A Barrier to Progress: Nigeria’s (Un)Just Law and Order


Najib S. Kazaure


If you drop a pencil, gravity demands that it falls to the ground. If a ball hits a wall, it returns with intensity by Newton's third law of motion. If you plant a seed and water it, a sprout grows. Everything is governed by some kind of law, whether the natural laws we instinctively know or many of the scientific laws coined in textbooks, there is always an order to how things unfold in our existence. That is true for many places, but Nigeria might be an exception. Here, dozens of innocent lives are lost without any judgement, crime goes unpunished and sometimes even rewarded,  and power is not used for the public good, it's abused for personal gain. In theory, we have laws, but there is no order that enforces the law for all, leaving us in a revolting situation and a prolonged state of insecurity, fear, and slow progress; A state of Anarchy.

The foundation of our staggering deficiency of law and order is a dysfunctional criminal justice system that begins with a force. Despite having a police force whose job is to serve and protect citizens, our record of security is a far cry from standard expectations. Rather than rely on the police for safety and security, wit, planning, and communal support are the tool kits many Nigerian possess soon as they leave their houses. After all, on no scale of rationality can anyone believe that about 371,800 under-equipped and under-funded service people can adequately safeguard and ensure law and order in a country 200 million citizens home. Despite this insufficience, priorities are misplaced. Instead of focusing the force on protecting the defenseless  civilians, the police devote its attention to what this country prizes the most; money and power.

With a dictatorial demeanor and a confrontational attitude to disorient everyone, our police force serve only those with power and influence, having no interest in seeking justice for the most vulnerable in the community. Without due process, police can arrest any ordinary citizen, throw them in a cell, and let them rot merely by a phone call from an influential person. In some places, they profile young people and indiscriminately extort them for a bribe. In other places, vulnerable women get groped, felt up, or forced to exchange sexual favours for release. But in most places, they are apathetic to the plight of the community. It's no wonder there's little to no police presence in a village, leaving them to use rural means to try, and fail to solve modern problems.

When those authorized to safeguard your life and property criminalize your low economic status or extort what little you have, your legal protection continues eroding. Even the courts can't offer reprieve because the system operates in the same manner, delayed and discriminatory. Given the snail pace of issuing a verdict, it's as though Nigerian courts are oblivious of the famous maxim "Justice delayed is justice denied".  But whenever inefficiency persists, there are coordinated mutual benefits somewhere, and it's clear that this weakness is beneficial to those at the top, who exploit it to frustrate their trials and have them thrown out. Why else is there no real effort to redress this problem?

Who this system doesn't benefit is, of course, the underprivileged who cannot afford bail or have no powerful sponsor. Their vulnerability exploited, they get arrested and thrown like useless garbage in the prison to rot, die slowly, or become a product of the system. All thanks to the rigid and stagnant court process that continuously increases the high number of pre-trial inmates in Nigerian prisons.  Recently, The Prison Rehabilitation and Welfare action revealed that about 68% of the occupants in prison haven't been proven guilty, nor have a trial date set. But what they have in common is poverty. In the rare instances when judgment is delivered, it's also commoditized to reflect the same pattern of privileging the interest of the rich over the poor. Petty theft could attract a death penalty, while embezzlement of public funds often attracts a fine with no jail time or the entire case slowly fades into oblivion. 

Because the enforcement of punishment is reserved for those impoverished and unprotected, it has lost its resonance. Rather than being a system of upholding justice and fairness, the law has devolved into a tool of suppression and settling scores. To be poor in Nigeria means you do not get access to justice the same way as those privileged do. There is no regard for human dignity and worth, that status is reserved for money alone. And if you had lots of it you could buy undue power, enhanced security, and adequate protection, enough to place you above the law.

Habituating to this behavior is awfully detrimental to our future.  If brazen disregard for law and impunity continue unchecked, it becomes the prize and marker of success,  and we inevitably create a system where misconduct turns to an aspiration and a requirement for political success. Then, in lieu of electing morally astute people who have the public's interest at heart, corrupt and venal people will fill up the political space, and the standards of public conduct are bound to sink low as will the laws that will follow.

But of course, some laws are universal, even lawlessness has a cost and those bearing it cannot afford it, they cannot even afford their next meal. The real victims are the poor who for their vulnerability are already designated as the prime suspects of crime, with a willful ignorance of the fact that they also are the victims of crime. When a bomb blows up it destroys them the most, Bandits attack them, armed groups slaughter them, and food price hikes starve them. Living hand to mouth, displaced, shunned by an impassive government, suffocating under crushing economic conditions, relying on willpower to cure sickness, and fearful of becoming the next victim, they still continue bearing the brunt of our indiscretions and our inactions which enable crime to thrive.

Instead of transforming this large population into a viable human capital, the system views them as some kind of inconvenience. After all, when your entire worth is defined by your economic identity it's easy to reduce you to mere numbers.

“30 Killed, women abducted as Boko Haram attacks passengers near Maiduguri” 

 "Insecurity: At least 113 reportedly kiiled in Zamfara in one week"

"14 Killed in another attack in Zamfara"

"13 killed in fresh attack in plateau, "

"Just in: 17 killed in fresh Katsina bandits attack"

Headlines like these are plastered all over news media only to sensationalize the scale of the atrocity but not to demand justice for the victims and their families. Death for one is a death for all, like removing a component in an ecosystem, one person's death causes multiple deaths, of orphans, widows, and dependent relatives.

The stakes are incredibly high. The country's stability is at risk if we let our security remain in auto-pilot. How much longer will impoverished communities be sentenced to a life of disregard, fear, suffering, and abject poverty. How much longer will 90million people continue living in extreme poverty, while 37 billion is being appropriated to buy furniture?

Security must follow a ground-up approach, through the lens of the most vulnerable groups, can we be assured of a functional security system. We cannot let this monumental issue be drowned out in the debate of state and federal rights over security. Without any outcome, the victims continue suffering. Its time for concrete actions to protect every citizen, especially those most exposed. Legislative measures must be enacted to enhance law and order in neglected places, where the interest of the powerless citizen is privileged over that of the wealthy. We must enforce implementation, create mechanisms for performance assessment, and hold those in charge accountable.

Nigeria’s justice system architecture continues disintegrating with foundational fault lines. Overhauling the police through recruitment, training, forensic integration, and reorientation is long overdue. To revive some of the lost public confidence in the courts system, they must be revitalized with an emphasis on facilitating quicker access to the police force in order to expedite and ensure fair judgement. If we don’t fix the systemic problems in our criminal justice system and restore a semblance of law and order in our community, we will continue this descent into anarchy. And that does not portend a bright future.