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Rising cases of contempt: Lawyers knock Buhari, government officials

By Bridget Chiedu Onochie (Abuja Bureau Chief), Ameh Ochojila and Odita Sunday (Abuja)
03 December 2022   |   4:44 am
Against the backdrop of rising cases of Contempt of Court against key appointees of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration, many erudite lawyers have come down hard on the administration, accusing it of standing law on its head.

[FILES] Lt.-Gen. Faruk Yahaya

• Accuse Administration Of Undermining Rule Of Law
• Cite Past Breaches
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• IGP Files Motion To Set Aside Committal Order
• We Have Nothing To Say About Officials Flouting Court Order — OAGF

Against the backdrop of rising cases of Contempt of Court against key appointees of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration, many erudite lawyers have come down hard on the administration, accusing it of standing law on its head.

This was as the Inspector-General of Police, IGP Usman Alkali Baba, has filed a motion in Court to set aside the contempt proceeding and committal order issued against him by the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja on Tuesday, November 29, 2022.

Meanwhile, the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice has exonerated itself from the increasing disobedience to court orders by prominent government officials.

The Special Adviser, Media and Public Relations, Office of the AGF, Umar Gwando, told The Guardian yesterday that his office has no hand in the development and as such has no answer as to the reason government officials flouted court orders. 

A Federal High Court sitting in Minna, the Niger State Capital, had last Thursday ordered that the Chief of Army Staff, General Farouk Yahaya, be arrested for contempt.

Justice Halima Abdulmalik, who issued the warrant, said the order followed notice brought before the court in pursuant of Order 42 Rule 10 of the Niger State High Court Civil Procedure 2018.

The judge ruled that the order was commuting Yahaya to be kept in Minna Correctional Centre for contentions of order of the court on October 12, 2022, adding that the COAS would remain in custody till he has been “purged” of the contempt. Justice Abdulmalik then adjourned the case to December 8 for continuation.

Similarly, on November 29, Justice Mobolaji Olajuwon of the Federal High Court, Abuja, sentenced IGP Baba to three months in prison for disobeying a court order.

Justice Olajuwon issued the order following a suit filed by a former police officer, Patrick Okoli, who claimed he was unlawfully and compulsorily retired from the Nigeria Police Force.

Also on November 8, Justice Chizoba Oji of Federal High Court Abuja convicted the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Abdulrasheed Bawa for contempt and ordered that he should be committed to prison at Kuje Correctional Centre, Abuja.

The judge held that Bawa was in contempt of the order of the court made on November 21, 2018, directing the commission to return to an applicant his Range Rover and the sum of N40 million.

However, Justice Oji, in a subsequent ruling, set aside the conviction of Bawa after hearing an application brought by the EFCC chairman.

With these judgments delivered in less than one month, a rights activist and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Chief Mike Ozekhome, flayed the current administration for “standing law on its head and operating the law unevenly.”

He described the government as that which puts itself above the law and perceives itself to be answerable to no one including the judiciary.
He said:  “Around October 2016, when Muhammadu Buhari assumed power, he made the judiciary powerless in so many ways. That was why in October 2016, the Department of State Services (DSS) and the likes invaded the homes of Justices of Supreme Court and some Judges of the Federal High Court without any cause to do so.”
Ozekhome recalled that these high-ranking judicial officers were intimidated and treated as though they were criminals.
“Windows were cut down while doors were destroyed, putting the entire families under fear for their lives and property. Some Justices never recovered from that rude shock. While some were exonerated at the Supreme Court, some died because there was no proper apology. That manner of shame and intimidation never left this justices,” he added. 
The SAN also recalled the intrigues that ousted the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, “who was humiliated out of office by this same government just to bring in their preferred one because of the then-upcoming 2019 elections.”

He added: “The fundamental right of human citizens has been trampled upon several times, not until the Court of Appeal resolved that before a judge can be prosecuted in a criminal matter, the National Judicial Council (NJC) must have performed its constitutional rights of trying the judge before pronouncing him guilty, and then, hand him over to the government.”
Ozekhome expressed worries that many of the judges had operated under maximum fear, not because they had done anything wrong, but because they are actually scared of the unknown intimidation from the government.
“I have just won the case of the Minister of Information in the case concerning Dr. Raymond Dokpesi, where they named and shamed him.
“This is the point where the judiciary say ‘enough is enough.’ The judiciary has now found a voice and courage, which is very evident. In the last one month – the Executive Chairman of EFCC, Inspector General of police and the Chief of Army Staff. They have been handed various jail terms for various reasons to show that no one is above the law. During the case of the Executive Chairman of EFCC, the court later discovered that there was no suppression of facts whatsoever.

“The Judiciary was described as the weakest arm of government, because it doesn’t defend its judgment, but pummeled continuously to the state of stupor and submission.
“The judiciary has risen above waters, the re-engineered judiciary has decided to take its destiny in its hands and face the consequences because the judges know they have done nothing wrong and as such, there is no reason to be scared.”
Ozekhome called for maximum support for judges and justices in the new zeal to emerge from its slumber and intimidation. He categorically declared his willingness to defend any judge who faces victimisation for living above waters or being courageous in the discharge of his duty.
“We have to defend the judges and the judiciary. If anyone or institutions comes for them, I, Mike Ozekhome (SAN), would be ready to defend them.
“This government must also know that their days in office are numbered. In two months’ time, we are going into elections and the fears they instilled in the people and the judiciary can no longer hold waters, as their days in power are numbered under the constitution. I encourage the judiciary to continue to do its work without fear of intimidation,” Ozekhome said.

In his reaction, an Abuja-based Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Adamson Adeboro, compared the level of abuse of power to the happenings during the military regime, adding that Nigeria is not at par with other nations of the world when it comes to obeying rules and order. 
“What we are witnessing today is not new, but it was rampant under the military administration. It is unfortunate that there is disobedience to court orders in this current dispensation when we are supposed to be at par with other nation of the world.
“It is draconian for any government not to obey court order. We all know that judiciary is the last hope of the common man anywhere in the world and for democracy to thrive, there must be a working judiciary. In situations where it is being encroached, it is a big slap anywhere in the world.

“It is unfortunate that what we are witnessing under the current administration in Nigeria is happening. The 18th century order has now become the order of the day in the 21st century,” he noted.
Adeboro, however, expressed delight that the judiciary has awoken from its slumber.  

“The chairman of EFCC being taken to court means that any institution can be brought to its knees. Whichever arm of government you belong to, you are not permitted to act outside the constitution, as there is no one above the law regardless of who you might be.

“What we are witnessing today is a wake-up call to the judiciary that they are independent with authority and whoever disobeys the order disobeys Nigeria. That is why the court is there. I applaud what is currently happening and I hope they sustain it so that our democracy can thrive,” he added.

He expressed confidence in the capacity of the judiciary to stand by the truth as Nigeria goes into the 2023 elections.

“The judiciary is becoming more prominent under the present CJN. It is unprecedented that few months to elections, the election panel have been constituted and he sounded a note of warning to all members of the panel that they must operate under the law, which I believe is a good sign that good things are coming.
“We are now seeing that if you misbehave, you are going to face the wrath of the law. The judiciary looks very ready for the coming elections and I know Nigerians will not be disappointed,” the SAN stated.

Also speaking, another Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Terkura Pepe, said the situation shows that the Federal Government has little or no respect for the rule of law.

He stressed that a government that has to be compelled by extreme court sanctions to obey a court order is not nurturing the confidence that the ordinary man should have in the judiciary.

He added if the judiciary does not stand strong, anarchy would be the ultimate result, thereby endangering the nation’s democracy.

Also speaking, a Port Harcourt-based senior lawyer, Chief Festus Oguche, noted that it was highly elating to see sanctions handed down by government officials and prominent public officers whenever they err.
According to Oguche, the need for court to bring erring public officials to book was long overdue “as the disdain for the judiciary and judges has become the hallmark of this government albeit in a democracy.”     

He added: “Indeed, the culture of impunity started with the Obasanjo administration but was truncated by the President Yar’adua government, which made the rule of law a core component of its seven points agenda, and which the Jonathan administration committed itself to.

“Then came Buhari, whose disdain for rule of law was taken a notch higher. In the early days of the administration, the President never minced words in heaping blames on the judiciary for the failures in the anti-corruption battle for want of judicial competence.

“Senior judges and justices of the Appellate courts were hounded and arrested in midnight raids by the DSS and treated like common criminals, and the trend would have continued save for the judgment of the Court of Appeal forbidding such actions as being a constitutional breach.

“Not done with that, Mary Peter Odili, a Supreme Court Justice was to suffer similar fate recently, just few months to her retirement. The former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, was removed under questionable circumstances and contrary to clear constitutional provisions in a manner unprecedented in the country’s political history.”

Oguche decried that it became very clear that the target basically was to weaken the judiciary and bring it down on its knees apparently to make way for the systematic defiance of judgments and orders by officials of government to suit their parochial whims.

“El-Zakzaky was granted bail and permission by a court of competence to travel abroad for the ailments that ravaged him while in incarceration, subject to certain conditions which he met.
“At the point of his release, the Kaduna State government imposed its own conditions either to supplant or supplement those imposed by the court.   

“Sowore was granted bail by the Federal High Court and there was so much dilly dallying here and there, culminating into a fracas in the courtroom right in the presence of the judge that later culminated to an apology to the court by the DSS.
“The former National Security Adviser (NSA), Col. Sambo Dasuki, was ordered to be released several times, but the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, kept emphasising on, what to him, was the position of the law on the implications of his Notice of Appeal, which he kept flaunting as reason for Dasuki’s continued detention.

“Before that, the ECOWAS Court of Justice had ordered for his immediate release and the honourable Attorney General did not factor that into his consideration of the bail by the Federal High Court, as the regional court is yet to have an Appellate Chamber.
“Then, Nnamdi Kanu’s travails, which we all know and how, in spite of the Court of Appeal’s decision, the Federal Government was still to return him to the Federal High Court on fresh charges. The Court of Appeal itself did not help matters in indulging the Federal Government in its application for stay of execution, which I personally think is bizarre in the circumstance of its own decision.
“Then, the Federal High Court sitting in Umuahia had ordered his immediate release and return to Kenya, from whence he was abducted and officials are acting as though the order is either non-existent or unenforceable.”
Oguche, who took time to chronicle instances where the present undermined the law, wondered if the country is actually under a democratic government.

He said: “Several other cases abound. For instance, no single judgment of the ECOWAS Court has been implemented since this administration came on board and officials continue to act in defiance of its orders and judgments contrary to Nigeria’s international obligations.
“All these are happening under a supposed constitutional framework that imbibes all the attributes of a democratic culture and proclaims the values of equality freedom and justice.
“It takes great tenacity and courage in these times for a judge to hold notable officials of government in account of their actions at contempt.
“The judges who braced themselves up to the occasion and took the bull by the horns must therefore be commended and encouraged. Others should also take the cue from there and do everything to preserve judicial sanctity.

“Before now, it has become the rule rather than the exception that orders of courts must either be circumvented or out rightly ignored, depending on the disposition of the official involved, not necessarily the fact of the subsistence of the order against him.
“The effect is that the orders of courts have become subservient to official positions and decisions, and that’s one sore factor that destabilises any judicial system alongside every of its sanctity and integrity.
“It is this weakening that render judicial offices vulnerable to political interference and executive manipulations, thereby lowering the level of public confidence and esteem for the sector.
“We have seen this scenario manifest in political cases and election petitions amidst incidences where judicial officers are cowed, intimidated and compromised.”

Oguche laid the bulk of the problems plaguing the country on a direct function of judicial failure, which are attributable to these weakening factors that contribute to the inefficiency of the justice delivery system.

The likely implication, he feared, was that the democratic credential the country alludes to has become more of a farce than reality.
“Democracy is kept at abeyance when the rule of force is enthroned above the rule of law. The effect is the resultant chaos, anarchy and the stunted growth that have become our lot on all frontiers of development.
“No foreign investor would put his money in an ambience that is lacking in functional due process and the rule of law mechanisms.
“It is also the recipe to a pariah status that can exclude the country from global economic and political advancements in the face of the discouraging signals to investors and members of the international community”, he stated.

An Abuja-based lawyer, Okueyelegbe Sylvanus Maliki, also said that disobedience to court orders, which constitutes contempt in facie curiae is not new to President Buhari’s government and its key appointees. 

According to the lawyer, the instances are too numerous to mention. “To say that this trend is worrisome is an understatement. This is because the rule of law, which is founded on equality before the law, is the cornerstone of every democratic society that is devoid of anarchy,” he said.

He noted that “it is unfortunate that key government appointees of this government who are supposed to lead by example are involved in these ignoble acts of serial disobedience to court orders. To me, disobedience to court orders is worse than truncating a democratically elected government through coup d’état.”

Maliki added: “This development spells doom for the nation’s nascent democracy. Not to put it lightly, this is an invitation to anarchy. Disobedience to court orders has the effect of eroding the few gains we have recorded in our democratic growth. It is an act that must be condemned by all. Once the powers of our courts have been rendered impotent through disobedience to court orders, there is a tendency for citizens to resort to self-help.

“Can you imagine a country where citizens have lost hope in the judicial system which is seen as the lost hope of the common man? The end result should better be imagined than experienced!”

In his bid to escape being jailed as ordered by the court, the IGP in the motion filed before the Federal High Court Abuja last Thursday, highlighted grounds why the orders should be set aside, noting that he had not been appointed into office as Inspector-General of Police when the case was instituted and the reinstatement order in question granted.

He also affirmed that the contempt proceedings were served via substituted means in November 2018 and January 2019, respectively, on the then Inspector-General of Police, and not on him as the incumbent.

The IGP in his disposition further noted that even before his assumption of office, official steps had been taken by his predecessors toward complying with the reinstatement of Patrick C. Okoli, the plaintiff, as ordered by the court.

As noted by him, this was evidenced by an official letter addressed to the Police Service Commission on the approval of the then Inspector General of Police, as far back as 2015, and before the court order of November 29, 2022, requesting the Commission to issue a reinstatement letter to the plaintiff and also affect his promotion in line with the order of the court and in the exercise of their statutory authority in that regard.

“Hence, the grounds for the contempt proceedings ought not to have existed, ab initio,” he argued.

He reassured Nigerians of his unalloyed commitment and steadfastness in defending the rule of law and respecting judicial authorities “and hence will not wittingly or unwittingly disobey any order validly granted by courts of competent jurisdiction.”

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