One of the arguments for the rule of law is that it checks the activities of leaders, which explains why most governments swear by it to give legitimacy to their actions.
If you find yourself in a political rally, you’ll most likely hear the politician talking about abiding by the constitution and following due process. What happens most times is that they commit all sorts of malpractice to get power and use it to further their desires.
The rule of law is the supremacy of law which governs the people and government – that’s why there’s a constitution.
One of the ways to determine states that have a good quality of governance is adherence to the rule of law, nonetheless, the rule of law is declining globally. States that claim to practice the rule of law are rife with corrupt practices, inequality, injustice, and despotic rule.
The law is meant to protect the rights of the public and not harm them. The law should not favour the rich over the poor. It’s not a system of chance – rules are laid down for people to follow in order maintain peace and prosperity in society.
When “law enforcement agents” attack innocent citizens that are peacefully protesting, that’s a perversion of the rule of law.
Let’s look at some of those principles of the rule of law and the various ways they’re perverted.
Principles of the rule of law and its perversions
Equality of the Law
The first principle is that the law should be applied equally and fairly. Plato and Aristotle in their times posited ideas that the government should be bound by the law to avoid the abuse of power. All men are equal and the law is formulated such that no person has an unfair advantage. The contrast to the rule of law is the rule of man, which is the supreme authority of one person. What this means is that people in positions of authority can let all that power and influence go to their heads. It’s only a matter of time before they start to abuse the power.
The perversion of the equality of the law is such that laws can be passed that apply to all but will favour the interest of one group over another. Like apartheid laws in South Africa or Jim Crow laws in Southern United States. These laws were part of the constitution but they supported racial discrimination and the abuse of human rights.
Not all policies passed into law are good. Some economic policies that are passed into laws support and promote economic inequality. Government policies like subsidising certain goods or increasing tax rates, cause more harm than good to society. Of course, under the rule of law, these laws are legal and binding despite the dangers they present.
Supremacy of the law
The second principle is that the law is the supreme authority of the land. The constitution is a written document that embodies legally accepted laws. In the case of Britain, there’s no single written document but there are customary laws and rules that govern them. The rules are clear and concise and people should obey them. If a person disobeys the laws, they are punished according to the law.
A good example of the perversion of the supremacy of law was when Nigeria faced military dictatorship several times between the years 1966 -1999. Whenever the military comes into power, the first thing they do is set the constitution aside. What happens next is the declaration of martial laws which must be obeyed – the military rule by absolute power.
The Nigerian military tried to justify their actions as an act of service to save the country from corrupt politicians and to uphold the rule of law. Meanwhile, the Babangida regime caused a lot of economic upheavals. Embezzlement, waste and mismanagement of private and public resources were rife. The economy plunged into debt during the military rule as corruption ate deeply into the system.
The third principle of the rule of law is that those in authority are held accountable to the people. When people vote leaders into power, they do so because they believe that their interests will be represented. It is through elections that a democratic government gets its legitimacy.
John Locke was one of the political philosophers that posited the “social contract” between the people and the government. According to social contract theory, the state was formed through an agreement between people and a sovereign power for protection. In the early days, there were no laws. It was every man for himself; the survival of the fittest. Even though men lived as equals, their lives were threatened because of the chaos of that time (some of the same things that we see in our present civilizations). John Locke believed that the sovereign does not have absolute authority.
An example of the perversion of government legitimacy is the case of most African Leaders like the former president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. In 1987, he came into his presidency because he was an African Liberation hero who fought against white colonialism in Zimbabwe. Nearly four decades later, Mugabe remained the president of Zimbabwe despite the national and international outcry against his government. He was a dictator who did everything possible under the guise of the law to keep control of the state. Mugabe was accustomed to having his way, used violence when his authority was threatened, violated human rights, and successfully ran the Zimbabwean economy to the ground.
Over the years, the rule of law and its varying theories have evolved. It has shaped the latter parts of human history and the world as we know it. Countries like Denmark, Norway, and Finland are doing well politically and economically with the rule of law.
The same cannot be said for all states that follow the rule of law. Hunger for power, greed, and lack of morality – both by the people and the government – perverts the rule of law in many states. Accordingly, there’s a high rate of corruption, economic decline, poverty, and insecurity.