Post election protest, lawyers’ harassment in Rivers State
The arrest of three lawyers and their five support staff, who were filing an election petition for the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Port Harcourt, is perhaps the height of the many absurdities that have trailed the governorship elections in Rivers State.
First is allegation by the APC that the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the state allegedly prevented it from filing a petition against the result of the election in which the PDP candidate was declared winner.
This the PDP allegedly did by staging a protest around the premises of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in the state, just when the APC was visiting the INEC office for inspection of election materials.
The PDP’s protest did look curious, given that the party was the declared winner that should apparently have no need for such “protest.’ Then came the explanation that the PDP was only trying to ensure its presence during APC’s inspection, so as to prevent any manipulation of the processes. While it is reasonable that all stakeholders in an election are present when any of them inspects materials, that should ordinarily not become rancorous as it did in this instance.
After all, the 2023 general elections sparked a gale of petitions across the country, and in all levels of the elections, without any rancor. Why is the Rivers State instance different? Were some powerful people bent on orchestrating crisis, or willfully seeking to subvert due process? Additional to these was the complaint by APC that its campaign office was attacked by suspected thugs of another party, while the police appeared powerless or failed to stop the alleged vandalism.
Yet it is this same police that arrested lawyers working for the APC. The development portends great danger for the legal profession and democracy in Nigeria. The Rivers State Government headed by Governor Nyesom Wike ought to be seen in this matter to protect the rights of every citizen no matter his political affiliation. Sadly, there has been no such intervention.
Notably, the lawyers have been released upon the intervention of the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Yakubu Maikyau (SAN) and others. Their initial arrest nevertheless leaves a big question mark on democracy practice in the state, notwithstanding a belated explanation by the police.
The lawyers and their staff were peacefully in a hotel, preparing the election petition when suddenly the police stormed the hotel, arrested them, and confiscated their documents, including the draft petition on alleged forgery. Confirming the development, the Principal of the three lawyers, Tuduru Ede (SAN), stated that his colleagues were picked up from the hotel and taken to Ogbunabali Police Station without reason.
He claimed that the police arrested the lawyers and made away with the duplicate copies of Form EC8A and other election documents that they were using to file the petition to prevent the APC from filing their process in court.
Adducing reason for the arrest later, the Rivers State Police Command said it received credible intelligence from a reliable informant that some lodgers occupying three rooms in a popular hotel in Rivers State were seen with packages and printed documents, including election results suspected to be that of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
It also said that the informant even sent a video recording of the activities of these suspects to the Police Commissioner. Further, the police stated that the arrested persons and recovered exhibits were taken to the Surveillance Centre and later transferred to the Rivers State Criminal Investigation Department (CID), and it was in the process of profiling them that it was revealed that three of the arrested persons were lawyers.
There is need for thorough investigation of this ugly incident to bring the culprits in this matter to justice. And if it is true that any person(s) aided and abetted the arrest of the lawyers, steps should be taken to hold them accountable for their action.
In any democratic society, all branches of government, including the executive branch, must abide by the law and respect the legal processes in place. The rule of law is a fundamental principle of any democratic society and is essential to ensuring that individuals are treated fairly and equally under the law. Therefore, any instance of executive lawlessness in Rivers State should be condemned.
Lawyers or other persons are not above the law of the land. The police, under section 4 of the Police Act, can arrest anybody, including any lawyer reasonably suspected of committing a crime or who could help the police in its investigations. But it is crucial that the police maintain their integrity in carrying out their functions under the law.
The police power has been serially abused by the Nigerian police by often overlooking the obligation imposed on it under the provision to protect the rights and freedoms of every Nigerian in accordance with the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, and other applicable laws. Cases of Nigerian lawyers who have been killed or harassed by the police and security agents are rampant in the country. To kill or arrest a lawyer in the course of his duty to his client is a big slur on the image of the legal profession in Nigeria and an affront to the country’s democracy.
The arrest of the three APC lawyers smacks of political witch-hunting. This is probably why the NBA President said that legal action would be brought against police officers who arrested the three lawyers. In the words of the NBA President: “Situations, where the instrumentality of the police is apparently being used to harass and intimidate lawyers, are a direct affront to the rule of law and a threat to our democracy. It is an invitation to anarchy and chaos, as people would rather resort to self-help than approach the civil and constitutional means provided for the resolution of disputes.”
We share the sentiment of the NBA President. The arrest and harassment of lawyers who are providing legal services to their clients are unacceptable. It is essential to ensure that lawyers can carry out their duties without fear of harm or persecution in order to uphold the rule of law and ensure access to justice for all. Any attempt to interfere with this right is a violation of their human rights.
As officers in the temple of justice, lawyers play a crucial role in upholding the rule of law and ensuring that justice is served. If lawyers are targeted or intimidated, it can disrupt the legal system and prevent people from accessing justice. When lawyers are prevented from representing their clients, it undermines the principle of justice and can result in unfair outcomes.
It bears emphasizing that the independence of the legal profession is a cornerstone of any functioning legal system. Any attempt to interfere with this independence is a serious infringement on the legal profession in Nigeria, which can result in a loss of public trust in the justice system.