By Henry Ojelu
The Court of Appeal, Lagos Division, has ordered the Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, to pay an account officer in the Akwa Ibom State Accountant-General’s office, Mrs Margaret Ukpe, N1 million for unlawfully putting her name on a wanted persons’ list published on the internet.
The NCS in a circular dated September 18, 2018, had placed Mrs Ukpe and four other officials of Akwa Ibom State Government on a watchlist in connection to a case of alleged conspiracy, money laundering and misappropriation of public fund and instructed all its Area Controllers to arrest them wherever they are sighted.
Vexed by the action of NCS, Mrs Ukpe through her lawyer, Dr. Charles Mekwunye, approached a Federal High Court in Lagos seeking, among other reliefs, a declaration that the NCS circular which was widely publicised constituted a gross violation of her fundamental rights guaranteed under the 1999 constitution and the African Charter on Human and Peoples Right and therefore illegal and unconstitutional.
In a judgment delivered on July 28, 2019, by Justice Mohammed Hassan, the lower court granted eight of the 10 reliefs sought by the plaintiff including an order restraining NCS from arresting her, but failed to award any damages against NCS or accede to her demand for public apology.
Determined to prove her case, Ukpe filed an appeal in 2019 against the Federal High Court judgment insisting that the lower court was wrong by not granting her monetary damages having held that her fundamental human right was breached.
In a lead judgment delivered by Justice Abdullahi Bayero on July 14, the Appeal Court restated that the order for Mrs Ukpe’s arrest and detention by the NCS in 2018 amounted to a gross infringement on her fundamental human right.
The judge also faulted the decision of the Federal High Court not to grant the appellant monetary damages insisting that damages in compensation legally and naturally follow every act of violation of a citizens fundamental rights.
He held: “The law is trite and the case law on the issue is replete, that once the court has found that the fundamental rights of an applicant has been violated by the act/acts or conduct of the respondent, the applicant is entitled to compensation.
“From the available evidence as shown in the record of appeal and the findings of the lower court, the appellant’s right has been breached by the respondent.
“The lower court has the sacred duty to prevent the violation of citizen’s rights. This appeal is therefore meritorious and is hereby allowed.”
He subsequently ordered NCS to pay Ukpe N1 million as compensation for the unlawful and unconstitutional order for her arrest and detention and to also publish a full apology to her on the front page of two widely-read national newspapers.
Earlier, while dismissing the preliminary objection raised by NCS, challenging the jurisdiction of the court, Justice Bayero held that the matter was properly brought before the appellate court and that NCS can be sued contrary to the argument of NCS counsel.
Two other judges on the panel, Justice Obande Ogbuinya and Justice Frederick Oho also agreed with the lead judgment.