Jurisprudence, in spite of the trepidation in which law students typically hold it, like my undergrad philosophy electives, was a truly fascinating course for me. I marvelled at how regular human beings like us devoted their time to critical thinking to develop ideas that would develop their countries and, unknown to them at the time, shape global appreciation of ideas of law and the state. The notion of the rule of law came about as a result of the exertions of these early thinkers.
When the late Umar Musa Yar’Adua assumed office in 2007, he committed his administration to observing and enshrining the rule of law. The phrase became a mantra during his tenure and especially gained popularity when, unlike his predecessors in office, he immediately ordered security agencies to enforce decisions of election tribunals that delivered adverse rulings against his party. While this was widely celebrated, it led to ‘the rule of law’ becoming synonymous with the government ‘permitting’ adverse tribunal rulings to stand.
The rule of law has since become a one-eyed, one-armed and one-legged invalid. Business has carried on as usual, the occasional motorist reportedly continued to be shot by the police for refusing to part with ‘special tolls’ at check-points until they were recently dismantled, high-profile criminal trials go a less-than-usual way, many agencies exceed the scope of their jurisdiction but as long as election tribunal judgements are respected, rule of law watchers continue to give the country a pass mark.
So, what did the original framers of the expression mean? More than a meaning, the rule of law is a concept of many parts – no one is above the law; no one can be punished by the state except for a breach of the law and in accordance with the law; agreements must be kept; no branch of government is above the law; no public official may act unilaterally or arbitrarily outside the law. It means the law, with all its constituent procedures, is (or at the very least, should be) supreme.
The law is clearly yet to be supreme in Nigeria. It should be impossible for parties, including the government, to unilaterally cancel contracts but this is still complained about fairly regularly. Supremacy of the law should mean that accused persons do not spend three years in detention awaiting trial. It should mean, as well, that powerful politicians and government appointees, no matter how highly placed, obey all administrative and judicial orders; seeking orders from the courts to restrain law enforcement agencies from carrying out their statutory and constitutional functions should be thoroughly decried. It should also mean that the law is predictable and any changes to it are not done haphazardly – unlike here in Nigeria where “laws” or regulations change on the whim of the administrative officer in charge, without notice to the public or actual publication and gazetting the new regulations (see a previous post on that here).
The rule of law being supreme also means, however, with relevance to recent events that the law is allowed to take its due course. Currently, the public is baying for the blood of everyone indicted in the report of the Ad Hoc Committee (of the House of Representatives) on the administration of fuel subsidy in Nigeria. Everyone is frustrated at the Attorney-General’s suggestion that prosecutions cannot commence straightaway. The truth, however, is that the proper procedure is for the House to forward its conclusions to the police and other relevant law-enforcement agencies for further investigation. As things stand, if charges are brought based on the House report alone, every single person “fingered” WILL be acquitted. The investigative bodies must be given time to compile evidence on which convictions can be obtained safely (ie that appellate courts will be hard pressed to find grounds for reversal). The court of public opinion and the courts of law are two entirely different propositions and while many “criminals” have been convicted largely on hearsay in the former, securing convictions in the latter is a more technical, more skilled, endeavour.
Thus, while it is entirely proper for the public to expect prosecutions it is important that we do not, in our frenzied frustrations with the status quo do more damage than good. The true test of how supreme a belief or concept is held is adherence to it even when doing so is not to one’s immediate advantage. If it is the consensus that upholding the rule of law is integral to our country’s prosperity, we cannot make exceptions for when it should be applied.