Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Documents from Nigeria: A Photograph of Sir Egbert Udo Udoma

In this series, Samuel Fury Childs Daly looks at four legal documents (broadly construed) from Nigeria during its long period of military rule. This is the first of four. 

In the photograph I have of him, Sir Egbert Udo Udoma is seated in his chambers at the High Court in Kampala, Uganda, looking grumpily into the camera in full ceremonial dress. He autographed it grandly, and dated it May 1965, two years into his tenure as Uganda’s Chief Justice. Unlike the other sources I’ll write about this month, this one is not held by an archive or library. Rather, it comes from a less rarefied place: Ebay, where I bought it from someone who was presumably cleaning out his attic. 

Udoma was Nigerian judge who served as the first African Chief Justice of Uganda. He was one of a small, elite group of West African judges who traveled the length and width of the continent after independence, filling high-level positions in the judiciaries of eastern and southern Africa which had been vacated by Europeans and South Asians. Even though he is not well known today, Udoma had a fascinating career. Through his rulings, he exerted a subtle but important influence on African politics. Most importantly, he decided the case that paved the way for executive authoritarianism in his adopted country, Uganda v. Commissioner of Prisons, Ex Parte Matovu. He later returned to Nigeria, where he served on the Supreme Court. Intra-African judicial appointments like the one that brought Udoma to Uganda are less common today than in the past, but there is still a circuit that brings judges from West Africa to other places in the Commonwealth. Nigerian, Ghanaian, and Gambian judges serve across the small nations of the South Pacific, and in several jurisdictions in the Caribbean and central America. 

What kind of a judge has autographed headshots? The answer is one like Udoma – ambitious, upwardly mobile, and acutely aware of his image. His portrait is a reminder that celebrity is important in certain legal cultures. It’s clear why lawyers might want to cultivate fame – repute brings in business – but celebrity judges are less common. Why would a judge want to be famous, and how does celebrity shape the professional culture of the judiciary? My colleague Elizabeth Jacqueline Marcus (Newcastle University) and I are currently writing a paper on this topic, and Udoma figures in it. 

Udoma’s photograph is also interesting for how he is dressed. Like all Nigerian judges, Udoma wore the same outfit as his colonial predecessors, including robes and an elaborate white horsehair wig. Many African judiciaries have since done away with the wig, but Nigeria retains it to this day. Many outsiders to the legal profession see the wig as comic or pathetic, and non-lawyers mock it. To critics, it is a reminder that Nigeria’s legal system is of foreign origin – tangible proof that it was made by and for white men several centuries ago. Nonetheless, judges are attached to their wigs. To many of them, the wig stands for continuity, not colonial backwardness. It is an indispensable part of law’s pageantry, and judges and lawyers cherish it as a marker of their membership in a professional guild. Radical ideas can come from judges who wear wigs, and I’ve learned not to confuse the trappings of law with its substance.