Teaching IEL as a Nigerian Teacher in the Era of Decolonisation (IEL Collective Symposium II)

By Suzzie Onyeka Oyakhire, Lecturer, Faculty of Law, (University of Benin, Nigeria; suzzie.oyakhire@uniben.edu)

This piece reflects on the teaching of International Economic Law (IEL) in Nigeria specifically within the legal education curriculum of undergraduate studies. It considers the status of IEL as a course of study and considers some epistemological challenges encountered in teaching IEL, including the content to be covered within the curriculum.

The studying and teaching of IEL in Nigeria is largely undeveloped. This is because within the legal curriculum of undergraduate studies, IEL is not prioritised in the research agenda and teaching within the Faculties of Law. For several years IEL was excluded as a course of study in Nigerian universities and, where it is taught, it is relegated to the status of an optional course. Consequently, over the years, several lawyers have graduated without any significant exposure to IEL. Often, the earliest exposure with IEL occurs during postgraduate studies overseas in which the knowledge and understanding of IEL is influenced by the perspectives of their teachers, usually teaching from, or at least influenced by a Eurocentric position.

This translates as a specific challenge in the teaching and scholarship of IEL in Nigerian universities: since teachers and scholars of IEL are the products of western education and are reluctant to ‘dismantle colonial knowledge’ systems. There is inadequate IEL expertise in Nigeria and most Nigerian IEL scholars and teachers have academic positions in universities and institutions outside Nigeria. Also, the teaching curriculum within Nigeria is embedded in Eurocentric conceptions of IEL, which reproduce hegemonic assumptions about the nature of IEL and are defined by the developments in the western societies/global north. These assumptions include the exclusion of the contributions of non-western societies to the evolution of international law. This for instance is demonstrated by the dearth of or lack of access to IEL textbooks authored by Nigerian or African scholars in teaching the principles of IEL which portrays the African voice in IEL discourse. By implication, the reliance on western dominated literature inhibits the Nigerian scholar and most especially the teacher from actively shaping the students’ perceptions of basic knowledge of IEL and critically engaging in IEL issues from their own peculiar (Nigerian) experiences.

For the period IEL has been taught in Nigeria, the curriculum has been developed to capture and reflect a set of rules developed in the West by predominantly, but not exclusively, countries in the Global North. A primary concern is that the international law curriculum and those of its subspecialties are Eurocentric and dominated by western notions of what IEL is and should be. The dominance of hegemonic assumptions which promote western perspectives of IEL as universal is attributed to colonialism and post-colonial institutions developed post Bretton Woods. Within the context of international trade, a multilateral trading system under the GATT/WTO was established which offered trade liberalisation, market access and elimination of barriers to international trade as the foundational principles of international trade. These principles eliminate protectionist measures that favour domestic markets and a specific provision of the GATT in this regard is the national treatment principle enshrined in Article III (1) of the GATT.

However, these principles contradict pre-colonial practices of international trade within African empires, where the control of external trade was within the exclusive preserve of the state; trade was necessitated by economic interests aimed at profiting from the trade; the absence of supranational institutions; the imposition of barriers without sanctions;  and the focus on trade was on production to satisfy the local economy since trade was not carried on in ways that negatively affected existing industry.

At a time where there is a conscious call to decolonise the legal education curriculum in Africa,  and to consider Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL), there is an urgent need to disrupt the narratives and hegemonic assumptions about the nature of IEL and the teaching and scholarship of IEL in Nigeria and beyond. For a teacher of IEL in Nigeria, the question then is: what does it mean to decolonise the IEL curriculum? Does this mean revising the curriculum to focus on the nature of international trade pre-colonialism or do we continue with the western conceptions of international trade which are now perceived as the universal rules for IEL?

These questions seem apt given the new direction of international trade in Africa specifically in the era of the AfCFTA. By and large, the AfCFTA which seeks to create a single continental market for goods and services and pave a way for accelerating the establishment of a Customs Union, mirrors the principles of international trade under the WTO mechanism. To fully implement the AfCFTA, there is need for a new generation of indigenous Nigerian IEL expertise to actualise the terms of the agreement. This is necessary considering the new trends which disrupt the narratives pertaining to open borders and trade liberalization. These disruptions are reflected in the examples of the US-China trade wars/ America first policies, the Brexit and even the recent border closures in Nigeria.

As teachers of IEL, do we teach our students the principles which have dominated the discussion over the years, or do we now focus on the exceptions which have now come to disrupt the narrative, and which reflect the practice pre-colonialism? Sabaratnam suggests that decolonising the curriculum requires scholars to ‘engage, examine, retrieve and cultivate other ways of thinking about and being in the world, that calls for alternative points of departure to the hegemonic knowledges of empire.’ Decolonisation also entails reconstructing the Nigerian and African experiences from various perspectives. For Himonga and Diallo, decolonising the curriculum entails locating the paradigmatic and theoretical shifts that are required for teaching the law.

I argue that Nigeria and other countries in the Global South should focus on the development of indigenous skills and expertise in the field of IEL. For now, since most of the ideologies and practices still favour multilateralism and free market principles, it is practical and reasonable to first have an in-depth knowledge of the established hegemonic systems of IEL and then begin a process of adjusting the curriculum to capture pan-African experiences. The Nigerian government and other stakeholders should invest in academic contents written/ researched by African legal scholars that propagate African perspectives of international law generally and IEL specifically. This will help students challenge the norms and perspectives of IEL especially about the experiences of African countries in the multilateral trading system as expressed by scholars from the global north.






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