Wigs, robes a carryover of colonial courts

Monday September 11 2017

Supreme Court judges

Supreme Court judges from left: Njoki Ndung'u, Smokin Wanjala, Philomena Mwilu, David Maraga, Jackton Ojwang', and Isaac Lenaola prepare to hear the presidential election petition at the Supreme Court on September 1, 2017. The dressing of the judges has elicited criticism. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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When the former Chief Justice and president of the Supreme Court of Kenya, Dr Willy Munyoki Mutunga, took the helm of the Judiciary, he ushered in many emancipatory and revolutionary changes.

The revolutionary changes were meant to deconstruct and free the arm of government from the fangs, talons and yoke of ‘colonialism’.

For instance, he deconstructed the judicial dress code by dropping the white sisal wigs and red robes many lawyers wore while attending court proceedings as it was required by colonial laws and practices.

Historically, African judiciaries were made to believe that such colonial odds and ends were important in delivering justice.

The fact of the matter is, European colonisers intended to abuse, alter and demonise Africans’ identity and symbols by imposing white wigs so that we could look the way they wanted us to look like but not who we actually are.

So, too, colonialists wanted — and of course, succeeded — to kill our self-assurance and amour-propre (self-respect).

Again, although wigs have their roots in ancient Egypt, did African judiciaries choose them based on gen and understanding?

Whatever motif and motive behind the wigs in colonial courts, they can’t serve the same purpose in free countries such as ours — well, if, indeed, they are free and want to be free.

Mani Cavalieri, a database analyst, said Whites depicted and viewed black people “as being literally sub-human, mentally retarded, cowardly, incompetent, and often crazed” who can’t invent anything.

Dr Mutunga deconstructed such archaic predisposition.

Sadly, some of the changes Dr Mutunga introduced and implemented are being clear-felled pointlessly.

During the hearing of the recent presidential petition, I bewilderingly and melancholically saw some ‘learned friends’ in wigs and robes.

Honestly, I wonder when I see a lawyer in the hot streets of Dar es Salaam or Mombasa torturing himself in suits simply because it is the “dress code”.

This means there are some colonial carryovers that our institutions and personnel have refused to shed.

I don’t get it when I hear such people aggrandising themselves by referring to one another as ‘learned friend’ yet they still wear wigs and use bombastic and loaded incomprehensible words instead of plain and simple language.

Back to Dr Mutunga. He wanted Kenya’s Judiciary to look more Kenyan than British.

He wanted to take the Judiciary to the people who are made to believe that it is ex-debito jusiticiae, the fountain of justice.

But how can a wigged or masked Judiciary be while it fails to do justice by respecting the identity of those it serves — as it is the case in donning wigs and gloves for some of our public personnel?

In Wigs, Skeletons, Bibs, Bands, and Bundles: An Albertan Barrister Deciphers the English Court of Appeal (Criminal Division), Laura Hoyano writes that “wigs are supposed to confer dignity, but I think that they make the wearers resemble sheep, and I find it difficult to keep a sober countenance, especially when ‘full bottom’”.

The Judiciary should rethink about abandoning the changes Dr Mutunga chaperoned for the deconstruction and emancipation of the Kenyan Judiciary from its colonial past.


But then, how many Kenyans understood the philosophy and wisdom of Dr Mutunga?

Latin has it that no one is considered a prophet in his homeland.

And, I believe, Dr Mutunga was a prophet of change.

Importantly, he did it not for personal but national gain and pride.

Mr Mhango, a Canada-based Tanzanian author and peace and conflict scholar, is an alumnus of UDSM (Tanzania) and Winnipeg and Manitoba universities (Canada).