Defiance of court orders threatens democracy

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THE recent conviction and remand order on the Inspector-General of Police, Usman Baba, and the Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-Gen. Faruk Yahaya, for contempt should worry every Nigerian. As heads of critical law enforcement and security units, it is a serious indictment of their suitability to hold such sensitive positions in a democratising polity. The indifference of the Presidency to the official defiance of court rulings signposts the country’s perceptible slide into anarchy. The disdain for the rule of law demonstrated under the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), should no longer be tolerated. The judiciary and the civil society community should not relent in fighting to enthrone the supremacy of the law.

A Federal High Court in Abuja convicted and jailed the police boss for three months for refusing to comply with a court order to reverse the sacking of a former police officer, Patrick Okoli. A few days later, a High Court in Niger State ordered that the Army chief be remanded in a prison in Minna. Yahaya, the court said, should be remanded alongside the Commandant, Nigerian Army Training and Doctrine Command, Minna, Major General Stevenson Olabanji, for wilfully disobeying an order it made in October. Though a court has given Baba a reprieve, the prevalent attitude of impunity has to be addressed. 

Before a court will recourse to granting a remand application, there must have been processes, invitations, and opportunities for compliance. But in these cases, it is evident the security chiefs ignored the court orders. This has for long been a pattern. The Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Abdulrasheed Bawa, was similarly recently jailed for contempt by a Federal Capital Territory High Court early November.

Impunity reigns in Nigeria as many persons operate above the law. Successive governments routinely disobey court orders or flout extant laws. For them, obedience to court orders is subject to what is convenient for them. This reprehensible habit has spiked under Buhari.

But the rule of law, say legal scholars, “…means that no one (including the government) is above the law.” The United Nations declares, “Human rights, the rule of law and democracy are interlinked and mutually reinforcing, and they belong to the universal and indivisible core values and principles of the UN.”

Functionaries of the Buhari regime regularly violate human rights and court orders. On December 2, 2016, Gabriel Kolawole, a justice of the Federal High Court in Abuja, ordered the release of the leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, and his wife, Zeenat, from the custody of the State Security Service. The court also ordered that N50 million be paid as compensation. The orders were not obeyed.

A former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, was granted bail several times by different courts but was held in custody until December 2019 when he was released on bail. In 2019, a civil rights lawyer, Femi Falana, said he had compiled 32 different orders that the government had refused to obey.

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Though some victims of human rights violations by state actors who went to court to demand enforcement and compensation have won their cases, many others have returned empty-handed. Worse, the government often fails to pay up judgement sums.

When the government becomes lawless, other segments of society will lose confidence in the courts and resort to self-help. When the pronouncements of a court are not enforceable, even felons will be emboldened to commit more crimes. The result is a state of anomie. Sadly, Nigeria is threading this path with the unconscionable disregard for court orders by public officials.

Government functionaries must understand that the rule of law, respect for human rights, separation of powers and constitutional supremacy are all central to democracy. The SSS should stop its Gestapo-style of operation. The agency has become infamous for abductions and prolonged detention of suspects beyond the period permitted by law. Section 34 of the 1999 Constitution forbids holding any suspect beyond 48 hours without a valid court order. Section 61 (1) of the Nigeria Police Act 2020 demands that suspects be granted bail, “where it is impracticable to charge to court within 24 hours.” The constant abuse of rights and flagrant disobedience to court orders must stop.

The judiciary should be courageous. As a powerful arm of government, judges can symbolically protest without shutting down the courts. The judiciary should unite; disobedience to court orders should attract strong punishment. The judiciary must stop hobnobbing with the political class and purge itself of corruption that may whittle down its powers and respect.

Public office holders should submit to the law. In 2021, a former President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, 79, was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment for failing to appear at a corruption enquiry. Before the expiration of the deadline given to him to submit himself for imprisonment, Zuma, who served the country for nine years, handed himself over and served his term. Nobody is above the law in other climes; this principle should also apply in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, and largest population.

After a court on Wednesday set aside the IG’s sentencing, citing “substantial compliance with the order of the court and the assurance of ensuring full compliance,” Buhari should ensure that this is the last time public office holders would disobey court orders. The President should order the COAS also to submit himself to the law.

The constitution confers on him the sole responsibility of giving orders to the security chiefs, he should exercise his power with utmost regard to advancing the rule of and strengthening democratic institutions. When a former Director-General of the SSS, Lawal Daura, ordered his operatives to invade the National Assembly, the then Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo, demonstrated his respect for the supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law, and immediately removed him from office. Buhari must not miss this latest opportunity to salvage his regime’s reputation and enforce the rule of law.

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