“It is a result of this that I wish to draw attention, at this most auspicious of moments to the golden principle of law which should guard governance at all levels of our society, which is the principle of ‘Equality Before the Law’ ”.
In less than 24 hours from now, Nigeria will witness yet another hand over from one civilian administration to another. We will witness military parades the taking of oaths of allegiance to the Constitution and oaths of office. The same scenario will be played out in Abuja and several other states in which elections were conducted on the 28th March 2015 and 11th April 2015. The returning and newly elected public officers will irrespective of political leaning, ethnic identity, religious background and even moral persuasion become united in making promises of a new Nigeria which all Nigerians will be invited to look forward to. We have been down this road before. While many public holders have truly tried their best, given the circumstances to make a difference in governance, the reality is that much more is required to be done to make this the country of the dreams of the founding fathers of the nation. Our collective experience shows time and time again, that some basic principles which should be the watch word of any government world over mean little or nothing to many of our public office holders and by extension the government itself.
It is a result of this that I wish to draw attention, at this most auspicious of moments to the golden principles of law which should guard governance at all levels of our society, which is the principle of “equality before the law”.
Some days ago, the President-elect, General Muhammadu Buhari announced that upon assumption of office, his motorcade would obey all traffic stops in the Federal Capital Territory and elsewhere. In a statement released by his media team he stated that respect for the law would be the guiding philosophy of his administration and that, “for leaders to inspire respect, they must obey the laws of country”. This statement attracted numerous comments with many questioning the rationale or wisdom of the decision on the basis that stopping at traffic lights would jeopardise the security of the President and could make him an easy target to would be troublemakers. Surprisingly many failed to view the resolve of the President elect against the larger picture of inequality before the law which exists today in our country. Yet every day in our national life, we are confronted with just how unequal Nigerians have become before the law, in their own country. Some days ago the media reported news that an accused person found guilty of money laundering, was sentenced to a six year jail term with an option of N3 Million fine while his co-accused was sentenced to over 20 years in jail with no option of fine! It is incidents such as this that continually bring to the fore the need for true equality before the law. But what just does this mean?
EQUALITY BEFORE THE LAW
Equality before the law may take different forms. It may mean that all citizens irrespective of their social, political or religious status must enjoy the same benefit and suffer the same deprivations demanded by law. Therefore nobody can be made to enjoy a benefit or suffer any deprivation on account only of his social, political or religious leaning where others of different inclinations are not subject to the same benefits or limitations. The concept is defined by Wikipedia as “the principle under which all people are subject to the same laws of justice”.
The concept of equality before the law has firm rooting in Nigeria Law. To this effect, Section 42(i) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 provides as follows:
42(1) A citizen of Nigeria of a particular community, ethnic, group, place of origin, sex, religious or political opinion shall not, by reason only that he is such a person-
- be subjected either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any executive or administrative action of the government, to disabilities or restrictions to which citizen of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups places of origin, sex, religions or political opinions are not made subject; or
- be accorded either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any such executive or administrative action, any privilege or advantage that is not accorded to citizen Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religions or political opinion.
In Nigeria, the concept of equality is not limited to between individuals alone. The Constitution also recognizes equality between the government and the citizens. The major indicator of this equality between the citizen and the government is most discernible in relation to the power or duty of the court to adjudicate in disputes between persons or between persons and any authority or government. This is the exact intendment of Section 6(6)(b) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 which provides as follows:
(6) The judicial powers vested in accordance with the foregoing provisions of this section –
(b) Shall extend to all matters between persons, or between government or authority and to any person in Nigeria, and to all actions and proceedings relating thereto, for the determination of any question as to the civil rights and obligations of that person;
The above stated provisions without a doubt empower the courts to adjudicate in matters involving persons or government or authority. In the process leading up to the institution of the suits, right up to hearing and judgment, parties are bound by the same set of rules and procedure thereby underlying the concept of equality before the law.
It however appears that in Nigeria, for reasons which I shall examine in subsequent editions, the concept of equality before the law suffers severely between the government and the governed and has given way to recklessness, double standard and abuse of power.
To be continued…
AARE AFE BABALOLA SAN, CON