A lawyer, Malcom Omirhobo, has been in the news for attending proceedings at the Supreme Court on Thursday dressed as a traditional worshipper, in apparent protest against the judgment of the apex court sanctioning the use of hijab by female Muslim students in Lagos State public schools. Omirhobo speaks with ALEXANDER OKERE about his action
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am Malcolm Omirhobo. I am a legal practitioner. I am into general practice but I have more liking for constitutional law.
You were seen in viral photos appearing at the Supreme Court on Thursday dressed as a traditional worshipper. What informed that decision?
It is in response to the Supreme Court judgment of Friday (last week) against the Lagos State Government that female Muslim pupils can now wear hijabs to school. I am being satirical; I am trying to comply with that judgment. By that judgment, they are saying that wearing a hijab is a mode of worship by female Muslim pupils and any attempt to deprive them of that will amount to the violation of their fundamental human right, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and stopping or harassing them will amount to a violation of their right to dignity of their persons. It is not just an Islamic or private school; it is a public school. Nigeria is a multi-religious society. We have the traditional worshippers, Christians, Muslims, Rastafarians, Buddhists. The judgement implies that as long as we all have rights, we all can be allowed to go to our places of work or school in our religious attire.
Dressing in the way you did was quite novel for a lawyer. Did anyone challenge you for appearing at the Supreme Court in such an outfit?
Why would anyone do that? They have no reason to do that. I was only exercising my fundamental rights. Even though I was being satirical, I was only following the Supreme Court’s judgment. I am waiting to see who will challenge me. I don’t do things I can’t defend.
You must have caused a stir in the courtroom. Tell us exactly what transpired?. I entered the courtroom and took a seat in the front row with other lawyers. I did not disrupt any proceeding.
But isn’t appearing in the Supreme Court in a traditional worshipper’s attire contemptuous of the court?
I am not being disrespectful to the court. I am an African man. I am waiting to be told that I am not properly dressed. They should tell me what is proper dressing, according to the Constitution of Nigeria. Is there anything in the Legal Practitioners Act that defines the kind of dress I must wear? Whatever we wear is based on convention that we should wear black and white. Can convention supersede the constitution? The law says one (law graduate) will be called to the Bar, and wear a wig and gown. Did the law say I should not wear a feather on my head? Did it say I must wear black and white? The law didn’t say so. So, what we are wearing is just about culture, and culture does not supersede the constitution. So, that just shows there is a lacuna in our laws. They need to look at them critically. Nobody should tell me what is decent about dressing. I will continue to dress like this. I am ready to face any panel anywhere and I go open book for dem.
Does that mean we are likely to see you wear that attire to court again?
Yes, I will go to court again in that attire. I want a judge to confront me and ask me why I am dressed that way.
Some lawyers, who were in the courtroom on Thursday said the Supreme Court Justices didn’t see you. In fact, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria said your appearance was merely to get media attention; he said you would have earned his respect if you had announced your appearance for the Justices to see you and get your message. How do you respond to that?. I had my mission and the said SAN cannot tell me what my mission was. He didn’t know what my mission was. He is not my mouthpiece. He is only conjecturing about what I should have done or what I didn’t do right. It is not his business. And it is not true that the court did not take notice of me. I passed my message and that was why when they returned from recess, they did not spend up to 10 minutes before they left. If my message did not make sense, he (the SAN) would not have been talking about it. I don’t need his respect. He calls himself one of the oldest prosecutors of the Legal Practitioners’ Disciplinary Committee, so I want to appear before him. I know the law and know what I am doing. He has no right to be talking about what I should have done and what I should not have done. I am not stupid; I am a trained mind. I would not have just gone to disrupt the court proceedings. I would not have announced appearance since I didn’t have a case for the day. If I had done that (announced appearance), I would have been in Kuje (locked up in a correctional centre) by now.Let’s talk about the Supreme Court judgment that you are protesting against. We understand that the Supreme Court based its verdict that Muslim pupils can wear hijab on Section 38 of the constitution. Do you think the Supreme Court misinterpreted the law?
My position is that in reaching that decision the Supreme Court did not take into consideration the provision of Section 10 of the same constitution, which makes Nigeria a secular state. Section 38 of the constitution that the Supreme Court relied upon is a private right as opposed to Section 10, which is about public interest or right. And if that is the case, Section 10 has diluted the individual’s right provided for in Section 38. When you come to a public place, you have to put your religion aside, as long as it is going to affect other parties. It is important for us to know what secularity is all about. Secularity means a society that is devoid of religion, both in government and public places. That is to say, any religion should not be discussed in the public space. In Nigeria, we start events with prayers. Why do we pray? Does the white man pray before he starts any occasion?
The mistake some people continue to make is saying female American soldiers wear the hijab. Do we practise the same constitution? We don’t have the same history and composition. We started this country (Nigeria) based on a negotiated unity and one of the pillars of our negotiation to be one indivisible and indissoluble Nigeria is that Nigeria will be a secular country. If the founding fathers knew that one day they would not be able to associate freely or that they would be tagged as blasphemers, be lynched and burnt, do you think they would have agreed to the idea of one Nigeria? So, some groups of people should not shift the goalpost at this point. If Nigeria must be united as one, the secularity is an essential ingredient. And the Supreme Court should have taken very seriously the secularity of Nigeria when it was passing that judgment.
The case was decided by a seven-man panel of the Supreme Court before the majority decision was reached in favour of hijab. Don’t you think the Supreme Court must have considered all your arguments before reaching this decision?There could have also been an oversight. I believe the lawyers who represented the Lagos State Government didn’t put forward a good argument. You know the lackadaisical attitude of civil servants. The court probably did not consider the need for Section 10. The Lagos State Government did not do a good job and the court did not do a good job because it ought to have made its own input by saying that the right of society is greater than the right of an individual. Ordinarily, the court should be adventurous enough to go outside the box and take a stand on issues. The Supreme Court erred when it did not consider Section 10 and Section 38 together. Even if you look at Section 45 that says nobody’s rights should be toyed with except there is a law passed for the public interest, morality and security, that right can be derogated.
The court erred by saying no law says that pupils should not wear hijab. In a way, it is correct but the court did not read the constitution as a book. It should have taken Section 10 into consideration.
What are your fears about this judgment and its enforcement?
My fear is that this judgment will worsen the disunity in the country. When you enter a public school in those days, you wouldn’t know who was a Christian or a Muslim and that is why what pupils wear in school is called a uniform. But imagine a teacher, maybe a fanatical Christian, coming into a class and seeing a pupil with a hijab; that could get the teacher annoyed and think she is a terrorist. If the teacher is a Muslim and the female pupil does not have a hijab on, the teacher could see that pupil as an infidel. That brings about disunity and hatred, suspicion and jealousy and unnecessary rivalry.
With this judgment, female Muslim pupils will be identified by physical appearance, not by name. It brings about ethno-religious conflict and Nigeria is already heated; Muslims are telling Muslims not to vote for Christians; and Christians are telling Christians not to vote for Muslims. So, only secularity can water down this time bomb but the Supreme Court judgment did not help matters because, at the end of the day, the Muslims will always cite its decision in every related matter and even when the matter is not related. So, it is a dangerous thing because Christians will feel oppressed that gradually, the country is being taken away from them. So, the Supreme Court must reverse itself for the unity and progress of this country.
As of today, fear or suspicion about Islamisation is still a factor. Nigeria is going the way of Turkey; you will no longer see Christians in Nigeria soon with the way they are going. There is genocide in the North. It is wrong. What we should be pursuing is our happiness in a prosperous society. We are looking for a society where what matters to us is good welfare, not religion. Religion won’t take us anywhere. Look at the states practising Sharia; they are extremely poor; the people are suffering. Of course, it is said that religion is the opium of the people. So, what do you expect?
You’re demanding that the Supreme Court should reverse the judgment. Are you not asking for the impossible, knowing that the Supreme Court’s decisions are final?
The Supreme Court can reverse its decision. Let me give you an instance, which has become a locus classicus. In those days of (the late) Abraham Adesanya, when it was said that one could not pursue public interest cases, (the late) Gani (Fawehinmi) changed the system and it opened the doors. So, the court moved away from Abraham Adesanya era to Gani era, even though some judges are taking us back to the Abraham Adesanya era. But that was an instance when the court reversed itself.
And in that spirit, we will pursue this particular case. That decision must be reversed when similar cases go before the Supreme Court. If anybody challenges me, I will challenge them and the case will go to the Supreme Court.
Before now, you filed a suit demanding that the Arabic inscriptions on the naira notes be removed; in another suit, you demanded that the Arabic inscription on the Nigerian Army’s insignia should be removed; now your protest against the Supreme Court’s judgment permitting hijab in public schools. Are you not worried that you might be creating an impression that you are anti-Islam?
I am not anti-Islam. I believe in the unity of Nigeria. I love Nigeria as a country. I saw Nigeria when even N1 was valuable. I want Nigeria to be one and one of the pillars of this oneness is secularity. I am preaching secularity, nothing more, nothing less. I am not anti-Islam. Anybody that says I am anti-Islam is being unfair. I want a level playing field for all religions, and not a situation where one religion will have an edge over the others.