Many mysteries belie Nigeria. There seems to be an unfathomable juju that renders Nigerian leaders incompetent in handling critical issues of polity. Secondly, there is a raging cancer that wounded the mind of so many, making them incapable of developing and reaching disinterested opinions, the palavers of the general public or sentiments notwithstanding.
Irate Muslims have seized what appears to be an opportunity, to agitate for non-discriminatory actions against Muslims who wear the Hijab and the Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mahmoud SAN has lent his voice prematurely and pathetically so, to the agitations condemning the action of the Body of Benchers taken against a certain Muslim girl who, upon refusal to get rid of her Hijab as mandated by the Body of Benchers, secured a warm seat in the reserved sidelines for obdurate students, the ultimate consequence being that she wasn’t called to the Nigerian Bar.
On my last visit to the High Court of Edo State, I couldn’t stand the tedium of the court processes. Waltzing into sleep was a reprieve; a less traumatizing involvement. The boring old curmudgeon who presided as a Judge kept halting the eloquence of counsels who appeared before him because he needed to scribble their arguments in makeshift sheets of paper. For eons of supposed years of active legal practice in Nigeria, one would wonder why the antideluvian system of making notes in the course of court proceedings has not been kept at arm’s length. Many judges grapple with the verity that their aging stations of life has made feeble their minds; their reasoning capacity. Yet, as they try to fight the ripple effects of senectitude, they first have to contend with their feeble fingers; a herculean burden caused simply by the incompetence of disillusioned minds dressed as Chairmen and Presidents of several committees putatively purposed to revamp the Judiciary. Saddened by this reality, I looked into the systems of other African countries and realised that Courts in countries like Kenya, South Africa, no longer turn their Judges into calligraphers and stenographers. They’ve attuned to a system where audio recordings of lawyers in the course of arguments are taken to ease the making of Judgements.
Rudimentary knowledge of biology tells that growth is an irreversible increase but Nigeria, the giants of Africa presents a lilliputian fulfilment of this timeless definition in virtually all ramifications, even the Judiciary. Saddened further, I took to my LinkedIn account sending a direct message to the NBA Chairman, Mahmoud SAN entreating him to use his good offices in pushing the rustic incidents of Judges’ calligraphy to the forefront of conditions to be improved.
The 2017 Call to Ceremony would have been a yeoman service but for the recent pandemonium it appears to have brewed. A certain Graduate of the Nigerian Law School, Amasa Firdaus was refused the honour of being called to the Nigerian Bar as she refused to let off her “Hijab” – a veil worn by women of the Islamic persuasion, suggestive of regularity with the precepts of the Holy Quoran. Upon denial, she, as well as a significant number of Islamic adherents, has cried out to justice maintaining that the refusal amounted to a violation of her fundamental rights endemic in Section 38 of the Nigerian Constitution, 1999. The frontiers of her arguments have been ossified by the fact that firstly, she has a right to practise and propagate her religion anywhere in Nigeria and since the Hijab is a core part of the religion, she is entitled to wear it at all times.
For my money, it is disappointing to know that this tiny scratch has become a gangrenous sore with no unguent to salvage it. In the midst of the political upheavals and unpalatable conditions of living, arguments hardly prove any point. Yet, petrified by the extent to which a little smouldering ember if not put out, could be inspired by persistence to burn rapidly into a wild fire, I begrudgingly lay bare these points in the hope that I do not cause more storms in tea cups.
The Council of Legal Education provides a Code of Conduct for dressing during the Call to Bar ceremony. It has been the case that during the ceremony, lawyers are not allowed to cover their ears with any cloth save the wig. This is hoary to Old England and as such, it is merely a lore turned to law in Nigeria. This dress code prohibits any form of such covering, not to mention the obligation to remain in black jackets, skirts and pants. By extension therefore, persons who answer to religious groups that emphasise the need for such coverings as an act of piety or modesty, must either elect to be bound by the rules or opt out of the procedure. There’s a possibility of arguing that the Code of Conduct is harsh and unaccommodating and can even be challenged in the High Court Under Section 46 of the CFRN for the likelihood of its violating a Fundamental Right. In this circumstance, this is not in issue.
The rules set by the Council of Legal Education are disinterested rules; not influenced by undue religious considerations and it can be aptly justified under Section 10 of the CFRN which describes Nigeria as as state fashioned to be secular. Secular here therefore means that religion should not form a paradigm for making decisions which affect the generality of persons. Thus, all Federal Universities for instance, accommodate persons from all walks of life, religion also. This is because Nigeria is a secular state. The secularity in this circumstance is not the fact that Nigeria “respects” all religions in Federal Universities. In fact, secularity means that no religion is considered or respected above what is reasonably justifiable to be appropriate in an environment meant for all and Sundry. In consequence therefore, No student in a federal University can be barred from classes for wearing Hijabs. That gives rise to an unthought preference for religions other than Islam and that, then is not secularity. It was on this basis that the Court of Appeal reached its decisions in the cases of: Sheikh Oyinwola & Ors v The Governor of Osun State & Ors (Suit No. HOS/M.17/2013) delivered on the 3rd of June 2016 and The Provost, Kwara State College of Education, Illorin & 2 Ors v Bashirat Saliu & 2 Ors (Appeal No. CA/IL/49/2006 delivered on the 18th Day of June, 2009 which have both been constantly cited by proponents for the said Firdaus. In the two cases cited above, it was held that students have the right to wear Hijabs in schools as any deprivation would amount to an infraction of a fundamental right. Well reasoned, however, the Council of Legal Education hasn’t taken this right away from Muslims. For years, Muslims have been called to the Nigerian Bar without it brewing the brouhaha wrecking the legal polity currently. Those cases cannot be stretched to cover for situations where 1. There is an acceptable code of conduct applying to all students, their religious persuasions notwithstanding; 2. Where a student voluntarily elects to be part of a program with full knowledge of the ethics, rules and practices endemic in such a program. For these two reasons the cases above should be appositely distinguished from the current miasma.
Section 4(1) of the Legal Practitioners Act empowers the Body of Benchers to determine what amounts to good character which is incident to the admittance into the Bar. The Code of Conduct is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society and in the interest of public policy, the uniformity must be maintained. As it is a body of regulations privy to all students, if one is incapable of complying with d rules and regulations stipulated in law school or any of its ceremonies therein, one may elect to opt out of d program. Many others argued that even though she is was at liberty to opt out, it was definitely impossible for her to so do having spent a good number of years in the study. But the Council of Legal Education provided for hair covers for Muslims which would although not cover the neck of such a person. The law has always been from time immemorial that the neck be left exposed but she refused the hair cover and insisted on the Hijab even when all other Muslims used the Hijab. At the point of insistence, the matter became entirely religious and the Body of Benchers could not concern themselves with issues of religion, tenuous ones at that and rightly so. “If all codes of conduct of every institution have to ensure that they don’t infringe any law in all religions practiced in this country it will be almost impossible to set out any conclusive code of conducts”, Femi rightly puts.
Turning to the issue of fundamental rights, it is first established that the right in Section 38 of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of thought, Conscience and Religion is not an absolute right. It is subject to laws made expediently pursuant to public morality and in prevention of any form of violation of the rights of others. The principle of Law is to one effect that fundamental rights are subject to any form of agreement, not illegal, reached by willing parties. Accepting to be bound by the rules of the Nigerian Bar simply waived her right to remonstrate over her not being called to bar. This was the position in the case of CHINWO v OWHONDA (2008) 3 NWLR pt 1074; 341. The court enthused that in the exercise of the right of Freedom of Association guaranteed under Section 40 of the Constitution, to take up professional practices, sometimes the rights of such a person are curtailed in the light of rules regulating such a profession or assembly. It only becomes as right as rain, that the act of Firstud cannot be justified because there’s always a readily available provision with a Human Rights colouration to be whipped out to actuate agitations. The Legal Profession is as rigored as the military or the Armed Forces generally with several rules of conduct. Anyone who voluntarily elects to be a part of such a profession also elects to abide by the rules. Suppose they allowed her after much unrest, what then would be the guarantee that the nearest future will not, on the strength of her admittance, make a mess of the profession’s nobility?
The authority above sums up the point. In the ultimate analysis, a smart pain arises when this incident is seen as a Trojan horse within the Nigerian Bar, intended to dress down Muslim and ridicule their sacred respect for Islamic precepts. What we require of everyone is to attempt a Bird’s-eye view. It is not a malignant attack on Muslims. It is rather a punitive response to a benign refusal to comply with laid down rules. A nun, a traditionalist who, desirous of earmarking the place of his religion by defying the rules would have met same punishment.
The grouses of this writer are not only the awfully sentimental messages contained in tiresome treatises advanced by supporters of her doggedness, but also the depressing fact that the Judiciary has its knickers in a sorry twist. There is no rhapsody in this reality!
Judges sweat with blood and gore trying to compile arguments in written sheets, the court workers have risen to a remarkable level of corruption where even lawyers are defrauded in the course of making affidavits. Judges are receiving hush monies, some others like Cerberus having received sobs have become labels of disgrace to the profession. Too many indignities to address as they touch and concern lawyers yet, kingpins like the NBA Chairman fetter their discretion by concerning themselves with trifles. The over 3,000 new wigs are threatened by the proclivity of a mandatory 2 year pupillage but nothing meaningful has been done to calm the bloomers. For anything, the political revelations this year is enough to show that we have a long journey ahead of us and since the machinery are otiose, one would safely conclude that we have to go back to drawing board to redefine our priorities in this country. But then, how do we go back when the rubicon we once crossed has grown into the wall in the North?
It was never a crime to fail as a nation. All we needed to do was reshuffle, re-strategize and revamp. Maybe we need to learn that when one falls to the ground, one should bounce back and not bounce backwards. Penny for your thoughts..
God bless NIGERIA..
Destiny Ogedegbe (Mr. Possible)
500 Level Law,
University of Benin.