Justice Ibrahim Buba of the Federal High Court has declared the arrest, abduction, dehumanisation and detention of a Lagos-based lawyer, Chiedu Nweke, by the officers of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) Enugu State, as illegal, unlawful and null and void.
The court also ordered the agency to pay the sum of N 20 million as general damages and N 30 million as exemplary damages in favour of the lawyer.
Justice Buba gave the verdict while ruling on the Fundamental Rights Enforcement suit filed by Nweke against the NDLEA, its officer, Peter Udemgba, and the Attorney-General of the Federation to court over allegation of unlawful arrest, abduction, dehumanisation, detention, forcible extortion and robbery.
In the ruling, the court held that the actions of NDLEA and its officers contravened Nweke’s right to freedom of movement, right to his dignity and his right to liberty.
Arguing his case before the court, Nweke’s counsel, Mr. Chuma Mbonu submitted that Udemgba who was the first respondent in the suit and his team couldn’t claimed that the acts meted out to his client were supported by any law or NDLEA Enforcement Act or any legislation at all.
He urged the court to hold that the acts of the respondents violated the law. Mbonu submitted that what the NDLEA officers did to his client was simply to unlawfully molest, arrest, kidnap, rob, extort and dehumanise him using the colour or cover of their office or employment.
On its part, NDLEA in its 28-paragraph counter affidavit, raised the issue of whether the agency (NDLEA) is vicariously liable in a case in which the main claim of the applicant centres on abduction/kidnapping and armed robbery.
NDLEA contended that for a claim for vicarious liability to succeed, a plaintiff or applicant must established that there is a master and servant relationship, that the employee is liable for the tort and that the tort was committed by the employee in the course of employment.
The agency argued that it was without dispute that an employee is on a frolic of his own if he goes outside or ventures beyond the express or implied course of his duty to do an act that is not authorised.
NDLEA argued that a careful dissection of its earlier submitted three elements revealed that if an employee commits a tort outside the course of his employment, his employer will not be responsible. It submitted that for an employee to be in the course of the employment, he must have done an act, which is within the statutory functions of his employer.
NDLEA submitted that any of its officers that engages in acts of robbery, abduction/kidnapping cannot be said to be in the course of his employment and urged the court to strike out the suit with substantial cost in its favour.
In his ruling, Justice Buba, however, found it surprising that the main culprit, the 1st respondent, Udemgba, failed or refused or neglected to file response to the heavy and weighty allegations against him, even after being served.
The court held that it is a settled law that “every person in Nigeria has a right to go about his or lawful business unmolested or unhampered by anyone else, be it government functionary or private individual; thus the courts will frown any manifestation of arbitrary power assumed by anyone above the life of another person, even if the other is suspected of having breached same law or regulation.
“To the mind of the court, and upon a clam assessment of the facts of this case, and the arguments, this court upholds the averments and submission of the learned counsel to the applicant, to which Udemgba, the 1st respondent did not deem fit or necessary to respond or refute.
“The law is that the allegations of fact that are not refuted are deemed proved and admitted. The presumption is that the 1st respondent has no defence and admits the allegations contained therein. Accordingly, this court finds the 1st respondent liable for the breach of the fundamental rights of the applicant.
“The 2nd respondent (NDLEA) on its part laboured rather poorly to extricate itself from the liability for the action of its officer whom it did not deny as being in its employment on the date complained of and still is.
“The action of its officer which is clearly outside the agency’s mandate is unlawful and illegal , and as such cannot enjoy the protection of the court. The facts speak for themselves,” the court held.
The judge concluded by saying that “the court and the world are watching what the NDLEA and the police are going to do with such an officer called, Peter Udemgba!”