The above saying captures the recent event that took place in Enugu, where a man was accused of demolishing part of the perimeter fence of the Enugu Airport. In retaliation, the state government equally decided to demolish the building put up by the man; a simple case of tit for tat. When I read about the incident, I was taken aback, and the simple picture that came to my mind was that of a jungle. Is this not sickening? I have once described the various scenarios in Nigeria as largely denoting lawlessness bordering on anarchy. Or how does one describe the above scene?
To the best of my recollection, there are laws/rules governing all these ‘transactions’ that have taken place. I know, as a property lawyer, that there exists not only in the Nigerian Constitution safeguards against expropriation of property rights, but there are other state laws and common law principles as well as case law protecting property rights. For example, my perception of the agitation of the man who first pulled the trigger by demolishing the perimeter fence is in the realm of trespass to land. In simple parlance, what this connotes is someone else jumping on the parcel of land that belongs to another without the person’s/owner’s consent and intentionally doing damage to the property without justifiable reason. There are laws not only governing this incursion but also robust avenue for ventilating this right. Apart from the civil claim that the rightful owner of the land can institute, where there is any damage to his property in the process of the trespass, a criminal action can be taken.
All that is required is the laying of complaint at the nearest police station to the property abused. The police, on the strength of that complaint, are expected to initiate and conduct investigation and, where the complaint is found credible, charge the culprits to court for willful damage of the property. Of course, upon conviction, the court sentences the accused person, technically known as the defendant in the country’s administration of criminal justice law and practice. The two options can be employed simultaneously. Undoubtedly, the two modes alluded to above appear simple and attractive, but let me confess, as a Nigerian and legal practitioner, that it is not that easy. Taking up a civil action requires some measure of expenses, filing fees and professional fees of counsel most often above the affordability of an average Nigerian. The frustrating aspect, where the processes are even affordable, is the inordinate delay in the conclusion of the case. In a state like Lagos, a land suit might take up to five years to conclude at an average.
This is not likely to be dissimilar in Enugu, where the number of cases equally soars. This reminds me of the expression of my brother, Prof. Fidelis Odita, QC, SAN, that the challenge in Nigeria is not access to justice but exit. Once you file a matter, you are never sure of the conclusion date. The variables are just too many. As for the criminal option, the logistics for the investigation and prosecution, realistically, is also the burden of the complainant. I am not aware that such logistics or fund required for the investigation and prosecution of crimes is made available at the various police stations. Where the complainant does not possess the financial wherewithal to sponsor the investigation and prosecution, the claimed right collapses there. Is it the generality of the people that cannot even afford the services of a lawyer in the acquisition process of land that will fund prosecution of litigation? It is common knowledge in Nigeria that land litigation occupies a central place in litigation statistics in the country, as, most times, citizens attempting to buy land end up buying litigation. The most agonizing aspect of the two options is the perception of an average Nigerian that you cannot, as a citizen, win against the state government in its own court or institution. The truth or otherwise of this view I will refrain from commenting on but suffice to say that such perception needs to be diffused by the state judicial officers in particular. Perception constitutes the fulcrum of the justice system. If the citizens who are supposed to be patrons and beneficiaries of the legal system lack confidence in it, then there is a problem.
Now, to the state government that retaliated in the like manner. Again, are there no laws or processes available to the state government to agitate or ventilate its rights allegedly violated? Of course, there are sufficient lawful routes, just exactly as in the case of private citizens. With regard to the two available options, the state government is even at an advantage from inception as it has the wherewithal/might to prosecute the two modes easily. In fact, it needs not hire a lawyer nor even pay filing and other fees. The Attorney-General’s chamber is ever there. The import of all the above is that there is a rule of law that both citizens and the government are meant to observe. Rule of law, according to Thomas Bingham, connotes that both the government and the governed must be subjected to the same set of laws; they both must actualize and defend their interests before the same judicial forum and the arbiter must always be impartial. This is the minimum standard of governance in any civilised society.
Now, let us assume for a moment that the citizen who chose to ignore the legal process in the ventilation of his grievance is wrong, let us equally assume beyond the question of affordability that the said aggressor is ignorant of the law and process, what about the government? Can we say that the government is ignorant of the law, despite the office of the Attorney-General being part of the government? Even if it were so, the principle of law is that ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse’, meaning that there is an irrebuttable presumption that all citizens know the law. Although I know, as a citizen and a lawyer, that this is an unfair presumption as poor documentation is already challenging both judges and lawyers on knowledge of the existing laws, that aside, could there be any rationale behind the government’s illegal act? Certainly, the government cannot lay claim to any impairment in the lawful assertion of its rights. The implication of the unlawful act is that the government only exhibited the usual copyright of governments in Nigeria, which is ‘might is right’.
The government is always above the law. Is it not the ‘normal’ demonstration of the arrogance of government in Nigeria? How dare a citizen challenge the government, more so in an illegal manner? Revenge must be served hot, is what the Enugu State government has shown. The message from the above is simply that both the government and the governed seem to lack confidence in the judicial process. Are you, therefore, surprised of continuous cases of hired assassination and other extrajudicial killings in Nigeria? Banditry, kidnapping, terrorism are now modes of settling scores or asserting perceived rights.
That possibly explains why most people in the country take the law into their hands. While the citizens, without agreeing, may be excused, government cannot be exempted from lawlessness and barbarism, as government is not only the regulator of the system, it is also meant to be the role model for citizens. Where government now decides to take the law into its hands and operate with impunity, the citizens might not be blamed if they emulate government’s illegal acts. It is the example set by the father that the son follows. This is succinctly captured in the Yoruba proverb, “Eshin iwaju ni t’eyin nwo sare”, meaning “the leading horse dictates the pace for others”, expressed in Igbo language as “Nne Ewu Na ta Agbala, Nwa ya Ne le ya Anya Nno nu” and Hausa as “Daga na gaba ake gane Zurfin ruwa.” In the matter under consideration, one would have expected the Enugu State government not only to demonstrate maturity but to trigger the rule of law in the agitation of its rights. Anyway, summing up the illegal acts of both actors implies that both the government and citizen in the instance above constitute a reflection of who we are as a people.
My view, however, is that the state government needs to apologise to the citizens of the state and, by extension, the nation, as a role model, with an undertaking to avoid such ugly practice in the future. The occasion must be explored to make the point clearly to the citizens that no one is allowed to take the law in his own hands. It is an opportunity for a new brand in approaches to state conduct. This is the least correctional step that the state government can take in the circumstance.
By way of conclusion, the government and the citizens are growing to be lawless generally by the day, as respect for the rule of law is fast vanishing. Little wonder, therefore, that anarchy is beginning to assume the ‘new normal’ in Nigeria. I only wish, hope and pray that the leaders will hasten to start rectifying the notion of might is right, to forestall eventual breakdown of the rule of law and conversion of the country into a true jungle. Government’s acts do not only impact the citizens but also set the template and code of conduct for them. The citizens’ acts mirror that of the government. It is a sheer case of like leaders, like followers.