On the Rule of Law or the lack of it in Nigeria


Professor Victor Oguejiofor Okafor
Email Address: victor.okafor@emich.edu
Department of African American Studies
Eastern Michigan University
Ypsilanti, Michigan 48197
It's no news that Nigeria's fledgling experiment with representative democracy faces a number of threats. One of such threats concerns one of the three branches of this constitutional democracy, namely the judiciary. It's disturbing to continually read about what appears to be a widespread disregard of court orders in this new democracy. Recently, the Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association, Prince Lanke Odogiyan cried out about this negative trend in the country. Nigeria's This Day edition of August 29, 2005 reports as follows: "The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) yesterday reacted to frequent disobedience of court orders by government functionaries and threatened to re-enact the 1988 scenario in which Chief Alao Aka-Bashorun led lawyers to withdraw their services from courts. New President of the association, Prince Lanke Odogiyan in his address at the NBA conference in Jos made the position of the lawyers known and also said a proposal to sanction legal advisers and Attorneys-General in any establishment that disobeys court orders is being considered. Odogiyan warned that the country could not continue to live in a state of lawlessness. He advised politicians and individuals to obey court orders and be patient to follow due processes in handling unfavorable court decisions." Odogiyan could not be more correct, and his note of alarm could not have arrived at a better time.
Hardly anyone needs a lecture on the importance of a vibrant and respected judiciary in a constitutional polity. In general, African constitutions, including Nigeria's, are filled with idealistic provisions pertaining to the need and role of an independent judiciary. The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) recognizes and emphasizes the fundamental importance of good governance, which encompasses the rule of law. One must remind ourselves, however, that the concept and practice of the rule of law predate the colonial order on the continent, for African traditional political institutions generally incorporated various forms of the rule of law (popularly known as native laws and customs) as opposed to the rule of the whims and caprices of the leaders of the day.
If court orders are not implemented, the public will eventually loose faith in the judiciary as a means by which societal issues or disputes, including public and private issues, could be resolved peacefully. The belief that societal disputes could be eventually resolved through the judicial system is probably why it's said that the judiciary is the last hope of the common man. In reality, the rich also need the judiciary, probably more so that the so-called common man. In fact, access to the judicial process is often so expensive that it is often only the well-to-do in society that can afford it. The eventual fate of a society that cannot resolve its disputes and issues through the judiciary is often collapse in the form of a civil disturbance or civil war. It is, therefore, imperative that the political leaders of Nigeria, at the federal, state levels and local levels, should see to it that court orders are treated as sacrosanct. The system provides for appeals, so that if a person does not agree with the ruling of a particular court, he/she should appeal that verdict. Respect for judicial decisions is an important ingredient of a viable political culture; understandably, Nigeria's political culture reels under the weight of too many dysfunctional ties.
In the recent Nigerian political experience, a pattern seems to have emerged, reminiscent of an ugly past in the Nigerian political experience, whereby court orders are executed selectively. In other words, if a given court order aligns with the interest of a given political authority, then that order is implemented with speed and without rancor, but if the order happens to be out of sync with the wishes or tastes of the powerful, it is ignored rather than appealed. When such dysfunctional tendencies occurred in the past ruled by military dictatorships, one, perhaps like other Nigerians, prayed for a day when constitutionally elected governance would emerge to right such wrongs. Therefore, to witness "frequent" disobedience of court orders in what is supposed to be a corrective constitutional republic is cause for serious disillusionment.
President Olusegun Obasanjo's laudable and almost unprecedented war on public corruption needs to go hand in hand with a healthy and manifest respect for the judiciary. The judiciary is an important instrument of that war. Witness the ongoing corruption-related judicial trials of the nation's former inspector general of police, the former president of the Senate and the former minister of education. Obasanjo should speak out on this issue of a growing disregard for judicial orders. As the leader of the country, he also has a responsibility to call attention to this type of problem and to make it clear that his administration, as the federal executive arm of government, does not and will not tolerate any deliberate disregard for judicial orders. Disappointingly, the federal government's lack of implementation of the Supreme Court ruling on the issue of local government allocations to Lagos state does not appear as a shinning example of respect for the judiciary. One of the attributes of good and effective leadership is leadership by example. The apparent disregard, on the part of the federal government, of the ruling of the Supreme Court on the local government funding issue, sends a wrong message to the nation as a whole. It sends a wrong message to the state governors-that they too can pick and choose which judicial rulings they must obey. It runs counter to Obasanjo's international image as a devout advocate of constitutionality.
Since Nigeria's political system is patterned after that of the presidential system of government in the United States, it is not surprising or even inappropriate for Nigerian politicians to try to occasionally emulate aspects of US political behavior that can blend with the realities and needs of Nigeria's politics. Witness the ongoing construction of a presidential library for the soon-to-be retired president of Nigeria-an action that, no doubt, resonates with the United States experience of building presidential libraries for retired presidents. However, this and other such instances of emulation of US political behavior have tended to be highly selective and self-serving. For instance, while some Nigerian politicians are quick to point to the system of lobbying in the US political system, they should also be quick to copy the US general tradition of respecting and implementing judicial decisions. In fact, in the US, disobedience of court orders, even in civil matters, is considered a criminal offence for which a public official can be impeached or jailed. A public example that comes to mind is the recent jailing of two U.S. journalists who refused to obey a court order to turn over their reportorial notes on the controversial, still-being-investigated case of the outing of a CIA agent.
But having discussed at length the imperative of respect for the judiciary, one must also point out that constitutional stipulations in this regard are not enough. The judiciary itself must conduct itself in a manner that can earn it the respect of the public at large. A judiciary that rules without fear or favor, a judiciary that upholds the independence of that institution, a judiciary that is perceived as above board (and whose salaries are paid on time), is a judiciary that the Nigerian public is likely to not only respect but also trust. In this regard, the recent allegation of graft on the part of the current Chief Justice of Nigeria, true or false, is a development in Nigerian legal history that can only weaken public trust in and respect for the judicial process. Even though it remains an unproven allegation that is reportedly under investigation, it lends credence to anecdotal accounts that to win a court case in Nigeria requires much more than credible evidence and effective legal representation. In other words, the allegation against the chief justice unfortunately fuels what seems to be a public perception that in the Nigerian scheme of things, justice is usually up for sale to the highest bidder. Until it's proven false, this allegation may do as much damage to Nigerians' public trust in the judiciary as did the infamous 1979 twelve two-third ruling of the Nigerian Supreme Court that paved way for the ruler ship of Nigeria's most inept political leader, ex-President Shehu Shagari.