Friday, April 2, 2021

Introduction: Four Documents from Nigeria Under Martial Law

I’m grateful to the editors of the Legal History Blog for inviting me to contribute this month, and especially to Professor Mitra Sharafi for the warm welcome!

For my stint as a guest blogger, I’d like to share four documents about four people, each of which reveals something important about law in postcolonial Nigeria. They include a list of burned belongings, a self-help book for Christian women, a gossipy memoir, and a wrinkled photograph. They all figure marginally in a book I’m currently writing, Soldier’s Paradise: Military Rule in Nigeria, which uses legal sources to understand Nigerian politics and society during its long period of martial law. The book shows how law and authoritarianism were intertwined in the four decades of military rule, and how soldiers used law in their ideology and administration. They had been trained for the battlefield, not for public life, and they valued law because it gave them a set of tools to “discipline” civilians – or so they thought. The legal system was the bridge that connected the military to Nigerian society at large, but it didn’t always work the way soldiers wanted it to. Judges were not always the disciplinarians the military hoped they would be, and law’s force could cut more than one way. 

Studying law exposes the lie that decolonization was a story of doomed revolutionaries and the elites who sold them out. This was a time of strange bedfellows and surprising political commitments. In courtrooms and tribunals, unexpected stands were taken, and puzzling alliances were made. We find British-trained military strongmen borrowing radical language from Frantz Fanon or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, and committed anti-colonialists arguing that English law was the only thing that could bring about true decolonization. Judges and soldiers shared a rhetorical commitment to “independence,” but they seldom agreed about what it was. Bright moral lines became hazy in court. Sometimes, soldiers who publicly venerated freedom were the people most committed to preserving colonialism despotism – and sometimes it was stodgy, Anglophile judges who took the most radical positions against the military. Decolonization was shadier than the pieties of national historiography allow, and nothing shows this better than law. 

The four sources I'll be sharing with you this month are not the most consequential ones I could have chosen. None are well-known in Nigerian jurisprudence, and with the exception of one involving the musician Fela Kuti, they are not about well-known people or events. Rather, I’ve chosen them because they stood out to me on the shelf, or jumped off the page in a law report. Some of them probably seemed important to me because I’m not a lawyer, which, if I’m being honest, is a longstanding source of anxiety. I do not have legal training, which means I don’t always zero in on the most important part of a case. I am too far down the legal history path to turn back now, but there are still many things about law that I find bewildering. My ignorance leads me to make mistakes, both empirically and interpretively. But being an outsider can also be an asset (or so I tell myself). The confusion and frustration that I sometimes feel about law is what most people feel about it all the time. This is useful when I’m trying to understand how people navigate law, or what they think it is (which is not always the same as what it actually is). My stumbles mirror those of the soldiers I write about, who got tripped up by procedure and terminology too. After all, misunderstandings can shape how people use law as much as what they get “right” about it. 

Borrowing an organizational premise from Rohit De, I’ll be posting reflections on a document by each of the following personalities: 

A globetrotting judge 
A scandalous musician 
A litigious businesswoman 
An ambitious magistrate 

You can expect a post every Tuesday. I look forward to it! 

samuel.furychilds.daly [at] duke [dot] edu

Twitter: @sfcdaly