Opinion: Refuge Of Common Sense – By Sam Omatseye
Act one. The theatre of Magodo is Karl Marx capsized. A set of stragglers took over a piece of land. They neither paid for it nor inherited it from their fathers. They built there, ate, coquetted and conquered, married and gave in marriages, flexed and feigned flamboyance.
When the day of reckoning came, they begged the soldiers to forgive and make them owners. The soldiers had pity in their eyes and naivety in their souls. They translated surrogates into sovereigns. They documented the penitent into proprietors. From being lawless, they took the rights from their unwitting benefactors. Innocence waxed into impunity.
The commoner overthrew the land. The people, it seemed, had defeated the state. But Marx did not win. Who won were philosophers like Rousseau, Hegel and J.S. Mill, who warned that the people who overthrew the upper class also took on the airs and tyrannies of their former oppressors just like in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, or William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Before that, they might have echoed Shakespeare’s line, “That distribution undo excess and each man have enough.” After distribution, they flaunted their excesses.
Go to another place that sounds like Magodo and we have our Act two. It was Maroko, where we call Lekki today. But Maroko had no light, not water, hardly a tarred road. The people occupied it without documents just like Magodo of the 1960’s. They acted as landlords, ate, partied -yours truly attended a party there – bought and sold, married, became fathers and mothers. But this time, the soldiers, including one who loved the word gada as English for culvert, had neither pity nor smile for the stragglers. They were given ultimatum, and the bulldozers came, razed down the properties as settlers raced for their dear lives. None of them can rise up today and ask a court for their right. In the words of the P rophet Nehemiah, they had “no portion, nor right or memorial” in the land.
The peacock class inhabits that place today, and no one calls it Maroko. There is no place called Maroko on the map of Lagos today. Except another rhyme in a maritime place called Makoko where settlers are trying to turn proprietary blackmail into rights.
The two acts and territories evoke the absurdity of the military era. In the first act, they bent the rule of law in favour of the illegal. In the second, they appropriated the rule of law for their friends.
They tell us how fragile the border between law and impunity, between nice and naivety, that there is no such thing as innocent poor, that an error in one time can cost a catastrophe in another, that the rule of law is not always on the side of right, that the constitution can vindicate the unjust, that legal justice does not always confer social justice, that history always haunts us even when we think we have buried it in amnesia.
The Magodo stragglers act recalls the age of colonial scramble where the west conjured the term “effective occupation” to show that any European country that had occupied a territory after a certain period “effectively” owned that land. That was how many territories, including Nigeria, fell under British thraldom.
We saw the impunity when attorney-general Abubakar Malami and his fellow traveller the inspector general of police Alkali Usman, in the guise of executing a court judgment, turned Magodo Shangisha into a blaze, a place to bulldoze, wield spray paints and padlock. They became the Covid-19 version of a lockdown.
In this case, it is the civilian government under a so-called democratic aegis that is enabling it. It was an embarrassment. The Supreme Court ruled based on document, not on history. It ruled for legal propriety, not for true ownership of the property. But the law, as Thoreau says, never made anyone a whit more just. In executing a court judgment, the police looked away while the judgment creditors unleashed mayhem. Malami is one of the migraines of this democracy. He is supposed to be the blank of the president’s eye. But he is making his boss blind. He is not giving the right advice. It appears we have a charge and bail lawyer as our chief law officer.
When the BOS of Lagos, Babajide Sanwo-Olu visited the place, he met a recalcitrant police officer who would not heed the chief law officer of the state. It was because he had the confidences of Usman and Malami. Malami issued a statement that he was heeding the Supreme Court. He did not answer the question raised by the Lagos State governor that he had called him and he said he had nothing to do with it. Rather he merely dismissed the governor’s charge. That is the stuff incompetent attorney generals are made of. We have been cursed with such breed. In this republic, except perhaps for Bola Ige, attorney generals have been handmaidens of impunity and superficial distortion of justice.
The IGP has not said anything of worth, if he has said anything at all. His force has benefited the most from Lagos State since 1999. They never account for their budget, and their barracks around the country are an eyesore. Yet a state has devoted tremendous resources for them and they pay back with a gangster logic.
Why was Malami in such zealotry to execute judgment in Lagos when quite a few have been left in the lurch? We did not see such zeal with the El Zakzaky case, or the Dasuki one in spite of the ECOWAS court verdict or the Odili matter.
Some have cavilled at the gentlemanly conduct of the BOS of Lagos. Few know that the deployment of police was an act of impunity to tempt a revenge of impunity. But the Lagos governor did not blink. He showed himself a man of peace and honour. He did not need to do more than expose the big hole in our law and reckless show of power of a few men in the centre who know no difference between rule of law and highhandedness. Some chief executives who are wont to use violence might have turned the story into another chapter of bloodshed. Lagos is too urbane for that. Lagos has always saved the Nigerian state from a reign of violence. It has served as the high tower in this democracy when most of the country, especially the north, wreathes in blood. A Malami or Usman cannot tempt the city into a tempest of bad temper.
And men like Malami would have yelled that the chief law officer of the state had unleashed lawlessness if the governor had exercised power instead of authority. Ondo State Governor also waded in with wisdom, noting that the constitution was making state governors into mere “prefects.” It is so because we don’t have governors who want to pay the centre in its barbarian coin. In Imo State, we saw the police wrest a man from the house of God.
But what the Lagos State governor exposed was our constitutional inadequacy. This was happening when the president rejected, in a television interview, the idea of state police. He has said, and he has been echoed many times by the vice president, that Nigeria as it is presently constituted does not need to be restructured. That is the tragedy that has made the official impunity in Magodo possible.
Rather than follow the path of the gorilla from Malami and Usman, the BOS of Lagos has sat the parties down and they are amicably working out a solution. That is where decency overthrows impunity. If the Supreme Court gave a verdict without memory and justified subterfuge, the BOS has shown that Lagos can still be a refuge of common sense.
– Omatseye is a respected columnist with The Nation