Nov 18, 2017

That we be governed by law and not by the whims of men | Adedunmade Onibokun

Our founding fathers and our powers-that-be have opted for the rule of law in preference to the rule of force and absolute totalitarianism.
 – Nnaemeka – Agu JSC;
A.G Bendel V. Aideyan(1989) 4 NWLR (Pt. 118)671[i]

The term “Rule of Law” is one used very often. To the Nigerian layman, it sums up to his or her ability to exercise the legal rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution; it also includes the access to quick and fair dispensation of justice. In Nigeria, all governments come into power with the promises of strengthening the rule of law and to look out for the common man. The reality however is not the case, for if you carried out an opinion poll, you will discover that almost all Nigerians believe justice is reserved only for the rich and powerful.

Despite the current state of the justice administration system in Nigeria, the rule of law cannot expressly be jettisoned while we all embrace anarchy. It is through the propagations of the rule of law that we will build our society, our democracy and our government. One may begin to question the exact definition of the rule of law at this point and may even further wonder how it relates to the lot of the average Nigerian.

 The term rule of law was coined by A.V Dicey in his book, “Law of the Constitution”10th Edition, published in 1885, to mean the –

“the absolute supremacy or predominance of regular law as opposed to the influence of arbitrary power, and excludes the existence of arbitrariness, of prerogative or even of wide discretionary authority on the part of government[ii].   

(Emphasis Mine)

To further understand what the term rule of law means, Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, first indigenous Chief Justice of Nigeria stated that, “as soon as you accept that Man is governed by law and not by whims of men, it is the rule of law”. To put it simply, the rule of law means that as Nigerians within the territorial space of our nation, we should be governed by a system of laws and that such laws must be supreme. That our justice system should be efficient as opposed to being governed by decisions of individual government officials.

 In Nigerian history, the greatest enemy of the rule of law, as always been the government and its officials. In this regard all governments, whether past or present are inclusive. The political class has always unscrupulously shelved the rule of law for their personal gains and whims, usually bending the law to act in their favour and applying force to cement their acts and silence public criticism. This situation is aptly put by Denton West JCA in the case of Balonwu V. Obi (2007) 5 NWLR (Pt. 1024) 563, where Milord stated that, “indeed for politicians, the rule of law is non-existing until it suits their purpose, and it is only then it is observed to the letter”.  

 A national policy on justice administration is long overdue as currently, there are thousands of prison inmates awaiting trial in Nigerian prisons and have been there for many years; millions of Nigerians are unable to get access to justice as they cannot afford the cost of legal fees and the years it takes to conclude matters in courts; neither is the police and other security agencies doing any better in bolstering the confidence of the average Nigerian in the legal system as it stands today.

Recently, the Attorney – General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN) on the 7th of November, 2017, raised hopes of a structural balance in the nation’s justice delivery system, when he spoke on the new national policy on justice and how it will mitigate the challenges of effective administration of justice in Nigeria. These raised hopes could however be dashed, as the national policy on justice is still at the road map stage and may take a long time for same to come in effect, let alone for its benefits to be felt by the average Nigerian.

It is however important to point out, that if we must strengthen the rule of law in Nigeria, the Judiciary must truly be independent in funding and in administration. The powers of the State Governor and the President over the funding of the judiciary at all levels must be removed and the Judiciary should be truly empowered to deliver justice as it deems fit to the average Nigerian. All policies of government that does not first address the issue mentioned above is merely a present relief to the sore justice system but will deliver a long lasting solution.  

It is our duty as Nigerians to always strive for the promotion of justice and the rule of law at all levels. That our laws be upheld and no Big-Man be allowed to escape through the nets of justice while the poor suffer innocently. It is our obligation, not only for ourselves but also the future generations.

Adedunmade Onibokun
Lawyer & Author 

[i] Witty Sayings & Quotes of Nigerian Judges. Femi Daniel, 2012.
[ii] Impeachment and Removal in Nigerian Democracy, Kayode Omosehin, 2009.