.
I recall an absurd court occurrence in my very early days of legal practice which illustrates my point about the incongruity of colonial language use. Remember that English is the language of the court in Nigeria. This means all court proceedings must be carried out in English. All my legal practice was undertaken in in Ilorin, a city where 99.9% of the population speak Yoruba exceptionally fluently. Most people speak it as a first language. If you understood only Yoruba, maybe you would get punished in school for speaking it, but apart from that you would be generally fine to engage in all day-to-day activities. In Ilorin, Yoruba is the language of informality, relaxation and ease, therefore, judge, lawyers for all sides, accused persons, witnesses, spectators, court clerks all probably speak better Yoruba than English.
But remember, English is the language of the court, so that is the language in which all the evidence is to being given. Picture the scene: The accused person stands accused of assault with menaces [or something of the kind]. One of the complainants begins to give his testimony, and for some unknown reason wants to address the court in English, which he is very, very, very [I cannot overestimate how very], evidently not fluent in. So in the middle of his somewhat confusing testimony he says a Yoruba word. Now we all understand perfectly what he has said, but English is the language of the court, so this word must be officially translated into English to be included in the record of the court. At this point, I must add that in Nigerian courts, judges write down the court proceedings in long hand. There is no official court reporter for most of the courts in the country. Remember, English is the language of the court. For the written proceedings to be valid, they must be accurate AND in English.
So we need to bring in the official interpreter to translate to us this word that we all understood, because English is the language of the court. The interpreter is woken up. [Literally. He was asleep.] The sentence is repeated. The interpreter translates. But the interpreter makes a wrong translation. We all know the translation is wrong, but cannot translate as we are not the officially recognised interpreter, so the entire court, judges, lawyers, gallery… we are all making dissenting noises to indicate to the interpreter that this word that we all [I repeat ALL!] perfectly understand its meaning in Yoruba has been translated to the wrong English word, because even though we all understand what has been said, it has to be OFFICIALLY translated. Only then can it be entered into the official record of the court, because it must be recorded in English, because English is the language of the court. English is the language of justice…
‘The language of power is English and that becomes internalized… You normalize the abnormal and the absurdities of colonialism, and turn them into a norm from which you operate. Then you don’t even think about it.’ [Ngugi wa Thiong’o]
It is generally accepted that effective use of language and communication in the legal process is essential for access to justice. I am of the opinion that it is not just our horsehair wigs and made-for-winter robes that we need to cast off, but the very idea that the only language in which indigenous justice can be done is a non-indigenous language. Especially, (as Ngugi wa Thiong’o tells us) a non-indigenous language that does not carry the culture of the people. Until we find a solution to the language question in Nigerian courts… I remain, yours sincerely, an anticolonial solicitor and barrister in a colonial court.
Fīat jūstitia ruat cælum… Ad infinitum
Achebe, Chinua. “English and the African writer.” Transition 18, no. 18 (1965): 27-30.
Wa Thiong’o, Ngugi. Decolonising the mind: The politics of language in African literature. East African Publishers, 1992.
Wade, Francis. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the Tyranny of Language The New York Review of Books, 6 August 2018