Finding Your Reason through the Decolonisation of the Legal Curriculum*

Finding Your Reason through the Decolonisation of the Legal Curriculum*
2021-11-03

In commemoration of this year’s black history month, I have been invited to write this blogpost and I am pleased to do so.  I am a qualified barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria and an Energy Law Lecturer at the University of Aberdeen. The focus of this blog will be on the need to redefine one’s reason for studying law. I present this blog from my perspective as someone from a minority ethnic group.  I also share some reflections from my colleague, Dr Titilayo Adebola.

I got a call from my mother-in-law who is equally a lawyer. She was in some distress when she explained that a niece of mine was struggling with her law subjects and she needed me to speak with her. In the first instance, I wasn't particularly sure of what to tell my niece other than the usual, "work hard" and "read your books". A dialogue every adult relative must have had. It wasn't too long that I realised that although she had always wanted to study law, she apparently is at a stage where she needed to redefine her reason for wanting to become a lawyer . After my discussion with her, I shared some thoughts with, Dr Adebola and we both came to the consensus that perhaps one of the ways that could assist students and others from minority backgrounds in redefining the reason for studying law or any other degree for that matter, could be through the decolonisation of legal curriculum.

Decolonisation the curriculum  includes" creating spaces and resources for a dialogue among all members of the University on how to imagine and envision all cultures and knowledge systems in the curriculum, and with respect to what is being taught and how it frames the world".  It is more than just changing a number of texts or "a token of inclusion of the intellectual achievements of non-white cultures" (Keele University) rather it is "a paradigm shift from a culture of excision and denial to the making of space for other political philosophies and knowledge systems".  It is more about providing students with an opportunity to have a 360-degree viewpoint to critically analyse them independently. It is only then that a black or other minority student will be able to see themselves in the courses and topics we teach and provide a valid justification for why they studied the degree in the first place.

When one examines the history of colonialism for example, it is hard to ignore the role of law and in some cases legal education. The idea that humans were sold as chattels on the basis of which arguments were made in courts is a reality that is somewhat difficult to comprehend. Therefore, from a legal education perspective, decolonising the curriculum requires acknowledging that the law has been less innocent in "the legal history which created our present realities has not always been benign or kind. In producing and maintaining global inequalities, extreme poverty, exploitation of labour, environmental degradation, torture, oppression and oppressions, physical destruction of lives and livelihoods, immediate or gradual death". I was just 10yrs old when I witnessed the brutal killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa an environmental rights activist who was hung after a sham trial by the Nigerian Government because he spoke against the environmental pollution of his oil-rich community by oil multinationals. Ironically, despite the failure of law in this instance, I insisted that I was going to study law and that was the same reason I did my masters in oil and gas law at the University of Aberdeen. Within the broader context of this painful experience, I found my reason.

Dr Adebola found her reason for specialising in International Economic Law (IEL) also during her masters where her classes and readings challenged mainstream discourses and unpacked international laws and law-making from the perspective of the Global South. This exposed her to the complexities, power and politics underpinning global IEL regimes and orthodoxies. In adopting Critical International Legal Theory (CLT), Feminist and Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) as theoretical lenses, she now pays attention to history, role of actors and contexts of the lEL topics that she researches and teaches. As an Editor on Afronomicslaw.org, she contributes to discourse on international pedagogy from a Global South perspective. See for example, the “Teaching and Researching International Law – Global Perspectives” symposium.

Notably, Dr Foluke Adebisi has done excellent research on decolonisation, law, race, and legal education. She uses jurisprudential and pedagogical principles to explore "what happens at the intersection of legal

education, race and history". She argues that for academic practices in law schools, we should be mindful that law's "historic and contemporary uses have often subverted its function of justice and equality”. She examines a variety of frameworks including Critical Race Theory, Postcolonial Theory and Subaltern to underscore her position. She argues that “read together, they illustrate how law has been complicit in entrenching race as a global construct” that in many ways makes “lawful/normal global inequalities that arise from racialisation”. In all of this, there is a responsibility on both law lecturers and practitioners to objectively engage with the legal pedagogy in such a way that reveals the societal and populist influences of law and critically question law from the perspective of lived experiences. Through this, we will share our knowledge of legal principles in a manner that could easily provoke the necessary reforms and inspire generations to come.

While writing this, I am thinking of my niece and the question that comes to my mind is whether I have been able to share my knowledge of the law in a way that provides her and other students the required depth of critical legal thinking, that affords them the opportunity to not just accept the law for what it is but to discover their reason for studying and to raise pertinent question in their areas of interest. While that may be left unanswered, I do hope I have been able to shine a little more light on decolonising the legal curriculum.

*This essay was first published by the Law Society of Scotland on 29 October 2021.

Published by School of Law, University of Aberdeen

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