By Joe Anuga, PhD

At the center of all societies that can be considered as civilized lies a general consensus on how to agree about what is right and what is wrong as well as what is just and what is unjust. Closely connected to this is an elaborate code describing what to do about the consensus on right, wrong, just and unjust behavior when it appears in society. Having a consensus on moral issues and organizing elaborate processes and institutions to act on moral issues are twin conditions that reinforce each other in the context of societies in which they exist. When they function together they strengthen the moral compass of specific societies but when they lose cohesion serious flaws in the moral compass of the society begin to emerge. They are like thinking and acting; blueprint and product or theory and practice. Taken together they form an inextricable part of political activity in all societies. The moral consensus is the theoretical side while the elaborate processes and institutions to act on moral issues is the practical side.

Ancient Greek philosophers actively tried to create a scientific approach to understanding human political activity as they sought to develop a scientific approach to understanding the natural environment. From among them Plato and Aristotle stand out. Both of these Greek philosophers tried to show that the goal of any society wide consensus on right and wrong will involve the question of justice. In this regard, coming to terms with what justice is and how its manifestation in any society can be recognized is of prime importance.

Considering that for a concept like justice to be made manifest in any society the people who control the instruments of power (such as military resources, financial resources, public institutions etc.) in that society must be carried along or else implementation will be problematic, the idea of might makes right is attractive and presents an easy way out of trying to understand what justice is all about. The idea that might makes right is based on the consideration that unless those with power have their interests directly protected, they will do all they can to thwart the intentions of any who would not uphold their interests, even if those interests can lead to the destruction of the society they live in.

It is naïve to think that in any community people will approach politics with uniform concepts and ideas. It is only normal that confronted with the same realities, people will come up with different conclusions. Thus one group will understanding what justice entails differently from another group’s proposition of what justice is all about. The reality however remains that in any given community with shared political institutions and sovereignty, the mechanisms guiding the political process must be shared. In addition, the existing institutions that guide political activity must be based on a broad consensus on what they are set up to achieve. Therefore there must be points of contact in what all members of the given political community believe the political institutions and political processes exist to achieve. In this way a shared understanding of at least the answer to the question of whether the political institutions and political processes are attaining the goals for which they exist or are not. In this way a shared approach to the question of right and wrong, justice or injustice can be shared across the political divides of the given community.

Cultural Considerations

From what has been discussed so far it can be seen that the kind of political process that governs a given community goes a long way in understanding how the question of what can pass for justice in that society will look like. Thus the idea of universal suffrage is alien to most pre-modern societies in Nigeria as it was in most of the world. For example to acquire executive power in Ancient Benin or the Sokoto Caliphate required a whole different set of criteria that would not accommodate the idea of universal suffrage as a just ideal to attain.

However in the postcolonial reality of contemporary Nigeria, the governing institutions and the legal processes for acquiring political power will not consider as just a process of capturing executive power without recourse to the electoral process. This is because the institutions that direct the political activities of the postcolonial Nigerian state and the processes that they recognize as legitimate with regards to the exercise of state power are based on assumptions of the common citizenship of all Nigerians as equal in dignity before the law. This conception of the citizen also comes with rights that the state must accept and with obligations as a result of their citizenship that foreigners do not and cannot share in. Now though these postcolonial political institutions and political processes are developments of the Western historical experience, their moral assumptions which underpin them are the product of the universal heritage of the entire human experience.

The moral assumptions that underpin them are universal in the sense that they have been played out in various ways in the history of mankind generally. For instance the idea of the dignity of the citizen captured in the laws of his country is a universal assumption. From the laws of Hammurabi through the legal codes of ancient Egypt through the legal codes in India, China, the Islamic Caliphate of Umayyad and Abbasid era. All societies recognize that those who belong to the identity that they are promulgated for share a common legal basis for citizenship and are somehow protected by the law in a way that noncitizens aren’t.

In addition the idea that as citizens some form of representation of their views is required in the process of governance is also universal. Thus we have in Ancient Benin and Ancient Oyo the idea of Palace Chiefs whose area of authority covered groups of citizens whose interests they projected to the sovereign. In the Rashidun Caliphate, access to the office of Caliph was based on the electoral principle which threw up Abu-Bakr, Omar, Othman and Ali ibn Talib. In addition to these many laws existed to protect weaker citizens from arbitrary oppression of the stronger citizens. The right to their wages by poor laborers, the right to keep inheritances and property by widows and orphans as well as the right to be heard in legal processes were only considered proper if they were fair is part of the assumptions of the general political conception of justice among the generality of human societies. These assumptions however didn’t take in these principles in the same way that they were manifested in the Western experience but they existed in the varied experiences of mankind in unique ways.

The unique set of institutions and the manner of their functioning which we call the liberal democratic form of government in contemporary times came to Nigeria under the Parliamentary system from the British who colonized Nigeria. The assumptions that underpin the Parliamentary system of government require some understanding of how they developed in the West to appreciate their connection to the idea of justice. This is why this discussion on the nature of justice in the context of political activity starts with Plato’s Dialogue on justice in the Republic. The Western conception of justice in the political process is more extensive than the Platonic Dialogues and even the Greek experience. However the Greek and Platonic understanding is at the starting point and is a very important marker in understanding the connection between the Western understanding of what justice means in the political process.

Plato’s Understanding of the Concept of Justice         

In Book 1 of the Republic, Plato shuts down the idea that might is right especially when he records the discussion between Socrates and Trasymachus. The arguments used by Plato are interesting in themselves. Thus we find these statements and ideas in Book 1 of the Republic:

Trasymachus says boldly that ‘Justice is the interest of the stronger’. He then connects this statement to the idea that the ruler is the locus of justice in society as he commands the basis of power in the state.

In reply Socrates clarifies that there is a distinction between what a person’s profession is and what the profession is about. Thus the medical doctor’s profession isn’t about the medical doctor himself but the really about healing of the bodies and minds of patients and the profession of the sea captain isn’t about the sea captain himself but is really about the sea vessel, its sailors and the voyage it undertakes.

Socrates then says ‘Thrasymachus, there is no one in any rule who, in so far as he is a ruler, considers or enjoins what is for his own interest, but always what is for the interest of his subject or suitable to his art; to that he looks, and that alone he considers in everything which he says and does.

In the course of the Republic, Plato is able to portray the Greek philosophical idea that arriving at a proper understanding of what the ideal of justice is in reality and creating and maintaining the conditions of its manifestation in that society are two sides of a coin as we have suggested earlier. As Professor Benjamin Jowett explains, in the Greek view, ‘Justice is the order of the state and the state is the visible embodiment of justice under the conditions of human society. The one is the soul and the other is the body….and when the constitution of the State is completed, the conception of justice is not dismissed, but reappears under the same or different names…both as the inner law of the individual soul and finally as the principle of rewards and punishments in another life.’

There are many respects in which the philosophical systems of Plato and Aristotle differ significantly. However their views of the ideals that underpin the nature of the concept are very close to one another. They generally follow the Greek idea that all virtues are based on justice and justice itself is based on the idea of what is good. The good is in turn the harmony of the world as Plato shows and its clearest manifestation is found in the institutions of the state.

The Reality in Nigeria

At the center of the very idea of government in civilized societies is the question of justice. Whether the form of government is Monarchy, Aristocracy, Oligarchy or even Gerontocracy, the idea is that it hinges on the idea of justice or it cannot be considered worthy of civilized people but is inherently unstable for the human person orients towards justice. The absence of this discussion is in many respects the reason for much of the dysfunction in many postcolonial African states including Nigeria. That much of Africa suffered terribly under the colonial arrangement cannot be denied from the evidence of the history of the colonial experience. However the approach that many statesmen and political commentators have taken seems to ignore the imperative of justice that has been ignored in African societies for so long. In Nigeria as things stand virtually every part of the country is filled with grievances that could be easily addressed by the politicians in power if they were willing to establish conditions that allowed justice to thrive. This is however not the case.

If the six geopolitical zones are taken into consideration, in each we will find agitations complaining about injustice pervading them all. If we look at associational groups whose membership is spread beyond the borders of the geopolitical zones like labor unions, occupational unions, ethnic and religious identities and so on we will catalogue a host of grievances all bordering on the cases of injustice that they suffer as a result of the policies of governments and governing institutions at all levels. While this goes on the people in government act as if they are presiding over colonized people by their active policies geared to rub the reality of the injustice they inflict on fellow citizens in their faces. Their case is even more damaging than that of the colonial masters in many regards as the colonial masters recognized that the injustices that they perpetrated in the colonies were geared towards measurable benefits to their home countries in one way or another.

The rulers of postcolonial Nigeria use the injustice they perpetrate to enrich their former colonial master’s countries and other foreign nations while impoverishing their fellow citizens. If they are called out those who complain risk atrocities directed at them even risking murder. Lest it seems as if one is only condemning those in recent times it is important to realize that this condition has been apparent since the attaining of independence by most postcolonial states in Africa including Nigeria. This scenario was responsible for the coup d’états and bloody civil wars that rocked most African states including Nigeria shortly after independence. In all this time the kinds of reforms that emanate from the people who have been increasingly disenfranchised are never given the opportunity to arise. Many of the crises that have erupted into large scale and persistent violence are simply the product of the decision to refuse to listen by those in power.

When one looks at postcolonial statesmen like Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore whose vision of securing measurable developmental conditions for the wider citizenry of the island nation over time and connects this vision to the imperatives of the political process it is clear that one is dealing with a person who has read and understood Plato. For as Plato explains the one who thinks that the institutions of political activity are goals in themselves and not tools for attaining more noble ends has no idea what justice is about. The authority to exercise power over fellow citizens is actually a burden to deliver on the conditions that can allow citizens to reach their highest potentials or else that authority is wasted. All institutions exist to fulfill ends beyond the personal aggrandizement of those who happen to run them. In addition only when the ends which are based on the good of the citizens are attained can those who run these institutions be said to have dispensed justice in any form. For the institutions and processes of politics are only just when they attain what they are set up for.

Every section of Nigeria has grievances which can be solved through the political process. Politicians have been running the country for over seventy two years now and many problems identified at independence still haunt the nation. This failure cannot be found outside the people running the political system and given the attitude to governance portrayed by the current people in government there doesn’t seem to be any hope for a change in attitude by those in government. The tribunal that oversaw the complaints of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Labor Party (LP) to the conduct of the Presidential Elections in February this year is to date one of the worst cases of the misuse of public institutions to ignore the imperatives of justice in the political process. As things stand there is an urgent need for politicians to realize that it is only to the extent that they are on the side of justice that their authority to rule can be secure. Without constitutionalism, the political process upon which the liberal democratic system is built risks collapse. On the other side of the plank the opportunities for measurable development in the economy and security within the society that the liberal democratic system portends are too good to throw away on the altar of self-aggrandizement.

The example from India is quite stark. With the change in the economic model for development in 1991 by the country’s Prime Minister Narasimha Rao of the Congress Party, the country’s economy grew an average of 5% year on year till 1996. After the defeat of the Congress Party in the 1996 general elections the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chose Atal Behari Vajpayee as its leader. The reality of the impact of the liberal democratic model in India is that it has reduced the level of extreme (multidimensional) poverty in the country. In 2006 there were 645 million people considered extremely poor in India. By 2016 that number had dropped to 370 million people. The numbers from the UNDP for India in 2019 stood at 230 million people living in extreme poverty. Looking at these figures one isn’t wrong to ask if these people could have been successfully pulled out of extreme poverty if the public institutions disdained the idea of justice in public institutions. While the numbers of the persons living in multidimensional poverty is high, in relation to the population of 1.4 billion people, one can see that as a percentage of the total population it’s quite small.

The reality of the Nigerian situation is very different. As things stand in 2023, the number of extremely poor people in Nigeria stands at 71 million people. Considering that the population of Nigeria stands at 220 million people one can see the amount of work that is needed to deal with such a serious problem. Nigeria will not create an economy that can overcome the serious challenges to human flourishing that she is confronted with outside the framework of a political system oriented towards justice. Without placing justice as their goal people in political office make their own interests the goal of the entire polity. They contribute to the corruption of public institutions and undermine the confidence of the wider global economy whose investments are vital to building a modern economy in Nigeria. With a judiciary as averse to the ideal of justice as the tribunal sitting on the case of the last Presidential Elections in the country was, it orients serious investors away from the Nigerian market. The rule of law is one index that an emerging economy must have if its invitation to foreign investors is to have any credibility.

The professional politicians in power in Nigeria today need to wake up to the problems facing the nation at this time. The political process and the political institutions through which the policies of the state are carried out are central to the question of what is possible in the country and what is not. They need to realize that unless they see their occupation of public office as a means to make sure that all public institutions function to create the conditions for human flourishing across the country, they are wretched failures.


Baobab Africa
Baobab Africa People and Economy reports the continent majorly from a positive slant. We celebrate the continent. Not for us the negatives that undermine the African real story of challenging but inspiring growth.

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