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