I like to say that I write this column and carry on the various initiatives that I have done because I want to improve legal literacy in Nigeria. Why is it important to improve legal literacy? I believe that there is necessarily a connection between legal literacy and economic development. This is only a belief that I hold; proving it and defining the principles behind this belief (if it is true) is probably the job of doctoral dissertations.
Apart from the connection between law and economics, the law defines all our interactions in society, whether we are aware of it or not. So, legal literacy not only protects us (somewhat) from abuse of power, it helps us to arrange our affairs. As strongly as I believe in the importance of legal literacy, sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in surrender because there seems to be no point in knowing the law and your rights when power imbalances keep citizens from vindicating their rights.
There is the argument that justice systems have an anti-poor bias and a lack of independence from elites, which creates a power imbalance. Among other systemic imperfections, the poor, holding the short end of the stick, are further disempowered by the costs in time and money of the legal process; a lack of adequate information on legal norms and practice; and geographical distance to courts. How do you convince people that it is important to know the law when the system is rigged against citizens?
Earlier this year, thousands of Nigerians were displaced from Otodo-Gbame by the Lagos State Government. In defiance of a court order to maintain the status quo and go into mediation with the representatives of the community, the State acted and forcefully evicted the residents, degrading them and destroying lives, livelihoods and property. Still believing in the possibility that they would find some respite in the law, they returned to the courts. Surely, there are consequences for disobeying a court order. Well, not quite, it seems because the supreme law of the land, the Nigerian Constitution, gives a pass to a certain class of people in the executive arm of government (the President, Vice President, Governors and Deputy Governors).
The 1999 Constitution in section 308 provides that no civil or criminal proceedings can be instituted or continued against this class of people while they are in office. They can neither be arrested nor imprisoned during the relevant period for which they are granted immunity from these proceedings nor can they be compelled to appear in court to pursue any such proceedings.
Power corrupts! Without the fear of consequences, how do we compel this class of people to act within the law? If in the place of a fear of legal consequences this class of people considered their abuse of power to be a threat to their re-election then section 308 may not matter as much as it does today. Unfortunately, the political elite have succeeded in disconnecting the masses from the process that determines the persons who constitute this protected class. Sure, we go through the motions. We are allowed to believe that those endless hours spent registering to vote, verifying voter registers, and queuing up to vote actually count for something. All the while the puppet masters are stringing together the next set of puppets and looking callously at those citizens who turn out to perpetuate the façade of “free and fair” elections.
In Lon Fuller’s theory of natural law, the only moral value of importance is human dignity. Fuller’s theory focused on the procedures from which laws emerge. He called this the inner morality of law –laws must be general; laws cannot be contradictory or arbitrary; laws must not be impossible for people to obey; laws should not be retrospective; they should be publicised and understandable; they should remain relatively constant; and there should be some congruence between the law and its administration. Failure in one of these areas is a failure in the law.
A respect for human dignity means that those in authority will strive to attain the inner morality of law and present the laws to citizens who can then plan their affairs accordingly. It is not enough to say to citizens, this is the law and expect that they will obey the law with no commitment from those in authority. Respect for human dignity means that those in authority must also obey the law.
There is no respect for human dignity when people facing an infringement of their fundamental human rights run to the courts for respite only to be told that the law has no solution for them because a class of people cannot be questioned. There is no respect for human dignity when people enter good faith discussions with the State and action is taken before the conclusion of those discussions. There is no respect for human dignity when citizens expend their time and resources to set up businesses and wake up one day to find themselves the victims of State force, their investments a pile of rubble under the tracks of a bulldozer.
Despite the deficiencies in the administration of our laws, and the seeming futility in engaging the justice system to vindicate our rights, I still believe that legal literacy is at the heart of our society’s social and economic development.