By Chris Anyokwu
The rule of law is the basis of a civilised society. The absence of the rule of law gives rise to what Thomas Hobbes called “the state of nature”; a state of affairs characterised as nasty, short and brutish. Unarguably, today’s Nigeria is a carbon copy of a Hobbesian state of nature. In these parts, if the truth has to be told, life is nasty, short and brutish. In more ways than one, it would appear, that the managers of our affairs are doing their level best to sponsor anomie, promote chaos and normalise misery. But we must, at the very least, endeavour to cut the bad guys some slack and give the Devil his due. The rain did not start beating us just now. The downpour has been on for quite a while, to be honest. Perhaps the times call for a stern interrogation of the sordid mess in which we as a people are embroiled. When the military elected rather reluctantly to “step aside” and allow commonsense in the form of civil rule to take over, we all were euphoric. The mood in the land was similar to the child-like euphoria and heady excitement which had greeted the lowering of the Union Jack and the hoisting of our own Green-White-Green flag signalling self-rule; independence in 1960. Much in the same manner in which the lofty dreams of independence were shattered by the horrific missteps of our local ruling elite who had taken over the reins from the white man, in the present dispensation, all the hopes and high expectations of the much-vaunted return-to-civil-rule since 1999 to date have been dashed on the pitiless rock of lawlessness and impunity. Ours has been a land rigged deliberately against the rule of law. Following what is, in political parlance, dubbed the Obasanjo Settlement in 1999, an otherwise smart move to douse the political conflagration at the time as a result of the June 12 debacle, power was ceded to the Southwest, the Yoruba, to be precise. General Olusegun Obasanjo was elected president in 1999.
He had hardly settled down to the onerous task of deck-clearing and banishing the spectre of the jackboot under which we had been asphyxiating when a section of political elite spearheaded by the then Zamfara State Governor, Sani Ahmed Yerimah introduced what social commentators and political analysts called “Political Sharia.” Like wildfire in Harmattan, this religious code had spread across a wide swathe of the north, effectively rendering the Nigerian Constitution obsolete therein. If our memory serves us correctly, it was OBJ who had dismissed this development, provocative and divisive as it had seemed, as “Political Sharia”. And, thereafter the term gained traction in popular discourse. However, whilst OBJ at the time chose to look the other way rather than challenge the incident, it soon became clear that what we were witnessing was the birth of a baby lion, which in time, grew into a devouring lion. There is a burgeoning body of literature which supports the argument that the advent of the Boko Haram and its splinter groups that are terrorising Nigeria today, killing thousands and rendering millions homeless is traceable to “Political Sharia”. The resultant proliferation of terror exemplified by roving bands of bandits, rag-tag militias, ransom-seeking insurgents, terrorists and kidnappers sowing mayhem and taking life at will seem to be the discernable fallout of this countervailing theocratic order. It is a moot point whether or not the imposition of the strict religious code has made life more tolerable for the people.
Moving down south, criminality takes on a different hue. Welcome to the parlous and precarious region of ritualists, cultists, Yahoo Yahoo scammers, and the like. Nigerians had long succumbed to the blackmail of the normalisation of violent crime, and the rising activities of men of the underworld. The standard fare, as things stand, is the alleged collusion and cynical complicity of officialdom with criminal fiefdoms. Only recently, on social media, a certain well-known cult leader in Benin City was seen showing off his multi-million-naira mansion built from the illicit proceeds of violent crime and, more worrisome, the reward of political brigandage. He boasted that he and some powerful people in government were cheeks by jowl in cultism and crime. The popular belief and growing perception that government (or some of its officials) are neck-deep in lawlessness tend to strengthen the hand of both state and non-state actors who trade and traffic in crime and criminality. Charles Dickens in his novel Great Expectations famously quips: “Bark is a good dog but hold fast is better”. By the same token, the bark-and-no-bite disposition of our law enforcement agencies, especially our armed forces in the so-called war on terror, insurgency, banditry and other sundry forms of criminality is such a great let-down. We will, probably, never know why it took the federal government eternity to call (out) terrorist bandits by their rightful name. They had killed and maimed, raped and ruined to their hearts’ content until a High Court judge summoned up the courage to call these criminals what Nigerians all along had known them to be – terrorists.
Thus, puny minds with bloated egos, some of them, drug barons, internet scammers, ritual killers, and notorious urban riff-raff, love to go about the place escorted by the police! The police, yes! The visible symbol of state power itself! This is how the law is incrementally and cumulatively demystified, humiliated and rendered toothless as egregiously emblematised by their jalopies used for crime-fighting. You see a common criminal clad in gaudy habits surrounded by policemen, not to arrest him but to give him security. The criminal commits a crime in broad daylight and declares: “Do you know who I am?” Such impertinence! Who the f-k are you? To hell with your connections, your power, your education, your money or your royal birth!
The federal government thereupon timorously whispered “terrorists” in reference to these notorious enemies of life. The kid gloves with which the government has always treated various categories of criminals has done more harm than good to our collective security. For instance, following the abduction of the passengers on the ill-fated Abuja-Kaduna train a few months ago by Islamist terrorists, everyone had expected the federal government to swing into action and rescue the innocent abductees in the same daring manner Americans in distress are rescued from the jaws of danger or death by their government. Up until today, many of the victims are still languishing in captivity not sure whether or not they will ever regain their freedom. Quizzed over his government’s signature slowness in demonstrating strength and authority and superior tack in rescuing the train abductees and bombing their abductors, PMB had cited the avoidance of “collateral damage” in the deployment of lethal force.
One wonders how long it will take Nigeria to develop its military drone technology or, in the interim, purchase some drones from friendly nations. Paraphrasing Shakespeare, there is no art to discern or divine a man’s heart from his face. It is easy, therefore, for a dye-in-the-wool terrorist to throw his hands up and say “I surrender all. I hereby renounce my evil ways”. But one expects the government to be more circumspect, and more thorough in de-radicalising such “born-again” criminals. Amnesty for these types over time has proved simply a costly mistake as some of them reintegrated into society, and more scaringly, into our armed forces and vigilante outfits have shown their hand as moles and snitches to their erstwhile terror groups. Some have even enjoyed the government’s largesse and returned promptly to their former nefarious ways. Sadly, while these criminals, under the pretext of remorse (not repentance), are treated like VIPs, some of them are flown overseas for self-improvement, and their victims such as widows and children of fallen soldiers engaged in the war on terror, are left to endure untold trauma and allied insupportable horrors in IDPs and desolate homes. Similarly, in several cases, we have had occasions whereby some apprehended criminals were released from detention unconditionally after an “oga on top” had made a phone call from Abuja or anywhere else ordering their immediate release. This is the root cause of impunity in Nigeria. The entire swathe of the Middle Belt, particularly Plateau, Benue and Southern Kaduna has remained the epicentre of banditry and terrorism instigated mainly by Fulani herdsmen in what has been described as their rabid expansionism. The travails of Yoruba freedom-fighter, Sunday Igboho is an eloquent testament in this regard. It will be fascinating to see Governor Nasir el Rufai of Kaduna State and Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State engage each other on the topic of terrorism, say, in an amphitheatre with Nigerians as the audience. What a riveting piece of political theatre! Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett will be turning in their graves, happy that their product, namely the Theatre of the Absurd is alive and well in postcolonial Africa!
Here, in the heart of darkness, we love to celebrate the criminal and arrest the victim. It matters little whether it is a case involving two persons, that is, interpersonal conflict, especially if they are divided by region and religion, inter-ethnic crisis and so forth. In road rage, land disputes, landlord versus tenant issues, petty thievery, street felony, and all whatnot. It is tribe, religion, or any other primordial consideration that predominates. Not the Law. All animals are equal but some are more equal than others. This is Orwellian Nigeriana. Anybody who tells you all Nigerians are equal before the law is telling you a big lie. Class is writ large in our social affairs. Thus, we have multiple levels of influence, power and connection. The police, for example, are attached to some Nigerians who love to regard themselves as Very Important Personalities (VIP). It boggles the mind to imagine what makes some of our compatriots feel so entitled. What is it? Money? Education? Royalty? Connection? Influence? What exactly? If it is money, how much do you have? Are you richer than Elon Musk? Is it education? How many branches of knowledge have you mastered? Royalty? Don’t kings and emperors die? We must keep in mind that all earth’s treasures are but dross. Ilé aíyé, ile asán! Thus, puny minds with bloated egos, some of them, drug barons, internet scammers, ritual killers, and notorious urban riff-raff, love to go about the place escorted by the police! The police, yes! The visible symbol of state power itself! This is how the law is incrementally and cumulatively demystified, humiliated and rendered toothless as egregiously emblematised by their jalopies used for crime-fighting. You see a common criminal clad in gaudy habits surrounded by policemen, not to arrest him but to give him security. The criminal commits a crime in broad daylight and declares: “Do you know who I am?” Such impertinence! Who the f-k are you? To hell with your connections, your power, your education, your money or your royal birth!
You are nothing but a pitiable and miserable piece of earth. A paltry thing! Ideally, everyone should be equal before the law. If you let an offender, a law-breaker, for example, a traffic law breaker go scot-free, you set a bad precedent for other potential offenders. The same goes for all categories of lawbreakers such as rapists, public fund embezzlers, robbers, drug pushers, fraudsters, exam misconduct offenders, and criminals generally. Corner-cutting and lowering of standards for some and raising of the bar for others on grounds of class, ethnicity, region or religion is the Nemesis of the Law. “Justice”, Soyinka posits “is the first condition of man”. And justice itself must derive its force from the rule book, the Grundnorm – the Nigerian Constitution. The 1999 Constitution has been dismissed by many well-informed Nigerians as a fraud. They claim it is not a people’s Constitution but a cunningly devised tissue of statues and laws promoting ethnoreligious supremacy of one region over the rest. Whilst it is loud and long on a particular religion, it is sepulchrally mute on other religious worldviews and belief systems. It ultimately lays the foundation of not, a virile, indivisible entity but of a fractured and fractious latticework, one whose eventual implosion is only a question of time. Given, thus, the inbuilt contradictions and antinomic tensions in the Constitution, it is suggested that a proper people’s Constitution be drafted by a Constituent Assembly and be put to a referendum before it comes into force. The current situation in which we are ruled by whimsicality rather than by law is injurious to the healthy co-existence of all Nigerians. The law is an ass, we know. But the law is the law and it must be enforced, no matter whose ox is gored. This is calling on the elite who run our lives to jettison the culture of impunity and enthrone the rule of law. It has been said that if corruption (read: impunity) does not kill Nigeria, Nigeria will kill corruption. Let us kill corruption/impunity by subjecting ALL to the rule of law.
Chris Anyokwu writes from the University of Lagos.