Impunity in Nigeria

Recently, Officers of the Nigerian Police Force in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, illegally arrested a driver of a popular cab Company and detained him for five days without access to his family. This incident occurred just as the anniversary of what residents in Port Harcourt called the Ikokwu 4 had just passed. Unfortunately this is just one of many such acts of impunity committed by Nigerian Security forces.  

In many instances, impunity in Nigeria is encouraged by the deliberate subversion of institutions of Justice and accountability for their own ends. For example, in February, when many people protested the opening of the Lekki tollgate, they were arrested and brutalized by the Nigeria Police. There have been instances when State Governors have deliberately ignored court process, and violated human rights in a bid to pursue the delivery of supposed legacy projects.  An infamous example of this is the illegal demolition of Otodo Gbame, a waterfront settlement on the edge of the Lagoon in Lekki, by the Lagos State Government. This action was carried out in contravention of legal processes. In 2017, a High Court in the State declared the action of the state as null and void and unconstitutional, yet, the state government continues to ignore the Court’s Judgment. According to a resident, “Since the ruling of Justice Onigbanjo of Igbosere High Court, the state governor went for appeal and we have not heard anything. The appeal by the state government seems as a way of delaying judgment

A consequence of impunity in Nigeria is in the entrenchment of mob violence. According to an article in the Journal of African health sciences, mob violence is prevalent when angry and disenfranchised people lack trust in the legal system. Data from the Partners for Peace’s Peace map between 2017 -2020, there was 323 incidents of mob violence in Nigeria resulting in 727 fatalities. Mob violence often occurs where “disgruntled members of communities willingly engage in destruction directed at specific groups, property, or individuals perceived as causing harm to the community”. An example of a mob violence event common to Nigeria is the lynching of suspected criminals such as petty thieves, armed robbers, suspected rapists etc. The extra judicial killing and maiming of suspected offenders is not just a violation of their right to fair hearing, it is criminal in nature, and nevertheless, mob violence persists because perpetrators are seldom brought to book by the law. This institutional deficiencies emboldens people to assume the role of the judiciary and they start executing their own version of Justice.

Impunity in Nigeria is often occasioned by the delay in the administration of Justice. While a backlog of cases and an overtaxed court system in many countries can mean justice is delayed for some months or even years, in Nigeria, it can be delayed for a generation or more. The travails of Nigeria’s justice system have been well documented; there are many instances of cases where the inefficiencies in the Justice system has failed Nigerians, most infamously the perennial issue of awaiting trial inmates. It is estimated that more than 70% of Nigerian prisoners have not been convicted by the courts. However, the direct linkages between justice delayed and the pervading culture of impunity are not as often explored in detail. Specifically, justice delayed in Nigeria promotes impunity as many people would often resort to the use of extra- judicial means to enforce justice or address disputes. This often involves the use of thugs, hoodlums and in a lot of cases, state security operatives to enforce their own brand of justice. After all, the delay in the system would often work in their favour if they are arrested or prosecuted.


To be sure, the problem of impunity in Nigeria is one that doesn’t fall squarely on the government and politicians. Some have argued that Nigerians inherently have a penchant to disobey rules and laws and that this attitude encourages the culture of impunity. While this viewpoint may have some validity, it is important to state that no human is born with an inherent desire to be good and obey laws. Rather, it is the responsibility of the State to maintain law and order and put in place structures such as the rule of law that hold people accountable for their actions. The failure to do this would breed lawlessness and chaos.

Nigeria needs to reform the administration of Justice System that many have been clamoring for, for years. This should not just be reflected in the hiring of more staff for the judiciary. Rather, it should involve reforming the whole system including making legal aid accessible, automating court filing systems to make the loads easier for Judges and training for prosecutors and clerks of Judges. It should also involve the creation of incentives for Judges that speedily dispense their cases and the proper training of public prosecutors from the police force.

While many International and National organizations such as the Open Society Foundation and the British Council are working on these reforms across some states in the country, there is the need for a more comprehensive reform which enjoys the substantial backing from the Federal and State Governments.


Nkasi Wodu, a New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute, is a lawyer, peace and security expert, and development practitioner based in Nigeria.


Views expressed by contributors are strictly personal and not of TheCable.
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