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The Role Of Law In Maintaining Sanity And Preventing Impunity In A Democratic Setting (Part 1), By Prof Mike Ozekhome, SAN, CON, OFR, Ph.D


There is no doubt that the fundamental attribute of law is its ability to curtail excessive behaviours of man. In the absence of law in any society, anarchy and survival by strength become inevitable. The purpose of law is to produce either of two things: (a) an idealistic society or (b) a practical society, more tolerable than what has been labeled by some philosophers as ‘the state of nature’, in which there are no formal ties between mankind, and no civil or statutory law. The importance of law is such that it is difficult or impossible for a society to exist without law.

The force of law is a major requirement for maintaining social order and preventing chaos in a society. It is thus difficult to imagine the existence of a community without law. Lending credence to this is the view of Thomas Hobbs to the effect that, life outside society and law would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.


It is as a result of this that mankind saw the need to come together and entrust power to a group of people to implement policies and laws for the good of all, and this was how ‘government’ came to be.

In a democratic setting, the role of law in maintaining sanity and preventing impunity is enormous and indeed cannot be overemphasized. In absence of law, rule by whims and caprices of those in authority, or what I may rightly describe as strongmanism”, becomes the order of the day. In fact, there can be no democratic setting in absence of rule of law, governing the system and limiting the powers of those in charge. Thus, it has opined that the essential characteristic of the liberal theory of the State is the idea that the authority and power of the State are limited.

It is against this background that this article seeks to X-ray the role of law in maintaining sanity and preventing impunity under a democratic dispensation.

Definition of Key Terms

The key terms that require definition for the purpose of clarity in this work are “Law”, “impunity” and “Democratic Setting”.

Meaning of Law

Law being a complex phenomenon, any good definition of it must be complex. Thus, aptness must not necessarily be the important criterion.

Although there is no universally accepted definition of law, law in more loose sense as against its specialized meaning is that which is laid down, ordained, or established. A rule or method according to which phenomena or actions coexist or follow each other expansively. It has been said that law represent a system of principles and rules of human conduct, being the aggregate of those commandments and principles which are either prescribed or recognized by the governing power in an organized jural society as its will in relation to the conduct of the members of such society and which it undertakes to maintain and sanction and to use as criteria of the actions of such laws. In other words, law is an accepted code of conduct which has been formulated and endorsed by organs empowered to generate such code of conduct to be generally applicable and binding on all class members of the society so as to guarantee the protection of the weak and strongly regulate the over bearing influence of the mighty in the society.

Put differently, law consists basically of a body of rules of human conduct which are binding on all, both the lad and the leaders. Law is a body of rules in a society at any given time, considered binding and which a breach is met by a sanction. It is a set of formalized or codified rules stipulating the rights and duties of individual, powers and obligations of authorities, with their limitations and remedies as well as the manner of redress in any case of breach. When rules involve the idea of obligation, they become law, but when they merely represent the notions of good and bad behaviour, they are mere rules of morality. Mere coincidence of patterns of behaviour does not indicate the existence of law; habits must thus be distinguished from obligatory rules.

Some people consider law as a command and some rules of law are couched in terms of command given by an authority and directed to an individual or a group. Most laws or legal rules however are not in that form, but are rather normative in character as it prescribes the norms of conduct-what people ought to do. It is imperative in character, that is, law states what people no matter their status or position, must do and what they must not do. Thus, the exercise of power by a leader or leaders, must be done in accordance with the limits provided by law. The practice of one arm of the government interfering with or undermining the powers of other arms breeds impunity and should not be allowed.

Practically, obedience to the law is secured by sanction and sanction serves the purpose of protecting the general community against persons of deviant behaviour. Without sanction, the continued existence of the society would be in danger and society would ultimately disintegrate.

Generally however, the term “law” is used to mean three things:

First, it is used to mean “legal order”. It represents the regime of adjusting relations, and ordering conduct by the systematic application of the force of organized political society.

Secondly, law means the whole body of legal precepts which exists in a politically organized society.

Thirdly, law is used to mean all official control in a politically organized society. Law in its narrowest or strict sense is the civil law or the law of the land.

Evolution of Law and Government

Behaviour rules have developed and evolved along with the evolution of human communities, changing into social norms of cohabitation, organization and behaviour. The evolution of the community brought about the evolution of penalties applied to individuals who disobeyed or broke those rules. Thus, the first forms of human community used the death penalty (blood revenge) as means of punishment for serious violation of the rules of coexistence. Later on, death penalty was replaced by the individual’s expulsion from the community and as communities evolved, material redemption was used instead of expulsion. The first judicial norms (the germs of law) developed among these social cohabitation, organization and behaviour rules. Judicial norms differed from other rules due to their compulsory character and by appeal to the coercive force of the community when they were broken by certain individuals. The change of social, customized norms into judicial norms and the emergence of law as independent entity take place along with the occurrence of state and public power rooted in the Greek – Roman Antiquity. It has been said that law is a social phenomenon incidental to human society; thus, Romans have expressed this statement through the phrase: ubi societas, ubi jus”, namely law occurs along with the society.


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