The January 1st killings in Benue State, the NBA and the Rule of Law

The January 1st killings in Benue State, the NBA and the Rule of Law

The sad news broke on us on New Year’s Day. Wanton, senseless killing of scores of innocent people in the dead of night by remorseless criminals. Fingers were immediately pointed at the marauding killer herdsmen who have stained the map of Nigeria with their mindless bloodletting for years now.

As at 4th January 2018, the number killed was over 33 and the count of the injured and missing were still being tallied up. Governor Ortom’s prompt visit to the scene of crime was discountenanced by the wounded people as an inadequate palliative measure, their demand was for the President to speak up. But the President was speechless. The same president who would not hesitate to commiserate with western Germany when a few people get killed by acts of nature.

There was also deafening silence from another quarter; the Nigeria Bar Association. The NBA is the umbrella body of the lawyers in Nigeria. But beyond its representation of lawyers, it is the custodian of the legal conscience of the nation and guard of the rule of law.

Because its members may be found in every national endeavor and often provide legal guidance to disparate and sometimes opposed individual and corporate interests, the umbrella body is saddled with ensuring that the rules of the game are scrupulously kept. After all, it is the rules that ensure sanity of the game. We could think of the NBA as a referee of sorts, or at least as a safety officer. The safety officer doesn’t take over your task, he merely ensure you do not do it in an unsafe manner.

Lawyers are familiar with the rule of law. Ordinary citizens are equally familiar with the rule of law. It is this rule of law that underpins democracy and the modern state. In the simplest of terms, the rule of law is the opposite of the rule of men. It also means that all men are born free and are subject only to laws made by the appropriate legislature. The rule of men on the other hand means someone can wake up and decide that the freedom you used to enjoy is a crime today and what was a crime yesterday is no longer a crime today simply because he says so.

This brings us to the killings of January 1st 2018. On May 22nd 2017, Governor Ortom signed the Open Grazing (Prohibition) and Ranches Establishment bill into law. To give it a human face, the law was to go into effect from the 1st of November 2017, five months after signing to enable all parties make necessary adjustments. The bill had been duly passed into law by the Benue State House of Assembly after holding public hearings, which the Miyetti Allahu Cattle Breeders Association amongst others participated in. The law protected cattle herders by providing for ranching and prescribing punishment including death sentences for cattle rustlers who kill herders in the process. It also proscribed open grazing and permitted farm animal transfer by rail, trailer or other vehicles. It punished open grazing as well.

It was thus in the face of this piece of decent legislation that some herdsmen struck a cruel, bloodthirsty blow on January 1st 2018.

Sometime in October 2017, just before the law was intended to go into effect, Alhaji Abdullahi Bodejo who says he is the President of the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore Fulani, a socio-cultural organization, made a speech in Abuja condemning the law and calling it an attempt to grab land resources and deny others the same resources and publicly said it would be resisted.
It is not arguable that the perpetrators of the heinous attack on January 1st were Fulani herdsmen and that some of those targeted are the so-called Livestock Guards who were employed to ensure implementation of law.

The Nigerian Bar Association has a duty to protect the rule of law and the attack of January 1 2018 is nothing less than a brazen attempt to intimidate and overawe the law making capacities of Benue State by attacking the people whom the law seeks to protect. It is an attempt to repeal a law by force of arms.

In an address by Dr. Hans Corell titled “The Function Of Bar Associations To Promote The Rule Of Law” and delivered in 2015, the co-chair of the Council of Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association, said four elements are integral to the rule of law; (1) democracy (2) proper legislation (3) institutions to administer the law (4) individuals with integrity and knowledge to administer these institutions.
He went on to say;
“The third element, the institutions, including independent and impartial courts, is an obvious component. However, in my view, the real challenged lies in the fourth element: the individuals to with the integrity and knowledge necessary to administer these institutions.
And this is where I see an important role for national bar associations. They have a critical role to play when it comes to education, including the ethical elements that are of particular importance to the legal profession.”

His position is buttressed by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers adopted by the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders at Havana, Cuba in 1990, which emphasized.

“…that professional associations of lawyers have a vital role to play in upholding professional standards and ethics, protecting their members from persecution and improper restrictions and infringements, providing legal services to all in need of them, and cooperating with governmental and other institutions in furthering the ends of justice and public interest.”

Since the killings of January 1st 2018, President Buhari’s men have been heard splitting hairs and trying to minimize the impact of the killings in Benue by saying that it is not a national security issue and therefore does not merit the kind of treatment meted to the IPOB.
President Buhari having failed to correctly measure the law and order implications of the Benue killings, the obligations immediately fall to the Nigerian Bar Association to speak to the rule of law implications of the killings.

The killings are an assault on the rule of law and the Nigerian Bar Association is the enabler and defender of the rule of law. The Association ought to speak through its President or other official organ to the brazen assault on the rule of law and the implications for society. That to my mind is what the United Nations’ Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers mean by talking about “cooperating with governmental and other institutions in furthering the ends of justice and public interests.”

Thus, where the government is not interested in furthering ends of justice, the Nigerian Bar Association can cooperate with the rest of civil society in the public interest.

The actions of the wanton killers of January 1st 2018 was murder. It is not political protest because it is not directed at the organs of state. It was not an attempt to set the Benue State House of Assembly on fire for making the law; it was cold blooded killing of innocent non-combatants in the dead of night. It was cowardly and criminal. The people who instigated it, planned it, carried it out and those who perhaps are seeking to cover it up are all guilty of murder not manslaughter or political protest.

If the President of Nigeria is shy about calling it as it is, the President of the NBA should not be. Lawyers may be reticent in their private lives but we don’t expect them to be reticent in their public roles, or else, how are they going to win in their chosen profession.

 Jakpa writes from Warri, Delta State.


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