U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Stuart Symington
As we collectively work towards entrenching the principles and consolidating the practice of democracy in Nigeria, it is expedient to reiterate the need for the political class to respect the rule of law, which is the foundation for peace and order in society. Besides, political actors should note that disregard for the rule of law is the worst kind of corruption in any society. That was the point a top United States diplomat, William Stuart Symington was driving home to the political class the other day at the University of Ilorin convocation lecture where he had noted that injustice to citizens and disrespect for the rule of law were worse than corruption.
The U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria who noted this in a lecture titled, Citizen, Leadership and the Link Between Economic Diversity and Democratic Good Governance specifically observed that impact of ‘disregard for the rule of law is worse than the stealing of public funds.’ That was in a clarification interview at the venue of the convocation lecture. There is no ambiguity in this classic on the rule of law some political leaders would like to speak in tongues about all the time. Where the law does not rule, it is the rule of man that is being promoted as this newspaper noted when a curious thesis was being promoted to the effect that national security in the context of public interest should override the rule of law. We had said then that it was an executive faux pax and an unwarranted assault on the sanctity of the rule of law.
The executive, judicial and legislative arms of government are obliged to abide by defined and accepted codes of social engagement as prescribed and encoded in the law books and statutes of the land. That is the only way we can ensure justice, equity, fair play and respect from the followership, the long-suffering people of Nigeria. Very early in the documentation processes of Western society, the philosopher Aristotle declared that ‘it is more proper that law should govern than any one of the citizens.’ This indeed is the spirit of democratic norms- the primacy of rule, law and order in all our affairs as enunciated and enshrined in our law books.
What is the rule of law, we may ask? It is the prevention or ‘restriction of the arbitrary exercise of power by subordinating it to well-defined and established laws.’ In principle all members of a society are considered equal before the law. The rule of law prescribes certain standards of behaviour for individuals and institutions. It governs inter-ethnic and inter-governmental relationships in a sure and even manner. No one person or institution is superior to the other. By its very nature, adherence to the rule of law prevents arbitrariness of any kind. As a result overzealous state officials are called to order once the rule of law is contravened. Because human beings have the capacity to be overbearing and sometimes take the laws into their hands in the name of the overall interest of society, the rule of law ethically rules out excesses.
In dealing with persons who have broken the laws of the land, the rule of law promotes evenhandedness. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. It is for this reason that the legislative arm of government is the anchor on which laws are made and interpreted by the judiciary.
Certain experiences in recent times suggest that some persons or institutions still believe that they are above the law. A government, which ignores court orders, creates room for anarchy. Under the rule of the law, governments and individuals are obliged to appeal against a subsisting court order if in their view the initial order is detrimental to the wellbeing of society. Nobody should in the guise of ‘over-riding national interest’ ignore court rulings and treat the courts with levity.
The courts are created by the constitution to safeguard individual and collective liberties. Personal vendetta is against the spirit of the rule of law. That a citizen openly disagrees with sitting government is no justification to lock up that individual except he is found guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction. We are aware of how the military undermined civil liberties in their years in power; vestiges of that attitude to civil liberties are still present in our polity.To be sure, these liberties are enshrined in the constitution and guaranteed by the African Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of worship are all a part of this broad framework. They are universal as well as being municipal. It is important to note that obeying or being guided by the rule of law is in the overall interest of both the ruler and the ruled. Political power is transient. A man who is in power today may not be in power tomorrow. If while in office he promotes impunity such acts have a way of returning in form of nemesis.
It is trite to observe that the rule of law implies that all citizens, high and low, are subject to the law. This includes lawmakers and law enforcers, that is, the men in charge of security in the land. Too many criminal acts or acts of brigandage have been carried out in the name of the state. The invasion of the National Assembly by men of the Department of State Security (DSS) for whatever reason was a subversion of the rule of law. When the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) or any other regulatory agency in the country treats persons who have apparently committed the same offence differently it erodes public confidence in that institution. Nigerians are aghast that nobody has really been brought to book on the hundreds of acts of brutality, which herdsmen have carried out in different parts of the country. There is the impression that these scoundrels are above the law. This is dangerous to the polity. It challenges the very existence of the Nigerian state. It encourages impunity and self-help as a way of life in the country. Also, locking up journalists or any citizen for any reason without recourse to the courts is illegal. Judges and all judicial personnel are obliged to obey the laws of the land. So too are members of the Nigeria Police. Any act of impunity, any act, which contravenes the constitution is antithetical to the rule of law.
At the core of the rule of law is due process. A man who is accused of an offence cannot be arbitrarily punished without due process. Due process entails fair hearing and the opportunity to provide the other view. In the days of military rule, the late Supreme Court judge, Justice Kayode Eso, condemned what he termed ‘executive rascality.’ This was in reference to the penchant of the military to operate outside of the confines of the law. Law is no respecter of persons. No matter how highly placed a man is, the law should be the schoolmaster for mutual co-existence and progress.
Finally, the point must be made that when the rule of law is fully operative and respected, acts of corruption and other acts of impunity will be contained. Corruption is a cankerworm in our polity. But failure to observe the rule of law is more dangerous than corruption. This is because obedience to the abiding principles of law is an antidote to all forms of corruption. A lawless society will ultimately breakdown and serve as a breeding ground for all forms of vices. Therefore, any government, which takes fighting corruption seriously, should note that the rule of law is needed to guarantee its success. Nobody or group of persons or institution should by design or default be treated as being above the law.