What Justice?

by E. Terfa Ula-Lisa Esq

In a democracy, as in most human endeavor, there is bound to be interaction. In the daily course of events, such interaction between persons would sometimes elicit rights, duties and obligations. Most times inadvertently, sometimes, deliberately, one party is hurt by another, a company, an agency, a group or even a government. In civilized democracies, there is a body of laws that govern every foreseeable interaction; whether constitutional, contractual, tort, international or criminal actions are all governed by law. The general idea of the rule of law is that in determining rights and obligations, the citizen is not left in the dark and that the law is applied in such a manner that flows with the general concept of rightness or justice.

Justice, according to Webster’s New World Dictionary is defined as “1. The condition f being just or fair [there is justice in their demand.] 2. Reward or punishment as deserved [The prisoner asked only for justice.] 3. The upholding of what is just or lawful [A court of justice.] 4. A judge. [a justice of the supreme court.] – bring to justice, to bring a person who has done wrong into a law court to be tried. – do justice to, 1.Treat in a fair or proper way…”

Laws are supposed to be publicly set, ascertainable and their application open, predictable and impartially applied in a system of the rule of law in a democracy. The courts and judges are given an awesome responsibility in the application of the laws of the land without fear or favor in an openly just manner. Embedded in the application of the rule of law, is the expectation of justice. Democratic rulers are expected even in their administrative functions to apply equity and justice. Because the expectation of justice is general, it ought to also be apparent to all that there is indeed an application of justice or the administrative action is tainted and as such questionable. Justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done is a very popular maxim in equity.

In western philosophical thought as in literature, we get the central theme of justice being done or pursued in plays or movies with the hero and anti-hero cast on the side of justice and injustice respectively; the dramatic device of Dues-ex-machina being the hand of God being employed in the affairs of men to do justice. In the classical Shakespearean play, the Merchant of Venice for instance, Portia’s insistence that a pound of flesh be taken without a drop of English blood is central to the demonstration of equity and justice in transactions. In the expectation of justice, even rabid lawyer-bashers run to consult their attorneys of choice as soon as they have a perception of being unfairly treated transactions in order to assert a perceived right that is being infringed. Most religions too, would lay claim to the pursuit of justice in its pure form even if its adherents behave differently. The Bible says;

For None calleth for justice, nor any pleadeth for truth: the trust in vanity, and speak lies; they conceive mischief, and bring forth iniquity…

Therefore is judgment far from us, neither doth justice overtake us: we wait for light, but behold obscurity; for brightness, but we walk in darkness….

And judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off: truth is fallen in the street and equity cannot enter.

Isaiah 59:4,9,14.

Poetic Justice

Sometimes bad things happen to people that do not elicit sympathy. Ordinary educated and hardworking Nigerians find it difficult, for instance, to really sympathize with the victims of the regular 419 scam because, more often than not, it is always premised upon the lure of unearned money to benefit a westerner colluding with a crooked African in a scheme to rip off the system or to procure fantastic sums of money that without a doubt would put an honest person on notice. Reaping where you have not sown is as unjust and abhorrent as punishing someone for a wrong he/she has not done.

When a certain head of state died in the middle of the night at the height of his power, even some of his supporters said it was the hand of God that took him, poetic justice was mooted by the irreligious. But before Abacha’s death, otherwise intelligent Nigerians were trooping to Aso Rock to assure him of their loyalty and to implore him to stay on as the only presidential candidate fit to represent all the fingers of “the leprous hand”. Some of those persons even moved on to become leaders of the new parties of the new dispensation after the military election.

Courts of Justice

Courtrooms the world over are associated with the concept of justice. Whether or not that assumption is justified is fraught with controversy. The ideal is that the legal system is set up in a democracy to dispense justice according to the law. Every good law should be able to stand the test of time under scrutiny in the application to factual circumstances as well as challenge through the process of adjudication by litigating parties. In developing countries, the issue is that of justice to the highest bidder as the rich and influential can afford rich lawyers and their fat fees and sometimes even buy up the judges. In the developed economies, is found the issue of selective justice in which the older looking cars are more likely to be randomly stopped by law enforcement agents and “driving while black” is an offence not on the books but those who have caught know why. Civil Rights suits are not given the same rules for the races either.

Doing Justice

Doing justice to a situation is being fair in the circumstance as well as being seen to do what is right. What is justice when the underdog sues the behemoth? Could the rules be fuzzed just a bit to defeat real justice while enacting a semblance of legality? What causes a government to refuse to honor the judgment of the Supreme Court? What arrogates to a government powers over and above the oversight function of the courts or congress in a democracy? Could the perpetrators of these cardinal breaches of justice be restrained? Why should citizens serve the state if, for instance, it exists for the benefit of one person (an autocrat) or an exclusive group (an oligarchy) or a life president?

George Washington had handled both the American Revolutionary war and the first executive presidency so well that some were wont to encourage him to stay on as king for the rest of his life. He wisely resisted the lure to ‘consolidate’ the good work which he started and opened up the opportunity to test others in leadership after him. Term limits were introduced in the constitution to codify the fairness of the process. Once in a while, even in the USA, a president so performs that the generality of the citizens wish he would continue in office past the allotted term but the rules are set and adhered to and exceptions were made only in war-time situation.

Why Justice

The people as individuals have a compact with society or the commonweal in a democracy. The understanding is that certain rules apply in circumstances that are predetermined and known by everyone. This arrangement is called the Rule of law. If I take you to court for an infringement of my rights, there ought to be in existence the right that I complain to the court that you have infringed and caused me harm. In the same way, if I am arraigned before a court of law for committing a crime against the state, that crime should not only have existed in the law books and the particulars of my infringement made available to me and where possible, the complainant identified. In the like manner, in a constitutional matter, excepting for war-time emergencies, where term limits are set by the constitution, parties responsible for operating same cannot preside over the amendment of same to extend their tenures and appear just. Conflict of interest law would prescribe that if there is a real necessity to extend term limits that those who amend the constitution do not benefit from it.


The persons saddled with the responsibility and most known to apply the rule of law in the constitution are the judges, court of Appeal judges and the Supreme Court Justices. It follows that the persons who man this arm of government are men of integrity and that they apply the rule of law. Stories of accusation of bribery or the manipulation of the system by both government and individuals is disturbing. Venue shopping by litigants is also inimical to justice and a solution must be found to consolidate in one court all issues regarding a specific subject matter to stem the abuse. Even at that, the judges must ensure that justice is not only done but seen to be done.

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