The culture of impunity is a phenomenon that has plagued Nigeria for decades. In Nigeria today, no matter how egregious or criminal their action is, it is very difficult to see privileged individuals or groups being held accountable. In Nigeria, impunity has become so ingrained in the culture that it has become a norm, rather than an exception.
Last week, a very shameful and embarrassing video that showed the verbal and physical assault of a police officer by Seun Kuti, Afrobeat musician and son of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, went viral. The video captured, in moving pictures, the level of impunity that pervades Nigeria, which has played a huge role in keeping the country on its knees.
In the footage, which was recorded on Lagos’ Third Mainland Bridge, Seun is seen yelling and shoving a police officer while also pushing and slapping him. The policeman displayed admirable composure by refraining from verbally or physically attacking Seun. Seun was being held by a woman who was probably his wife, but he resisted. Seun angrily demanded that the woman returned to the car as soon as she stepped out of it to plead with him. The woman quickly obliged, showing that she was aware that there would be consequences if she defied him.
It is unclear what went wrong, but based on Seun’s remarks, it appeared that the police car had slightly brushed his from behind. There was no indication that Seun’s car had been seriously damaged when the camera captured them standing behind the two cars.
Imagine if that police officer had a bad temper or was inebriated. Imagine if he reached into his car or his clothes and discharged a pistol at Seun. Seun would be dead by this time. Another extrajudicial death would have resulted in police coming under fire. If the incident hadn’t been captured on camera, Seun would have received all the sympathy while the police would have been held responsible for any killings and aggressive behaviour in Nigerian clashes with citizens.
However, Seun’s treatment of that police officer was not rare. The fact that it was captured on camera was the only reason it even became a problem. The strong blatantly oppress and frighten the vulnerable in Nigeria’s unequal society. Seun Kuti considers himself a celebrity or ‘a big man’ in Nigerian slang, as well as the son of the legendary Fela and a Grammy Award nominee. He thinks he is untouchable. Whatever he does, there will always be some influential individuals who will direct that he be permitted to roam free. However, all of that impunity evaporates the moment the same Seun—or anyone else who shares his viewpoint—crosses the Nigerian border into the Benin Republic or Cameroon. The person knows that any breach will be punished appropriately without any interference from any influential person.
Seun Kuti must also have been familiar to the cop. Knowing the Nigerian culture, he was aware that any argument with Seun would not be helpful to him. He can even lose his job and end up in jail because of his arguments or fights with ‘a Nigerian big man.’ This is how bad the culture of impunity has become in Nigeria.
Imagine, though, that the policeman was dressed in an army uniform. No matter how careless the soldier was, would Seun have hit him? Would he even have abused the offending soldier verbally? No, not at all. The straightforward explanation is that the Nigerian military is infamous for blatantly brutalising anyone who crosses them, including police officers. Why would Seun believe it is okay to assault a policeman if he wouldn’t have dared to hit a soldier?
The extent of impunity and lawlessness in Nigeria is the cause. The guiding principle that Nigerians have inculcated in themselves is that might is right. The situation in Nigeria is somewhat similar to the situation in the wild, where the concept of the survival of the fittest applies. People violate the rights of others who are more powerful than them. Here power is carelessly abused and misused. There are exceptions to the general application of the law of the country.
There are many examples of impunity in Nigeria. For instance, politicians and public officials often embezzle public funds, engage in corrupt practices, and abuse their power without any consequences. Even the police and security forces are also guilty of impunity, as they regularly violate the human rights of citizens, use excessive force, and engage in extrajudicial killings with impunity.
The Nigerian judiciary is also not immune to the culture of impunity. The courts are often inefficient, slow, and corrupt, and many judges are easily bribed or influenced by powerful individuals. This, coupled with the lack of political will to address impunity, has resulted in a situation where individuals and groups can get away with almost any crime.
The consequences of impunity in Nigeria are dire. It has led to a breakdown of the rule of law, a culture of lawlessness, and a lack of trust in the government and its institutions. This, in turn, has led to widespread insecurity, as people take the law into their own hands and resort to violence to settle disputes.
‘Do you know who I am?’, ‘Do you know me’? ‘Who are you’? have become very common sentences in Nigeria that Nigerians hear almost every day. The insinuation is that the person who posed the question might report you to their powerful friends or take drastic measures that will get you fired, reprimanded, detained, beaten up, or even killed if you don’t soft-pedal on whatever you are doing. This causes occasionally even people who are performing their legitimate duties to beat a retreat.
In such countries where the constitution reigns supreme and people respect the rights of others, any person – be it a police officer, soldier, celebrity, politician, or whoever – who assaults another knows that there will be consequences for it. That serves as a deterrent to others.
The problem is the Nigerian environment where impunity is condoned, celebrated, and excused. If Seun Kuti is not fully penalised for this show of shame, it will inspire others to engage in more acts of impunity.
To address the culture of impunity in Nigeria, several steps need to be taken. The first step is to strengthen the institutions responsible for enforcing the law and holding individuals accountable. This includes the police, the judiciary, and other law enforcement agencies. These institutions need to be adequately funded, staffed, and trained to carry out their duties effectively.
Another step is to create a culture of transparency and accountability. This means that public officials should be required to declare their assets and be held accountable for any discrepancies between their assets and their income. It also means that there should be an independent media and civil society organisations that can monitor and report on the activities of public officials and hold them accountable.
Finally, there needs to be a political will to address impunity. This means that the government and its leaders should be committed to fighting corruption, promoting the rule of law, and holding individuals and groups accountable for their actions. This requires strong leadership, a commitment to transparency and accountability, and a willingness to take tough decisions, even if they are unpopular.
In conclusion, the culture of impunity in Nigeria is a major problem that needs to be addressed urgently. It is a threat to the rule of law, human rights, and the well-being of citizens. To address this problem, there needs to be a concerted effort by all stakeholders, including the government, civil society, and the media, to promote transparency, accountability, and the rule of law. Nigeria needs to move to a place where impunity will not be the norm in a society populated by vulnerable people.