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Obeah over CCJ: Ride on, Minister Chuck!

A J
Nicholson

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Conventional wisdom holds that the practice of Obeah came to these shores accompanying the slave trade, which involved the ill-fated survival of some on the perilous Atlantic crossing from the west coast of Africa.

And, for a very long time, pervasive whispered rumour has had it that some individuals in high leadership positions in our country have had the penchant for engaging in the practice that, with time, had come to be declared illegal.

Of course, there is by no means any indication that the timing of a sudden announcement by our minister of justice of a suggested legalisation of that practice has any connection whatsoever to the lingering rumour.

But some have, no doubt quite correctly, moved to question how come such an initiative could have found a place so high on the agenda of visionary policymaking on the part of the Government and, significantly, among the portfolio responsibilities of our minister of justice at this moment in time in this year of our Lord 2019.

Are there not, they ask, some outstanding initiatives of undoubted positive functional consequence that would make for the development of our people in meaningful and lasting measure?

Take, for example, an issue that is generally known to be dear to my heart — and for which I do not for a solitary moment make even the slightest apology — an issue which, with respect, ought also to be dear to the heart of our minister of justice who, like myself, hails from the hills of upper Clarendon, and who has also been privileged to have come into the practice of the law.

He should certainly be familiar with the story of the challenges faced by the likes of Farmer Joe whose father would have left him a plot of land that had served as the mainstay of sustenance for his father's family and then as the anchor for survival of his own household.

Unfortunately, Farmer Joe, like his father, and not unlike hundreds of thousands of families across Jamaica, has had no title to the land and never saw that situation as presenting any sort of a challenge until that fateful day when he was “served with a paper of claim” to his plot.

Adjoining Farmer Joe's modest acreage was an extensive property owned by the only family of any real means in the entire district and beyond and, without any knowledge on his part, the owners of that property, over time, had always held the view that the land occupied by Farmer Joe's family was really a part of their estate.

So, this paper, signifying a claim to the plot, coming from solicitor-attorneys from the adjoining parish, is now served on Farmer Joe, exposing his family to totally unimagined peril. What, Farmer Joe and his wife are left to ponder, is to become of their daughter in her first year at the mid-island Northern Caribbean University, their son who is pursuing his secondary education at that North Street college in the Corporate Area, and the two young children living at home?

One of Farmer Joe's church brothers had a son who had been privileged to be able to successfully pursue the study of law and then to proceed to establish a practice in the parish capital. That son, having been told of Farmer Joe's predicament, offered to represent him in court, with little or no fees, of course, in the form of a generous neighbourly gesture.

Over time, having been unsuccessful at the first instance trial, he won the case for Farmer Joe in the court of appeal in Kingston. But, the family of means, the owners of the large estate in the district, plans to pursue the matter further by taking it to our final court of appeal, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, England.

Now, our justice minister in his legal history studies long ago, would have been exposed to the knowledge that this United Kingdom institution was established almost 200 years ago, in 1833, upon the abolition of the slave trade, specifically for the ventilation and protection of the interests of the former slave owners.

In addition, he would know that, to this day, the way-too-expensive, out-of-reach access to that court has never been available to the overwhelmingly large percentage of Jamaicans — descendants of slaves like Farmer Joe — but only to the two per cent or so who are represented by 'big man' individuals such as those large estate owners who now threaten Farmer Joe's livelihood without his ability to defend his interest in that court thousands of miles across the Atlantic.

And too, the minister would be fully aware that, had our final court of appeal been able to convene right here on Jamaican soil, Farmer Joe's church brother's lawyer son would have been all too willing to represent his interest before that tribunal, but that representation in that final court in far away London was completely out of the question in the prevailing circumstances.

Our minister of justice would also know that Farmer Joe is a person who might very well have had his plot of land in that same district in which the minister was born right there in the hills of upper Clarendon, and that he himself could easily have been the son of Farmer Joe's beloved church brother.

And, yet, now occupying the exalted position of Cabinet minister in the nation, he proceeds to embrace the echo of a policy initiative that would call upon Farmer Joe and the 98 per cent of economically challenged Jamaicans to vote in a proposed referendum exercise which is slated to cost hundreds of millions of their tax dollars.

Such a referendum vote would oblige them to choose between having access to the acclaimed Caribbean Court of Justice, sitting right here on Jamaican soil, and a vote for further cementing the retention of the Privy Council as their final court of appeal, to which they and their forebears could never have had any access.

But, for our minister of justice and his fellow travellers in Government, it has been determined that, as men and women who now occupy those seats in the Parliament, and who the voters such as Farmer Joe have made it possible for them to empower the 98 per cent of our too-long-deprived citizens by adopting, as they should, the route laid down in our constitution costing not a single dollar, that prospect of gaining easy access to our final court of appeal has been placed firmly on the never-never backburner.

At the same time, as an apparently urgent policy initiative, however, destined according to the minister for early contemplation by the Cabinet of Jamaica, the legalisation of the practice of Obeah has been placed high on the governance agenda.

And so, ride on, Minister Chuck! Hope continues to spring eternal within the breasts of those souls, like Farmer Joe, struggling in places across Jamaica such as in the verdant hills of upper Clarendon.

Upon the legalisation of Obeah, the revolutionary message being sent by our Cabinet and Government to those souls would be that they are being put into the entirely accessible position whereby they can afford to take their troubles to the Obeah man, quite lawfully for the first time at last, rather than to their final court of appeal. And the huge Atlantic divide therefore remains; no change!

So, ride on minister, ride on in prosperity!

 

A J Nicholson is former attorney general and Cabinet minister.