By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA -The Abuja Division of the Federal High Court, on Thursday, nullified the suspension of Senator Ovie Omo-Agege by the Senate, even as it ordered his immediate recall.
The court, in a judgment that was delivered by Justice Nnamdi Dimgba, said the reason that Senate gave for suspending Omo-Agege for 90 legislative days, was unconstitutional.
It noted that the Ethics and Privileges Committee of the Senate had in its report, recommended that Omo-Agege should be suspended to punish him for dragging the legislative house to court.
“Conclusion and findings of the committee was that the action of the plaintiff in going to court was unacceptable and he must be punished as a deterrent to others.
“It is clear that while the 1st and 2nd defendants (Senate and its President) were right in referring the plaintiff to the Ethics Committee, they went out of track and arrived at the wrong and false end by punishing the plaintiff for exercising his right to access to court.
“Access to court is a constitutional right that cannot be taken away by force or intimidation”, Justice Dimgba held.
He said the action of the Senate in suspending the plaintiff despite being away of the pendency of the case in court, amounted to “a grave violation of sections 4(8) and 6(6b) of the constitution”, and “tantamount to legislative affront on jurisdiction of the court”.
Justice Dimgba held that while the Senate has the powers to sanction its erring members to protect its integrity, he said no institution or authority has the powers to strip any citizen his right of access to the court.
“I am not convinced that due process was followed and that the 1st and 2nd defendants exercised their disciplinary powers rightly”, Justice Dimgba held, adding that Senate ought to have stayed action on the matter pending the determination of the suit before the court.
Besides, the Judge noted that whereas sections 67(4) of the Senate Standing Rules 2014 and section 21(2) of the Legislative Houses Powers and Privileges Act, okayed the suspension of any erring lawmaker for 14 legislative days, he said the Senate went contrary to the provisions by handing 90 days suspension to Omo-Agege.
He said the Senate Committee ought to have excused both Omo-Agege and Senator Dino Melaye who raised the complaint against him, from its proceedings, since they were both members of the Ethics Committee.
“The suspension of the plaintiff for 90 days is ultra-vires of powers of the 1st defendant (Senate)”, the court held, adding that “any suspension of member of the Senate exceeding 14 days is null and void and unconstitutional”.
The court held that Omo-Agege’s suspension from attending plenary for 90 days, denied his constituency their right to proper representation.
“Having analysed the reasons given for the punishment of the defendant as unconstitutional, I hereby nullify the suspension of the plaintiff with immediate effect.
“Consequently, the 1st and 2nd defendants to pay the plaintiff any outstanding salary and entitlement within the period of his suspension. I make no order as to cost”.
Remarkably, the court voided Omo-Agege’s suspension after it declined to grant any of the seven reliefs he sought in his suit.
Justice Dimgba said his decision to set-aside the action of the Senate after rejecting Omo-Agege’s prayers was based on relief eight in the suit that urged the court to make any order it deems fit in the circumstance of the case.
Earlier in the judgment, the court maintained that the legislature is entitled to take measures to discipline any of its members whose action is capable of bringing the institution to disrepute.
It said the legislature could use internal remedies to caution such offender.
“That will not amount to usurpation of the power of the court since it deals with image and public perception of that arm of the government”.
Justice Dimgba said the fact that only the Attorney General of the Federation has the power to initiate criminal proceeding against such offender did not bar the Senate from deploying its internal disciplinary measures against erring lawmaker.
He dismissed Omo-Agege’s claim that he was denied fair hearing by the Senate Committee, stressing that “documents before the court showed that the plaintiff was afforded the opportunity to be heard”.
The court equally dismissed preliminary objections the Senate and its President, Dr. Bukola Saraki filed to challenge the jurisdiction of the court to hear the suit.
Justice Dimgba said the court was empowered under section 4(8) of the 1999 constitution to intervene in affairs of the Senate, “whether internal or external, when it acts beyond it’s powers or in breach of the constitution”.
Senator Omo-Agege who is representing Delta Central Senatorial district had in his suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/314/2018, prayed the court to quash his suspension and declare that he was illegally barred from attending plenary at the Senate.
Aside the Senate and its President, the AGF, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN, was equally cited as a defendant in the suit dated March 26.
The Senate and Saraki had through their lawyer, Mr. Mahmud Magaji, SAN, queried the competence of the suit, insisting that the court lacked the requisite jurisdiction to entertain the case which they said was an internal affair of the legislature.
However, Omo-Agege’s lawyer, Dr. Alex Iziyon, SAN, urged the court to ignore the objection and grant his client’s prayers.
Likewise, the AGF who was represented by the Solicitor General of the Federation, Mr. Dayo Apata, urged the court to nullify Omo-Agege’s suspension for 90 legislative days and order his immediate recall to the Senate.
The AGF told the court that decision Senate took against Omo-Agege was illegal and unconstitutional and ought to be declared a nullity.
He argued that the plaintiff was entitled to freedom of expression under the Nigerian constitution and the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights.
It will be recalled that Omo-Agege’s trouble started after he alleged that moves by his colleagues to re-order sequence for the 2019 general elections, was targeted at President Muhammadu Buhari.
Following his subsequent suspension from plenary, Omo-Agege, among other things, prayed the court for, “A declaration that the 1st and 2nd defendants’ referral of the plaintiff to the Senate Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions for trial for expressing his opinion on the purport of a Section of the Electoral Act N0. 6, 2010 (Amendment) Bill 2017 is an act calculated to interfere with or likely to constitute a breach of the plaintiff’s fundamental human right to freedom of expression without interference as guaranteed by Section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 [as amended] and Article 9(2) of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Right (Ratification and Enforcement) Act Cap A9 LFN, 2004.
“A declaration that the description of the plaintiff’s expression of his opinion on the purport of a Section of the Electoral Act No.6, 2010 (Amendment) Bill 2017 in the 1st defendant’s Votes and Proceedings of Tuesday, 20th February, 2018 as “malicious, unfounded and aimed at smearing the reputation of the Senate as an Institution”, makes the allegation against the plaintiff [which was referred to the Senate Committee on Ethic, Privileges and Public Petitions] offence[s] under the provisions of Section 24(a) and or 24(c) of the Legislative Powers and Privileges Act Cap L12 LFN 2004 and therefore cognizable only by court of competent jurisdiction as, provided by Section 36(4) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 [as amended].
Likewise, “An order of perpetual injunction restraining the defendants, their servants, agents, privies, officers or otherwise howsoever from interfering with the plaintiffs rights and or privileges as a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria or and preventing him from entering or remaining within the precinct or Chamber of the Senate or National Assembly or attempting to forcibly remove him from the chamber or precinct of the National Assembly or in any way impeding or undermining the plaintiff’s ability to function as a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria”.