The Promises and Contradictions in the Nigerian Legal System: An Intern’s Perspective

I had the privilege of interning with Spaces for Change this summer, which has allowed me to learn a lot about the Nigerian legal system. I had the opportunity to research forced eviction and medical negligence cases, as well as witness settlement negotiations, court proceedings, and police matters. I learned an incredible amount, and the summer offered a unique juxtaposition to the United States legal context (which I currently study in school).


On the one hand, I encountered many unexpected differences between the two legal systems. I spent a most of my time researching human rights arguments against the forcible eviction of Badia-East residents in 2015, and I had to quickly adapt to a very different property law framework and learn how the government reconciles indigenous, colonial, and post-independence systems of land ownership under the Land Use Act. It was hard to tell whether this framework was complicated because of the different kinds of governments Nigeria has experienced, or because of flaws inherent to the Land Use Act. However, it seemed that too many people were left in the lurch given this confusing and seemingly inflexible system of property ownership.


That being said, I really appreciated that the Nigerian Constitution recognized certain unique, positive rights (such as the right to dignity and the right to privacy). These rights are not explicitly guaranteed in the United States, and formally, they made for more creative legal arguments. I thought it was extremely powerful that dignitary harms were not just recognized within assault or battery, for example, but within an independent constitutional right to dignity. I especially appreciated how the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (domesticated by the Nigerian government) recognized a right to housing, among many other rights indigenous, collectivist rights.


On the other hand, my summer experience offered sobering reminders of how the law falls short of its obligation to protect the poor and marginalized in society. This is a disappointing, shared characteristic the Nigerian legal system has with the United States legal system. The Badia-East case is an excellent example of how a country can make formal guarantees—to due process, to property, to dignity—but only realize them for only a fraction of people in its society. It was particularly frustrating to watch the Lagos State government repeatedly treat certain people—largely because of their poverty—as less than deserving of basic, fundamental human rights. The law was often weaponized against these people, who were often cast aside for development projects, or on the basis of government whim. Again, this was an all-too familiar story, and part of my experience was seeing how injustice and government marginalization played out in the Nigerian context.


There were also some sad constraints on the legal system given the widespread poverty and lack of resources many Nigerians experience. I briefly researched legal arguments for a medical negligence case, and saw how a shortage of doctors, medicine, and lack of education exacerbated instances of medical negligence. I also witnessed how money and connections often made the difference between police harassment and peace of mind. Overall, I was extremely grateful for the work Spaces for Change does: the number of issue areas it works on, the multi-faceted approach to the problems it addresses, and the fierceness and tenacity with which it combats injustice. I don’t think I would have had nearly as enriching of a summer anywhere else.

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