Cheta Nwanze: Nigeria’s ancient laws in modern times

by Cheta Nwanze

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” — John Dalberg-Acton

One thing I’ve talked about in the past is how archaic our laws are, and how much out of tune with current existence they are. I first became aware of this a few years ago when a man, John Obinna, was sentenced to hang by the neck until dead for stealing a sachet of Peak Milk. In investigating that story, I came across existing statutes that prescribed punishment in Pounds, Pence and Shillings. Whether that was a mistake, is anyone’s guess. What is certainly no mistake, is the fact that many of our laws are anachronistic to a democracy, which is what we claim to be. Another issue with anachronism, is that people could, under whatever pretext, push such codes, until they become de facto.

Yesterday, a man was arrested. Audu Maikori, to my knowledge, has yet to be charged with anything, but we all knew that it was coming. Predictably, the reactions by the most vocal sections of Nigerian society has been largely along party lines. Those “in support” of the current ruling hierarchy, have supported Mr. Maikori’s arrest, those “opposed” to the current ruling hierarchy, have screamed to high heavens about the arrest.

It is important to point out that there are various aspects to whether this arrest is right or not. It is also important to point out the contradictions that this arrest throws up. Mr. Maikori has been arrested (not yet charged as far as I know), for incitement to violence. To my knowledge, he has not, online or offline, called people to violence. However, he has, talked about the violence in Southern Kaduna, and could be accused of inventing some dead bodies in order to strengthen his case. He apologised later on, but that is just for the record.

This is where the contradiction comes in: According to the Penal Code, the law for criminal justice in Northern Nigeria, you cannot make statements that are inciting against the leader. The actual text talks about words either spoken or reproduced by mechanical means, intended to be read, that attempt to excite feelings of disaffection against the President or Governor, makes the person liable to seven years, or a fine, or both.

Now here is the anachronism: That the text did not use the word “electronically”, set off an alarm in my head, and I started asking questions. My questions turned up the expected answer — this incitement law was passed pre-independence. It was a tool by the colonial government to suppress dissent, and our leaders in the 56 years plus since, have left it there, because, well, it is a convenient tool. The people have not railed about it, because they are too uneducated to understand its implications. What we need to understand as a people, is that with laws such as this, we will keep having maximum rulers, it matters not who is in power. A maximum ruler was human before he became a ruler, so he will be open to, with such laws, abuse of power. It matters not whether he is a soldier, a quantity surveyor, a lawyer, or a pastor.

It matters not if Mr Maikori himself becomes governor, or president. With laws like this, even he too, will likely do things like this.
Herein lies the rub. This particular section of the Penal Code, to my untrained legal mind, contradicts Section 4 of the 1999 Constitution, which gives the right to free speech. And yes, I know that free speech comes with a responsibility of use, which brings us to something very important.

Both sides in this argument miss the point. The real point here is that people are being killed in a part of the country, and how these killings are handled, will determine whether there will be more Audus, whether more people will look at what has happened to Audu, and then decide to either act like Audu, or that the existing laws are stacked against them, and as a result, create their own realities. How much more of a breakdown of law and order will we see before those realities created become the law of the land?

Another important point is this — we have a “crime” which to my knowledge was committed in Southern Nigeria, where the Penal Code does not apply. A magistrate in Kaduna, in Northern Nigeria, issued a warrant, and got the police in Lagos to whisk the subject of said warrant to Abuja. Questions for my legal friends — does the Penal Code apply in Abuja? Can a magistrate in Kaduna order an arrest in Lagos? Based on our laws, the man arrested is a Northerner, so if me, a Southerner, writes about what is happening in Southern Kaduna while sitting in my house in Onitsha, can I be picked up under this rule?

This is what we have a National Assembly for, to untangle these Gordian Knots that define our existence as a country. Untangling these legal issues are important, and the fallout of failing to untanlge them is anarchy. That is the risk we are running.

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

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