Two monumental events occurred within the last month. They are the celebration of Magna Carta, the great charter of freedom, on June 15, 2015.
That day marked the 800th anniversary of the great charter, which was signed in London on June 15, 1215. The second was the 239th anniversary of the United States independence on July 4, 1776.
The two events constituted great gains for liberty. In the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth II rededicated Magna Carta memorial in a colourful ceremony attended by 750 American lawyers led by its Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
The Americans respect Magna Carta because it is the foundation of the American revolution. It is from the charter that the USA formulated her political and legal institutions.
Moreover, the charter is relevant to common law countries of the Commonwealth. During a lecture to mark the occasion, the Chief Justice of Canada, Mr. Justice Beverly McLachlin said that the charter was very important in the justice system of the world at large. The charter represents quest for freedom, for limits on the power of the sovereign or the state. Indeed, Magna Carta altered the balance of power between the common people and the government.
It established the idea that power is conditional, that there isn’t absolute power. Magna Carta is the heart of the rule of law, upholding the principle of freedom from state control. Even though the charter was a settlement of the power struggle between the king and his nobles, it still contains provisions beneficial to every citizen.
Put simply, the charter is a legal canon for social justice and individual liberty. Central to Magna Carta are the imperatives of justice and equality before the law.
Other principles set out in the charter include clause 20: the principle that punishment must be commensurate with the offence committed. Clause 39 laid down the principle of fair trial and clause 40 averred that trial must be speedy and timely since justice delayed is justice denied.
All those rights look sensible today but at that time, they were revolutionary. Prior to the treaty of Magna Carta, English Kings had divine rights, they exercised authority with divine power.
The great charter stopped that. The principles of limited government, individual liberty and justice and the rule of law enshrined in the charter, have helped to shape the world today. Around the world, freedom fighters invoked the charter as a bulwark against injustice in making their case.
The slave trade abolitionist William Wilberforce, the suffragettes who fought for the rights of women, the civil rights campaigner, Martin Luther King Junior and the anti-apartheid freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela, all of them justified their fight for freedom on Magna Carta. To cap it all, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 following a campaign led by America’s First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
She called the declaration: ‘‘an international Magna Carta for all mankind.” Indeed, Magna Carta’s influence on legal systems, across the world was extraordinary.
As such, its 39th clause, which provides for fair trial was transformed into law as England’s Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. Here in Nigeria, incorporated into chapter IV of the Nigerian Constitution 1999, appearing as the Fundamental Rights were the Magna Carta principles.
Also in 1999 Constitution’s Chapter II: Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy, the ideals of freedom, Equality and Justice are founded on the principles of the great charter.
But in as much as our constitution reflected Magna Carta norms, Nigeria does not always follow the ideals of the great charter in practice. Justice is still being delayed and denied to a vast number of Nigerians.
Often, ignorance is glamorized. Sadly, large scale job discrimination puts our national unity at risk. Moreover, Nigerians are still being subjected to human rights abuses, oppressive cultures, hunger, unemployment, internal displacement, despite the fact that freedom from want and other basic freedoms are guaranteed by our laws and constitution.
Nigeria should respect not only Magna Carta’s letter but also its spirit. President Muhammadu Buhari should cultivate America’s commitment to freedom shown in her Declaration of Independence: ‘‘We hold these truths, to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”