Restructuring Nigeria: Start with our legal system (2)

Restructuring Nigeria: Start with our legal system (2)

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Corruption is perceived to be high in Nigeria because the formal governance system is regulated by a formal legal system that is not widely accepted and internalized. Governance therefore suffers from problems of common resource and free rider due to its regulation by unaccepted and internalized legal system that can be bought and sold ( even the enforcement agencies and individuals do not believe in it). This is why unquestionable cases of corrupt enrichment and fraud normally degenerate to ethnic confrontations with the tribes of the concerned individuals emerging as unrepentant supporters of corruption with intriguing cries of ethnic persecution of their illustrious sons/daughters. On the contrary, a petty criminal or thief can easily be lynched within his village or tribe even on mere allegation. The question therefore is why it is easy for us to kill a petty criminal from our tribe but defend and support a big thief that stole from the national resource? The answer is that the small petty thief is abhorred using our tribal legal system which forbids stealing and which we accept and have internalized but the big thief that has embezzled public funds is perceived using our formal legal system which we have not accepted and internalized. In the same vein, our traditional rulers and elders are still largely believed to be people of high morals and integrity of which corrupt allegations are normally repudiated at. This is due to the tribal legal system that is understood, accepted and internalized and which abhors corruption.

The current demands for regionalism, devolution of powers and state police are all connected to the limitedly accepted and weakly internalized formal legal system. They are demands for the transfer of power and control of public revenue from the centre with a limitedly accepted legal system to regions with societies of common tribal legal system (South East, South West, South South, North Central, North West and North East). This will leave the centre (federal government) with issues such as foreign affairs and national defense which are of common interest to all the tribes and their legal systems. It is therefore deeply important that the restructuring of our national formal legal system be given utmost priority and diligently executed.

If we agree that Nigeria should remain the way it is, then our formal national legal system will need to be comprehensively restructured and rewritten to deeply reflect our national values and cultures. The contents should be discussed and determined by the ethnic nationalities and derive mainly from the similarities in our values and norms. However, if we agree that there should be devolution of powers to regions, the suggestion will be to create two legal systems. The first should be a national legal system and the second a regional legal system. The national legal system should develop through the collation and harmonization of similarities and differences in our respective tribal legal systems on issues that will be controlled by the federal government such as national governance, foreign affairs, national security, revenue generation and sharing etc. The regional legal system should be developed by the regions and dictated by their common values and norms and then used to moderate issues that will be allocated to the regions like development policies, revenue generation and distribution, education, health etc. This suggestion does not mean that our current formal legal system adopted from Britain should be discarded. It should not, but, we need to deeply look at the contents and use only the elements that are amenable to our past, current and future values and norms. This is also the case with our tribal legal systems in which we should discard practices and laws which we consider inappropriate and retrogressive.

If devolution is agreed, each region can have its own supreme court and the other lesser courts while the federal government can have only appeal and supreme courts to adjudicate in cases between the regions or between individuals/groups and regions. Allowing the regions to have their own supreme courts will not only expedite resolution of cases but will trigger a wider usage of the legal system by the citizens who will be aware and conversant with contents and procedures of the law which derive from their common norms and values. Irrespective of the structure of governance agreed for Nigeria, it is imperative that a wide and elaborate socio-legal socialization of the citizens is carried out to ensure good understanding, acceptance and societal ownership of the legal system. Regardless of preferred course or profession, it might be important that law modules are made compulsory in levels of education (from primary to tertiary schools). In the same vein, the judiciary will need to be effectively restructured to enhance delivery of justice. A key reform is the need for specialization of judges. A situation where one Judge can adjudicate in all cases from criminal to land issues and from constitutional matters to bankruptcy issues is flawed. The reform should entail the recruitment of Judges with specialism in different key areas of Law.

The above suggestion will ensure that all interests are considered and protected. It will ensure sustainable development and peaceful co-existence due to the emergence of properly discussed legal system that will regulate both the federal, regional, state and local governments. Achieving regionalism and devolution of powers without comprehensive restructuring of our legal system to reflect our traditional values and norms will only achieve a transfer and expansion of the current problems we are facing to the regions. As stated earlier, this approach of a legal system emerging from the traditional norms and society in question is the case with most developed societies. The UK where we adopted our current legal system has no single documented constitution or legal system. Their legal system is effective and has led to sustainable economic development due to the fact that it is deeply rooted to their values and norms. USA passed through difficult challenges and wars until 1787 when they restructured their legal system to create the Northwest Ordinance Act that deeply appreciated and incorporated their complex traditional values and norms in what is presently referred as the American constitution. It is the cause and main reason for the differences in laws across the American states and regions. The ball is in our court and the time to act is now!


*Franklin Ngwu



Dr. Ngwu is a Senior Lecturer in Strategy, Finance and Risk Management, Lagos Business School and a Member, Expert Network, World Economic Forum. E-mail- [email protected],


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