Why judges in Malawi and former British colonies still wearing wigs?

The British gave up their last colonies in Africa half a century ago. But they left their wigs behind.

Malawi High Court and Supreme Court Judges judges in long red robes and horsehair wigs, a throwback to an era of British Colonial rule

Not just any wigs. They are the long, white, horsehair locks worn by high court judges (and King George III). They are so old-fashioned and so uncomfortable, that even British barristers have stopped wearing them.

But in former British colonies — Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Malawi and others — they live on, worn by judges and lawyers. Now, a new generation of African jurists is asking: Why are the continent’s most prominent legal minds still wearing the trappings of the colonizers?

It’s not just a question of aesthetics. The wigs and robes are perhaps the most glaring symbol of colonial inheritance at a time when that history is being dredged up in all sorts of ways. This year, Tanzanian President John Magufuli described a proposed free-trade agreement with Europe as a “form of colonialism.” In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe still refers to the British as “thieving colonialists.”

In June, the premier of the Western Cape province of South Africa was suspended from her party after writing on Twitter that modern health care was a colonial contribution.

The relics of colonialism are scattered across the continent. There are the queen’s namesakes: Victoria Falls north of Zimbabwe; Lake Victoria, bordering three countries in eastern Africa; Victoria Island in Nigeria. There is the left-lane driving, the cricket, the way public education is organised (not organized).

Most cities and streets have received new names since European rule ended. In 2013, Mugabe officially rebaptized Victoria Falls “Mosi Oa Tunya,” or “the smoke that thunders” in the Kololo language.

Yet the wig survives, along with other relics of the colonial courtroom: red robes, white bows, references to judges as “my lord” and “my lady.”

In nearly every former British colony, op-eds have been written and speeches made about why the wig ought to be removed. In Uganda, the New Vision newspaper conducted an investigation into the cost of the wigs, reporting that each one cost $6,500. In Ghana, a prominent lawyer, Augustine Niber, argued that removing wigs would reduce the “intimidation and fear that often characterize our courtrooms.”

One of the editors of the Nigerian Lawyer blog wrote that wigs weren’t made for the sweltering Lagos heat, where lawyers wilted under their garb. “The culture that invented wig and gown is different from our own and the weather is different,” Unini Chioma wrote.

Increasingly, though, opponents of the colonial outfit aren’t just arguing against inconvenience but against a tradition that African judiciaries appear to be embracing. Britain’s “colonial courts,” which preceded independence, were sometimes brutal. In response to Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s, for example, the wigged white judges sentenced more than 1,000 people to death for conspiring against colonial rule.

“The colonial system used law as [an] instrument of repression, and we’re still maintaining this tradition without questioning it,” said Arnold Tsunga, director of the Africa program at the International Commission of Jurists. “It’s a disgrace to the modern courts of Africa.”

In Kenya, former chief justice Willy Mutunga appealed to remove the wigs from the courtroom, arguing that they were a foreign imposition, not a Kenyan tradition. He swapped the traditional British red robes for “Kenyanized” green and yellow ones. He called the wigs “dreadful.”

But that outlook wasn’t shared by many Kenyan judges and lawyers, who saw the wigs and robes as their own uniforms, items that elevate a courtroom, despite — or because of — their colonial links.

“It was met with consternation from within the bench and the bar,” said Isaac Okero, president of the Law Society of Kenya.

Okero is a defender of the wig and the robe, and argues that they represent more than a British tradition, but something that distinguishes the country’s judges.

“I don’t feel at all that it has any negative connotation of colonialism. It has risen beyond that. It is a tradition of the Kenyan bar,” he said.

This year, Kenya’s new chief justice, David Maraga, has indicated that he wants to revert to the colonial traditions. During his swearing-in ceremony, he wore a long white wig and the British-style red robe. Many Kenyans were perplexed.

“It was his rather peculiar outfit that would send a resounding message to Kenyans,” said a broadcaster on KTN, one of the country’s most popular news channels. “It’s back to the old days.”

In Zimbabwe, still ruled by vehement anti-colonialist Mugabe, the wigs are perhaps most mystifying. Why would a man who stripped white farmers of their land, who railed against the name of Victoria Falls, allow an archaic judicial tradition to remain in place?

Some analysts say that the policy reveals something about Mugabe, the closet Anglophile, a fan of Dickens who once said cricket “civilizes people and creates good gentlemen.”

But Tsunga says that the rationale is more insidious.

“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,” he said.

The curly horsehair wigs have been used in court since the 1600s, during the reign of Charles II, when they became a symbol of the British judicial system. Some historians say they were initially popularized by France’s King Louis XIV, who was trying to conceal his balding head.

By the 18th century, they were meant to distinguish judges and lawyers — and other members of the upper crust. Enter the word “bigwig” into the lexicon.

Other countries in the British Commonwealth, such as Australia and Canada, also inherited the wigs and robes but have moved toward removing them from courtrooms. An Australian chief justice last year demanded that barristers remove their wigs before addressing her.

“The abolition of wigs is all part of the progression towards a modern way,” said the chief justice, Marilyn Warren.

This year in Britain, the House of Commons lifted the requirement that clerks, who are experts in parliamentary law, wear wigs. John Bercow, the speaker, said the change would promote a “marginally less stuffy and forbidding image of this chamber.”

But aside from the wigs, African courts have adapted to a post-colonial context. New constitutions have been written. A new generation of judges has emerged. Even though some judiciaries have bent to political pressure, new legal systems are rooted in British common law but shaped by the traditions and cultures of their own countries.

In Kenya this month, the Supreme Court annulled the recent presidential election, a bold display of judicial independence that infuriated the sitting president.

In the Nairobi courtroom where the ruling was delivered, several lawyers wore their powdered wigs. Behind the bench, a row of men and women in red robes presided.

Maraga sat down before speaking, the sleeves of his black robe hanging over the bench.

“The greatness of a nation lies in its fidelity to its constitution,” he said, “and a strict adherence to the rule of law.”

  • © Washington Post
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Hlabezulu Ngonoonda
Guest
In colonial times, traditional leadership was used as an instrument of indirect rule in the appointment of chiefs. The system in turn was used to undermine traditional indigenous governance and judicial structures. Colonialists’ interference in traditional leadership led to abuse of that system, and it paved way for the introduction of the English legal system, which is another relic of the colonizers. The robe and the wig are the very embodiment of that legal system. Abandoning it for more traditional attires could be favourable. In typical traditional attire, one would imagine a presiding judge wearing a headband made of leopard… Read more »
Phwado
Guest

Even The speakers of Malawi Parliament and their table clerks!KKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK!Akuti Joker!kkkkkkkkk

Ceaser Mtonga
Guest
It is good that such questions are coming up in the minds of Africans at such a time when we need more reasoning and re thinking. We need to understand that we have been influenced by the colonialists in different aspects. The way of talking, life style and the like. We may not manage to get everything off in a short time but let us get rid of what we can. One of the things we need to rid of is the mentality of seeing the white guy as a guru. We need to get rid of this mindset that… Read more »
Gogodasi
Guest
Britain has always been Great Britain whether one likes it or not. Its influence is all over the world. If the Americans has a problem with the British, it should not affect all of us. Britain has been a shining example in many respects. Why do Americans wear suits which was started by the British? Former Tanzanian Nyerere never wore a tie, but he consequences were overwhelming – he never enjoyed public respect because he looked like a messenger or wheel barrow pusher. Why do many countries have the parliamentary system of democracy? In fact the whole of Africa except… Read more »
Evilsooty
Guest

It’s no longer our concern what they do so why should we care? They can wear bin liners if they want.

MeganBToo
Guest

Where but Africa could healthcare be considered colonialism. What about we stop giving them charity and let them stand on their own feet? Remove all traces of colonialism, they have been independent for decades, let them feed and care for their own people, it must be time soon.

Dumisani
Guest

Actually that would be very nice, that’s the only we are going to be independent, there will be a cost to pay but later we are going to pick up! We need to be free of your lethal terms seemingly innocent.

Vuvuzella
Guest

At last someone has asked the question i have always had…..whyyyy??? whats with the wiggy thingy…

Gogodasi
Guest

I am not surprised that this article originates from Washington Post. This is typical of American way of looking at things because they are fighting for supremacy. No wonder North Korea is arrogant, it is simply following the footsteps of America. One day America will be brought down to ashes. See how it has been battered by series of hurricanes – their president doesn’t believe there is climate change. His argument is purely based on trying to be different from the rest and not knowledge.

Steve
Guest

Nice article. We indeed need to rethink and get over this archaic dressing code. Why cant the bench-men choose their own style of dress apart from this colonial bereft dressing?? They cant choose??

Awize
Guest
Despite being started by the colonialists, every profession is blessed with its attire and we feel good when we see this around us. Nurses, medical doctors, miners etc they have theirs which anybody can easily recognise them. Brittons are influential. High quality education is from Britain, Americans in 200 years or so ago were colonised by the British, suits, neckties are all good. Iam not a lawyer by profession, by I love the attire of the judges and they look nice in the courtroom. That’s a standardization for all judges, other Africa can promote its own ideologies, that is, witchcraft,… Read more »
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