Colonialism Continues To Haunt Africa With Judges Required To Don Wigs

It's clear that something's wrong. But not all local barristers are willing to speak out against the practice, which many believe is due to their lack of independence.

In many former British colonies in Africa and elsewhere, Great Britain may have relinquished its power but some relics from the former empire still remain, such as the wigs worn by judges.

In countries like Kenya, Ghana, Malawi, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, high court judges still wear the long, white, horsehair wigs that were once worn by King George III. And yet, even British barristers have already put these accessories behind them.

As nations change their traditions, moving away from characteristics that made them identify with their former colonies, the newer generation of African jurists is starting to feel impatient. And as impatience shows, so do their concerns regarding the old-fashioned wigs, The Washington Post reports.  

To author Kevin Sieff, The Washington Post’s Bureau chief in Nairobi, the wig represents colonial inheritance. But African leaders have already walked away from staples of colonial rule in the recent past, with Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe changing the name of Victoria Falls to Mosi Oa Tunya, and with African politicians such as South Africa’s Western Cape Province Premier Helen Zille being suspended from her party for linking modern health care to colonialism.

In Uganda, an investigation found that the wigs still in use to this day cost the government $6,500 each while in places like Ghana, many attorneys are making the case that the wig serves no purpose but to intimidate.

And in Nigeria, legal bloggers often contend that wigs just aren’t fit for the weather, as attorneys and judges will often suffer from the heat while donning their traditional garbs.

But perhaps, the strongest case against the use of wigs comes from African jurists who believe that embracing the colonial legal tradition is making African judiciaries brutal.

“The colonial system used law as [an] instrument of repression,” Director of the Africa program at the International Commission of Jurists Arnold Tsunga said. And much like the tradition of wearing wigs, he continued, “we’re still maintaining this tradition without questioning it.”

“It’s a disgrace to the modern courts of Africa.”

Recently, a few former colonies made some progress in putting the tradition so closely associated with colonial exploitation behind them.

Kenya’s former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga made a public appeal to have the wigs removed from the courtroom. Claiming that the items were nothing but a “foreign imposition,” he managed to change the British-themed red robes for green and yellow ones but still, his concerns regarding the wigs weren’t entirely supported by his colleagues and the tradition remained put.

To Tsunga, African leaders may be standing in the way of change simply because they see the use of the old-fashioned relic as a way to harness power and control over the population.

“We are seeing post-independence African states trying to maintain these symbols of power and authority in the belief that it will help entrench themselves,” Tsunga told reporters.

As former British colonies such as Pakistan and India have walked away from imposing the wig tradition, others like Australia and Canada begin to move away from it as well. Even Great Britain has allowed clerks to get rid of the fluffy head piece.  

But as African courts remain mostly unchanged, many African barristers still argue that the the tradition is getting in the way of an otherwise progressive agenda that has been helping former British colonies embrace new constitutions and bold steps to get rid of tyrannical leaders.

So what are jurists waiting for? Perhaps, they too are afraid of breaking away with a tradition imposed on them by their former oppressors.

Banner and thumbnail image credit: Reuters/Bobby Yip

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