Posted by Emeka Ugwuonye | 8 November 2013 | 4,689 times
If you are a Governor of a State in Nigeria, everything about you could assume dimensions that are uncommon. And if you are Governor Chime, every rain could become a storm. This assessment is clear and present in the controversy involving the Governor of Enugu State and his wife. It started by way of a publication by a tabloid/gossip online news website, which painted a picture of a governor’s wife in distress. According to the publication, Mrs. Chime, the First Lady of Enugu State, was in a lockdown, imprisoned in her own home by no other person than her husband, with the support of her family members, including her parents and siblings.
According to the petition allegedly written by Mrs. Chime, she has four key grievances. First, she could leave the Governor’s residence because the Governor had threatened to disown the son she had with the Governor if she left. So, presumably she stayed on in the residence against her will just in order to preserve the Governor’s paternity over their son. Second, she has not had conjugal union with her husband since 2010. Third, her husband, the Governor, does not give her pocket money, and all the money she gets is certain payment made to her as allowance to the First Lady by the State Government. Presumably, the Governor did not stop such allowance going to her. Fourth, she is not quite satisfied with her doctors because they prescribe medicine that she feels worsens her situation. Presumably, Mrs. Chime’s petition admitted that there was need for her to be attended to by physicians, only that she is not satisfied with the treatment she received from them. On the basis of these grievances, Mrs. Chime’s alleged petition cried out to the human right community, urging it to come to her rescue.
Once the alleged petition made it to the public, the rumours began to make the round that the Governor’s wife has some mental health problem. Indeed, her petition admitted that she was suffering from acute depression and she felt suicidal. The counter stories portrayed the Governor’s wife as sick and lacking in credibility. Indeed, there seems to be a consensus that she is not well, and that the reason she is presumably kept within the walls of the residence was as a result of her condition. As would be expected, given the personalities involved, this matter has generated significant public reaction. First, it has assumed the tone of discussion of the deeply embedded gender inequality in the Nigerian society. There is a view that the Governor’s wife ought to have been sent overseas for the treatment of whatever illness she suffer. That view is particularly serious in Enugu State given that the Governor had extensive treatment overseas last year. So, why not such treatment for the wife, many are wont to ask?
There have been some further developments in this matter. First, Femi Falana, a senior lawyer in Nigeria, has announced that he would be representing Mrs. Chime as her counsel. Second, Nigeria’s usually ineffective Human Rights Commission has sent a letter to the Governor demanding to have access to his wife. Equally of importance is the fact that the Governor, flanked by Mrs. Chime and her brothers and other family members, gave a press conference denying the allegations that Mrs. Chime has been imprisoned in her house. In the said press conference, Mrs. Chime made a statement, denying the petition alleged to have been written by her and openly stated that she never hired Mr. Falana to be her lawyer and that she had no intentions to hire him.
With the foregoing position of facts and scenarios, this controversy is very much set for analysis. As a basic point of consideration, no one can protect Mrs. Chime from her own family, given the circumstances. Even if the Governor were to let her out (if one insists she is under lock and key), she would have to look up to her family to care for her. And that is the same family that is staunchly with the Governor. Nigeria does not have a programme to care for you if all your family members reject you. Indeed, no doctor and no court would allow anybody else to make decisions for Mrs. Chime apart from her husband or relatives. And if she is so sick, she cannot be allowed to make any important decisions for herself. She would be lacking the mental capacity to retain the services of a lawyer. The only lawyer she may have would be one appointed by Chime or her family.
Can Falana represent Mrs. Chime even without being engaged by either Mrs. Chime or her legal representatives? The answer is definitely no, except in the rare event that a court appoints a guardian ad litem for her. That possibility is so unlikely it could safely be ruled out. It is important that Nigeria’s new rules for the enforcement of constitutional rights have made away with the requirement of locus standi (an archaic rule that denies access to litigants unless they could show that that controversy involves them in some special capacity). It implies that a person seeking to enforce a fundamental right does not have to be a direct victim of the right violation. But the significance of the changes in the rules should not be misunderstood. The fundamental right of a person to a counsel of his/her choice has not been replaced by that rule. The changes to the rule relate to the parties to litigation and their right to sue, not to the right of a lawyer to impose himself on an unwilling client. So, we must not assume that Mr. Falana could force himself on Mrs. Chime based on the new enforcement rules.
The right to a lawyer of one’s choice is so entrenched in the Constitution that it cannot be taken away by implication of a procedural rule established to enforce that right. And if we observe that rule here, the question is: who exercises the choice or decision-making power for Mrs. Chime? It cannot be any lawyer that wants to do so. It cannot be any government commission that wants to do so. It is she or her family. If there is doubt as to whether she could make such decision herself or through her legal representatives, then mental capacity becomes a foundational issue to be addressed. Who determines whether she has the capacity to make that decision herself? Again, it is not simply any lawyer that wants to do so or any commission that wants to do so; it is her next of kin and family members, otherwise her legal representatives. So, as long as her husband and her family are united on that, it is extremely difficult for anyone to intervene legally. The position of the Human Rights Commission demanding access to Mrs. Chime is a fundamental mistake in law. The commission cannot have such access without first addressing the question of legal capacity. Indeed, if Mrs. Chime is suffering from mental sickness, the Human Rights Commission may not be qualified to meet her. The only competent people to meet her outside her family members are medical doctors. In such case whatever words or statements made by Mrs. Chime could only be intelligible to a competent medical officers. The idea that she could sit down with the commission or Falana to discuss anything is so inconsistent with logic and common sense.
From a human point of view, if your wife or daughter is suffering from mental sickness, the right thing to do is not to put her before a panel of journalists or lawyers and allow them to chat with her so they would determine if she is well or not. They lack the capacity to make such determination. It is right and proper from the family members of a mentally sick patient to avoid her coming in contact with strangers except for the course of such patient’s treatment. In the light of the foregoing, one must view the position of the Governor far more favourably than has been the case. First, the fact that the Governor and the lady’s family members are united in this takes care of a lot of things because even if the woman is left on her own, it is her family members and her doctors that would determine the best place for her to be. And they think it is the Governor’s residence. Second, once Mrs. Chime is attended to by doctors, those doctors would make the best medical decision about her. They would determine what course of treatment to give her. So, all the talk of her getting medical treatment overseas is a decision only her medical doctors should help make, and not for the public to make it. Third, it is important to note that nobody has yet complained that violence is used against Mrs. Chime. Fourth, there is no motive on the part o the Governor to lock his wife up out of malice towards her. Indeed, it seems easier for the Governor to divorce his wife immediately he saw she was sick. So, it would seem that the Governor is being a good husband by sticking to his wife in health and in sickness as required by his marital vow.
The situation could change if there is an indication that a crime is being committed against Mrs. Chime in that residence. But in that case, the police would come in. If the Nigerian police believe that crime is being committed either by Mrs. Chime or against her, the police will have right to go to court obtain a warrant and gain access to the Governor’s bedroom if necessary. While we consider all these options, let us not lose sight of the state of Nigerian law, which will decide a lot of these things. As the law is today, Mrs. Chime may actually depend on her family members to enforce her rights. There is very little the Government could do to help protect her from her husband and family working together.
By the way, from all indications, I should be quick to recognise the rights of this woman, and to protect her if these rights are violated or being violated. However, I am sensitive to the various shades of argument that seem to be proceeding outside the margins of law. On my recommendation to the Governor, if there is a medical concern, there should first be an independent medical evaluation to determine her capacity for anything. The Human Rights Commission members are not doctors. They would not even be able to make any determination regarding her capacity. There is no way the Governor would allow non-medical personnel access to his wife if she were mentally sick. If my child or wife were mentally sick, I would not allow a non-medical personnel to come and interview her.
•Emeka Ugwuonye, Esquire, lawyer and activist, writes from Maryland, USA. Photo shows Governor Chime and his wife, Clara.
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