Rule of Law in Nigeria
Speaking at the 58th Annual NBA Conference in Abuja recently, President Muhammadu Buhari proclaimed that “the rule of law must be subject to the supremacy of the nation’s security and national interest”. Grasping the significance of this statement requires recalling a bit of history. When in 1949 George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, his seminal dystopian book, he could have hardly imagined that script being played out fully anywhere. But in a classic case of life imitating art, Nineteen Eighty-Four transpired in Nigeria in 1984, albeit under a military leader, whose regime lasted till 1985.
Thirty years later, during his fourth attempt at the running for the presidency, candidate Buhari made a declaration of conversion in his famous address at Chatham House in London on February 26, 2015. He said, “I cannot change the past. But I can change the present and the future. So before you is a former military ruler and a converted democrat, who is ready to operate under democratic norms and is subjecting himself to the rigors of democratic elections for the fourth time.” Ever since the Buhari administration was inaugurated after the 2015 presidential elections, Nigerians have gauged the performance of the current administration not only in terms of three public policy priorities – fighting corruption, tackling security and reviving the economy — that Buhari campaigned on, but also watched his every move on rule of law.
Global norms relating to rule of law are quite unambiguous. In any true democracy, certain creeds and tenets stand inviolable. Of the lot, the separation of powers and respect of ordered liberties top the list. As experts have observed, these narratives are “foundational and settled concepts” of any worthwhile democracy. Section 1(1) of the 1999 Constitution clearly states inter alia, that “all people and institutions are subject to and accountable to the law.” No exceptions. Security and national interest ought not to precede legalities that derive from the constitution. It is a false choice to pit national security or national interest against the rule of law. Citizens in a democracy are entitled to both.
At a time when the nation should be embarking on modernisation of its economy and strengthening the foundations of its democracy, we are witnessing a severe reverse, especially in regard to the latter. The signs have come in increments but the direction seems clear enough. Nigerians can still recall the invasion of the residences of some serving judicial officers by security agents; the invasion of a High Court premises in Rivers State in May; the non-compliance by government agents with court orders of habeas corpus and indeed, the growing contempt of court orders by the Attorney General of the Federation and other appointive and elected officials. Former NSA Sambo Dasuki and Islamic Cleric El Zakzaky have been in detention for over three years and well beyond what the constitution permits.
Not long ago, there was illegal siege laid over the National Assembly Complex by armed and hooded security agents on August 7 – an action that was quickly reversed – and the freezing of Ekiti State, Benue State and Akwa Ibom State bank accounts. All these have and are happening in a democratic Nigeria.
Yet, what separates a well-functioning democracy from non-democracies or illiberal democracies is the rule of law. In its broadest and best construction, the rule of law means that all persons are equal before the law, constitutional norms are supreme and must be strictly adhered to, and when there is doubt about the application of the law; the courts are the only arm of government that is empowered to interpret and clarify the situation.
Nigeria isn’t alone in manifesting certain governance limitations in a democratic dispensation. Its current governance leaning mimics discomforting trends elsewhere; “the discomforting truth is that some amount of ethnic nationalism is not just tolerated, but accepted as completely legitimate.” This erodes the very foundation of Nigeria’s nationhood, more so its quest for true federalism. This reality continues to fuel calls for restructuring. Issues such as these cannot be quelled or overcome by ignoring the rule of law or subjugating it to the whims of elected and appointed officials.
Nigeria, having survived thus far as a political entity, even overcoming a civil war, represents a triumph of faith over resilience and experience. Faith in Nigeria cannot depend on good will or benevolence of leaders. Hope and faith in a nation are cultivated and nurtured and not forced. That requires fair, even and consistent application of rule of law. This critically depends on ensuring that institutions that are designed to act as guardians of rule of law function as intended. This is the premise for the observation that great nations rely not on the will of great men or women but on the reliability and effectiveness of national institutions.
- Otobo is at the Global Governance Institute, Brussels.
- Obaze is a public policy expert based in Awka, Anambra State.