We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness
Matthew Hassan Kukah,
Catholic Bishop of Sokoto diocese
It is difficult to find a better and clearer summary of the notion of the pursuit of Happiness than that found in what used to be called the Penny Catholic Catechism. In it, we find the following questions and answers:
Q: Who made you?
Ans: God made me.
Q: Why did God make you?
Ans: God made me to know him, serve him and be happy with him in Heaven.
One does not need to be a Catholic to appreciate the weight of these simple words. Cultures, Ideologies, Philosophies, Religions, Traditions, and so on, all propose paths to achieve happiness, and while these might all be different, the objectives are all basically the same. The attainment of happiness, in this life or in the future, is what inspires, motivates, and pumps the adrenalin of the hardest worker, the saint, and the sinner. But, we pursue it by different routes. Let me illustrate this by a short story.
A tourist was taking a walk along the Lagos beach about 11am in the morning when he chanced by a one Mr. Ade sitting under a canopy. From the radio beside him, Ade was crooning away. On the fire by him, a fish was roasting. Beside him sat a bottle of red wine whose contents were visibly hurrying to the southern end of the bottle. His bowler hat sat precariously towards the end of the bridge of his nose as he seemed lost in a world of his own. Out of curiosity, the tourist stopped and the following conversation ensued:
Tourist: Good morning, my friend. Nice morning on a nice beach.
Ade: Yeah, that’s why I am here to enjoy it.
Tourist: So what are you up to this morning?
Ade: I am relaxing and enjoying myself as you can see.
Tourist: But don’t you think it is a bit too early to be drinking and roasting a fish? You could be out there catching some fish, you know?
Ade: And then what?
Tourist: Well, imagine what money you could have made if you had started early.
Ade: (Lifts up his bowler hat), And then what?
Tourist: With much money from fishing, you could build yourself a good house, buy a really nice car and who knows, take a holiday to any of those fun places like Hawaii.
Ade: Wow, sounds nice, but then what?
Tourist: But you know, with some good money kept away, you could really retire and have a real great life.
Ade: So, what am I doing now? Why do I have to go through all that hassle? Move on my friend. It is a long beach. Keep walking. I am already having a great life.
What exactly constitutes Happiness? It is possible for us to equate Happiness with exhilarated and expanded laughter, visible expressions of joy, and so on. However, on a philosophical level, does this external manifestation of what we call Happiness approximate what is inside of us? Is there a way we can gauge or measure Happiness? Is it some episodic experience or is it a destination, an object, a notion that we can work towards? Is it personal or universal? What drives or inhibits us from attaining it?
This lecture is not about the philosophy of Happiness. Nor is it about judging whether one source or content of happiness is morally good or otherwise. It is not about imposing any judgment on any individual, whether he or she derives Happiness from a bottle of beer, sex, sports, drugs, reading, or watching a movie. What we are concerned with here is to examine and discuss the extent to which each individual has an inalienable right and opportunity to pursue his or her own goals of what they define as Happiness. We will then allow the community or the state to develop the necessary instruments to either enhance the quest or restraint those who threaten other people’s quest for Happiness. I am unambiguously convinced that protecting this right must constitute the cornerstone, the raison d’être for state existence and its legitimacy.
I will divide the Lecture into five sections. Section One will briefly examine some theories of Happiness and its pursuit. Section Two will argue that Human Rights and Justice are essential aspects of this pursuit. Section Three will examine how Faith (not Religion) and the Judiciary can enhance the pursuit of Happiness. I will do this by drawing some lessons from elsewhere to illustrate my point. Finally, in section Four, I will conclude with some insights from the past for our own role today in shaping humanity’s pursuit of happiness
1: Pursuit of Happiness: Philosophy, Faith, Culture, or Politics?
If we take the pursuit of Happiness as a Philosophical preoccupation, our concern will be with how to measure Happiness, whether Happiness can be acquired and lost, and so on. We will go back to the teachings and reflections of the various schools of Philosophy. For example, Aristotle saw the pursuit of Happiness as being based on the acquisition of such virtues as Wisdom, Courage, Moderation, Justice and Friendship.
If we see the pursuit of Happiness as based on Faith, then we must return to the beginning of this lecture, namely, put God and His plan for human beings as a basis. In this case, we will reflect on Happiness as being ultimately based on doing the will of God, and being in His presence in eternity.
If we see it as Culture, we will have to look at what value a particular cultural milieu places on what constitutes Happiness. For example, perhaps, Happiness will be based on acquiring and amassing property, marrying and having children (preferably boys?) etc. In some cultures, it might just be the pursuit of a good name and reputation.
If we see it through the prism of Politics, then, we will have to examine the Manifestoes and the ideologies of the various political parties to see the activities that they think constitute the path to Happiness. For the moment, it would seem that the APC led government and the rest of us in Nigeria see it ultimately as winning the war against corruption.
For the purpose of our discussion and given my background, please permit me to explore just in passing the notion of the pursuit of Happiness that has come to form part of the corpus of material that is out there in the reflections on this theme. It has been the subject of great intellectual preoccupation for Christian theology. St Thomas Aquinas and Augustine stand apart as the greatest teachers who worked very much on this theme. Permit me to therefore turn to them because they are in the territory with which I am slightly familiar and, of course, being a Catholic Bishop, you can understand where I am coming from.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) believed that perfect or absolute Happiness could not be found here on earth, no matter how much we tried. This, in his thinking was tied to the reality of the transitory nature of life here on earth and the fallibility of the human person. For Aquinas therefore, the ultimate Happiness, beatitudo, is only attainable in heaven, in God’s presence. He argues that here on earth, what is attainable is what he calls, felicitas, a kind of an imperfect state of being happy. As with Aristotle, he argues that we can attain this temporal Happiness by living a life of virtue, here, anchored on the Christian virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity.
In this pursuit, Aquinas distinguishes between Happiness and enjoyment. Enjoyment, in his view, satisfied by human good tends to be of limited value and cannot be an end because it is ephemeral. Not only does it tend to end very quickly, it actually increases the craving either for more or for something different. Enjoyment therefore does not constitute Happiness because in the end, it is often abandoned when the real Happiness is found. This theme was more eloquently taken up by St. Augustine. His own life had been one of a limitless quest for Happiness and actually far away from the idea of God. When he finally found God, he came to the most astonishing conclusion that: You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee! He envisioned a social order, inspired by the divine order here on earth where the pursuit of Happiness could be undertaken. He referred to this as tranquilitas ordinis.
Indeed, Aquinas himself was also a good example of this quest. For, he was born of an aristocratic family but as an adult relinquished this, took a vow of celibacy, joined the Dominican order, studied and was ordained a priest. This was only the beginning. He turned out to be an extraordinarily brilliant scholar, teaching in various Dominican houses and Universities in Europe. After twenty years of extensive research, he completed his magnus opus, the Summa Theologica, the Summation of all Theology. The book itself remains a masterful piece of work. However, we are told that one day, while celebrating the Mass, Aquinas experienced what was probably a mystical beatific vision, which is what he had always taught as the summit of Happiness. Rather than seeing this as the summit of the validation of what he has taught all his life, he literally shut down totally. He never wrote anything again and referred to his earlier works as mere straw! Aquinas died six months after this experience, thus raising the question: having attained or experienced the perfection of a beatific vision of Happiness, what else was left in life?
This therefore forces us to raise another question: is a beatific vision or experience possible? Can it be sought? The answer of course is yes, because whatever our own beliefs may be, in a way, the spiritual life, particularly as lived by the mystics, seeks to achieve this. In Islam, this is at the heart of Sufi mysticism. This is the ultimate pursuit, the Nirvana that is sought in Buddhism and Hinduism, and in a sense the Heaven or divine Communion that is sought in Christianity. Again, this is not the place for us to go into the debate on these claims and beliefs. Whatever their merits or demerits, this pursuit remains an eternal quest that has persisted since the beginning of time. How or whether people find it is a subjective question and only the one who searches can answer that question.
It is significant that the image of the end of life, known as the final judgment is tied to our state of accountability for our actions here on earth. For Christians, the idea of the Incarnation, that is God taking on human form in Jesus Christ, changes the context of our relationship with God. It becomes the thread that connects our lives here on earth with the afterlife. And so, this is why, in the course of that final judgment, as the parable tells us, we shall enter communion with God in heaven or eternal damnation in hell depending on how we treated all human beings, those Jesus calls, the least of my brethren (Mt. 25:40).
But, in more practical terms, while we are here on earth, how should we pursue Happiness? In other words, what should we do to make our heaven or hell here on earth in this transitory world, before we get to eternity? It is, for this purpose that Governments exist and it is to this that we shall now turn.
2: Human Rights and Justice as the Pursuit of Happiness:
We have illustrated above that there is what Thomas Aquinas referred to as, a state of imperfect Happiness, what St. Paul meant when he said, for now, we see as in a mirror (1 Cor. 13:12). Since governments exist to enable us pursue this Happiness with all its imperfections, what should we do to attain this? Here, again, I want to argue that enthroning a culture of Human Rights and Justice should be at the heart of the pursuit of Happiness, even in its imperfect form.
Irrespective of what way we understand creation or evolution, we can see that the pursuit of Happiness has been part of human civilisation. The idea of civilisation itself has developed as a means of taking human beings further and further away from our animal state with its tendencies towards the survival of the fittest and dog eat dog attitude.
The story of Cain and Abel suggests to us that, somehow, in the pursuit of Happiness there would always be conflict of interests. In the film, The Godfather, the Godfather told Sollozo the Turk: It does not matter to me what a man does for a living as long as his interests don’t conflict with mine. Then as now, the question is, how do we ensure that when there is a conflict of interests, none has to lose his or her right to pursue a life of Happiness? In a world where the powerful believe that the laws apply only to those weaker than them, in a society where the powerful believe that the only persons entitled to any legitimate pursuit of happiness are they, their families, friends or associates, how do we ensure a level playing field? To attempt to answer these questions, I will look at the nature of the struggle for the realisation of what today we refer to as Human Rights and Justice.
Colonial exploitation, and its resulting human slavery, emerged as a vehicle to support and sustain the European model of nation states which was based on the philosophical foundation that we can sustain and extend our Happiness by appropriating from others. This is not the place for us to engage in an analysis about the ills of slavery and other forms of human exploitation and degradation which are still extant in our world today. Indeed, the fact that today, the quest for domination still persists among peoples, merely suggests that this instinct is inherent in us. Therefore, the real challenge is not to believe we can eliminate it totally; the real challenge lies in helping victims seek appropriate redress if their pursuit of Happiness is endangered.
Since the emergence of the nation-state, what we now call the international community has, over time, continued to design and improve the best system to help all human beings pursue Happiness within the boundaries of local and international laws. These various Declarations or Covenants and a host of other initiatives have offered a broad template, a moral fence to monitor and ensure that the project of the pursuit of Happiness becomes a legitimate right of all nations and peoples. The challenge is how to ensure enforcement and compliance.
Beginning with the Edict of Nantes (1598), which ended the ferocious hostility between the Catholics and the Protestants (Huguenots), the Treaty of Wesphalia in 1648 which ended the 30 year war, the Toleration Act in England (1689) which guaranteed religious freedom, to the Bill of Rights (1689) which provided for rights of citizens even within the Monarchy, the Declaration of Independence (1776) by which the founding fathers of America decided they had had enough of the excesses of the British powers, the French Revolution which flowed from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1879) whose philosophy was, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity… The struggle for domination and territorial ambitions, and the internal revolutions to overthrow existing orders, continued among the new powers until it all came to a climax with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914-1918.
The experience of the First-world-war (1914-1918) left behind a legacy of almost 40 million dead civilians and military. The same powers woke up to the fact that there was need to create a culture of honour even among thieves. It was clear that territorial greed, as seen through the war, had taken human civilisation back to the dark ages from where they thought they had escaped. The world powers began to find the best means of putting a leash on their ambitions and lust for power. Thus, the adoption of the Covenant of the League of Nations came into being in 1920. The League of Nations had arisen from the Paris Conference which had helped to end the war. Its objective was to create world peace by working for collective security through disarmament. However, war did not end. It soon became necessary to contemplate a new war to end all wars. Thus, from 1934-39, a Second World War was again fought, with even more devastating consequences for humanity. After dropping between 3 and 4 million bombs, the war left behind almost 80 million military and civilians dead with Europe in ruins.
The atrocities of the Second World War exposed the limits of human cruelty and bestiality and savagery. The ideals of the League of Nations had proved inadequate and it was followed immediately with the establishment of the United Nations in 1948. This was followed in 1965 with adoption of the International Covenant for Civic and Peoples’ Rights, and then the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Religious Discrimination based on Religion or Belief (1981).
The United Nations has proved to be quite successful in nudging the world on the path of peace. We can only wonder what things would have been like had the organisation not come into being. With all its imperfections, it remains a moral force. If at all peace remains a distant echo today, it is not so much that this organisation has not been alive to its duties. Rather, the real challenge has been the inability of the various super powers to put a leash on their ambitions.
Subsequent years would see the United Nations playing the role of providing a home, a platform for everyone. That body has continued to expand the limits of the opportunities for the pursuit of Happiness of nations and their peoples. Through Covenants, Declarations, and other instruments, the UN has continued to provide more and more opportunities for the children of a lesser god to sit at the same table with the powerful and speak as equals. The poor nations can at least take their pains, tears and sorrows to what we have come to know as the international community. Despite the subtle apartheid that still exists in the system such as the existence of the Exclusive club known as the Security Council, nations feel a sense of belonging through the General Assembly, that annual bazaar where world Leaders, accompanied by their spouses and a coterie of civil servants line up their pockets with estacode. There, every leader takes the podium to tell the world about their struggle over the obstacles to their pursuit of Happiness.
The first lines, the Preamble in the UN Declaration clearly state the all-encompassing ambition of the leaders of the world for all people to aspire to full equality as citizens of one planet called earth. It states: Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, Justice and peace in the world.
Article 1, almost borrowing from the Declaration of Independence repeats the same claims when it states that: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood.
Against this backdrop, we might ask, why has the idea of our common humanity, the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood, the pursuit of Happiness remained a challenge? In fairness though, we can see that in the last twenty or so years, so much has changed in the world. More and more doors have opened. Ideology and dictatorships have collapsed. Even in Africa where some old tyrants are still clinging to the delusion of war heroism or messianic mentality as a means of staying in power (Burundi, DRC Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and The Gambia), things are not easy for them.
The end of dictatorship came at great cost for many countries around the world including in Africa. However, since the beginning of this century, we have had cause for celebration. The legendary story of the collapse of Apartheid should serve us as a lesson. However, this was also anchored on the larger stories of heroism across the world. In these struggles, men and women have given up their lives by way of martyrdom, imprisonment and exile to secure the rights of their people to pursue Happiness. Now, the question is, what lessons can we draw from these experiences? To try to answer these questions, we shall look at how some individuals, associations or societies have appealed to Faith and the Judiciary in their struggles for the pursuit of Happiness in their environments.
3: Faith and Judiciary as Platforms for the Pursuit of Happiness:
In the struggles for Happiness, Religion has often been summoned as a platform. Religious leaders often appeal to the moral authority of the holy books especially during moments of national crisis. Societies, even where it is claimed that religion is not important, have watched as its people turn to God as a means of coping with tragedies or difficulties. During natural or human disasters, we see the Churches, Mosques or Shrines often full of worshippers in supplication and consolation.
Today, when we look back at how religion has helped to restore some kind of moral order in society, we can appreciate the point that is being made. There are many stories of the monumental struggles by religious leaders who used their moral authority to change the courses of history. We think immediately of the very significant and visible roles of people like the late Martin Luther King, Pope John Paul II (Poland), Cardinal Sin (Philippines), Helder Cardinal Camara, Archbishop Romero (El Salvador) or Archbishop Tutu (South Africa). Within Islam, the role of Ayatollah Khomeini comes to mind.
All religions hold the view that although God has prepared a good life for us here on earth and a higher and eternal one in the hereafter, getting to our ultimate destination depends on the choices we make on earth.
Very often, our right to the pursuit of Happiness is circumscribed by the decisions other individuals or institutions make by way of discriminations through policies of exclusion. For example, in the United States of America, under what came to be known as the Jim Crow Laws, the fate of Americans of African descent as inferior, second-class citizens was institutionalized in some states. In South Africa, after apartheid was formally institutionalized as a form of government in 1948, laws were in place to ensure the perpetual enslavement of black citizens on grounds of their colour.
The Jim Crow laws were based on the assumed superiority of the white race. They were also a means of protecting white privilege from black encroachment. Although they are all but gone now, at least on paper, it is necessary to know what the struggle has been all about. Let me choose just a few of these laws to illustrate the point:
Marriage: All marriages between a white person and a Negro, or between a white person and a person of Negro descent to the fourth generation inclusive, are hereby forever prohibited.
Barbering: No colored person shall serve as a barber [to] white women or girls.
Toilets: Every employer of white or Negro males shall provide for such white or Negro males reasonably accessible and separate toilet facilities.
Buses: All passenger stations in this state operated by any motor transportation company shall have separate waiting rooms or space and separate ticket windows for the white and colored races.
Restaurants: It shall be unlawful to conduct a restaurant or other place for the serving of food in the city, at which white and colored people are served in the same room, unless such white and colored persons are effectually separated by a solid partition extending from the floor upward to a distance of seven feet or higher, and unless a separate entrance from the street is provided for each compartment.
Teaching: Any instructor who shall teach in any school, college or institution where members of the white and colored races are received and enrolled as pupils for instruction shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof, shall be fined.
In South Africa, a wide range of evil laws sustained the apartheid regime. These laws assumed and sought to institutionalize the racial superiority of the white people and the inferiority of the blacks. A few examples serve to illustrate the point:
Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1948): This law which came into existence barely one year after the coming of the apartheid regime to power in 1948 sought to ensure the purity of the white race.
Immorality Amendment Act (1950), sought to prohibit such acts of immorality as adultery or fornication across the race lines.
Population Registration Act (1950): This law ensured the registration of all births again to avoid any contamination of the white race. It also ensured that the whites kept an eye on the growth of the black population.
Group Areas Act (1950): This law ensured the separation of the races along the lines of residences. It also enabled the government to remove black people who were considered to be living in the wrong places.
Bantu Education Act (1953): This law was to ensure that black people did not receive the kind of education that might raise their expectations and lead them to seek higher offices in future. They were to receive the minimum education that would enable them to work among their own people in the homelands.
In all of this, the world has not stood still and surrendered to evil. Over time, men and women have risen to defend freedom and sought to end the heinous crimes of inequality and Justice created by policies which have denied ordinary citizens the rights to seek the pursuit of Happiness. To make this point, let me illustrate by briefly making reference to three judicial trials that will illustrate my point. I will refer to one of the most important cases in US legal history as far as the issues we are dealing with are concerned to illustrate how and why the Judiciary is so important in enforcing the ideals of the pursuit of Happiness.
For the United States of America, I think the natural case to look at is the case that came to be known as Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. This is not the time or the place to review the case, except to refer to its significance and life changing relevance which opened the doors for ordinary people of African descent in the United States of America today. This case was not only a landmark case, but also it turned centuries of history and culture upside down. In the process, it laid the foundation for a new America and extended the opportunity for black people to have access to education as a means of the pursuit of Happiness. Indeed, were it not for this spectacular victory in the Supreme Court, it is doubtful that people like President Obama as well as hundreds of thousands of other Americans of African descent would have had a seat on the table of public life today.
Education is the ladder and the key to the pursuit of Happiness. By denying or out rightly limiting for black people both in the United States and South Africa an opportunity to pursue quality Education, the system was basically shutting the door to their future in the pursuit of Happiness.
The case of Brown vs. Board of Education was brought by 13 black parents who sought to assert the rights of their 20 children to attend schools that were within their vicinity rather than being bused to black schools that were inferior but also very far away from their neighbourhoods. The lead Counsel in the Brown vs. Board of Education case was the legendary Thurgood Marshall. This case had Americans of various persuasions on the edges of their seat. Imagine a group of black lawyers in America of the 50s, heading to and addressing the Supreme Court of the United States where there was no single black person in that Court. The case for the plaintiffs was based on the belief that the inferior education that black children were exposed to had inflicted psychological wounds that scarred them for life. It imposed a culture of inferiority complex in them and in the long run, made it impossible for them to achieve their goals in life (in our case, the attainment of the Education necessary for the pursuit of Happiness). In his historic ruling, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, Justice Earl Warren ruled that: To separate black children from others of similar age and qualification solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.
A combination of these struggles is what informed Martin Luther King’s now famous, I have a Dream speech. In that speech, Rev. King, although preacher and inspired by the Bible, made no direct appeal to Scripture. Rather, he focused on the claims made by both the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution. He literally dared, challenged and taunted the successors of the founding fathers of the Union to live up to the ideals enunciated in these texts. Dramatising the systematic use of policies of exclusion against the people of African descent, Rev. King accused the political leaders of his day of a mortal sin against the black people. He said:
The Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize our shameful condition. In a sense we've come to our nation's Capital to cash a check. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of Justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.
Thus, those who seek for freedom do not seek it for themselves. The only evidence of a just society is one in which citizens are free to pursue their goals and ambitions in life. Therefore, whether they are shut out or denied opportunities on grounds of colour, religion, gender or status the issues are the same. As the saying goes, in the end, Injury to one is injury to all.
4. Summary and Conclusion:
I have tried to make a case for the pursuit of Happiness as a legitimate human endeavour. In doing so, I have made passing reference to some thoughts of Catholic thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, as well as to landmark statements such as the American Declaration of Independence, the UN Human Rights Declaration and other initiatives relating to the struggle for the pursuit of happiness. I have argued that creating space for this struggle for Happiness is the sole basis for the legitimacy of governments. There is no doubt that not everyone will achieve Happiness. The issue is whether everyone has had a fair chance, uninhibited by humanly created obstacles.
To return to the source of our inspiration for this topic, the signatories to the Declaration of Independence, had further stated: That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
The age of revolutions seem to have come to an end with the arrival or should I say, the discovery of Democracy. Democracy seems to be a much more useful way of curbing the excesses of the human person. It seemed best suited for helping in the pursuit of Happiness. The history of this struggle is what Samuel Huntington has called, the three waves of Democracy. Although there is an old saying that Democracies do not go to war, it is clear that Democracy has its own imperfections. The Democratic quest is not an end in itself. It must be assumed that there is a threshold that a Democratic society must achieve in the fulfillment of the quest for Happiness by the human spirit. The evidence suggests that the quest for Democracy is simply another way of speaking about the pursuit of Happiness.
In this effort, we must acknowledge and appreciate those gallant men and women who have provided a template for the attainment of the right to the pursuit of Happiness. The father of the Declaration of Emancipation, Abraham Lincoln, remains the legendary father of the values and principles of Democracy, freedom and Human Rights. It is instructive that in the whole of his life, winning the war and being President were not the most important achievements for which Lincoln wanted to be remembered. Rather, for him, signing the Declaration of Emancipation was the most spectacular, life changing achievement for which he wanted to be remembered. Taken together with the Gettysburg Speech, this document represents a timeless piece of writing that focuses on the importance of the human person as a creature of God and centre of human activities.
His biographer, James McPherson tells us that on New Year’s Day, 1863, Lincoln stood for three hours shaking the hands of friends and visitors whom he had invited to the White House for the celebration of that day. When he retired to sign the Declaration, his hand had become sore from shaking hands and was trembling when he tried to sign the document. He changed his mind and decided to wait because he feared that when generations to come examined the document and saw evidence that his hand was shaking as he signed it, they would say he hesitated. When he signed the document, Lincoln said: If my name ever goes into history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.
As we acknowledge and appreciate those gallant people who have provided a template for the attainment of the right to the pursuit of Happiness. we must first pay homage to God the Father and Creator of Heaven and Earth. We thank God for the gift of faith and for all forms of religious expressions through which, although we see as in a mirror the promises of a future, continue to serve as a means of restraining human beings from destroying one another and creation.
We must acknowledge theologians, philosophers and scholars like Aristotle, Plato, Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Bentham, John Rawls, Amartya Sen and a host of scholars whose thinking has shaped the way we think about the pursuit of Happiness.
We have to acknowledge great statesmen and women, who, in their personal and public lives have designed a template for the pursuit of Happiness through their roles in office. They are gallant men and women, across faith and politics, who have given humanity a dream, a vision for the pursuit of Happiness. Some of them have done this within our lifetime. We must celebrate people like Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere, Mother Theresa, Konrad Adenauer, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Ayatollah Khomeini, Pope John Paul II, Pope John XXIII, Fredrick Delano Roosevelt, Doris Day, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, Peter Benonson. The list is endless and it is my hope that the reader can add his or her own list of heroes and heroines.
Lawyers and Judges have played a very significant role in shaping the outcomes of the struggle for the pursuit of Happiness as citizens have confronted the barricades of injustice. In our situation in Nigeria, lust for power and greed for material gain has seen our judges grovel to do the devil’s job for governments over the years. In my book, Witness to Justice, I devoted a chapter to what I called, Military Decrees and Judicial Impunity, and here I explore the ugly and sad phase of our national life when under the book of the military. Judges angled and struggled to be appointed trial judges in Military Tribunals often set up to settle scores. In most of these trials, the outcomes were predetermined. The most famous of these Tribunals were those that tried the Ogoni 9 and that of General Lekwot and his kinsmen. Richard Akinnola has completed a book on the trial of General Lekwot with the title, Judicial Terrorism. It paints an ugly picture that the Judiciary in Nigeria should be ashamed of.
The Supreme Court under Earl Warren (1891-1974) turned the tide of judicial activism during his term as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America. He had served a three-term tenure as the Governor of California before President Dwight Eisenhower nominated him. He is famous for his commitment to issues of human rights and is remembered for his role in the famous case of Brown vs. Board of Education. He also led the investigation Commission on the assassination of President John Kennedy.
On the side of lawyers, my prize goes to Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993), the lead counsel for case of Brown vs. Board of Education. Marshall’s place in the history of law and human rights will remain very special. He fought 32 cases in the US Supreme Court and won 29 of them. He was the lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured Peoples, NAACP, and his sobriquet was Mr. Civil Rights. When President Lyndon Johnson nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1967, President Johnson himself was reported to have said: The appointment was the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man for it and to the right place.
Very often, most of us wonder, what can a poor, invisible person like me do? Can I change the world alone? How can I end corruption? Who am I and with what? I am not rich, No one knows me. People like me can take cover and say, I am a Priest or a Bishop. I should be praying and blessing people. I should be found in my chapel praying for corruption to end in Nigeria. I should be praying for God to give us good leaders. I should wait for the penitents to come to my Church. I could actually rise to become an influential religious leader, blessing or prophesying for politicians, businessmen, infertile women, praying for husbands or wives for young people and so on. There is nothing wrong with all this.
However, many apples fell and so many people saw apples fall. It took Newton’s curiosity to know why and what made the apple fall so that today we have the law of gravity. The Aeroplane, the Computer, Facebook, the Internet, all were a response to some kind of curiosity and the belief that, I can do something, I can make a change.
When he saw that two young men had lost their freedom just for toasting to freedom, Peter Benonson decided to pray first and then wrote an article in the London Observer titled, The Forgotten Prisoners, published on May 28th, 1961. That marked the beginning of what today is called, Amnesty International. Mother Theresa did not set out the change the world. She just thought that she would do something beautiful for God by helping the poor on the streets of Calcutta to die in dignity. She did this by just washing them and feeding them.
Sensing that the many world leaders were still doing horrible things against their own people despite being signatories to many International Human Rights Laws, the United Nations decided it would step up its game. Countries were required to support the claims of their national Constitutions by setting up National Human Rights Commissions to monitor the guarantee of these rights. Sadly, Nigeria was for a long time and some would say up till now, never really took very seriously the issues of the enforcement of these rights. Today, the United Nations notion of the Responsibility to Protect, R2P, has come into force as a means of ensuring that the struggle for human rights and dignity is now and international obligation and cannot be left to the whims and caprices of those who lead. This Norm argues that: States could forfeit their sovereignty when they fail to protect their populations from mass atrocities, crimes and human rights violations. The challenge here of course will have to lie on how to detect these atrocities before they assume larger proportions.
Chapters 2 and 4 of our Constitution has copious claims about the rights of citizens to what we might say constitutes the ingredients for the pursuit of Happiness. We have all kinds of promises of the good life, promises about what the government owes its citizens. We have a basket of freedoms, from freedom of religion, right to fair hearing, privacy, freedom of association or not to even associate and so on. Yet, right before our eyes, under the claims of religion and culture these rights are being denied to Minorities across the country most often with the collusion of federal and state governments. Right before our eyes, Women, Christian or Muslim Minorities are constantly living beneath the radar of freedom. And we all look on without concern. The Courts do not feel there is much they can do while the lawyers are more inclined to cases that can enhance their economic goals.
We need a generation of Lawyers and Judges who can bend the arc of justice in favour of the poor. But, over and above all this, what are Teachers of law teaching students and how can the Law faculties serve as laboratories for monitoring injustice in the Universities? Students do not need to wait until they can go to courts to seek justice when daily, young women have their dignity being assaulted and are harassed into submission. How can we produce a generation of young men and women who do not know dignity and respect, who have to surrender their rights and dignity to teachers so they can graduate? What rights to Students have over their Teachers in terms of performance? Elsewhere, Students do have a say in the promotion of their Teachers but here in Nigeria too many evils are being committed.
Where are we going to look for the inspiration for Justices such as Earl Warren who changed human rights in America? Or will our Supreme Court remain a special club of privilege? How can we have a Supreme Court that, with sufficient judicial activism and consciousness, it can give life to the noble claims of the rights of citizens to live in dignity and freedom in the quest for Happiness?
I have asked around and my knowledge is limited for those who can be our own local Justice Earl Warrens and it seems I hear only two names the late Justices Kayode Esho and Chukwudifu Oputa of blessed memory. I know there are more but clearly, we need heroes and heroines.
Locally, on the issue of the likes of Thurgood Marshall, we must acknowledge the contributions of the likes of Gani Fawehinmi of blessed memory, Olisa Agbakoba, Clement Nwankwo, Chidi Odinkalu, Femi Falana and other budding lawyers. Law Teachers must begin to recruit more and more young men and women who can confidently face the future and see law as a sharp instrument to help in our pursuit of Happiness.
In the end, perhaps the pursuit of Happiness is an elastic journey in the sense of the finitude of this mortal earth. However, the conditions can be provided for and ameliorated if we create a template that guarantees the celebration and appreciation of our common humanity. As Tolstoy said: All unhappy families are unhappy differently. Similarly, we will never pursue the same things in life, not even if we are identical twins. What is most important is the provision of the space that enables us to rise or fall at our own pace, to remove those obstacles that slow others down and those stepping stones that give others greater opportunity.
The pursuit of happiness cannot be given in incremental terms as tokens. Whenever the bar is lowered to anyone on grounds of gender or disability, social class or status, we must all say: No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until Justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!.
 James McPherson: Abraham Lincoln (Oxford 2009) p64