A New Era of Dictatorship has Descended Upon Nigeria (Part 1)

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By Nabil Brown

In the recent history of this country, agents of a military government would arrest you, detain you, confiscate your property and abuse you in different other ways without charging you to any court of law. The understanding was that charging you to court would lead to an independent and fearless judge protecting your rights by asserting the rule of law. What the abuser of tights really feared then was the prospects of facing an independent and fearless judiciary.

Today, it is different but without a difference. The law enforcement or security agencies seem to have found more invidious ways to foist a new and more sinister forms of dictatorship and deprivation of rights and justice upon the citizens of Nigeria. They will take you to court quite alright. But they are taking you to a court that is afraid and dependent. And such court lacks the power to subject the actions of these security agencies to the rule of law. And where there is no rule of law, all there will be is rule of the jungle.

In Part 1 of this article, I will show the various ways the Nigerian law enforcement and security agencies have systematically emasculate out courts and turned our judges into rubber stamps for their desires and caprices, and how dangerous this trend has become for our country.

The first way to rob the courts of their independence is to develop a habit of ignoring the orders of courts. The entire concept of justice and rule of law depends on the enforcement of the judgments of the courts. Once the judgments of the courts are not guaranteed enforcement, the laws lose every attribute of realism, and justice becomes nothing but a silent and unattainable wish of the oppressed. Also, it is clear that no judge would like to give an order he knows would be ignored or would be of no effect.

Nigerian law enforcement agencies habitually ignore court orders. An order to release a detainee is greeted with a decision to rearrest him. An order dismissing charges abusively filed against a person is greeted by some decision to proffer fresh charges against the person in whose favor the court just dismissed the earlier charges. A decision of court granting a person bail on criminal charges is greeted with a decision to arraign the person in another court, sometimes for the exact same charges word for word. From these indirect refusal to obey court orders, one also comes to situations where the orders of courts are treated with absolute contempt. A person ordered releases remains in detention without any pretense at obedience to court order.

These practices have chilling effects on the ability of the courts to enforce the law. A judge who believes or suspects that his order will not be obeyed by government agencies will rather not make such order. The judge is forced to tailor his judgments to the pleasure of the law enforcement or security agencies. The court is forced to fashion its judicial discretion in ways estimated to fit the tolerance level of the law enforcement agencies. This systematic and pervasive erosion of the independence of the judiciary is a direct and immediate threat to the constitution and rule of law in Nigeria.

Another way our law enforcement and security agencies have robbed our courts of their independence is through sponsored media attacks on the courts or the use of the media to preempt the courts. Example: when the law enforcement agencies have arrested a person and they subject that person to a public parading and/or medial trial, their goal is likely to put the judges in a difficult position, in case they may reach a different finding than the judgment of quilt already pronounced upon the accused by the media. Also, targeted media comments and publications calculated to question or cast aspersion on judgments of the courts work to undermine the independence of the judiciary. This is particularly so as judges do not defend themselves in the press or otherwise attempt to counter adverse media reportage.

The most egregious form of suppression and intimidation of judges occurs in the extraordinary practice of arresting judges, accusing them of crimes, subjecting them to criminal investigations without any reference to the body mandated by law to discipline judges. This has occurred not infrequently in Nigeria in recent times. Any such allegation against a judge, however unfounded that may be, is enough to erode public confidence in the particular judge and in the entire judiciary. To avoid such experience, most judges will do anything to avoid incurring the displeasure of the law enforcement agencies, even if it means convicting otherwise innocent people to please them.

In Part 2 of this article, I shall examine the options available to this country in tackling this menace and avoiding the grave and gathering danger that our nation faces as a result. But one thing cannot wait further for emphasis, and that is that the situation is now combustible and it threatens the stability of the country. Hence it must be addressed with every sense of urgency it deserves.

Nabil Brown
DPA Foundation

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