Evaluation of Rule of Law in Nigeria


Evaluation of Rule of Law in Nigeria

After our discussions on the concept and principles of the rule of law, it is imperative to carry out its evaluation. This will enable us to know the extent to which the activities of the Nigerian government are keeping with the basic principles of the rule of law.

This article will therefore focus on some pertinent issues evident in contemporary Nigeria such as: the electoral process and democratization, human rights and good governance.


Rule of Law under Military Administrations in Nigeria

The antecedents of military governments in Nigeria, despite all pretenses, reveal non-adherence to the principle of rule of law.

Indeed, by definition, a military regime is equated to a dictatorship and is always regarded as an aberration. Therefore, for almost three decades in Nigeria, the military relegated the rule of law to the background.

For example, the Buhari military regime promulgated Decree No.2 under which many Nigerians were detained without trial.

The same government enacted Decree No. 4, which criminalized free speech and opinion directed against those in authority. Two journalists of the Guardian Newspaper, Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson were jailed by the Buhari regime for contravening the Decree number 4.

Three cocaine pushers were also publicly executed by the Buhari regime, under a decree that was applied retroactively, contrary to practice within a society/state governed by rule of law.

Although the succeeding government of Ibrahim Babangida revoked Decree number 4, it, however, retained the more obnoxious Decree No. 2, under which his predecessor, Buhari, and his deputy, Tunde Idiagbon were clamped into detention.

To placate the political class, Babangida released several politicians jailed by Buhari in a gesture meant to promote a new image for the military as a responsive government, but not as a country within the ambit of the rule of law.

Under the pretext of what was called “guided democracy”, the government of Babangida experimented with all sorts of political contrivances. He severally extended his tenure in office, which ended in the annulment of June 12, 1993, presidential election.

The government of Abacha was more notorious in its disregard of the principles of rule of law and respect for human rights. During his era, political activists were either summarily executed (eg, Ken Saro-Wiwa) or forced into exile because the political environment was not made conducive for an open and contested terrain which democracy demanded.

The government of Abdulsalam was too short to merit any significant analysis except that in 1999, his administration re-enacted the Obasanjo’s record of 1979 when it midwife another successful transition programme, which was concluded within a comparatively shorter period of ten months. His military dis-engagement brought Obasanjo into power again as a democratically elected President.

Read On: Doctrine of separation of powers

Rule of Law under Democratic Governments in Nigeria

In the First Republic in Nigeria, there were several political crises, which put the observance of rule of law to test. A prominent case was the declaration of a state of public emergency in the then western region of the country in 1962.

This was over a fracas, which broke out on the floor of the House of Assembly of the region. A legal suit was then instituted by the Action Group, which sought for the declaration that the action taken by the federal government as illegal and unconstitutional, and for its reversal.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court refused to rule on the legality or otherwise of the action, but merely affirmed that there was a proper resolution passed by the Parliament. 

When the Privy Council in London in an appeal brought before it later declared the action null and void, the Balewa-led Federal Government promptly ended the jurisdiction of the

Privy Council from entertaining cases that emanated from Nigeria.

Another case in which the observance of the rule was put to the question was over the creation of Mid-western state from the then Western region in 1963. The crux of the debate was on whether the action was right when it was done without the concurrence of the state from which the new region was to be carved out.

Many insinuated that the action was politically motivated to whittle down the influence of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and his party, the Action Group, in the minority areas of the Western region.

This view sounds plausible, especially when the same Federal Government refused to accede to state creation exercise in the then Northern region which was the biggest in both size and population in the country, and in which agitations for more regions/states were most rife.

During the administration of President Shehu Shagari between 1979 and 1983, there were also test cases for the rule of law. A major one was the deportation of Alhaji Shugaba Abdul Rhaman, the then minority leader of the old Borno State House of Assembly on the order of the then Minister of Internal Affairs, Alhaji Maitama Yusuf.

Like that of the two cases cited in the First Republic partisan political motives were also insinuated, given the objective of the ruling party in the country then being to silence the voices of opposition as then symbolized in the personality of Alhaji Shugaba.

However, a Supreme Court judge later quashed the deportation order.

Similarly, a Revenue Allocation Act already signed into law by President Shehu Shagari was annulled by the Supreme Court in a case brought against the Federal Government by the then Bendel State government on the ground that proper procedures were not followed by the National Assembly in the enactment of the Act.

The democratic government of President Olusegun Obasanjo elevated constitutional abuses and executive indiscretions into a virtue. The list is endless. For example, in Odi, Rivers state a whole community was razed down by the Nigerian military acting on the president’s fiat. Secondly, in flagrant disobedience of the Supreme Court’s judgment, Obasanjo refused to release the statutory allocations meant for the local governments in


Under Obasanjo, the country also witnessed unresolved murder cases; prominent among which are those of Chief Bola Ige, Chief Dekibo, Engineer Funsho Williams, among others. President Obasanjo also sought to elongate the tenure of elected local government councils from three to four years, which was aborted midstream.

This, he did by rushing to assent a bill which emanated from a joint sitting of the National Assembly, without recourse to the two houses which appointed the body.

The move was however invalidated by a Supreme Court judgment. Obasanjo also severally violated appropriation laws by either exceeding or spending on unauthorized projects, in acts of questionable constitutional breaches, which led to the several moves by the National Assembly to impeach him in 2002.

In sum, the democratic government of president operated outside the framework of rule of law in the reign of arbitrariness and impunity under his watch in Aso Rock. The scenario has virtually remained unchanged till date.

Therefore, what has become evident is that the phrase rule of law has become a mantra that is being selectively used in the country to suit particular situations or circumstances depending on what is at stake or the matrix of political interests.

Read On: The Rule of Law: An Overview

Conclusion on Evaluation of Rule of Law in Nigeria

Democratic governance is based on the consent of the people. It is therefore the form of governance that best guarantees people’s dignity and freedom.

Democracy and rule of law are sine qua non to good governance worldwide. Democracy requires a “rule of law” framework to thrive and to deliver its dividends to the citizens. It is only those governments that guarantee human rights, a major component of the rule of law, which can create the basic conditions in which individuals can pursue their own personal development as they choose.

This post has appraised the observance of rule of law during military and civilian administrations in Nigeria. The rule of law was observed in the breach by both military and civilian administrations.

The concept, no doubt, has become a mantra that is selectively used to suit particular situations or circumstances, depending on what is at stake or the matrix of political interests.

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