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Creating a just Nigeria through the ‘veil of ignorance’

By Olu Fasan


THE theory of political justice is based on two conceptions. The first is the ‘might-is-right’ school, which describes the illegitimate or amoral exercise of power over individuals or communities. The second is the contractarian perspective, based on the notion that a political community should be founded on consensus among its people, and serve their best interests. Nigeria is a product of the former, the might-is-right school. This country was created, built and continues to exist on the whim and self-interest of the powerful, not on high ideals or virtues.

And because of this birth-defect, Nigeria is not a just society.What’s more, it has failed to transform itself from a perversely unfair society into one that the philosopher John Rawls describes as “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage”. But how might Nigeria be a truly just society, one that maximises the mutual benefit of individual citizens?Well, Professor Rawls– yes, he will be our philosophical guide here – provides an analytical anchor, with his concept of the “veil of ignorance”. We will use this tool to construct how a just Nigeria might emerge.But, first,we must address the question of why, as I said,Nigeria is a product of the might-is-right conception of political justice.

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Truth is,Nigeria was conceived as a selfish project, and continues to operate as such.This country emerged from the trading monopoly of a British businessman. In the late 1880s, George Goldie conquered the entities that later made up Nigeria. He did so by hoodwinking chiefs, dispossessing tribes, forcefully getting inheritances signed away and mowing down any resistance with the Maxim guns. But for what purpose? Well, to servehis commercial interests; his company, Royal Niger Company, turned the entities into a trading monopoly. Then, in 1900, Goldie handed the entities over to the British government which cobbled them together to create Nigeria as a colony. It’s a classic case of might is right!

But even after Nigeria became independent in 1960, the elite capture did not end; one set of self-interested political masters was simply replaced by another, albeit an indigenous one.The struggle for independence was itself a function of power politics by the dominant tribes – Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo. None of the pre-independence constitutional conferences in London was about creating a truly just country, based on the ideals of justice, equality and liberty. And nothing in post-independence, self-governing Nigeriahas created such a just society; rather, post-independence Nigeria has been an “extractive” state, where a small group of elite dominates and exploits the people.

Yet, it is instructive that in the United States, on which Nigeria purports to model its political system and constitutional structure, public life is guided and shaped by people-centric, contractarian principles. The US constitution limits the power of the state while guaranteeing the rights of the citizens, including to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, as the Declaration of Independence puts it. Although the US president is often described as “the most powerful man in the world”, he is so constitutionally constrained that the projection of his power is only in relation to foreign affairs.

But why is political justice in Nigeria based on might-is-right, but in America on protecting the inalienable rights and general welfare of the citizens? Well, this is because, unlike in Nigeria, the US founding fathers, and subsequent American leaders,did not create the institutions of society and government based on prior knowledge of how they would benefit them individually but, rather, on the principles that should underpin a fair society.

Which takes us back to John Rawls. In his book, A Theory of Justice, Professor Rawls develops the conceptual tools for creating a just society. He calls the first the “original position”. And the basic question is, if a rational person has a blank canvass to create a new society, what kind would he create? Professor Rawls answers this question with his second concept, the “veil of ignorance”. People would create a fair society from a position of ignorance abouttheir role in that society.

The logic goes thus. By imagining they might be at the bottom of a given society, people will try to create a society that is fair to all its members. If, for instance, you are creating a new constitution, knowing that future leaders might be corrupt or autocratic but without imagining yourself being a future leader, you would create a constitution that robustly limits the exercise of powers by future leaders. That was the motivation of the framers of the US constitution. As George Mason asked at the Constitutional Convention: ”Shall any man be above justice?” The answer was no, and as several recent rulings have shown US courts have held that the president is not above justice or the law by, for instance, ordering President Trump to publish his tax returns!

Of course, the “original position” and the “veil of ignorance” are imaginary. It’s hard to ignore one’s original position or assume that one would be at the bottom of the social ladder. But Rawls argues that these philosophical exercises can help people to create a just society.

So, what does this mean for Nigeria? Well, truth is, this country needs leaders who, shun of self-centeredness, can imagine a just, well-ordered, peaceful and prosperous country and create the institutions and practices to achieve it. Indeed, Nigeria needs selfless leaders like the US founding fathers who through the process of Socratic dialogue or what Rawls calls “reflective equilibrium”, created a constitutional document that puts the people at the heart of public governance.

Sadly, it is probably futile to expect Nigerian leaders, given their proclivities, to act so selflessly, but for the sake of the stability and progress of this country, they should!

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