Simply put, impunity means acting outside stipulated regulations, disregarding the law or laid-down procedure….and believing that one CANNOT be held accountable for such action. It also means that having acted irregularly, the offending party now dares institutions set up to safeguard the law to call him or her to account.
Now, why is accountability important? Accountability is important because those that make decisions in our name, must be held accountable for their actions and must endeavour to act within the law. The trouble though, is that those who claim to act in our name, behave as if they are law to themselves. They deem themselves above reproach and beyond the constraint of the law. They thus act with impunity as if the law or the constitution does not exist.
The Nigerian society is littered with such recklessness. Many Nigerian political leaders are an irresponsible lot, in that they seek power in the first place, not for public good but in pursuit of private end, personal aggrandizement and filthy lucre. To that extent, any law or regulation is essentially a nuisance, an irritant that stands in their way. It must thus be circumvented or willfully disregarded.
And because our judiciary [both the bar and the bench] is relatively weak and even venal , accountability through legal restraint is still problematic. This is not helped by the fact that in our society, people can be prevailed upon, even induced, not to take a legal and constitutional course of action, even if it is the proper and the right thing to do.
If a head of the executive branch breaks the law, ‘elders’ begin to ‘beg’ legislators not to remove the offending individual and thus ‘heat up the system’. The idea that the erring individual who does not wish to be held accountable is the one ‘heating up the system’ is lost on these ‘elders’. Or perhaps they have a stake in the individual’s continued stay in office, thus they are not really a disinterested party, their public protestations notwithstanding.
Nigeria’s budding civil society deserves a lot of credit for raising public consciousness about the danger of impunity in the extant democratic experiment. The judiciary deserves some praise too, in determining the outcomes of some celebrated cases.
Ultimately, it is the ordinary Nigerian citizen who believes our country ought to be a democratic nation that will insist on ridding our society of arbitrariness and caprice in governance. While there have been some cheering rulings from the judicial branch, the legislative and executive branches often collude to betray both the letter, spirit and essence of the law. In the first four years of the extant republic, the federal legislature, especially the senate acted as essentially a willing tool of the executive branch. Its leadership was changed at random, according to the whims of the presidency and it lent itself to be a mere rubber stamp of the executive branch.
It used to be commonplace to disregard the rulings of the court, even that of the Supreme Court. That really is the height of impunity, when government officials representing the executive branch can defy the ruling of the apex court of Nigeria. The government of former president Olusegun Obasanjo impounded the federal allocations of the Lagos state government and refused to release them even when the Supreme Court ruled that it had no power to seize the allocation of any state. It grudgingly released some of this allocation when some individuals who tagged themselves ‘Elders of the Southwest’ intervened. It was the government of the late president Umaru Yar Ardua that released the balance, an amount running into billions of naira. It is ironic that the highest political institution [the presidency] in Nigeria could choose to defy the ruling of the Supreme Court of the land. It shows the height of lawlessness. This would happen because in our society, the idea of the sanctity of the law is yet to be firmly rooted. In a stable democracy, this is ground for impeachment and removal from office. Our democracy is a work in progress. Churlish, petulant, self-regarding types still dot our political space and it is the vigilance of the civil society and the ordinary citizens that must insist on accountability, so that impunity reigneth not.