Two recent events in Nigeria raise grave concern on the application of rule of law in Nigeria. One was the gruesome mob action in Aluu, in Rivers State that took the lives of four university undergraduates. The second was the wanton massacre of about thirty Nigerians in Maiduguri by the military in an apparent reprisal attack following the killing of some soldiers. There are many dimensions and stories around these events but they amplify the growing culture of self-help even amongst state institutions and alarming crisis of rule of law in Nigeria.
These incidents are not isolated. There are many cases of abuse and impunity. The Nigeria state is incapable of ensuring accountability and consequences of infringements of the law. This translates into two things- the perception that that constitutional institutions cannot protect or provide redress for individuals and the belief that illegal actions taken by individuals cannot be punished. This is a recipe for anarchy and lawlessness.
According to the Constitution, the primary function of maintaining law and order rests with government. It is the primary reason why formal states exist in the first place. To be able to carry out this fundamental duty, government must not just command respect and trust but also must have effective mechanisms for maintaining law and order. It is the capacity to enforce law that makes legislation have any force in the first in the place. Moral persuasion does not ensure compliance with regulations. There must be punishment that is not just in paper. The reverse has been in the case in Nigeria for a long time. Criminals, miscreants and misfits walk around the country even when it is obvious to people that such persons should be behind bars. Sometime, government does not even hold itself accountable. There is this notion that people can get away with anything in Nigeria. Fiefdoms are carved out where individuals rule supreme and the law does not limit their excesses. The reckless behavior by some politicians continues to reinforce the notion that we are in a country where laws do not matter.
It is easy to look at the Aluu killings or the free reign of terror in Maiduguri and wonder how this could be possible in Nigeria. It is easy to analyze these events as exceptional circumstances. But the truth is that what is happening is a manifestation of what Nigeria has become. People do not have the faith or confidence in the police or our courts. Incidences of police brutality and unprofessionalism have reinforced the notion that the police is not your friend and the police station is the last place you can get objective redress. A criminal can always walk away from the police if he plays the right card. So if you want ‘justice’ get it for yourself. And there is second troubling dimension to this situation. People believe that government has already done enough impoverishing them. Politicians loot their resources and they are helpless in ensuring justice. So when an individual is remotely suspected of stealing directly from the ‘poor’ the backlash is horrendous. It is a culmination of frustration, poverty and joblessness.
Security operatives in Nigeria more often than not get away with gross human rights abuses and in some cases extra judicial murder. There are various reports on these issues. As long as individuals are branded terrorists or armed robbers, it is fine to ‘waste ‘them. This has been going on for years but the consistency of these acts in the anti-terrorism effort has been rather extreme. What are the rules of engagement for our joint task force on terrorism? How come there is limited press access to the operations of the joint task force established to contain violence? Who is investigating all these allegations of killings? These are troubling questions that need to be answered. But there is a more troubling dimension- the culture of impunity that has been perpetuated over the years. Maiduguri is just a manifestation, the problems are systemic. We see it on the roads where security operatives boldly move around with horse whip; we see it when Nigerians are publicly humiliated with punishments like frog jump or rolling in the mud. You see it in the extortions carried out by the police against innocent motorists; you see it in threats and intimidation by people in uniform. In all of these, the security hierarchy defends the indefensible rather than ensure accountability. The hierarchy which is also a product of the systemic failures is defined by those failures. Government will have to do a lot to reverse this trend.
Gaining back the trust of the citizens goes beyond brute law enforcement. It has to encompass economic, social and political emancipation that qualitatively improves the lives of Nigerians. People should have a stake. There should be a sense of ownership in the Nigeria project and a government that is seen to be working for the people. It is a gradually process that will start by redefining our governance principles-Nigerians should be the centerpiece of government policies in practice. As long as our oft touted economic growth does not translate to more job, social amenities and human development, government will continue to hemorrhage credibility and Nigerians will continue to resort to self help. Nothing justifies mob justice but we need to create an environment of economic and social wellbeing where we can effectively re-orient the people.
Government will need to take law enforcement more seriously. To get to the big change, you have to start from the little things that affect the big picture. A lot has been written about police reform and lots of recommendations are there for government to work with. But it is important that the mechanism for oversight has to be strengthened so that security operatives who cross the line can get punished. The internal mechanisms in place currently seem not to be working. There should be a convergence of external and effective internal oversight mechanism. The fact that Governing Council of the Human Rights Commission is not yet inaugurated is troubling. This is one institution that can play a significant role in investigating human rights abuses and checking the excesses of police and military action around the country. The ability of this commission to work is greatly hampered by this situation. There must be consequences for police/ military brutality.
Nigeria can never achieve its potentials if the rule of law is undermined. The rule of law presupposes accountability for state and individual actions. The fact that Boko Haram is wrecking havoc in the country and we are not able to stem it is a crisis for rule of law; the inadequacies of state institution and the credibility challenge they have is a threat to rule of law and the fact that 70 percent of Nigerians or more live below the poverty line is fundamental challenge to rule of law.
When people scream about the absence of rule of law, it is viewed by politicians as the hollow exhortation of the human rights community. It is not. Sadly, it is an existential challenge that threatens the stability of the country, the status quo that government presently enjoys and the potential for a prosperous future. It diminishes the quality of life and accentuates the fault lines in the country. Nigeria needs to wake up and begin to appreciate the enormity of the crisis of rule of law in the country. It is a crisis that has the capacity of destroying everything we hold dear as a democracy.
Udo writes from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA)