Three court orders in vain


VIEW FROM THE GALLERY BY MAHMUD JEGA

There is a local adage that when a fowl comes after you early in the morning, you should [in Nigerian parlance] “pick race” because it may have acquired teeth during the night. Even though many of this country’s top public and private sector players are habitual criminals, judges in this country are not known to haul in very powerful people into their docks

Within a span of three weeks however, courts in Abuja and Minna ordered the arrest and committal to prison [whimsically called ‘correctional facility’] of three of this country’s most powerful security chiefs, namely Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission [EFCC] Abdulrasheed Bawa, Inspector General of Police Usman Alkali Baba and Chief of Army Staff, Lt General Faruk Yahaya. Each of those three men has a personal security detachment strong enough to repel terrorists, bandits, kidnappers and secessionists put together. Any security agent that tries to grab any one of them should remember the warning label on a bottle of hot concentrated sulfuric acid: “If you drink this, you will not live to regret it.”

All three top officials were said to have committed contempt of court, an often poorly defined concept ranging from refusing to obey a court order to annoying the judge. Back in the 1970s, we read a story in Daily Times about a young man who walked leisurely through a court premises, whistling as he went. The judge saw him through the window, ordered that he be brought into the dock, and promptly convicted him for contempt of court. Lawyers on both sides of an on-going case abandoned their briefs and united to plead with the judge not to send the young man to prison on such a flimsy charge.

The charges against Bawa, Baba and Yahaya were more serious that whistling in court premises. On November 8, Justice Chizoba Oji of the FCT High Court ordered that EFCC Chairman Bawa be remanded at the Kuje Correctional Centre. His offence, according to the judge, was that he failed to obey Justice Oji’s November 21, 2018 order directing EFCC to return a Range Rover Sport vehicle and N40 million confiscated from Air Vice Marshal Rufus Adeniyi Ojuawo, former Director of Operations of Nigeria Air Force. The judge said Bawa “should be committed to prison at Kuje Correctional Centre for his disobedience and continued disobedience of the said order of court…until he purges himself of the contempt.” Insofar as many of the convicts in Kuje prison are there courtesy of EFCC, sending Bawa there, without his security escort, is a virtual death sentence.

Three weeks later on November 29, another Federal High Court judge in Abuja sentenced Inspector-General of Police Usman Alkali Baba to three months in prison for disobeying a court order. Justice M. O. Olajuwon said, “If at the end of the three months, the contemnor remains recalcitrant and still refuses to purge his contempt, he shall be committed for another period and until he purges his contempt.” In other words, the IG, whose men apprehended most of the people now cooling their heels in various prisons, will be sitting alongside them in a cell. It was not made clear whether he will continue to command Nigeria Police from his cell, including the allegedly disbanded SARS.

IGP’s travails stemmed from a very old suit filed by a former police officer, Patrick Okoli, who said he was illegally and forcefully retired from the force 30 years ago. The judge said despite the Police Service Commission’s (PSC) recommending Okoli’s reinstatement into the Police, IGP refused to comply with the order.

And then on Thursday last week, December 1, Justice Halima Abdulmalik of Federal High Court, Minna, ordered that Army Chief Lt. General Farouk Yahaya be picked up for contempt “pursuant to order 42, rule ten of the Niger State High Court Civil Procedure 2018.” She ordered the General to be kept in Minna correctional custody and “to remain in custody till he has purged himself of the contempt.” To squat beside the Army Chief in prison, the judge ordered, is Major General Olugbenga Olabanji, Commandant of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command [TRADOC], based in Minna. The judge then adjourned the case to December 8 for continuation, meaning the Generals may be directing Operation Hadin Kai and numerous other special military operations all over the country from a small cell.

The Generals were said to have disobeyed an order made by the court on October 22 in a case between one Adamu Makama and 42 others against the Governor of Niger State and seven others, including the military chiefs. Governor Abubakar Sani Bello apparently escaped Yahaya’s fate because he has constitutional immunity from arrest and prosecution.

The question that immediately came to mind in all three cases was, who will carry out the court order? Apprehending the EFCC Chairman alone is a daunting task. Four years ago or so when an attempt was made to arrest then EFCC Chairman Ibrahim Magu, it was a fiasco because he had a powerful security team of his own. One cannot be the chief arrowhead of the fight against money laundering in Nigeria and walk the streets without an army of escorts.

The IG’s security facility is even more powerful than that. Don’t be deceived by claims that the police are thinly manned, poorly equipped, largely immobile and low in morale. Try to grab the IG, and you will see the reality of 37 state and FCT commands, a dozen zonal commands, many directorates, several training colleges and numerous special units. Which policeman can arrest the IG on the say-so of even Supreme Court? There was this famous “Mercedes car case” in Kaduna in 1978, which New Nigerian copiously reported, between the businessman Alhaji Bello Adedokun and an Assistant Inspector General of Police. At one point, the magistrate ordered that the AIG be arrested and brought before him. The court clerk printed the order and handed it to a police Sergeant in the court. The Sergeant refused to collect the paper, promptly prostrated before the magistrate and pleaded with him not to saddle him with that order, since he had no way of arresting an AIG! Now you want the same Sergeant to produce the IG?

Or tell the Police Sergeant to bring in the Army Chief, possibly in handcuffs. Look, the biggest concentration of force at the disposal of the Nigerian state is in the hands of this man. He has under his belt Army Headquarters Garrison, many Directorates, several Corps, many schools and eight Army Divisions. Each Division has several brigades, each brigade has several battalions, each battalion has several companies, and each company has several platoons. Just one army platoon can cause a lot of mayhem. Some years ago in Abuja, a platoon of soldiers was sent mount a roadblock on the Karu highway. They promptly caused a traffic gridlock more than ten kilometres long! After a public uproar, a busload of Army Majors and Captains suddenly descended on the scene, pushed the Non Coms aside, dismantled the roadblocks and speedily opened the road.

At least some of these court orders were not well considered. EFCC filed a notice in court the next day and said its Chairman actually obeyed the court order and had earlier released the Range Rover car to the plaintiff. The judge then quashed the order. How come that a court made this sensational order without establishing that its order had actually been complied with?

As for the IG, his spokesman said the case in question was filed in 1992, when Usman Baba was a small cadet. Ok, that is not an excuse because there is supposed to be continuity in the IG’s office, at least in theory. But police said the order to re-enlist the dismissed cop was sent by the IG to Police Service Commission, though the court is now saying that PSC approved the re-engagement but it was not done. As someone whose only security training was one month at the NYSC orientation camp, I was just wondering. A man who was thrown out of the police, however illegally, 30 years ago, how will he fit in if he is recalled? All his mates must have since retired. The uniform has changed. Force structure and regulations have changed. And what will be his position in a seniority-conscious organization such as Nigeria Police when the IG was probably a cadet when he himself was barking orders in the Guardroom? In those days it was even called Charge Office.

This reminds me. In 1993, during the June 12 election imbroglio, one High Court judge refused to grant an order compelling National Electoral Commission [NEC] to announce the withheld election results, even though many of his fellow judges in various courts did so. He said, “A court does not make an order in vain,” obviously because NEC’s refusal to declare the results was backed by the military government. Of the three top security chiefs that courts convicted for contempt recently, which one of them saw the four walls of a prison? All three orders were in vain.

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