The Oxford English Dictionary defines impunity as “exemption from punishment or freedom from the injurious consequences of an action.” Impunity could also mean freedom from punishment or omission of punishment. It denotes a situation where a person or group of persons engage in an action that may be injurious to some people or group but is exempt from the consequences of that action.
Impunity in Nigeria is often occasioned by the delay in the administration of Justice in Nigeria. While a backlog of cases and an overtaxed court system in many countries can mean justice is delayed for some months or even years, in Nigeria, it can be delayed for a generation or more. The travails of Nigeria’s justice system are well known; but the direct linkages between justice delayed and the pervading culture of impunity are not as often explored in detail. Specifically, justice delayed in Nigeria results in the furtherance of impunity as many people would often resort to the use of extra- judicial means to enforce justice or address disputes. This often involves the use of thugs, hoodlums and in a lot of cases, state security operatives to enforce their own brand of justice. After all, the delay in the system would often work in their favour if they are arrested or prosecuted.
For example, in a report published by the Sun Newspaper, hoodlums reportedly attacked students of the University of Ado-Ekiti residing in a hostel located on disputed land. In normal climes, this case would have gone to the courts for adjudication, but because of the lethargy in the administration of the Justice System, recourse is often made through the use scare tactics and violence, like in this case, to address issues. This practice is often common in the Nigerian society and it is not unusual to hear of cases of attacking, fighting, killing or maiming of fellow disputants as a means for addressing disputes.
The slow administration of Justice aids impunity in Nigeria. In a society where citizens cannot rely on the speedy dispensation of Justice, they would often engage in acts of impunity. This is one of the reasons violent conflicts are entrenched across various parts of the country. It is also because of this that the security agencies would rather torture, brutalize and harass people than charge them to court.
Impunity in Nigeria can be perceived along a broad spectrum and involve multiple actors; from the Military, the Police, and the Government to politicians and their agents. In 2015, Amnesty International published a report titled Stars on their Shoulders, Blood on their hands which detailed a series of reported atrocities committed by the Nigerian Military. According to the report, from March 2011 to May 2015, more than 7,000 young men and boys died in military detention and more than 1,200 people were unlawfully killed by the Nigerian Military in the prosecution of the War against Boko Haram. The report went further to state that the Nigerian military had arrested at least 20,000 young men and boys since 2009. In many cases, the persons concerned were arbitrarily arrested, often based solely on the word of a single unidentified secret informant. Almost none of them were brought to court and all were held without the necessary safeguards against murder, torture and ill-treatment. Following the launch of the report, the Federal Government promised to investigate the crimes, but, to date, no actions have materialized from those promises.
In 2017, a social media campaign known as #EndSARS emerged to catalyze mass action against the brutality of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigerian Police Force. The Campaign, which drew the attention of many young Nigerians, demanded the disbandment of the SARS unit in the Police Force for repeated cases of brutality, harassment, unlawful arrest and detention and other forms of high handedness against Nigerians. The Campaign submitted a petition signed by over ten thousand Nigerians to the National Assembly calling for the scrapping of the Special Unit. The campaign provoked many Nigerian citizens to describe gory tales of their encounters with the Unit, with some reporting cases of extreme brutality, extortion, extra- judicial killings and in some cases, a complete disappearance of suspects. This campaign followed another 2016 report by Amnesty International where it detailed patterns of human rights violations, extortions, extra-judicial killings and brutality against Nigerians. The Police response to both the Amnesty International report and the #EndSARS campaign were the same; they promised to investigate the matter.
A broad lack of faith in the Nigerian justice system to arbitrate political disputes swiftly and fairly has also resulted in citizens taking matters into their own hands, often at the direction of political operatives or other powerful figures. In April 2018, some unknown men, stormed into the chambers of the Nigerian Senate and took the Mace, the symbol of authority of the National Assembly, and absconded with it. The perpetrators were alleged to have acted under the instructions of Senator Omo-Agege, from Nigeria’s Southern State of Delta, who at that time was facing suspension from the Senate over his vociferous support against the reordering of the elections in the amended Electoral Act. Eighteen years earlier, in May 2000, Senator Chuba Okadigbo, a former Senate President, had attempted and successfully taken the mace to his hometown in his bid to thwart an impeachment plot against him. Another incident occurred in Port Harcourt in Rivers State, when some Assembly members loyal to the Governor stormed into the legislative Assembly, snatched the Mace and made away with it. The action was taken to foil the impeachment of the Speaker and the suspension of some members of the State House of Assembly.
States are also not above enforcing their will on citizens, with or without court sanction. For example, in 2011, the Rivers State Government embarked on a mass demolition of communities along water fronts. The Governor, stated that the waterfront communities were havens for kidnappers and other elements and proceeded to demolish over 44 waterfront communities scattered across Port Harcourt metropolis. Even in the face of subsisting court injunctions, the government with the Police in tow, demolished the homes of residents of these communities.
Similarly, between 2016 and 2017, the Lagos State Government also embarked on the illegal demolition of Otodo Gbame, a waterfront settlement on the edge of the Lagoon in Lekki, Lagos State. This action was carried out without consultation or compensation, despite the state government knowing fully well that the only other option available to the people was to go to court. In 2017, a High Court in the State declared the action of the state as null and void and unconstitutional, yet, the state government continues to ignore the Court’s Judgment. According to a resident, “Since the ruling of Justice Onigbanjo of Igbosere High Court, the state governor went for appeal and we have not heard anything. The appeal by the state government seems as a way of delaying judgment.”
All of the cases above have a pattern that shows the protagonists would rather utilize extra-judicial means than follow legally designated procedures for the resolution of various issues. In many countries, the Judiciary is the institution responsible for the administration of Justice. Courts of law are intended to provide respite to people that are wronged, and provide a level playing field for disputing parties to state their own side of the story before a Judge or Jury and hope to get Justice. In such cases, courts are expected to uphold the rule of law, interpret laws in a fair and rational manner, and provide a forum for the resolution of disputes between parties.
In Nigeria, the judicial powers of the Federation and of States are vested in courts established by Section 6 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) and other courts established for the Federation by an Act of the National Assembly. In the case of States, courts can further be established through laws made by the relevant State House of Assembly. Unfortunately, the courts in Nigeria are dangerously slow in the administration of justice. In April 2018, the Punch Newspapers published a report titled the Supreme Court of living, dying and dead cases, where it detailed the problem underlying the administration of justice in Nigeria’s courts.
For instance, the report cited an example of a case that was instituted in 1989 over fishing rights in a pond which passed through the Kunini and Jengo villages in Taraba State, North-East Nigeria. The case was finally resolved at the Supreme Court in 2015, a full twenty-nine years later. Beyond the issue of this being a dramatic example of justice delayed, in practical terms, by the time the judgment was delivered, the value of the sale accepted by one of the parties when he wrongfully sold the fishing rights to the pond had fallen from $142 to $5. And this example is by no means the exception to the rule when it comes to the administration of justice in Nigeria. The report also cited a land dispute that was instituted at the Ikeja Division of the Lagos High Court in 1984. After it had snaked its way up to the apex court, judgment was finally delivered in June 2017, thirty-three years later. The appellant’s lawyer was quoted as saying that as of the time the Supreme Court’s judgment was delivered: “Most of the original parties who were involved in the suit 33 years ago had died”. One can only imagine the financial, emotional and psychological trauma of waiting for thirty-three years to get justice.
As stated earlier, the Constitution of Nigeria provides for judicial powers to be vested in the courts. The constitution also provides for the establishment of the Supreme Court as the Apex Court and the last point of appeal for most cases. The implication of course being that almost every party would like to go the full measure in taking their cases up to the Supreme Court. However, as was pointed out in the report, a combination of an inadequate number of justices, an institutional aversion for the introduction and use of technology, and a bloated and inefficient civil service often converges to draw out the case beyond the lifetime of some of the parties. This is not only justice delayed, but often justice rendered moot by the passage of time.
Overall, Nigerians are losing faith in the capacity of the judiciary to dispense justice quickly. If this situation is allowed to continue, the country will continue to exacerbate existing disincentives for citizens to adopt legal means of resolving disputes and a descent to a Hobbesian state of nature will be inevitable. Nigeria is increasingly becoming violent, with the Boko Haram insurgency continuing in the North East, attacks of whole villages by murderous bandits in some parts of the North West, violent clashes between farmers and herders not just in the North Central States of Benue, Taraba and Adamawa but down south as well as far as Delta, Cross River, and Edo States, and cult violence and criminality in the South East and South-South. With conflict now afflicting not just one or two regions, but the entire country, it is important to examine the correlation between the increase of violence and failure of the justice system to meet the needs of its citizens in a fast and impartial manner. It was J.F Kennedy that stated: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable.”
Finally, as Nigeria gears for another round of elections, there would inevitably be reports of party primaries or congresses conducted in disregard of existing laws and regulatory frameworks. There would be reports of violence and intimidation at the various party primaries and the occasional parallel congresses or conventions by aggrieved party members. It is important to realize that these actions are very deliberate, with the intended aim of foisting a fait accompli on other members of the parties through the inevitable delay of the resolution of these cases in courts for years to come. Often, what occurs in the meantime are extrajudicial settlements with aggrieved members or their move to another party to actualize their political ambitions. What needs to be emphasized however, is that we cannot push for violence free elections without understanding the crippled justice system. As long as justice is continually delayed in Nigerian courts, everyone from regular citizens to politicians would continue to utilize forms of extrajudicial justice that fosters impunity and promotes violence.