By John Oziegbe.
At the international level there has been a growing shift in conversation on why justice and respect for rule of law must be included in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals. Since the Millennium Development Goals were first developed in 2000, over the last fourteen years, it has dawned upon development partners and other relevant stakeholders that both justice and rule of law underpin not only security, but sustainable economic development as well. As the MDG’s are coming to an end next year, we must look more seriously at why including justice in the Post 2015 Development Agenda is vital. For a country like Nigeria – Africa’s “economic powerhouse”- this move would represent a valuable step forward for justice, security, the economy and gender rights as a whole. But first it is important to take a look at the current state of affairs in the country, then see why the setting of new benchmarks with the Sustainable Development Goals could help improve the overall state of affairs in Nigeria.
The criminal justice system in Nigeria today is one where ordinary people are not sure what justice holds for them, courtrooms and prisons are dilapidated and a vast majority of those in prison are awaiting trial. The search for justice is costly and often times not even worth the effort. With low manpower and poorly trained personnel in the judiciary and justice ministries, both civil and criminal cases suffer long adjournments. Most times, litigants abandon their claims due to high costs occasioned by protracted period of litigation. The slow pace at which reform is being carried out in the criminal justice system ostensibly keeps access to justice far from the reach of the poor and downtrodden.
Justice and security are interlinked and inseparable, and in Nigeria both are deeply ailing. There is a perpetual state of tension and anxiety across the nation – one which is exacerbated by the (often) uncontrolled use of state power, justice that is rarely assured and a police force that lacks public trust. The department that is normally charged with maintaining law and order, security and safety has lost public confidence through growing concerns about the spate of corruption, bad leadership, ineffective or poor supervision and absence of clearly defined goals. For Nigeria’s common man, justice offers little more than an elusive ideal. The result is a society that either condones crimes committed against them or (most often) resorts to extra-legal means to ventilate their claims or grievances. This slow and (sometimes complete absence of) crimes investigation impairs the judiciary’s ability to dispense justice altogether. The heightened atmosphere of insecurity bears negatively on Nigeria’s economy – it discourages potential investors and hinders economic growth. If Nigeria’s vast resources were maximally harnessed in a regime where justice, human rights and rule of law prevailed, the country could reach new heights. Can we consider bolstering the economic side?
Moving towards a post 2015 agenda, it has become increasingly obvious that a strong and deliberate intervention is needed to enhance the social, political and economic status of women in Nigeria. As in many other parts of Africa today, an estimated 70% of those living in abject poverty in Nigeria are women (qualified as living off less than a dollar per day). In the public sphere, the figures are equally skewed – a meager seven percent of women are represented in the public sphere, occupying positions in parliament, the judiciary, executive arms of the government and various businesses. The “key problems” for Nigerian women living in a largely patriarchal society, remain unabated and are yet to be effectively addressed. Such problems include incessant domestic violence, rape and cultural barriers that hinder their growth and relevance. In addition to economic factors, the non-flexibility of socially ascribed gender roles further limits women’s access to power, education, training and productive resources. With sixteen years of uninterrupted democracy in Nigeria, experience has proven that women can immensely contribute to the country’s socio-economic and political development if liberated from current limiting cultural barriers.
Historically public governance in Nigeria has been bedeviled by a culture of secrecy, which has surrounded all levels of access to government information. For decades, State institutions hardly kept records because of lack of knowledge or their strong desire to maintain secrecy. More so that civil servants were protected by the Official Secrets Act and other laws from disclosing sensitive information.
Since the Freedom of Information Bill was passed into law in Nigeria, there has been reasonable progress in the areas of public accountability and governance. But there is still a real lack of freedom of information, which has undoubtedly impaired Nigeria’s democratic process, impacting on its social and economic development. When information is stifled it impedes the possibility of ensuring inclusive participation in the governance process. Easy access to relevant, reliable and trustworthy reports, data and material benefits the public by tooling them with the essential information they require to make educated decisions, including keeping check on corruption in the public sphere. When this access is hindered, it leaves room for rumors and unconfirmed reports to flourish, thereby ultimately hampering effective citizen engagement. With well-articulated targets and goals set to increase access to information, Nigeria stands a great chance to reduce corruption to its barest minimum, and enhance public accountability in governance which are the needed precursors for sustainable economic development.
Access to justice and respect for rule of law in any given society underpins security and ensures a just society. It serves as a bedrock on which all other social, economic and political activities thrive. Over the years, we somewhat ignored this perspective, but when we consider rule of law as a development goal it cannot be neglected. To ignore justice and rule of law in any development plan in Nigeria is a recipe for failure.
That said, it is increasingly obvious that Nigeria can no longer sustain its development targets and goals in post 2015 if they are not hinged on justice and rule of law. Nigeria’s post 2015 Development Plan must rest on a foundation of justice, respect for rule of law and human rights, effective security and safety for all. To do otherwise is like building a house of cards. Nigeria cannot afford to let its plan collapse in the midst of a deluge of challenges from insecurity and inter communal violence to acts of terrorism and a growing crime rate.
The time to set priorities for Post 2015 is here and the opportunity to place justice and rule of law at the heart of Nigeria’s development agenda must not be missed. At the core of Nigeria’s empowerment, stability and development is justice and rule of law. In the next fifteen years, justice and rule of law should occupy a distinct place in any proposed or adopted development agenda. If we exclude justice and rule of law, the consequences of such omission may be too heavy for us to bear. It may be extremely difficult to achieve respect for human dignity – particularly for the vulnerable. The time to act is now!
John Oziegbe, is Senior Partner with Partnership for Justice, a non-profit organization of professionals who share a commitment to equality, justice and globalization of human rights standards.