Celebrating Nigerian Independence Amidst Decaying Democracy – By Anthony Nwajiugo, Esq.
Nigeria as a country that is celebrating 60 years post independence has over the years managed the frail bond that has kept the diverse ethnic units together. This is no mean feat, which seems to have been achieved at the cost of a decaying democracy, a mortgaged electoral structure and a feeble judicial system.
Democracy is a system of government where state power is vested on the people and which system is sustained by a free and fair electoral process, rule of law, an independent judiciary, guaranteed fundamental human rights which include the freedom of expression and an efficient system of checks and balances amongst the various arms of government. It is however unfortunate that since 1960 till date, Nigeria can hardly boast of a truly democratic government and this is largely attributed to unnecessary military incursions and incessant electoral malpractices which give birth to unpopular civil governments that are in the habit of encouraging executive and legislative lawlessness, abuse of human rights, muscling of the judiciary and dethronement of the rule of law.
The era of military governance in Nigeria encouraged arbitrary rule which saw to the suspension of certain provisions of the Constitution, ceaseless abuse of human rights including extra judicial killings of innocent Nigerians, reckless neglect of the law, suppression of press freedom, unlawful arrests and detention of Nigerian citizens, political corruption and above all disobedience of lawful court orders. The damage and rot perpetuated during the 30 years of military misrule almost decimated the foundation of our country, as executive impunity was the order of the day.
The concept of executive lawlessness became so rampant that it gained judicial notice in the case of Military Governor of Lagos State V. Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu ((1986) 1 NWLR (Part 18) 550 at 590) where Kayode Eso, JSC stated as follows:
‘Executive lawlessness is tantamount to a deliberate violation of the constitution. When the executive is the military government which blends both executive and the legislative powers together and which permits the judiciary to coexist with it in the administration of the country, then it is more serious than imagined. The essence of rule of law is that it should never operate under the rule of force or fear, to use force to effect and act and while under the Marshall of that force, seek the courts equity is an attempt to infuse timidity into court and operate a sabotage of the cherished rule. It must never be’
Without belaboring the tragedy of military governance in Nigeria, it appears that our civilian governments have been heavily infested with the repulsive traits of military rule, which explains the recklessness exerted by successive civilian governments, which have undermined the rule of law and Nigerian’s nascent democracy.
The notion of the rule of law envisages a situation where the law is supreme and everyone is subject to the dictates of the law be it the government or the governed. The rule of law advocates among other things unequivocal enthronement of the law, equality of all persons before the law and an independent judiciary that can adjudicate disputes without fear or favour. It is pertinent to note that the rule of law can only thrive in a constitutional democracy where the law is supreme and above every person(s) or institution in the country.The rule of law being a constitutional notion is the hallmark of democratic governance in any political institution. It means that everything must be done according to the law and by this, both the government and the governed must always justify their actions in law. It is however unfortunate that the law within the scope of Nigerian interpretation is only meant for the governed while the government and the privileged few are above the law.The Executive within a federal system of government such as in Nigeria can be likened to the English Kings of old that wielded excessive power to the detriment of their subjects and the executives cannot be held accountable as same will result to being hounded by security operatives who act at the whims and caprices of the executive arm of government.
During the Second Republic, the democratically elected government of Oyo State, Nigeria precisely on the 5th of September 1981 superintended the gruesome execution of Mr. Nasiru Bello while he was still exercising his right of appeal and this only elicited public condemnation after his relatives filed a suit in the case Bello V. Attorney General of Oyo State (1986) 5 NWLR PART 45 Page 845 wherein Aniagolu, JSC in the above case noted that:
‘This is the first case in this country, of which I am aware, in which a legitimate Government of this country- past or present; colonial or indigenous-hastily and illegally snuffed off the life of an appellant whose appeal had vested and was in being, with no order of Court upon the appeal, and with a reckless disregard for the life and liberty of the subject and the principles of the Rule of Law. The brutal incident has bespattered the face of the Oyo State Government with the paintbrush of shame.
The above scenario further explains the reason for the rise in the spate of extra judicial killings orchestrated by the Nigerian police and security agencies in Nigeria without any form of retribution. The Amnesty International in 2009 reported the extra judicial killing of one Mr. Chukwuemeka Matthew Onovo who was killed on the 4th of July 2008. Although police claimed he was an armed robber, the Amnesty International report show that there was no conclusive evidence to justify such a claim by the Nigerian Police. Nation Newspaper reported another pathetic case of one Chibuike Anam, a 23-year-old student, who was killed in the company of two friends at a guesthouse in Elimgbu, Rivers State on the 24th of July 2009. According to the report, the police in the usual manner had raided the guesthouse; the young man attempted to escape and was shot dead on the spot. His friends were arrested but were later released. About 4 months ago, BBC news reported the extra judicial killing of a 17-year-old Tina Ezekwe, who was murdered by a drunken police officer and up till this day, we are yet to hear of the retribution of the law against the said police officer. Punch Newspaper on the 16th of January 2020, reported the gruesome murder of one Mr. Kolade Johnson by an officer of the Nigerian Police on the 16th of March 2019 of which it took public outcry before the Nigerian police dismissed the said officer and charged the officer to court. On the 16th of December 2017, the Punch Newspaper reported the Odi Massacre which was an attack carried out by the Nigerian Military on the people of Odi community on the 20th of November 1999 which killing was alleged to have been done upon the orders of the then Nigerian Government.
In the light of the foregoing accounts of extra judicial killings by the Nigerian Police and the armed forces, it is clear that the fundamental right to life in Nigeria is a privilege and not a right per se as such right seems to be for the protection of the privileged few in government while the governed can loose theirs without repercussions. These are unfortunate tragedies happening at a time when democratically elected governments who have sworn to protect the lives and property of Nigerian citizens are in control of state power. The pathetic spate of unlawful killings in Nigeria was well captured in the book ‘Killing at Will’ by Amnesty international in the following words:
‘Extrajudicial executions, other unlawful killings and enforced disappearances in Nigeria are not random. In a country where bribes guarantee safety, those who cannot afford to pay are at risk of being shot or tortured to death by the police. The families of the victims often cannot afford to seek justice or redress, because they cannot pay for a lawyer or the court fees. In many cases, they cannot even afford to retrieve the body.’
Beyond the challenge of extra judicial killings prevalent in Nigeria, we also have cases of unlawful arrests and detentions, bribery and corruption, unlawful removal of political office holders by the executive and the legislature and abuse of political offices bedeviling our democracy. In all of these, one begins to wonder what role or effect the judiciary has in the sustainance of our no-longer nascent democracy. The Judiciary as an independent third arm of government is vested with diverse functions and duties under the Nigerian constitution and which among others includes the interpretation of the law. The judiciary having been empowered by Section 6 of the 1999 Constitution is at the apex of checks and balances; it has the primary duty of inquiring into the legality of acts of the executive and the legislature. Any question on whether the executive has acted intra vires or ultra vires or has complied strictly with the procedure, manner or form prescribed by law is determined by the Court. It is obvious that whenever the Judiciary failed to play its stabilizing role in Nigerian democratic state, democracy is either threatened or bound to be truncated. This is the case where the rights of Nigerian citizens have been abrogated notwithstanding judicial interventions thereby leaving poor Nigerian masses disillusioned as the Judiciary, which is deemed to be the last hope of the common man, is now perceived to be a toothless bulldog with its independence on trial.
The depth of executive recklessness wrecking Nigeria’s democracy is further underscored with the rate of disobedience of court orders by the executive arm of government. The recent case of Col. Sambo Dasuki V. Federal Republic of Nigeria &Ors (2018) LPELR-43897 (SC) where the Federal Government until recently refused to release Col. Sambo Dasuki notwithstanding several court orders granting him bail is a matter that should give sleepless nights to every well meaning Nigerian. We also have the case of Sheikh El zakzaky V. State Security Service &Ors in suit number FHC/ABJ/CS/281/2016 wherein Justice Kolawole granted bail to the leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria but the said Court Order is yet to be complied with by the Federal Government. This is a gross abuse of the rule of law as such disobedience not only portrays arbitrary rule but also destroys the confidence reposed on our judiciary by the masses.
Recently, several news outlets in Nigeria reported the most gruesome inhibition of the independence of judiciary following the midnight hounding and arrest of 7 judges of which among them were two justices of the Supreme Court by the officers of the Department of State Security Services (DSS) upon the allegation of corruption. The arrest of these judicial officers was perpetuated in flagrant neglect of the role of National Judicial Council as provided under the 1999 constitution, which is the institution, charged with discipline of judicial officers in Nigeria. This attempt to muzzle the judiciary is coming at a time in Nigeria that the judiciary is battling to curb executive lawlessness manifested in the Federal government’s disobedience of several Court orders.
These are dangerous times for Nigerian democracy as the judiciary charged with the protection of the rights of Nigerian masses is also struggling to protect itself from the overbearing excesses of the Executive arm of government. One will hardly blame the cowardly disposition of the judiciary in this trying time as the third arm is still trying to recover from the shock of the removal of the erstwhile Chief Justice of Nigeria – Justice Walter Onnoghen by the Federal Government without recourse to the provision of Section 292 of the 1999 Constitution.
As we celebrate 60 years of our independence from colonial rule, I believe it is apposite that the events of past and recent times should really cause both the government and the governed to reflect on our commitment towards democratic rule in Nigeria since the rule of law we dragged to the mud today may be our only succour tomorrow in our own desperate time. God bless Nigeria.
By: Anthony Chukwuebuka Nwajiugo Esq. (LL.M).