Columns

December 4, 2022

Harvest of Contempt of Court Convictions in Nigeria

By Tonnie Iredia

In quick succession, three chief executive officers of Nigeria’s most power societal institutions were convicted of contempt of court in the last one month. It all started when Justice Chizoba Orji of the Abuja High Court ordered the remand of Abdulrasheed Bawa, chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) at the Kuje Correctional Centre Abuja for disobeying an earlier order of the court directed at the Commission.

A Certified True Copy (CTC) of the judgment dated November 3, 2022 and sighted by the media revealed the directive of the court to the Inspector General of Police to ensure that the order was executed forthwith. Of course, consistent with public expectation, the court order was not executed. What happened was an attempt by the EFCC to establish that the disobedience was neither willful nor in the character of the Commission to so act. EFCC’s point was however superfluous

A few weeks later, another Judge in the Federal Capital Territory FCT, Abuja, Justice Mobolaji Olajuwon sentenced Usman Alkali Baba,the Inspector-General of Police, (IGP) himself to three months’ imprisonment for also disobeying a valid court order which had directed the Police many years ago to reinstate one of its own, Patrick Okoli, who was unlawfully and compulsorily retired from the Nigerian Police Force.

The IGP according to Justice Olajuwon would remain in custody until he obeys the subsisting order of the court. The implication of this is that if he fails to purge himself of the contempt at the end of 3months, another order would be made for him to remain there. Like the case of the EFCC chair, the IGP did not obey the order of the court by proceeding to serve the punishment. Instead, he caused a press release to be issued to explain that he had not even joined the Police Force when the order was first made.

Only 4 days back, a High Court sitting in Minna, Niger State, heard a case concerning one Adamu Makama and 42 others against the governor of Niger State and seven others with the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Faruk Yahaya, and the Commandant, Training and Doctrine Command, Minna, Major Gen. Stevenson Olabanji, listed as 6th and 7th defendants respectively.

Before adjourning the case to December 8, 2022,Justice Halim Abdulmalik who presided found cause to issue a warrant of arrest to remand at the Minna Custodial centre, the two military chiefs for contempt of court. In other words, the military chiefs would remain in custody in the first instance until next Thursday.

Unlike the cases of the EFCC chair and the Inspector General of Police, the military had remained silent on the matter from when the order was made till when this piece was being packaged a few hours ago making it difficult to include its reaction in this write-up.

In today’s global village, the 3 cases above successfully inflicted incalculable damage on the nation’s image. Not many Nigerians in diaspora and other people reading the reports would be amused by their bizarre colouration. Quite often, our leaders challenge the Nigerian media to be more patriotic by engaging in development communication while playing down on the nation’s negative stories.

But what would the media have done with these three reports which establish beyond reasonable doubt that ours is a nation where public officers disobey court orders with impunity? 

Interestingly, the three reports are not isolated cases, what seems to make them look like a bang is that they happened at about the same time when some courageous judges were in the mood of standing their grounds. Some of our public bodies are always into contempt of court behaving now and again as if their institutions are officially above the law

Police operatives in particular are notorious for disobeying court orders. In 2018 for example, Justice Sylvanus Oriji sitting at an FCT High Court in Apo, Abuja, insisted that the then Inspector General of Police, IGP, Ibrahim Idris, must appear before him to explain why he should not be committed to prison for flouting court orders that barred the Police from interfering with activities of Peace Corps of Nigeria, (PCN). 

The head office of the Corps had been unlawfully sealed-off by armed policemen on the directive of their Inspector General. Consequently, the PCN brought an application to court to commit the IGP to prison for flouting the subsisting judgment of the court regarding its activities. Justice Oriji did not only condemn the attitude of the Police but specifically imposed a fine of N25, 000 on the IGP

Other agencies behave similarly. In 2015, contempt proceedings were brought against the then Chief Executive of the FRSC, Boboye Oyeyemi, for allegedly disobeying a court order barring the corps’ imposition of fines on motorists. Justice, John Tosho of the Federal High Court in Lagos, had indeed nullified the powers of the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) to fine motorists for violating traffic rules.

The position of the Judge was that only a court of law can pronounce a motorist or driver guilty of violating traffic rules and order him or her to pay a fine. What the FRSC can do is to arrest motorists for traffic offences and take them to the relevant court which has the powers to punish traffic offenders.

Despite this ruling, many uniformed officials are seen daily on our roads apprehending and imposing fines on motorists. Under the guise of revenue generation for government, a number of regulatory agencies are continuously usurping judicial functions 

Under the rule of law, everyone is equal before the law but well placed office holders seem to behave as if they are among persons who enjoy immunity from prosecution. Some even attempt to direct the judiciary. There is no better way of understanding the posture of the EFCC and the Police bosses who after conviction by courts of competent jurisdiction remain in the comfort of their offices to begin to tell their own side of the story which they would have promptly presented to the courts during trial.

The EFCC boss in particular should not have been convicted if the conscious efforts he had made to comply with the order in question had been properly narrated in court. In the case of the Police, the argument that the current IGP had not even joined the service when the order was made and was not personally served are unacceptable technicalities to hamper substantive justice. The current IGP having inherited the case remains liable.  

There are several lessons to be learnt from the latest development in which the Judiciary has woken from slumber to insist on the rule of law in Nigeria. First, commendation must go to Justices Orji, Olajuwon and Abdulmalik who had the courage to convict top office holders for contempt of court.

From the names of the Judges, it would appear that they are all female which seemingly validates the publicly held belief that they are more committed and forthright in the performance of their duties. It is hoped that other Judges especially those to handle the coming election petitions will keep the flag flying in the interest of the nation.

Whereas some of the indicted organizations may feel humiliated, the convictions are more likely to strengthen their processes. They need to note in particular that they were not targetted for harassment. The prompt discharge of the EFCC chair as soon as his efforts at complying with the court orders were made known is instructive.

The 3 memorable cases have also shown that chief executives of agencies mandated by the law to take charge of the day to day running of their organizations must always remember that buck-passing stops at their desks and that quite often they should prepareto take vicarious liability for what their subordinates do.

As pointed out in the Peace Corps’ case, the assumption is that the IGP had been duly informed of court papers served through his Commissioner of Police. The cases show the importance of proper handing over notes successors in office. From now on, many government agencies would hopefully put themselves in check. As the last hope of the common man, Nigerians ought to celebrate the new stance of their Judiciary.