During the military era, security agencies such as the Police, Department of State Service (DSS), Army, Navy, Air Force personnel among others were known to have, more often than not, trampled upon the fundamental rights of Nigerians with impunity. Disobedience to court orders was prevalent during the period.
But, with the advent of civil rule in May 1999, majority of Nigerians expected that those dark days of flagrant disobedience to court orders and violation of fundamental rights of citizens would be history.
However, 20 years down the line, the practice appears to have become the norm. Cases of disobedience to court orders and human rights violations by security personnel, particularly the DSS, EFCC and the Police abound, raising fears that if nothing urgent is done to arrest the ugly trend, the country might be thrown into serious crisis sooner than later.
It was an effort to forestall such situation in human society that an English philosopher and political thinker, Thomas Hobbs became famous many centuries ago with his theory of the state of nature. Hobbs had argued that life in a society without law becomes poor, short, nasty and brutish. In other words, the presence of law regulates man’s activities in society so as to avoid a situation where power becomes might. Such condition would also promote peaceful coexistence and that is only possible when laws are obeyed by all.
For close watchers of political developments in Nigeria over a couple of years, the way security agencies go about disobeying court orders and violating citizens’ fundamental rights has left many in doubt as to whether Nigeria would not relapse into anarchy, where what Hobbs theorised and feared many years ago would materialise.
They also express fears that if urgent steps are not taken to reverse the trend, anarchy may soon reign supreme in the land; a situation they argue is akin to an ill wind that blows no one any good.
But, there is also a segment of Nigerians who believe that if the war against corruption must be fought and won, rule of law must not be tampered with. To this class of Nigerians, that includes disobeying court orders some times, as well as trampling upon the citizen’s fundamental rights to be able to have a sane society that will be beneficial to all.
This group of Nigerians seems to be on the same page with the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, who at the Senate screening on Friday, July 26, 2019, justified the continued detention of certain persons in disobedience to several court orders.
He argued that whenever an individual interest clashes with public interest, the former would give way to the latter naturally. He said: “Minority Leader spoke of section 36, 37 and 39 among others of the Constitution as it relates to the rights of individuals which he believes I have a responsibility to protect. I concede that I have a responsibility to or I have had the responsibility as the Attorney General of the Federation to protect individual rights. But, looking at the provision of section 174 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, I want to reiterate and state further that the Office of the Attorney General is meant to protect public interest, and where individual interest conflicts with the public interest, the interest of 180 million Nigerians that are interested in having this country integrated must naturally prevail. And I think that position has been very well captured by the apex court in the case of Alhaji Asari Dokubo v. the Federal Government of Nigeria, which clearly stated that where an individual interest conflicts with public interest, the public interest naturally prevails.”
The current All Progressives Congress, APC-led Federal Government under President Muhammadu Buhari, also seems to be in sync with this school of thought. The popular mantra of the current government is total war against corruption. To achieve that, President Buhari told Nigerians that national security would be placed above the rule of law. In other words, if disobedience to court orders or deprivation of human rights is what would guarantee national security, which invariably would aid the fight against corruption, then the current government would gladly oblige, disobey such court orders and trample on citizens’ fundamental rights.
But, those who fear that the continued disobedience to court orders under any guise would spell doom for the country would quickly make references to the DSS disobedience to several court orders for the release of the former National Security Adviser to former President Goodluck Jonathan, Col Sambo Dasuki. They would also point to the case of the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and his wife, who have been languishing in the DSS custody for over four years, despite several court orders for their release.
They also accuse the DSS of invading the nation’s law making body, the National Assembly, in 2018, where they prevented the law makers from entering into the National Assembly to perform their constitutional duty. Recall that masked operatives of the DSS on Monday, August 5, barricaded the gates to the National Assembly Complex, shutting out lawmakers. The drama happened amid concerns by some legislators, especially those in the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) that their APC counterparts were plotting to forcefully re-open the premises and impeach the then Senate President, Bukola Saraki and his deputy, Ike Ekweremadu. They alleged that such brazen act of lawlessness exhibited by the officers of the DSS only portrayed Nigeria in a bad light before the international community. Saraki and the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, were said to have described the incident as a coup against democracy.
However, there is another group of Nigerians who believe that the current government has its plans cut out from the outset to emasculate every segment of the society and that it chooses which court order to obey and the ones to disobey. They argue that currently the three arms of government which ought to be separate in operations, and act as checks on one another only exist in theory. In other words, the principle of separation of powers as well as checks and balances only exist in theory; in practice, only the executive is vibrant. They allege that the executive under Buhari appears to have pocketed both the legislature and the judiciary.
Some stretch the argument further that the forceful retirement of the former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen, and the appointment of the current CJN, was the end of the game for the judicial arm. They believe that the move was what put paid to the vibrancy of the judiciary and the result is what is happening today where an agency of government like the DSS could invade a court in a bid to arrest a suspect without any consequence.
For the legislature, they also argue that the executive’s interest in who became the Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representative was a tell-tale sign of what the people would expect. They equally maintained that today, the legislators could only bark but not bite because they have been muzzled by the executive.
So, with the judiciary and legislature comfortably placed in the pockets of the executive, the stage was set for other segments of the society such as the media, civil society organisations and others who may likely rise to challenge the activities of government.
The penchant to disobey court orders and infringe on citizens’ rights is not exclusive to the DSS. It cuts across most of the security agencies. The EFCC and the Police are also as guilty as the DSS in this circumstance.
EFCC and the law
In April this year, the EFCC came under fire for alleged disobedience to court orders. An umbrella body of Igbo lawyers, the Otu Oka Iwu, in a statement signed by its president, Chief Chuks Ikokwu, had condemned the alleged flagrant disregard of a valid and subsisting court order by the EFCC, and urged President Buhari to reprimand the anti-graft agency’s boss, Ibrahim Magu.
The body recalled that Justice Sylvanus Orji of the Federal High Court had in a ruling on March 26, 2019, granted an ex-parte motion filed by a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Mike Ozekhome, directing the EFCC to charge former Nigerian Bar Association’s (NBA) Vice President, Mr. Monday Ubani and his co-applicant to court on or before Friday, March 28, 2019.
The body also noted that the court in the alternative ordered that if the applicants were not charged to court on or before the said date, the EFCC should release them on bail upon fulfillment of some listed bail conditions.
The body lamented that this simple order of the court was flagrantly flouted by the EFCC. It said: “It is a matter of deep concern and national embarrassment that the EFCC has chosen to brazenly disobey this order of the court. It has neither charged the former NBA Vice President to court nor granted him any administrative bail.
“Aside from the EFCC and its leadership being in clear breach of the extant order of the Federal High Court, the continued detention of Mr. Ubani also violates Section 35 (4) of the 1999 Constitution which provides that any person who is arrested or detained in accordance with subsection (1) (c) of this section shall be brought before a court of law within a reasonable time. The maximum detention period is 48 hours, except extended by a competent court. Mr. Ubani has been in the EFCC custody for about three weeks.
“It also violates the detainees’ right to dignity of human persons, right to personal liberty, and right to freedom of movement as set out in sections 34, 35 and 41 of the 1999 Constitution respectively.
“This culture of impunity as consistently exhibited by the EFCC and its leadership continues to ridicule Nigeria in the comity of nations and sabotage efforts to attract foreign direct investment. Investors only go to jurisdictions where the rule of law and respect for human rights are guaranteed while they shun countries where rule of men predominates.
“We note that by the continued disobedience to the order of the Federal High Court, Mr. Magu and the EFCC have displayed utter contempt for our courts and the country’s judicial system. It is ironic that these are the same courts the EFCC routinely runs to for orders which they zealously implement in the discharge of their mandate under the EFCC Act. It is not for the EFCC and its leadership to pick and choose which court orders to obey or disregard. That is an invitation to anarchy.”
Disobedience to court orders by the Police is also not new. Several instances of police disobedience to court order abound, including but not limited to the recent case between the police and the Peace Corps of Nigeria.
DSS in the eye of storm
However, among the overbearing tendencies of the security agencies with regard to the rule of law in Nigeria, the last straw that seemed to have broken the camel’s back was the recent drama between the convener of RevolutionNow Movement, Omoyele Sowore and the DSS officials. The DSS had on Friday, November 6, invaded Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu’s court in a bid to re-arrest Sowore, who was earlier granted bail the previous day. The invasion inside the hallowed chambers of a Federal High Court in Abuja saw the judge, Ojukwu, and lawyers scampering for safety.
Critical observers of political events in the country collectively agreed that, that singular act of brazen lawlessness exacerbated the already bad human rights records in the country, forcing voices that had been silent over the previous infractions to become vocal.
Nigerians from all walks of life, irrespective of political leaning, cultural cum religious affiliation, as well as economic interest have all been reacting, with many urging the government to call the DSS to order. The international community is not left out among those that have joined the fray to condemn the action of the DSS. Leading the pack among the international community is the United Kingdom (UK). The country through its representative in Nigeria, the British High Commission, has said it was following Sowore’s continued detention and called on the Federal Government to respect the fundamentals of democracy.
In a tweet, the Commission called for respect of the rule of law, saying the ideals set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be upheld.
The Commission said: “As we celebrate Human Rights Day, we encourage all political, state and non-state actors to uphold the ideals set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed 71 years ago.
“We are following closely the continued detention of Sowore. Respect for rule of law and free and responsible speech is fundamental for democracy.”
Following the public outcry and condemnation, locally and internationally, the DSS was forced to release an official statement, where it claimed that those who desecrated the temple of justice were not its officials but Sowore’s men, who were bent on tarnishing the image of the agency. But, Nigerians have refused to accept the excuse of the agency, with many urging the DSS to tell their fairy tale to the marine.
The condemnation by Nigerians became so fervent such that one of the media organisations, which hitherto seemed to have lost its bite suddenly, found its voice. The Punch Newspaper broke its long silence, when in its editorial piece last week, it resolved to henceforth, refer to the current government as a regime instead of administration. The paper also resolved that it would equally prefix the president’s name with the title of Major-General, which was the rank he retired with from the army some years back. This position, the paper insisted, would be maintained until the president begins to obey court orders and respect the fundamental rights of Nigerians.
Part of the Punch editorial said: “The entire country and global audience are rightly scandalized by the unfolding saga over Omoyele Sowore and the unruliness of the DSS and the government, but it is only a pattern, a reflection of the serial disregard of the Buhari regime for human rights and its battering of other arms of government and our democratic institution.”
The paper reeled out series of disobedience to court orders by this government, and even compared the current Buhari government with his military era in 1983/84. It made references to how Buhari used the then SSS, and how he is deploying the DSS now to flout the rule of law and concluded thus: “As a symbolic demonstration of our protest against autocracy and military-style repression, PUNCH (all our print newspapers, The PUNCH, Saturday PUNCH, Sunday PUNCH, PUNCH Sports Extra and digital platforms, most especially Punchng.com) will henceforth prefix Buhari’s name with his rank as a military dictator in the 80s, Major General, and refer to his administration as a regime until they purge themselves of their insufferable contempt for the rule of law.”
Implications of disobedience to court orders
Apart from the stand that the PUNCH Newspaper has already taken, there are other far reaching implications of persistent flagrant disobedience to the order of courts.
The Sultan of Sokoto, who is also the President-General of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, Alhaji Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar, has also joined other concerned Nigerians to warn that disobedience to any court order is a recipe for lawlessness and chaos.
In a veiled reference to Sowore’s re-arrest by the DSS inside a federal High court, Abubakar advised that everyone must be law-abiding in the interest of national development.
He spoke at the 2019 last quarterly meeting of the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council recently held in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory.
He said: “We must regularly obey and respect the laws of our land. We should never disregard the laws to avoid the consequences. If a court makes a judicial pronouncement on a particular matter, it should be obeyed to the letter. If you have any problem with the pronouncement, the next step is to appeal the pronouncement instead of disregarding or violating court judgments.”
He further said: “If you are served a court order and you deliberately refused to obey it because you are a governor, president or any influential person, then you are setting a dangerous precedent. No society prospers through lawlessness. Citizens must be law-abiding so that we can achieve the desired development.”
The Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) as well as Body of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (BSAN) has equally lent their voices in total condemnation of the invasion of the court by the DSS, with the BSAN calling on President Buhari to set up a Judicial Panel of Enquiry to probe the alleged court invasion by the DSS.
BSAN described the event as disturbing, saying, “They exposed our hallmark of indiscipline to the whole world in a matter of seconds. The way out is an independent commission of enquiry under the law. This can be achieved.”
The NBA, through its president, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Paul Usoro, expressed worry over the persistent disobedience to court orders, warning that if not addressed, it could possibly lead to anarchy.
“We desecrate the temple of justice when we blatantly flout and disobey the orders of courts. A court that is made to be helpless in the face of flagrant disobedience to its orders is as useful to the society as a toothless bulldog is to its owner. No one fears a bulldog that is known to be toothless; it has no capacity even if it has the will to keep away marauding army or brand of invaders. That is the picture of our court we paint and broadcast both within and to the outside world, when we brazenly flout and disobey court orders. In the process, we disrobe the court and make mockery of its toga as the last hope of the common or any man at all,” he stated.
Also contributing, an APC chieftain, Prince Tony Momoh stressed that much as there is an argument as to whether national interest should override decisions of the three arms of government including the judiciary under which the court falls, court decisions should be obeyed because that is what due process is all about.
“So, anybody who fails to obey court decision must have very serious and defensible reasons not to obey court orders. In all polity, there is always the argument whether what people consider as national interest should override decisions of different bodies in the polity but it is an argument that people will always get involved in. DSS and police are arms of government that is normally associated with not accepting court orders but we are in a democracy and we should be able through communication to know where the freedom of one person starts and where that of the other stops, because at the end of the day, all organs of government are there to protect the system so that there will be welfare and security of the polity.
“However, as a lawyer I do not accept that court orders should be disobeyed. That does not mean that court orders have not been disobeyed or will not continue to be disobeyed. But, I am not for anybody disobeying court orders,” he submitted.
As the argument for and against disobedience to court orders continue among Nigerians, those in authority should always remember that laws were made in the first instance to regulate activities of men so as to ensure peace, order and security in the system. They should also consider what will happen if anarchy sets in as a result of their failure to operate within the framework of those laws.