Some weeks back, I was invited as a guest speaker at the 24th Wole Soyinka Lecture Series. It was a golden opportunity to x-ray some of the core issues plaguing our nation.
Given the personality of the person for whom the lecture was packaged, nothing less than a stormy session was expected from the lectures delivered, especially from the main speaker, Professor Patrick Lumumba. Permit me to share my thoughts on that occasion.
At a time when the Nigerian polity is ravaged with unending insecurity, endemic poverty, and heightened tyrannical disregard for the rule of law, one cannot but salute any opportunity geared towards fostering true Democracy, Good Governance, and enthronement of Justice and the Rule of Law in Nigeria.
The choice of this theme: ‘National Conference Against Impunity in Nigeria’ is therefore not accidental but borne out of the deep yearnings and conviction to reverse the state of debauchery and rot found in almost every annal of the contemporary system of the sovereign entity known as the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Regardless of the explosive population growth, rising unemployment rate, and unprecedented inflation in the country, it is still without a doubt that our country’s human capital remains its strongest asset when put to productive use. I, therefore, make bold to say that the stand against lawlessness, corruption, and impunity in Nigeria lies in the strength of our numbers.
The minority in positions of authority who repeatedly abuse their rank to destroy the fabrics of our democratic experience should not be left to continue to ride roughshod over the rest of us.
The other point is that the topic reflects the character of the person for whom we are all gathered, a thorn in the flesh of bad governance and all shades of impunity. In this regard, one can safely say that no other person fits this discourse than Professor Wole Soyinka himself, given his endless and selfless struggles against dictatorship and all forms of totalitarian regimes, not only in Nigeria but also in the world at large. As the Professor opined through one of his many books, the man dies in him who keeps silent in the face of tyranny.
In doing justice to this discourse, one must highlight some key terms in the context of the theme which are as follows:
The nature of impunity
It has been said that impunity is as old as the society itself. It is thus expected that a larger number of us, if not all members of this audience today, are familiar with the word ‘impunity. As defined by the learned authors of Black’s Law Dictionary 8th Edition, ‘impunity is an exemption or protection from penalty or punishment’.
The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines the aforesaid term (impunity) as ‘freedom from punishment or from the unpleasant results of something that has been done. The Oxford Online Dictionary explains it (impunity) as ‘an exemption from punishment or freedom from the injurious consequences of an action’. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNHCR) best puts the term ‘impunity’ as follows:
“The impossibility, de jure or de facto, of bringing the perpetrators of violations to account – whether in criminal, civil, administrative or disciplinary proceedings – since they are not subject to any inquiry that might lead to their being accused, arrested, tried and, if found guilty, sentenced to appropriate penalties, and to making reparations to their victims.”
One common phenomenon found in the seemingly diverse definitions of impunity is the outright disregard and abuse of law without any reprimand. As such, impunity can be considered as a global phenomenon, minute in the government structures of some developed countries and permeating all structures of society in another country.
As rightly observed by Louis Joinet, impunity is a consequence of the ‘failure of states to meet their constitutional obligations to their subjects, investigate violations and take appropriate measures against perpetrators, particularly in the area of justice, to ensure that they are prosecuted, tried and duly punished; to provide the victims with the effective remedies and reparation for injuries suffered, and to take steps to prevent any recurrence of such violation’.
Impunity in Nigeria
From the Nigerian parlance, impunity is commonly referred to in the layman sayings as ‘nothing go happen’ or ‘nothing go sele’. It is seen to manifest in blatant acts of corruption, bad governance, executive malfeasance, corruption of judicial powers, compromise of official responsibilities by those in positions of power especially the law enforcement agencies, the civil service, amongst a host of others. It is gradually extending to the people themselves, unfortunately. Whilst it has become a norm for occupants of public offices to see their tenure as an avenue for personal aggrandizement and as a means of sharing the national cake; from the advent of the extant Government in power, the Executive through the machinery of the security agencies has fallen to the lowly times of outright disregard and disobedience of subsisting court orders and decisions.
The significant culture of impunity in Nigeria is inequality before the law and the lack of accountability. It is the culture of being above the law and even the State itself, wherein an individual lives larger than the rest of society. It is a situation in which institutions of State are unable to perform their statutory responsibilities.
In practical terms therefore, impunity takes place when a felon is not apprehended and prosecuted for the brazen violation of ethics, laws, or responsibilities imposed upon him; when might is right in the face of express legal restraints and when the law itself becomes helpless to arrest the deliberate drift to constant deviations.
Speaking at the 2018/2019 legal year of the Supreme Court and the swearing-in of new Senior Advocates of Nigeria, former Chief Justice of Nigeria, The Honourable Justice Walter Onnoghen, gave a vivid illustration of the consequences of impunity as follows:
“Corruption or any other form of injustice, for that matter, thrives in a culture of impunity. To carry out a successful campaign against corruption, we have to fight the culture of impunity, which is an attitudinal phenomenon.
“If we allow and respect the rule of law, then there will be a dramatic reduction in corruption and injustice. Corruption starts with a decision by an individual or a group of individuals to do the wrong thing. It is as simple as that. Corruption is never an accidental act. The person who commits a corrupt act has an option to do the right thing.”
Aspects of impunity
Research has found that impunity in Nigeria can be grouped into three main classes. They are:
Impunity within the Nigerian security forces
The culture of impunity within the Nigerian security forces has continued in setting the pace at which extra-judicial killings and other human rights abuses are committed by the security forces in Nigeria. Hundreds of people are unlawfully arrested, tortured, and killed.
A good example is a clash between security agencies and youths/protesters clamouring for better government and respect for their dignity of persons, which many claims to be a reflection of the continuous deteriorating state of the rule of law in the Nigerian polity. It is therefore not the first time that the security agencies have been accused of using such brutal force against ordinary citizens with deadly consequences, as the former have displayed wide-ranging impunity.
From the 12th to 14th December 2015, Nigeria witnessed the unjustified slaughter/ killings of members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) by the Nigerian Army wherein it was reported that over 300 persons were killed and buried in mass graves. To this day, no Army official has been held accountable for such extra-judicial carnage that terminated the lives of hundreds of citizens.
Despite the guaranty of the Fundamental Right of her citizens as founded under Chapter IV of the 1999 Constitution and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights Act, the present government, through the security agencies, seems to have carved a niche for brazen infringement upon the rights of citizens to freedom of expression and the press.
In the course of proceedings at the ENDSARS Judicial Panel, I have listened to the gory tales of the abuses that citizens endure in the hands of security agencies and it breaks the heart that in some of the concluded cases, those involved have been ‘rewarded’ with promotions, which when properly dissected, translates to a subtle official endorsement of such cases of brazen impunity. Part of the reason for the enthronement of the administration of justice is to send a strong signal to deviants that impunity is not profitable. Thus, when those in positions of authority are found culpable but left off the hook, the wrong impression is thus created, albeit unwittingly, that society does not abhor deviations. This cannot promote law and order.
Adegboruwa is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN).