Nigeria’s Sick Democracy and Her Rule of Law Deficiency!

by L.Chinedu Arizona-Ogwu

The lowly-ranked police officer doing his duty of enforcing the law, which ultimately protects everybody should not be threatened by his superior because the object of his actions is connected to a highly-placed official or even worse knows someone who is duly connected and gets them to intervene. Such actions undermine confidence in the very laws that are meant to protect everyone. Again, such situations have a direct causal link to society s progress and development, which we have for so long neglected to our enormous cost. Confidence in the law is as important as confidence in the enforcers of the law. How do you demand compliance of the law from a person whose only crime is to seek information that in every civilized society would be public knowledge? Let us pause to consider a simple example a topical issue currently doing the rounds in newsrooms and other social gatherings.

Over the years and decades, the peoples of Nigeria have coined a term to describe the under-hand dealings and other corrupt practices that achieves short-term results but perpetuates bad practices, which are difficult to get rid off in the long-term. It is called the ways and means method. In plane terms, it is theft, isn’t it?

The police officer manning the hastily built checkpoint demanding bribe from the motorist whose only crime is being on the road after 12 midnight in a supposedly free country. The tax officer who accepts N2000 to close the case on the unpaid taxes of the self-employed, thus losing the state several more desperately needed revenues; the customs officer who collects several hundreds of thousands of naira (millions are quoted elsewhere) and allows duties on imported goods to be waived, again depriving the state of the revenues in favour of his and his pockets alone; the town planning official who takes a bribe and allows a building or buildings to spring up in places, which blatantly flouts planning regulation but worse still keeps his job even though the evidence of negligence of duty is easier to spot than a sore on the forehead; the electricity (NEPA-turned PHCN) official who will do everything to stall your application for a meter until the stuffed-brown envelope has crossed the desk, the contractor who builds the road to sub-standard quality because he has pocketed a big part of the money given for the work and given part away in kick-backs to officials who would later fail to conduct rigorous checks on whether the job was satisfactorily done. That official(s) will still remain in their jobs or simply transferred to another position when their negligence begins to show up when the road starts to fall apart after 6months as is the case with one notable stretch of road along Mbano Junction towards Afam Rd. junction inside Oyigbo. Completed less than 6months ago it has already started showing signs of collapsing in certain parts not to talk of the Old Arizona area, Mbano Camp, Oyigbo inside Rivers State that remained gully for the past eight years Peter Odili saddled the State of Rivers. Why do we tolerate such astounding levels of inefficiency? Why aren’t we able to treat public money as our own, and spend it wisely?

Where are the enforcers of the laws to protect those without enough to part with illegitimately – the law enforcers charged with ensuring that there is equity in opportunities for the citizenry? And where are the institutions, the infrastructures and processes, designed to make everyone accountable irrespective of their status and thus make people confident in investing their resources, being more daring and taking greater risks, which is the stuff of entrepreneurism? While of course some people still flourish under our very flawed system, it is undeniable that as a country we pay a high price for our lax and cavalier attitude to laws and processes.

It is so bad that we have almost giving up trying to fix it. We appear too timid to attempt to fix it. The attitude has kind of shifted from trying to fix a wrong to seeing how one can make the most (usually means cheating) out of the flawed system to benefit oneself and perhaps one s family. That house needs building at whatever cost, so a bribe here, a bribe there, a slight bending of the rules here and there and I can get on with completing the structure in time before anyone notices. To illustrate this point, I would give an example, which I am sure many Nigerians abroad can identify with.

A good friend was visiting Nigeria with his wife and baby for the first time after many years abroad. Well ahead of the trip, they shipped certain personal effects, using a Nigerian shipping agent abroad. Having paid the cost of the freight, he was also told to expect to pay another N13, 000 to the clearing agent in Nigeria, not at Tin-Can Island Apapa Wharf but when collecting the goods from the agent’s warehouse. When he showed up to collect the goods, he was quoted N25, 000 as the clearing fee, a rise of more than 100%.

When he demanded to know what could have accounted for that astronomical rise, he was told firstly that the agent abroad was not in a position to give him any figure, be it estimate or real as clearing fee because he was not in a position to know. Corollary to this point, the agent on the ground let it be known that the cost of clearing goods at the wharf very much depended on the official one dealt with at the time, or as alluded to earlier in this article, whom one knew within the customs service. What this boils down to is clearly a yawning absence of proper laid-down standards and procedures, which otherwise existed, would not only make accountability easier to enforce against those who seek to profit from the sweat and toil of others by virtue of their position, but will also save the country losing millions of naira in revenue that goes into private pockets.

This is but one example of the incompetence and chaos that prevails at the country s premier port of entry for goods. It appears to be somehow staggeringly unimportant to the government to attempt to put in place measures that will enable people using the services there have confidence in it. Fixing that will surely not be harder than rocket science, would it? Yet no one appears bothered by the problems the current status quo causes, and it s been going on for years. Should it be construed that it is in the interest of certain people that the situation does not improve? I leave that to the judgment of the reader.

If a trader has to bribe his way through clearing goods and is unsure of overhead costs from one shipment to another, then how on earth is he going to be able to price his goods in a uniform manner? Uncertainty is the number one bane in every businessman s calculations. Cost of goods and services fluctuate badly in our markets, often not due to vagaries of the international system but largely due to our own built-in uncertainties in costs and overheads. Of course if the customs officer and/or the police officer twists your arms and collects payment for possessing goods bound for the market, then simple economics teaches us that to break even, you will have to pass that extra cost on to the customer by bumping up the price.

One way I judge the usefulness of institutions is to try to figure out what might be if the said institution did not exist. So if we did not have the police service, law and order might have broken down and the worst in us will be what prevails. If we did not have any immigration service, God knows who could be let in and out of the land. If the military did not exist, we may perhaps be part of one of our neighbouring countries because if one of them chose to roll over us, we would have no defences. And if we did not have the customs service, then of course there could be no duties paid on imported goods and the country will be seriously deprived of a very useful source of funds.

Institutions are thus very important to address crucial needs in every society. While there are universal institutions prevalent in most societies or countries, other institutions are peculiar to certain countries in so far as they regulate behaviours and actions of people. Establishing an institution should therefore meet certain tests, the most important of which should be the regulating of certain behaviours and activities without which there will be serious consequences to the harmonious existence of society. On the flip side to this point, it can also be argued that institutions should have the capacity to improve on situations in society. The value of it is thus two fold preventative and developmental.

However it is not enough to simply have an institution for the sake of it. It is not enough to pay lip service to it. Their regulatory value should be as robust, dynamic and effective as they (the personnel) should be themselves accountable to the very people they exist to protect and defend. It is not enough to have a police service that is starved of resources and is thus ineffective in not only fighting small-time crime but is also unable to actually mount operations that could prevent crime from happening in the first place. The police force should themselves be accountable to the public. Their performance in meeting the needs of the public should require of them to operate in a manner that engenders confidence in the public they seek to protect.

Bribe-taking, bullying, low success rate in tackling criminals and thwarting their efforts, looking the other way whilst a clearly over-loaded vehicle trundles down the road endangering other road users, allowing rickety and unsafe cars to be on the road, misplaced priority in assigning officers to direct traffic where installing traffic signals will do the job well thus freeing up valuable manpower to go after criminals are some of the ways the police can win the confidence of the public. Of course crime fighting is not the sole business of the police. The public has as much role to play in so far as they readily provide useful information to the police, refuse to shelter criminals, and of course carry out simple steps to protect themselves and their property to thwart the efforts of the criminal.

A police force that is dynamic and responsive to changes and trends in society is indispensable in the development and promotion of a safer and progressive society. Our police service has come some way since the re-start of our democratic march in 1999. Like everyone and every institution and organization, the personnel are themselves on a learning curve, not only of their individual rights as police officers, but also of their rights as private citizens when they take off the uniform. Of course under such circumstances, they are entitled to mistakes and over-sights like everyone else. It also behooves their bosses to ensure proper and effective training in policing. But more than that the bosses have a duty to not only display exemplary behaviour in eschewing age-old but deplorable behaviour such as taking bribes, they should also be willing to wield the big stick against officers who are minded to stick two fingers up against the law. How can there be law enforcement officers who are themselves prime candidates for law breaking?

Ridding the police service of corruption, making them useful tools in the fight against crime, bolstering confidence in them in the eyes of the public will require a serious step-change in the mind-set of the forces themselves who for so long have been conditioned to accept bribes and illegal hand-outs as part of their remuneration package in service. I am sure the early police service were not riddled with such depths of corruption and inefficiency but the drip-drip effect over the years, which have gone unchecked is to blame primarily for what we have now in Nigeria. And I am sure we are also acutely aware that this state of affairs cannot go on any longer if we seriously want to stem the tide of under-development. Along with a number of factors required for serious national development, making the rule of law and the eradication of corrupt practices a national priority are quite frankly, indispensable.

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