The harmless sword, By Esther Chizaram Ngele

Posted by News Express | 24 March 2019 | 938 times

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•Esther Chizaram Ngele

 “Non-violence is a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding, and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.” – Martin Luther King Jr

Approaches to the natural law theory show that “natural law contains certain moral principles which are eternal, universal and immutable, on which human law is based.” The end of human law, therefore, is to be just, and secure the common good.

In articulating the origin of the state, Aristotle considered the first growth of it: which is the union of male and female; then, the union of the ruler and the slave. This union, he maintained, came about by the very fact that some individuals are intended by nature to rule by virtue of their foresight, while others are condemned by nature to serve or carry out the plans of the rulers by virtue of their physical ability and lack of mental ability. Unfortunately, this could be the root of our “born to rule” mentality.

Plato, in the Republic, presented a state which was to be governed by the aristocracy of philosopher-kings, who would train the young.  For him, the mantle of leadership is to be taken by the philosopher-king, whose clear picture embodies a lover of wisdom. Such doctrines, in highly distorted forms, have been used in modern times as basis of the system of government known as totalitarianism; which, in contrast to democracy, asserts the supremacy of the state over the individual. 

The English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, also stressed governmental power as a form of leadership. His major work Leviathan argued that the sovereign’s power should be unlimited because the state originated in the so-called social contract, whereby individuals accept a common superior power to protect themselves from their own brutish instincts and to make possible the satisfaction of certain human desires.

John Locke accepted much of Hobbes’s social contract theory, but argued that sovereignty resided in the people for whom the governments were trustees and that such governments could be legitimately overthrown if they failed to discharge their function to the people. This is the power to civilly disobey and when dragged to the extreme, a revolt.

Jean Jacques Rousseau, in his book The Social Contract notes the incapability of man to individually protect himself without causing more damage to himself, without the help of everyone else coming together as a unit. “Man is born free, and yet we see him everywhere in chains.”

This could be the very lines Frederick Lugard read before hopping into the 1914 amalgamation of the southern and northern protectorates of Nigeria.

Law serves a variety of functions. Laws against crimes, for example, help to maintain peaceful, orderly, relatively stable society. Property and contract laws facilitate business activities and private planning. Laws limiting the powers of government help to provide some degree of freedom that would not otherwise be possible: For example, the fundamental human rights recognised by the United Nations.

Laws regulating the ability of the people to choose who their leader ought to be as in franchise, ought to be held as eternal; for if disregarded, it becomes an outright disenfranchisement; and would amount to selfish good.

Aristotle, in Book III of his Politics, and in the section “On the forms of government”, held that “the true forms of government, therefore, are those which the one, or the few, or the many, govern with a view to the common interest; but governments which rule with a view to the private interest - whether of the one, or of the few, or of the many – are perversions.”

This statement points to the fact that equal participation between the citizens and leaders is necessary for both to enjoy the advantages of good governance.

The common good, therefore, is the highest good which would accommodate the interest of every member of the society as a whole, both the leaders and the led. Common good for a society would include peace, security of lives and properties and reasonable sense of freedom for the citizens and the safe-guarding of their fundamental human rights as well as franchise.

Henry David Thoreau believed that human beings are higher than the government and that governance as a mode of achieving justice can as well be corrupted. According to him, “The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.” Thoreau insisted that justice is not based on majority rule in all cases, but in our individual conscience.

He believes that the government should respect the rights of every citizen, even the least of them, as it tries to control their behaviour for the common good. Thus, the government is responsible for everybody and everybody is responsible for the government too.

Thoreau advocates the use of civil disobedience only in the face of unjust laws. This is what Rawls called “fidelity to law” when he wrote:

“The law is broken, but fidelity to law is expressed by the public and non-violent nature of the act, by the willingness to accept the legal consequences of one’s conduct. This fidelity to law helps to establish to the majority that the act is, indeed, politically conscientious and sincere, and that it is intended to address the public’s sense of justice.

It is, therefore, understandable that Rawls defined civil disobedience as, “a public, nonviolent, conscientious, yet, political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government.”

Mohandas Ghandi also adopted civil disobedience as a passive resistance, to oppose or challenge a government, an occupying power, or specific laws by non-violent methods. Fasting, demonstrating in protest and refusal to comply with orders or laws are examples of passive resistance.

Martin Luther King Jr also was an advocate of civil disobedience. He adopted this in the 1963 recount of the story of Birmingham, tracing the history of the struggle for civil right. He noted that, “non-violence is a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding, and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.” Luther insists that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

Civil disobedience is also distinguished from other deliberate acts of law-breakers, such as the common crimes of robbers, killers, and con-artists, although they are instances of deliberate law-breaking. These common crimes are committed from such motives as personal gain, malice and hate; their specific intent is to harm the interests of others such as in assassination, sabotage, terrorism, riot, insurrection. They do not seek the higher common good which the act of civil disobedience is meant to achieve. Civil disobedience in its method of non-violence could be in this form as described by Thoreau:

“If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the state to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.

“Our conscience seeks for positive change: A change that will enhance development for everybody in the nation. Civil disobedience serves as the sword that wields against the wrongs of injustice. The sword transforms the wrongs of injustice to national development.”

The court of law could also be the best place to wield this sword if adjournments and years of trials would allow it.

•Esther Chizaram Ngele, a Law Student, writes from Enugu and can be reached via

Source: News Express

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