Learning from donkeys – in Nigeria

By | February 1, 2010

I am writing this from Lagos in Nigeria.  It is a bustling city with many people trying to go about their everyday life but often thwarted because of lack of infrastructure.  The electricity supply is sporadic, except to those wealthy enough to be able to afford auxiliary generators. Its newspapers talk of ‘a government policy of corruption’.  Although I have no way of testing that, it does seem that despite vast oil wealth as a nation, many people seem to be very poor, eking out an existence by some means or other.  Sometimes it seems surprising that what actually gets done gets done at all.

I have been talking to a group of people here about the unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom and its merits and demerits.  Nigeria has a written constitution, the current version dating from as recently as 1999 although they have had many more in their near fifty years of independence.  Their President is ill and currently out of the country but he left without mandating his deputy to act on his behalf as the constitution stipulates.

During my visit, the High Court ordered that he return to his post within fourteen days or pass power over, temporarily or permanently to the Vice President.  Tension, some of which is religious between the mainly Muslim north and the mainly Christian south, is growing as to what may happen and there is talk of a possible military takeover, especially if the President does nothing or makes it clear he does not agree with the court ruling.

That said no one I have met wants trouble. Stirrings seem to be made by the politicians. Military government is something to which Nigeria is not unused and while a form of order may be imposed for a while, most promises to restore democracy by the military, in whatever country, fail to materialise for many years.  A relatively benevolent, well meaning General is often replaced by someone with not quite such altruistic motives.

Lagos is home to many donkeys.  Many look poor, dishevelled things being asked to carry more than is donkeyly possible and, again, it is amazing that what gets carried does get carried.  But persevere they do – both locals and donkeys.  There are few pictures of contentment here although both the people and the donkeys are incredibly friendly and hospitable.

By co-incidence my daughter owns a donkey.  Margate Maisie we call her which is both her given name and descriptive of her seaside career until she came to Yorkshire to be part of a pampered set of former working donkeys.  Not that she had too bad a life at the seaside by all accounts. She lives in what seem to be ideal circumstances and, when I walk the dog before or after work, I often go past her field and watch as she and her friends go about everyday life without any apparent care in the world.  If I go to the fence with an apple, we often stand there together for minutes on end, Maisie eating, the dog hoping to eat and me reflecting on the day ahead or just gone. It is a picture of contentment.

Constitutional crises are, mercifully, rare in the United Kingdom, although an unwritten constitution where some of the ‘rules by which we are governed’ are unclear would seem to be more of a recipe for potential trouble than where they are laid down in apparently clear written form.  Any transition of power from the Labour to Conservative parties later this year will inevitably be a smooth affair. The moral seems to be that where there is a will for order and compromise, it is likely to come about whatever type of constitution is in place and where there is no such will, disaster looms.  I pray that Nigeria sees reason and that the will of the people and not the politicians or unelected military prevails and an agreement for a way forward can be reached. No one, in any part of the country, region or world will gain if it is not.

And the relevance of all this to the donkeys?  In each country, they will just go on in their usual way, whatever happens politically. And so will the people, as best they are able. I know I would rather be Maisie than a Nigerian donkey, but really hope that the burden they currently carry does not have to get any heavier.

About Chris Gale

Chris graduated from University College Cardiff in 1977 and qualified as a solicitor in 1980. He moved to academia in 1990 with an appointment at the Polytechnic of North London and joined Leeds Metropolitan University (Leeds Law School) in 1994, becoming head of undergraduate studies and being responsible for profiling, timetabling and staff development across the School. He joined Bradford University Law School as the inaugural Director of Legal Studies in July 2005.

Specialties: Human rights, Sport and the Law, Public Confidence in the Legal System