Nigeria: Against the Reign of Impunity

4 August 2021

What is to be done about the culture of impunity plaguing the land?

That was essentially the question pondered yesterday at a virtual National Conference Against Impunity in Nigeria. It was the 24th yearly lecture organised by the National Association of Seadogs in honour of Nobelist Wole Soyinka, one of the seven students of the University College Ibadan who formed the organisation in 1952 as the Pyrates Confraternity.

Indeed, some of the symptoms of the general malaise of bad governance are actually specific consequences of impunity. In other words, Nigeria would be better governed if impunity could be put in check.

In his prefatory remarks, Soyinka affirmed the topicality of the question of impunity as the theme of this year's lecture as he challenged the people to confront impunity head - on.

The keynote speaker was the Kenya legal scholar and one-time head of anti-corruption agency in his country, Professor Patrick Lumumba. He posed some pertinent questions about the climate of impunity enveloping Nigeria, nay Africa. Poverty and underdevelopment have been exacerbated because of the reign of impunity and the lack of reason in managing public affairs, according to him. For instance, he asked why Nigeria should be the poverty capital of the world despite its immense human and natural resources. He traced the root of the problem to the absence of accountability. He also called on the people to stand up against impunity. Borrowing from one of Soyinka's works, Madmen and Specialists, Lumumba wondered when the people would develop enough feeling of "disgust" with impunity.

The inadequacy of accountability in governance, identified by Lumumba, was amplified by other guest speakers. A youth organiser and programme manager of YIAGA Africa, Cynthia Mbamalu, asserted that the EndSARS protest that rocked parts of the country last year constituted an action of the youth against impunity. In this case, the violation of the rights of citizens, torture and extra- judicial killings by a special squad of the police had gone on for years with impunity before the popular revolt. She suggested wider engagement especially by civil society organisations for greater democratic possibilities. According to her, the legislature that should check the executive impunity is in itself perpetrating acts of impunity. Senior Advocate of Nigeria Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa elaborated on the violation of human rights and serial official disobedience of the law with impunity. Adegboruwa gave insights into the impunity which spurred the EndSARS protests. With an anecdote, Professor Pat Utomi explained that the impunity that fuels flipflops in policy has done a lot of damage to economic development. He also gave examples of impunity in the political realm including the one that "is writ large" in the internal regimes of the parties. According to him, a party that could not guarantee its members internal democracy should not be counted as a force for the democratic development of the country. With the questions from the audience, it was clear that the worsening impunity in the country bothers many people.

As a little contribution to the discussions, this reporter attempted to trace the systemic root of impunity. It is not enough to see impunity as a bad behaviour on the part of those in public office. The Nigerian system itself reinforces impunity because it is designed to make a class of people to escape questioning, much less punishment for crimes against the people. It is not only political rights that are violated with impunity, socio-economic violence is daily unleashed on the people through policies that breed poverty and underdevelopment.

It should, therefore, be examined why the violation of socio-economic rights with impunity is often camouflaged with neo-liberal phrases as a mere policy choice.

This reasoning would, of course, be enhanced if the Nigerian media continues to play its constitutional role of holding public officials "accountable". The corollary to this is that beyond information, the media would have to consciously act to protect the interest of the weak and the poor and in the process galvanise the people towards the values of popular democracy.

It is, therefore, important to think deeply about the nature and pattern of impunity that's perpetrated. A basic requirement for this is what another Nobelist, Amartya Sen, describes as "public reasoning." In fact, in his book, The Idea of Justice, the economist and philosopher, expands the definition of democracy to include "public reason."

Such a scrupulous examination could only take place when discussions are structured in such a way that the searchlight could be on acts of impunity while focussing public attention on how to fight against impunity. To do so is a democratic duty on the part of the members of the society who are at least socially concerned. After all, a former of the London Economist newspaper, Walter Bagehot, once posited that democracy itself should be a "government by discussion." Here we are talking of discussions of policies, in the course of which those holding public offices would be compelled to answer questions on the policy steps of the government.

Instead of doing that, democracy in Nigeria is steadily being reduced to period ferments of elections and nothing more. So a president is voted into power; but his policy execution or the lack of a workable policy by his government is hardly a matter of continuous public scrutiny. His ministers and heads of agencies could sometimes shun invitations from the legislature to answer questions on the activities of their ministries, departments and agencies. After all, in a parliamentary system, the prime minister (the equivalent of an executive president) would be required to answer questions frequently in parliament on policies.

Not so here.

Talking about what is to be done, an example was shown to the world last week in the Niger Delta. A group of concerned Ogoni youths summoned their inherent power as citizens (as different from subjects!). They occupied the Eleme-Onne road that has been scandalously neglected for years with impunity. This has forced the Ministry of Niger Delta to order contractors back to the site.

In order to rein in official impunity, there should be more of such citizens' rational actions.

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