Cheta Nwanze: What the Tor Tiv events say about our democracy

by Cheta Nwanze

One of the major problems of the Nigerian state is that we do not even know what kind of government we run. On paper, we are a democracy, but in practice, so many bits and pieces of Nigeria are not.

Just over a year ago, I wrote something for TheNerve Africa where I argued that Nigeria was going to face quite a number of constitutional crises.

The 1999 Constitution, in 17:2:a, tells us that every citizen of Nigeria shall have before the law, equality of rights, obligations and opportunities. There is also an entire section, Chapter IV, devoted to the fundamental rights of Nigerian citizens, and this section, includes 41:1 which says that “Every citizen of Nigeria is entitled to move freely throughout Nigeria and to reside in any part thereof.” This, is the theory.

However, in practice, what we see is quite different. Nigeria, in practice, subscribes to the Orwellian principle that “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” We saw so many examples of this in 2015, and have seen so many examples in the years since the 1999 Constitution came into effect. However, for the purpose of this discussion, we will dwell on two, which happened in 2015.

That argument still stands, and not too many incidents dramatise this like today’s story about an unfortunate geezer who’s been slammed with a four-year jail sentence for sitting on a chair.

Good heavens!

What is most shocking to me about the sentence handed down to Stephen Nyitse, is that his ‘crime’ was committed on Saturday. Four days ago! He committed the ‘crime’ on Saturday, was picked up same day, could not go to court on Sunday, because we had to give pastors et al their due, and then, his case was heard in record time on Monday. Same day, he proceeded to the slammer to cool off for the next 1,460 days!

Now, away from the swoon of that stunningly rapid sentence, let us consider if another, mere mortal, in Nigeria, can get “justice” that fast. What if I walk into my little castle in Ikeja and see Chike Mustapha sitting uninvited on my throne? Will he get whatever sentence he gets for trespassing in such record time?

Let’s not be naive, in every society on earth, there are some people that are more equal than others, but one of the things that liberal democracies, which is what we pretend to be, have managed to achieve, is the illusion at least, that no matter how highly placed you are in society, if you drive in the wrong direction on a one-way street, you will answer for it. In Nigeria, we have long since given up the pretext that such equalities exist. It is without shame here, one rule for the governors, many rules for the governed.

So, who are these people that are the governors?

First, and increasingly at the top of the tree, are the religious leaders. These men, they are almost always men, have tapped into the Nigerian belief in the Almighty. Christians support them with statements such as “Touch not my anointed”, while Muslims are likely to hide someone behind his leadership of Fard. Basically, these men use such knowledge, that nothing will happen to them, or that even if something does happen, they will have a willing army to defend their every move, to wreak havoc.

Second, they used to be top but are, especially in Southern Nigeria, losing their place, are the traditional rulers. These men are, “the guardians of our culture”, and we have a habit of ignoring the fact that in too many cases, there is no written down guide to what this ‘culture’ is, so many of these guys just improvise based on their whims at the moment. We see that a lot in Igboland, especially during burial time, and it leads to a lot of quarrels. In Yorubaland, such people hide behind the concept of Kabiyesi to do what they want, without question. In the Far North, they are largely intertwined with religious rule, so they have a potentially explosive mixture of both.

The third set of people are those in, or formerly in government, who have, by virtue of access to the public till, or access to the corridors of power, have amassed some influence, which they then go around peddling. An incident on a recent return flight from Abuja convinced me that in Nigeria, once you manage to waltz your way into a certain part of our social stratosphere, there’s no way you’re coming down from it.

So, we have these three groups of people, whom no low-born policeman can stop in traffic for fear of his very job. If our law enforcement personnel are incapable of enforcing the law over every Nigerian regardless of social status, then are we a democracy?

This brings us to a realisation that many have started to make in recent times — the only real crime in Nigeria is to have a perpetually flat wallet. If you’re unable to bail yourself out of a tight spot on a consistent basis, if you by any chance, do not give off the appearance of being able to do so, Nigeria will crush you, without question. If on the other hand, you have access, and you are able to flaunt that access on occasion, you are largely accountable to no one but God.

So, how do we change this? How can Nigeria become a truly free country where the rights and wishes of all its citizens are accommodated if not necessarily respected?

Well, we first need to have an honest discussion of what we want. It has become clear that the various groups within the country want very different things. It is also very clear that within the various groups, they have such wildly varying wants as to be seen as separate groups themselves. However, what I’ve been unable to find anyone denying as it were, is that everyone wants economic prosperity. That is a start.

How can we structure this country in such a way so that it can deliver prosperity, or at least living comfort, to the overwhelming majority of its citizens, while causing discomfort, to only a minuscule segment of society?

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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