A Federal High Court sitting in Enugu has declared the arrest, abduction, dehumanisation and detention of a Lagos-based lawyer, Mr. Chiedu Nweke by the officers of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) Enugu State, as illegal, unlawful and null and void.
Justice Ibrahim Buba, who made this declaration while ruling on the fundamental Rights Enforcement suit filed by Nweke against the NDLEA officers and the agency, also declare that the actions of NDLEA officers contravene Nweke’s right to freedom of movement, right to his dignity and his right to liberty.
Nweke had dragged the NDLEA, its officer, Peter Udemgba and the Attorney-General of the Federation to court over allegation of arrest, abduction, dehumanisation, detention, forcible extortion and robbery.
He had alleged that he was abducted and robbed at gunpoint by a team of operatives from the NDLEA office at Independence Layout, Enugu.
Nweke had claimed the armed operatives in a Toyota Hilux van had cornered him while walking along the road towards an Oando Filling Station at Lagos Street junction on Ogui Road.
He said the leader of the team who is the 1st Respondent ordered that he should be hand-cuffed, without them asking for his identity or any questioning.
Nweke averred that after being handcuffed on the street in the glare of the public and all passers-by, the leader of the assailants took his wallet, phones and then looked at him and accused him of being a drug baron. He said he corrected him and told him he was a senior lawyer.
According to the Applicant, the said leader of the team after checking his wallet and found N18,000 said it was too small and then took all his Automated Teller Machine (ATM) cards from the wallet, abducted him and drove him straight to Zenith Bank, Otigba at New Haven Junction and at gunpoint with the 1st Respondent as the team leader on one side then another gang member on the other, they inserted his Diamond Bank ATM Card into the machine and compelled him to enter his password.
He averred that in the process, the team withdrew N160,000 from his Zenith Bank Account in tranches of N20,000 until all his ATM cards stopped dispensing.
The applicant said when he raised the alarm, a group of policemen on patrol responded but after being allegedly bribed by the officials, the policemen left.
The lawyer said the operatives left him after demanding additional N50,000 from one Amaechi, a taxi driver who worked for him.
Nweke said the NDLEA officials stripped him naked and dehumanised him for no reason.
However, in the fundamental human rights enforcement suit with the No: FHC/EN/CS/49/2018, the applicant sought among other reliefs that the court should declare that his arrest, abduction, dehumanisation and detention was illegal, unlawful, null and void and contravenes his rights to freedom of movement, dignity and personal liberty.
Nweke had also prayed the court to declare that his forcible extortion and robbery by the NDLEA officers of the sum of N160, 000 and imposition and collection of a ransom of N50,000 from him by the 1st Respondent (Peter Udemgba) in concert with three other NDLEA officers, was in gross violation of his right to liberty and therefore unlawful, illegal, unconstitutional, null and void.
The applicant further asked the court for special damages of N280,000, representing the sums of money he was robbed and extorted off, General Damage of N50 million and exemplary/aggravated damages of N500 million respectively.
Arguing his case before the court, Nweke’s counsel, Mr. Chuma Mbonu had submitted to a sole issue for determination, which is whether his client’s fundamental rights were breached and whether he is entitled to apology and compensation.
Nweke’s counsel submitted to the court that the 1st Respondents and his team could not claim that the acts meted out to his client was supported by any law or NDLEA Enforcement Act or any legislation at all.
While urging the court to hold that the acts of the Respondents violate the Law, the 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, the NDLEA (2nd Respondent) in its 28 paragraphs counter-affidavit raised the issue of whether the agency (NDLEA) is vicariously liable in a case in which the main claim of the applicant centered on abduction/kidnapping and armed robbery.
The NDLEA contended that for a claim for vicarious liability to succeed, a plaintiff or applicant must be 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 was 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.
The NDLEA argued that a careful dissection of its earlier submitted three elements reveal that if an employee commits a tort outside the course of his employment, his employer would not be responsible. It submitted that for an employee to be in the course of the employment, he must have done an act, which was within the statutory functions of his employer.
The anti-drug agency further contended that it was statutorily charged to enforce drug matters in the country, adding that an act of robbery or abduction was not one of its statutory responsibilities.
The NDLEA submitted that any of its officers that engages in acts of robbery, abduction/kidnapping could not 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, Peter Udemgba failed or refused or neglected to file a response to these very heavy and weighty allegations against him, even after being served.
The court held that it was 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 the same law or regulation.
“To the mind of the court, and upon a claim assessment of the facts of this case, and the arguments thereto; this court upholds the averments and submission of the learned counsel to the Applicant, to which Peter 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 ultra-vires, and as such cannot enjoy the protection of the court. The facts speak for itself”, the court held.
Justice Buba in his verdict, therefore, granted the sum of N20 million as general damages and N30 million as exemplary damages against NDLEA and in favour of the applicant.
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!”