Curtailing the Culture of Impunity in Our National Life (Part 1)


The title of this paper presupposes that there is a major problem of impunity in Nigeria’s national life impeding progress and negatively affecting the national psyche, and that if we want to make progress collectively as a people, there is an urgent need to address this problem. Impunity breeds disorder, and without order no society can prosper. Indeed, some commentators have opined that the job of any governing political system is not primarily to foster growth, as has become the tiresome mantra of today’s national leadership; instead it is to establish order from which all other things shall follow.

The word impunity derives from the Latin word impunatis meaning freedom from punishment, which itself is a derivative of the Latin word impunis which means unpunished. So impunity in its strict, technical dictionary definition means freedom or exemption from punishment or recrimination or penalty or harm, in spite of doing a wrong, whether legal or moral. It also means freedom or exemption or immunity from unpleasant consequences. And this immunity could be conferred by constitution or statute, or it could be conferred by default on the part of institutions, out of fear, attitudes of servility, inefficiency, ignorance, silence, convention or abuse of privilege. And it is the elite that are the usual beneficiaries, and, ironically, often the victims.

There is also the issue of the type of impunity that bespeaks immunity from the consequences of not performing an obligation or duty, and this involves impunity in relation to responsibility and accountability. This usually relates to the failure of public officials or institutions to carry out statutory duties efficiently or at all, or even private individuals in their dealings and interactions with such institutions failing to comply with the law or regulations or legitimate professional expectations, preferring to negotiate their way to the front of the queue, and even if these may not always amount to legal wrongs they are certainly administrative or moral wrongs with damaging effects to society; but the institutions and their officials and these private individuals continue to act with impunity mainly because of complicity or silence.

This dovetails neatly, I think, with that aspect and definition of impunity that I think affects us most, that concerning situations where people or institutions ACT WITH IMPUNITY because there is NO CARE OR HEED for the consequences of such impunity, because there are likely to be no serious consequences.

And something must be encouraging this aspect of having no care or heed for consequences. Once a society finds itself in a situation where, by acts of commission or commission, a culture of impunity, disruptive of order, is encouraged, then surely, hard questions must be put to that society as to the reasons for the situation. And this is more compelling when members of the self-same society continuously and vigorously, in their places of worship, in newspaper articles, at seminars, in speeches and public declarations, express seeming outrage at breaches of values and deviation from our moral compass and declare the importance of order and defined moral boundaries and values and professional competence, and yet are directly involved in or complicit in the encouragement and condoning of the culture of impunity, especially when they themselves rise to positions of power and privilege, or fail to speak out when they should. In fact, this issue of remaining silent in the face of impunity, indicating a desire not to get involved, is one of the most potent driving forces of impunity.

Lest I forget, the word “order”, in the context in which we are referring to it today, has been variously defined as “a condition of logical or comprehensible arrangement among the separate elements of a group which enhances security and predictability”, or “a condition of methodical or prescribed arrangement among component parts such that their proper functioning or appearance is achieved.”

But wait a moment….I seem to have jumped the gun! Is there truly a culture of impunity in our national and local lives impacting on order and national cohesion? Remember, I spoke earlier of individual and institutional impunity, each encouraging the other. So let us take a few visible examples that we are confronted with on an almost daily basis.

A pet bugbear of mine is the VIP protection culture, a peculiarly Nigerian phenomenon which involves the appropriation of public assets towards personal comfort. The ‘Big Man’ syndrome, expressed in those long used expressions such as “Do you know who I am?” or “I will deal with you!” (a syndrome which was one of the earliest legacies of military rule) is a major contributor to the impunity culture. No one wants to live an ordinary, simple life anymore once they are appointed to a high position or have come into money. They have become disruptive influences taking up more public space than they would enjoy in a normal society.

They must have numerous aides, they cannot do anything for themselves any longer, and, aping the antics of those in power, they too drive in convoys, as if there weren’t enough traffic on our roads and parking spaces, use policemen as drivers and domestics, blare sirens and breach traffic laws, forgetting that they are, by so doing, contributing to the disorder and demeaning the very institutions that are supposed to establish order. And incredibly, the police institution lends itself to this lawless behaviour by providing its officers to all manner of people, even establishing a VIP protection unit with no clear rules or code of conduct for its officers, thereby and perhaps unwittingly, undermining its own authority and making its work of enforcing the law much more difficult. Yet the Police Act provides no support for what has become entrenched elite abuse of a public asset.

The main tools by which a state curtails impunity, thereby imposing order, are its institutions. And by any measure, Nigeria has all the institutions that define a modern state and more, perhaps too many -the police (and its numerous offshoots), the civil service, the courts, and the regulatory agencies covering virtually every aspect of our lives -business, professional and personal. Now, for institutions to play the role that is expected of them, they are expected to be efficient and effective so that there would be no question about their importance to national existence and cohesion and no substitutes for the vital functions they perform. But are our institutions as effective as they should be so as to generate the necessary respect and consequent compliance?

If it takes you nine months to renew your driver’s license, that is crass inefficiency encouraged by the fact that the officials of the relevant agency will not be called to account, i.e. a form of impunity by individuals paid from the public purse; and we the members of the elite are quite comfortable once we are assured of getting our public services without the long wait, through the use of proxies or touts, and the influence peddling and “man know man” mechanisms and small bribes. So, we are complicit because we are comfortable with the situation, having found ways around it, even if these ways often involve some form of criminal activity. After all, who is going to hold you to account?

The delay described above is manifested in most of our public institutions at federal, state and local levels in relation to applications for passports, company registration, land titling, building approval, mining and other licenses and indeed any form of public service. These are aspects of institutional impunity which encourage other forms of impunity and disorder. How many people behind the wheel in Nigeria today have valid driver’s licenses? The impunity of the relevant agencies in making inefficiency their organisational philosophy, without any negative consequences for their heads or subordinate officials, has led to a culture of non-compliance with basic driving requirements on the road because it’s just too much trouble to comply, and it is done with impunity.

And we never make the connection that any one of us could become the victim of such an unlicensed driver. Rather than the head of an inefficient agency being sanctioned or removed, he is often rewarded with higher office due to political or religious or ethnic or geopolitical considerations. And if we know him we celebrate him or her. Look at your newspapers: a mere appointment is cause for celebrations and congratulations. It is indeed a tragic irony that because of this culture of impunity in the provision of basic public services, contact with the state and its institutions often criminalises the citizen. Any wonder then why we are so disorderly.

If the criminal justice system, due to its inbred unaccountability, is unable to efficiently and speedily punish wrong doing, then people will carry out criminal acts with no heed for the consequences. If civil process finds it virtually impossible to enforce commercial contracts, then parties are encouraged to breach them with impunity because there is no certainty of consequences. If institutions, due to their inefficiency, serve the interests of the breacher rather than the victim, then impunity is encouraged. If even the mere enforcement of court orders becomes a convoluted, corrupt and difficult process, and where it can be frustrated because the other side has appropriated the machinery of state to his side, and the lawyers stand helplessly by, then impunity is encouraged.

If the NBA cannot speedily and objectively discipline lawyers involved in the most despicable acts of professional misconduct, then we are encouraging the culture of impunity and enabling a distrusted and despised profession. If people are protected because of tribe or religion, if a very powerful government figure can give cover to a scoundrel facing a serious indictment, all in a bid to capture votes, not caring about the virtual immunity he is conferring by association, and with no reaction of outrage from the national elite because of sentiment, then impunity shall define us, and when we become the victims we should not complain.

Arthur-Worrey retired as Solicitor General of Lagos State and then served as Commissioner for Lands of the state. Presently, he is the Executive Secretary, Lagos State Security Trust Fund



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