By BEN LAWRENCE
One of the fallen heroes of Nigeria’s freedom once said that laws were made to enable the bourgeoisie to control the people. Smart Ebbi (alias Marshal Kebby) former editor and prolific columnist, credited that claim to Karl Marx. Marshal Kebby was not a novice in law because he studied it up to Part Two as an external student of the University of London before the Biafra War rudely abbreviated his ambition. He did not become a lawyer because of lost time.
Another brilliant columnist and ace Daily Times editor, Peter Enahoro, alias Peter Pan, in one of his epics when some of the First Republic rulers made funny laws to restrict the circulation of newspapers in their regions with prohibition declarations, wrote that, “Law is law when it is respected by the people.” To make a law in vain is to weaken the foundation of any government, society or club. The interpretation of law is even more tasking because of jurisprudence. Those declarations are extant but inoperable.
It is the same thing as a leader mouthing unedifying statements that could be easily punctured with ordinary common sense. What the leaders of pre-independence and immediate post-independence had to their credit was enough common sense to avoid being ridiculed in their proclamations. They spoke “English as she is spoken” as the Englishman would say. It would have been difficult for them to fight the imperialists if they were not sufficiently equipped in knowledge, logic and the good delivery of Her Majesty’s language. That tradition survived after them until the 1980s when many impurities flowed into our system. True, the judiciary helped a lot to maintain the sanctity of that fabled era of competition.
British judges wrote reasoned verdicts that could not easily be faulted on grounds of law and logic. Even when they were interested parties as Her Majesty’s appointees, they still tried to present the face of impartiality. The Nigerian judges who took over from them were equally excellent and possessed the necessary carriage.
I started to watch court proceedings from the elementary school, while on long school breaks with my cousins, Karimu Jegede, John Okundaye and his elder brother, Fatunla. We went to magistrates’ courts or the high court to watch proceedings in Benin. I did the same in Ibadan and Lagos. We knew Justice Olumuyiwa Jibowu, Justice Adetokunbo Ademola, Justice Manyo-Plange, Justice John Verity and others in the 1940s. We learnt a lot of English and logic from the elegant delivery of the judgements of those justices. All the judgements bore the badge of integrity even if they were, at times, skewed in favour of the crown. Another thing we did was to look up any new word we heard from those proceedings in the dictionary.
A government school inspector, Mr. Emmanuel Fiofori, came on inspection to our school, American Baptist School, Benin City, sometime in 1949.The school was directly run by Americans and we were exposed to a lot privileges. Reading was part of school curriculum then. We were in Standard Four and he asked one of the big boys in the class to read from Oxford English Reader Four or something like that name. The boy did not have the background of those of us who were middle-class children. So he could not pronounce many of the words properly and when he did try it was as the locals would in their provincial English.
Mr. Fiofori was furious with him. But like a good father, he took over from our class teacher and taught us what has remained a part of me since that occasion. He told us that if we came across any new word, we should learn the usage and pronunciation from the dictionary. A word wrongly used gave a completely different meaning, he said. It has stuck with me ever since. So I wonder why journalists and judges today resort to malapropism and tautology. Gone were the days newspapers published judgments from brilliant justices like John Idowu, Conrad Taylor, Daddy Onyeama, Louis Mbanefo, Kassim, Adegboyega Ademola, Olumuyiwa Shomolu, Sigismund O. Lambo, Samson Obaseki, Emmanuel Fakayode, Ayo Irikefe, Kayode Esho, Akinola Aguda and others of that era. Those judges made sure that every word used conveyed the exact meaning to the course and, of course, was grammatically sound. They exhibited logic.
As defective and illogical as many of the judgements of present-day justices are, even those of the apex court, it would have been some consolation if they were written in good and elegant prose, shorn of prepositional errors and that of diction. Many present-day court judgments do not inspire self-correction nor do they edify the law.
Secondary school pupils in my time used to quote from court judgements published in newspapers because of the erudition of the judges and their intellectual contents, which were in all cases beautifully rendered in respectable prose. How will a pupil quote such poor English used in writing judgements in courts nowadays? They lack elegance, which does not confer trust psychologically, even if due.
People wonder why Nigerian secondary school leavers now perform so poorly in English Language examination. Blame it on the schools, the press, the courts and the rulers. Only recently I watched the minister of education on TV repeatedly using the words “can be able.” That is tautology. “Can” is the same as “able” and she proceeded to use “proven” as past participle. “Has proved” is the one approved in Standard English. “Proven” is used to determine ability. And the president’s swearing-in speech bore words like “gotten” and “to enable” followed by a finite verb. That is grammatically wrong. “Has got” is still the past participle of “get.” “To enable” should be followed by an adjunct, not a finite verb. Even Supreme Court judges are now fond of writing judgements in colloquial English, whereas the words “to”, “with” and “on” could mean different things used with a particular word. With the advent of “text” messages, only God will save Nigerian education. Mr. Fiofori would not have approved of a careless phrase like “the reason why” because “reason” and “why” are the same. Who will write books for future Nigerians?
Many newspapers today use the phrase “for you and I.” This is incorrect because it should be in the accusative; that is, “for you and me” meaning “for us.” “You and I” could be used in the nominative case when it is the subject like “you and I know of the case in court,” meaning “we know.” It is also wrong to say “between you and I.” It should be “between you and me,” that is, “between us” in the objective case. It is the similar mistake they make when comparing things. It is wrong to say that “John is taller than him.” It should be “than he” or “than I” in nominative case. Many schoolteachers I come across speak atrocious English. Where do we start?
One must confess that the fountain of everything excellent has been polluted by ‘Smart Alexes’ who cut corners to the detriment of standards. If not, should a statement come from a police command using a singular verb for “the police”? It cannot be “the police is your friend.” It should be “the police are your friends” because the word police must always take a plural verb. Check your dictionary.
Let me conclude here that after reporting from the courts as a journalist for decades, I sadly observe that it has become indisputably true that the judiciary today is a shadow of what existed in the glorious past. Trust is the very element of credibility. There is no begging the question if it does not exist.