How did we get here? I have heard that question many times and it is a question I too have asked many times myself. It is a rhetorical question. Nigeria did not get to this sorry state overnight. We all know where we are headed. Any society that does not have minimal justice is liable to fall apart morally and physically. Any society that is subverted by vested interests always loses basic respect and trust. At the heart of good and ethical politics and policies is justice. Justice has always been essential for a nation state to thrive and survive. The existence of the rule of law and its universal application within the nation state is important to its development. A nation can only develop and aspire to greatness when there is the rule of law and it is upheld as a cardinal virtue. The rule of law is what makes a state different from communities. A state is created from communities based on force and the law. When a state is formed, there must be: equal access to state resources and information, where people of equal capabilities have equal chances without unfair advantage to anyone; equitable distribution of public goods and services; impartial application of rules to everyone; a sense of proportion between crimes and their punishment; and compliance with laws.

If we must rise from the ashes of our sorry state, we must truly fight to keep politics and justice separate. Politics and justice are like oil and water. They do not mix. Politics always seek to subvert justice. This is because politics is never neutral but justice must be neutral, black and white, and apolitical. Many people, including lawyers and jurists, believe that politics is an enemy of justice. Despite the seeming contradictions, democracy is sustained by the rule of law. Justice is not perfect, and the judiciary can never be fully independent but it must continue to assert its right to be independent. If the right, the just, the good and the useful are drivers of politics, justice should prove itself inclusive. The Nigerian judiciary must do a lot of self-cleansing to save Nigeria and restore hope. Justice is the cement that binds a society together. Nigerians are good people. If they feel the rule of law applies equally to all, regardless of ethnic, religious or socio-economic status, they will invest their trust in political power and authority. Political power must not tolerate or promote arbitrariness, impunity, oppression, cruelty, or excessive privilege, like we have seen in the anti-corruption cases so far. Political power must focus on mitigating injustice and foster individual freedom for it’s own sake, it’s own survival. A country inching towards greatness can tolerate some failures or judicial errors, but no greatness can be achieved by the wholesale sale of justice.

Nigeria cannot develop a true and sure foundation if the judicial arm does not self-regulate and embrace strong ethics. As a requirement, we must become a nation where actions have consequences for us to live together in peace and harmony. Law breakers must be made to face the law and they must have the assurance that the system will be fair, impartial and will mete out proportionate punishment.

Nigeria was once a country of laws. In the past, kings have been jailed and the mighty have faced humiliating consequences for their bad actions. We lost it when we resorted to self-help and laws are no longer useful as deterrents. The main objective of any legal system is to serve the best interests of the people and reflect their highest aspirations. A legal system is a system of actions, and actions produce results. That is why the measures of human rights, living standards, and quality of life can be seen at first glance by visitors to a country. Any or all of these three measures can be upgraded or degraded on the basis of the enforcement of laws. There cannot be progress in a country where laws are written to shackle the hands of the law. There cannot be justice when laws are written to serve the myopic interests of current office holders with no anticipation of future problems.

Again, how did we get to this sorry pass? The main reason is that for a long time, legal right and liability are no longer resolved by the application of the law but by the exercise of discretion. Nigeria will be great again when we allow actions to have consequences and apply the law justly without interference and partiality.

Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú a farmer, youth advocate and political analyst writes this weekly column, “Bamidele Upfront” for PREMIUM TIMES. Follow me on Twitter @olufunmilayo