DR. MOHAMED SHAHABUDDEEN
Obituary by Justice Vibert Lampkin in a recent speech.
Learned Imams of the Imdadul Masjid, family and friends of the late Judge Mohamed Shahabuddeen, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters all. Assalam Alaikum.
Sieyf, thank you for that fine introduction and thank you for affording me the honour to deliver this keynote address to celebrate the life of your late father, Dr. Mohamed Shahabuddeen, who died peacefully on February 17.
Mohamed Shahabuddeen was a most extraordinary man. He is arguably the most highly qualified academic legal mind that Guyana has produced. But that is getting ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning.
‘Shahab’, as we all called him, was born on October 7, 1931 in the village of Vreed-en-Hoop on the west bank of the Demerara River. He was the fourth of the five sons of Abdul Hameed and his wife Jameela. Abdul was a goldsmith but he also raised cattle. Jameela was a home-maker. Unfortunately Jameela died when Shahab was only three years old and his father, who never remarried, raised his five sons more or less as a single parent.
Shahab attended St. Swithin’s Anglican Primary School in Vreed-en-Hoop from 1938 for about four years. The family then moved to the village of Huis ‘T’ Dieren on the Essequebo coast. There his father got help when Shahab went to live with his cousin’s mother “Mai” who lived a few houses down the road from his father. He attended the Church of Scotland Primary School, housed in an old Dutch brick building, converted from a barn.
Of course Guyanese will recognise the names Vreed-en-Hoop and Huis ‘T’ Dieren are of Dutch origin. Vreed-en-Hoop means ‘Peace and Hope’. Huis ‘T’ Dieren means House of Animals. And we will remember our history - that it was the Dutch who first settled Guyana – Essequebo in 1616; Berbice in 1627; and Demerara in 1752 as colonies. The British assumed control in 1796 and the Dutch formally ceded the area in 1814. In 1831 the three separate colonies became the British colony of British Guiana.
Shahab was successful at the School Leaving Examination in 1944 and the Pupil Teacher’s Appointment Examination in 1945. He attended Country High School which started in the village of Riverstown. He followed the school when it moved to Adventure and finally to Suddie, all on the Essequebo coast. He was successful at the Cambridge Junior School Certificate Examination in December 1947 and at the Cambridge Senior School Certificate Examination in December 1948 with exemption from matriculation. In those days there was no University in Guyana – not even in the West Indies. And depending on the High School one attended, students took examinations set and marked by British Universities – Cambridge, Oxford & Cambridge Joint Board or London. And the minimum requirement for admission to a British University was matriculation or exemption therefrom which required credits in at least five subjects at the senior examination, three of which were compulsory – English Language & Composition; Elementary Mathematics and a foreign language and the foreign languages offered were invariably Latin and French – not Spanish, with Spanish speaking Venezuela as our neighbour to the west; not Portuguese with Portuguese speaking Brazil as our neighbour to the south and not Dutch with Dutch speaking Suriname as our eastern neighbour. Our northern border is of course the Atlantic Ocean.
It was recognised that Shahab was brilliant. Meaningful employment was not available in the village. The war was over and the world was settling back to peace. What to do about Shahab? It was decided that he must ‘do law’. His father provided the funds for his passage to England in July 1949 and his admission fee to the Middle Temple, one of the four Inns of Court where Barristers are trained and where, it is safe to say, that the majority of West Indian Barristers received their training.
It is important to keep in mind the time lines of his academic career in order to appreciate the magnitude of his achievements. Shahab entered the Middle Temple on January 27, 1950. Normally prospective Barristers qualify in three years. He passed his Bar Finals in May, 1952 - just short of two and a half years. He was only twenty years old. In addition he had been working full-time during his tenure at the Middle Temple and this was a barrier to his Call to the Bar. However an English Queen’s Counsel came to his aid – he got an exemption and was called to the Bar of the Middle Temple on February 9, 1954.
While waiting on his call to the Bar, he was not idle. He was reading for the LL.B. examination of the University of London as an external student. That means you read the same law books as those fortunate enough to attend the University, write the same examinations as they do but you do not have the benefit of the Law Professors to guide you. The LL.B. is usually a three year course of study – first there is the intermediate LL.B. Examination, usually held in September, the first part of the Finals in June and the second part of the Finals the following June. Shahab completed his LL.B. Finals in 1953.
Shahab left England for home in July 1954 and was admitted to the Bar of then British Guiana on August 9, 1954. His petition to the High Court was presented by B.O. Adams, a renowned Senior Counsel. Shahab was married on August 14, 1955 to the former Sairah Mazaharally, and they had three children, two boys, Faid and Sieyf, both of whom followed their father into law and qualified as Attorneys-at-Law, and a girl, Shalisa, who earned a degree in history from the University of Guyana. They all live in Canada with their families. Unfortunately their mother Sairah died in August 2012.
He practised on the Essequebo coast appearing principally in the
Magistrate’s Court in Suddie, Anna Regina, Charity and Aurora.
While in practice, and with a young family, he gained the degree of
Master of Laws in 1958 from the University of London and the
following year the degree of Bachelor of Science (Economics) also from
the University of London, both as an external student. In May 1959 he
was appointed to the Magistrate’s Court in Suddie. His service as a
Magistrate was quite short – from May 1959 to August 1959.
It is with some degree of delight to state that a member of my family played a part in his future success. My uncle John Carter had also graduated as a Barrister at Law from the Middle Temple in 1942 and had returned to Guyana after the War in 1945. He had a wide practice throughout the three counties of Demerara, Berbice and Essequebo. He appeared before Shahab on a number of occasions and was very impressed by his knowledge and scholarship.
John Carter was a friend of Shridath Ramphal – later Sir Shridath Ramphal – known to all Guyanese as ‘Sonny’ Ramphal. In his tribute to Shahab published in the Guyana Press on February 18, 2018, Sir Shridath stated inter alia:
I was Guyana’s Solicitor General when a senior lawyer, my friend John Carter, called and asked me if I knew the magistrate at Suddie; and if I didn’t why was such talent confined to a country
District- and as a magistrate? It was the first time I had heard his
name. He came to me the following week, and in a sense, he never
This is how Sonny Ramphal describes him in his book “Glimpses of a Global Life” published in 2014:
Sahabudeen was a prodigy. He was a country boy from
Essequibo who never went to University but achieved
every relevant law degree of London University
externally by correspondence courses: the B.A., LL.B,
LL.M, Ph.D, LL.D. Degrees – and his Bar examinations
similarly. When he came to my notice he was languishing
as a country magistrate, but had already done the LL.M.
I lost no time in bringing him into the Attorney General’s
Chambers, which he never left – eventually succeeding me
as Attorney General, and then going on to be a much
admired Judge of the International Court of Justice in
The Hague. He was truly learned: and never lost his
quiet, retiring, methodical and always industrious
manner in his extraordinary transition from Essequebo to
Actually Sir Shridath made an acceptable error in relating the
degrees earned by Shahab. He had earned the B.Sc. in
Economics not the B.A. but he correctly stated the others.
When he joined the Attorney General’s Office he was
appointed a Crown Counsel, a position he held until April 1962
when he succeeded Sir Shridath as Solicitor General. In 1966
he was appointed Queen’s Counsel and in 1970 Senior Counsel
when Guyana ceased to use the term Queen’s Counsel. These
honours did not slow him down. In 1970 he obtained the
degree of Doctor of Philosophy from the University of London
as an external Student and sixteen years later he gained the
degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of London, again
as an external student. Five academic degrees from a
world-class University without having been a full time student
of that University!
In due course he succeeded Sir Shridath as Attorney
General and Minister of Legal Affairs and also acted as
Minister of Foreign Affairs.
In addition he found time to write. His books include
“The Legal System of Guyana” (1973); “Constitutional
Development Development in Guyana 1621-1978” (1978); “The
Conquest of Grenada: Sovereignty in the Periphery” (1986);
“Precedent in the World Court” (2007).
Candidates for election to the International Court of
Justice are proposed by their respective countries. Election of a
candidate needs a majority of votes both at the United Nations
General Assembly and at the Security Council. Following
an informal meeting Shahab had with President Forbes
Burnham in 1983, Burnham gave instructions to the Ministry
of Foreign Affairs to ‘get the ball rolling’ in terms of laying the
groundwork for the diplomatic lobbying at the UN General
Assembly and at the Security Council. Burnham died in March
1985 and the effort to get Shahab elected intensified under his
successor President Hoyte. Rashleigh Jackson, Guyana’s
Foreign Affairs Minister, and Rudy Insanally, Guyana’s
Permanent Representative at the United Nations, played key
roles in getting Shahab elected to the International Court of
Justice in late 1987 with his term for nine years to commence
in 1988. In 1997 he was elected by the United Nations to
serve as a member of the International Criminal Court for the
former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court for
Rwanda where he served until November 2005. He was the
first Caribbean national to serve as a member of those courts.
With all his pursuit of knowledge, one wonders whether
he had time for leisure. His passion was listening to classical
music. He bought a piano and taught himself to play but he
was not gifted in that area. His playing was deliberate and
somewhat stilted. At least he tried which is more than many of
us can say. As Solicitor General he was introduced to hunting
Wisi Wisi ducks by Sir Shridath who was Attorney General at
the time. They spent many weekends in a party armed with
shotguns, hunting wild ducks.
Not surprisingly, Shahab has been the recipient of several
Awards: the Order of Excellence, Guyana’s highest national
Award; Honorary Doctor of Laws of the University of the West
Indies; Honorary life member of the Indian Society of
International Law; Honorary Bencher of the Middle Temple,
to name a few.
Shahab migrated to Canada in 2009. Unfortunately, that
year he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. When I saw
him on November 19, 2014 at the launch of Sir Shridath’s book
“Glimpses of a Global Life” at Massey Hall of the University of
Toronto, I was somewhat taken aback. He had the same
pleasant face that I had last seen in 1967 when I left Guyana.
He spoke as quietly as he always did. But his illness had
confined him to a wheelchair. His wife Sairah had died two
years before. On October 31, 2015 he married the former
Wadia Khan. She hails from Windsor Forest on the Essequebo
coast. This Islamic Centre was founded and is operated by
Guyanese from Windsor Forest. What a small world we live in!
It proves also that You Essequebeians have a knack for
All Guyanese are justly proud of this remarkable man
whose life we celebrate. Shahab was truly one of a kind.