What is a just war? A war is just when it is waged in order to regain what has been stolen or repel the attack of enemies.-Gratian
This piece is in response to the polemics that greeted the remarks by HRH Sanusi Lamido Sanusi where he publicly called on people to do the honourable by defending themselves against the aggression of Boko Haram. Perhaps it is possible these remarks do not go down well with many in the circle of what my friend Igwe calls the ‘The political beneficiaries of Boko Haram’. Yet, what followed is the wide concurrence, enthusiasm and the willingness by people across the regions to heed the call.
In the law of war and peace, Grotius did not fail to prompt us that even the brutes are given the right of defence. It is a necessary right for what can be done against violence and aggression. People and nations are convinced of the primacy of this right, persuaded not by some political arguments but by the powers of humanity. The qualification given by Cicero becomes even more relevant today, that the right to self-defence is the most generally accepted of all rights and all laws and all codes that allow the legitimate repelling of force by force.
First, permit me to stress that long before Sanusi’s comment, events on the ground have shown signs of the huge and daring possibility of the rise of a weaponised community in the north. This does not suggest that people should be allowed to indiscriminately bear arms, but in the ensuing circumstances, with villages razed, people massacred and an army on the run, it has become legal, legitimate, justifiable and necessary or people to device any means in protecting themselves.
The right to self-defence is as old as humanity that we hardly see any era or code or people that refused to invoke it. From its overwhelming appeal, stem other rights such as right to life, and the right to be free. When Sanusi emphasised it, he was only echoing what has always been an accepted value in human history. The fact that Nigerian government has woefully failed in its responsibility of shielding the citizenry from harm’s way make it even the more legitimate for people to rise up and act accordingly.
What we learnt from this whole escapade is that the incessant attack by Boko Haram on innocent civilians and the failure of the Nigerian state to provide security and protection as sanctioned in our laws, was what culminated into a spontaneous emergence of vigilante groups. Young men from various communities in the northeast have shown an unprecedented will to give their lives in the protection of their communities. In law and philosophy, this reaction is akin to two things, Just War and Self-defence, both of which are legitimate. For the purpose of this piece however, I will restrict myself to the right to self-defence, which is the prism through which the character of the situation in the northeast is better defined.
More than any other principle of natural law, self-defence is one concept that resonates loudly as an indispensable and legitimate institution of law. It is defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the inalienable right of all people to protect themselves against all forms of attack, violence and coercion. It is that fundamental right that impulsively justifies the use of force in any form against an unjustified aggression. In our constitution, everybody has the right to life and that cannot be taken away from him unless through the due process of law.
Moreover, criminal justice recognises self-defence as an exonerating factor. No man shall be held responsible for acting in order to defend himself from unjustified attack or aggression. Although this right may have different meanings in different socio-legal contexts, its principality is deeply entrenched in history, law and philosophy. It is by far one of those superior doctrines of natural law that cannot be estranged, even by the powers of emperors and dictators.
Long before what we now refer to as municipal or International law, and even long before the renaissance of contemporary nation states, self-defence is a value that resonates in the realms of human relations. What self-defence connotes, and that which has not changed is the right of everyman to defend his life, his property and his dignity against violence and hostility. History is amassed with tales of communities fighting to defend themselves against external aggressors and individuals confronting those who meant harm to them or their family.
Due to its significance, this aged value of defending oneself from harm has transcended beyond customary law to criminal justice. It is found in almost every code of contemporary municipal and international law. What changed is the nature and context of this idea. In the sense that, in modern bureaucracy, the right to self-defence is an interim measure put in place until it is clear that the state is able and willing to take over. Unfortunately, as it stands today, nothing suggests that the Nigerian State is ready to do so, at least in the northeast region. Hence, people reserve the right to take any measure necessary to protect themselves until the situation changes.
Hence, unlike what some officials in fortified offices want Nigerians to believe, people should be moved by the position of Sanusi, which is a reflection of the historical consensus that violence against people inevitably gives rise to justified self-defence. In the face of an imminent and unending threat to life and property, people must resist the suggestion to wait until they are slayed. Any attempt to circumscribe the right to self-defence is by all standards an unacceptable and unjustified proposition.
The concept of social contract is what makes people, for mutual advantage, to surrender to the state all apparatus of governance of which security is the most paramount. Where the state fails to provide this prerequisite, the role then legitimately shifts on to the individual. The action taken by the Vigilante groups in the northeast therefore conforms with all the significant and most important criteria when invoking the right to self-defence. The three most common standards of Legitimacy, Necessity, and Expediency have all been fulfilled.
In conclusion, it is important to draw the attention of all those opposed to the idea of having people to protect themselves that the long-standing position under international law and in our domestic laws has never doubted the existence of this right. It is also important to point out that the right does not stop at only self-defence, it also include the right to act where there is an anticipation of imminent armed attack. What is now left is for the officials in Nigeria is to live up to their responsibilities and provide adequate security for the people. Until that option is available, the law allows everyone to exercise his or her right to life under the constitution and the right to self-defence under international law.
Kagu is a scholar in International Criminal Justice at the University of Sussex, UK. Email: email@example.com, Twitter: @abbakagu