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Editorial: Sowore and DSS brigandage in Abuja High Court

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What is now clear in words and in deed is that Nigerians are amongst the most lawless people on earth and the Buhari administration may just have set the tone for executive lawlessness with the assault against the judiciary arm of government after last Friday’s unprecedented invasion of the Federal High Court in Abuja by elements of the Department of State Services (DSS) to re-arrest Omoyele Sowore, RevolutionNow convener and publisher of Sahara Reporters. This brigandage which portends grave danger for Nigeria was an ignominious and reprehensible assault on the judiciary and, by extension democracy. It is a mindless, shameful, embarrassing and unacceptable circumvention of the constitution that the judiciary could be so brazenly attacked in a supposedly democratic dispensation. More so, as the Presidency doubled down on the lawlessness with presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu, arguing in a statement that, the DSS was “only exercising its power” by re-arresting Sowore. Added to the insane allegation by presidential aide, Laureta Onochie, who claimed Sowore staged his re-arrest to give DSS a “bad name,” this latest infringement on the rule of law offends the sensibilities of Nigerians and should never again happen. President Muhammadu Buhari should not just watch the unfolding drama but must strongly condemn it; and stop what portrays his administration as a dictatorship. Nigeria has had enough of lamentations.

DSS operatives stormed the court to re-arrest Sowore a few hours after he was released on bail by Justice Ifeoma Ojukwu. Sowore was released on Thursday night after the court gave DSS a 24-hour ultimatum to release him and also awarded N100,000 against the prosecution for failing to comply with prior court orders requesting his release. At the resumed hearing on Friday, Justice Ojukwu after court proceedings adjourned the case till February 11, 2020 for definite hearing. But as everyone filed out of the courtroom, no fewer than 15 armed DSS officers, who had laid ambush for the defendants, made their way towards Sowore and his co-defendant Bakare. The pandemonium caused by the presences of DSS operatives inside the courtroom degenerated into mayhem when the officers cocked their guns; people fled for their lives, disrupting proceedings and forcing the judge to scamper into her chambers. After a stand-off inside the court premises, the DSS operatives later picked up Sowore outside the courtroom. The DSS has however denied that any of its personnel was involved in the pandemonium inside the courtroom despite the fact that the altercation was caught on camera.

As global outrage continues to trail the re-arrest of Sowore by DSS officers, the United States government expressed deep concerns over the development. “We are deeply concerned that #Sowore has been re-detained in #Nigeria, shortly after a court ordered he be released on bail. Respect for rule of law, judicial independence, political and media freedom, and due process are key tenets of #democracy,” the State Department said in a tweet. The State Department tweet came on the heels of reactions by two US Senators condemning the re-arrest of Sowore after he had been released on bail by the court. Senator Bob Mendez had at a press conference warned of consequences for US-Nigeria relations, while his New Jersey counterpart, Senator Cory Booker, condemned the act as “appalling” and a “shocking affront” to the rule of law in Nigeria.

The monumental embarrassment came without notice. Before the presidency came out in support of the brigandage and lawlessness, the DSS had earlier denied invading the courtroom. The intelligence agency said the “drama” in the courtroom was “orchestrated” by Sowore himself. “Its (DSS) personnel were never, at any time, involved in the incident,” DSS spokesman Peter Afunanya said in a statement. Afunanya said the court had adjourned peacefully without an untoward incident when suddenly the unruly crowd imported into the courtroom went into a frenzy on the mere suspicion that DSS officials were seen at the court premises. Afunanya said: “the eventual re-arrest of Sowore by the DSS was effected outside the courtroom.”
DSS said in a statement that “These operations were based on allegations of corruptions and other acts of professional misconduct by a few of the suspected judges… we have been monitoring the expensive and luxurious lifestyle of some of the judges as well as complaints from the concerned public over judgement obtained fraudulently and on the basis amounts of money paid. The judges involved were invited, upon which due diligence was exhibited and their premises searched. The searches have uncovered huge raw cash of various denominations, local and foreign currencies, with real estate worth several millions of Naira and documents affirming unholy acts by these judges.”

These explanations, given after public outcry, are merely face-saving and self-serving. They are bizarre, even if they seem expedient, as they mock Nigeria and all her pretense to be a country governed by the rule of law. To begin with, was the re-arrest of Sowore done with an arrest warrant, and who signed the warrant? Besides, the action was a clear violation of due process. On what basis did DSS re-arrest him? Was it on the same charges for which he had been granted bail by the court and released the day before after over 124 days in DSS custody; or was Sowore re-arrested on the basis of new charges? Obviously, the DSS has admitted from its denial that its officers were involved in the courtroom brigandage that invading the hallowed chambers of a court is illegal activity that pertains to professional misconduct? So, who gave the order for Sowore to be re-arrested?

Whatever the motives, the action and the reasons advanced to justify this act of executive lawlessness, is totally unacceptable as it violated the sagely candor and venerated image of the judiciary as a respectable arm of government. That DSS snubbed the judiciary and this usurpation of functions of the courts by arresting Sowore without a warrant raises fundamental questions over the constitutionality of the action and reinforced public perception of Buhari’s dictatorial recidivism. In effect, the message DSS is sending is that; in violation of due process and presumption of innocence until proven guilty, DSS has already established a prima facie guilty verdict; and whether or not the courts condemned Sowore after trial, the DSS will employ Gestapo tactics to remand Sowore in its custody. This kind of impunity is a huge disservice to Nigeria that must not be allowed to stand as it sets a very dangerous precedent.

The rule of law is essential for order and stability and is one of the canons of liberal democracy. The observance of the rule of law nudges the polity away from authoritarian trappings. More importantly, it enhances democratic consolidation. Therefore, rule of law is a norm to be mainstreamed in any democratic society. That the law speaks different languages to different persons in Nigeria is a serious aberration that reduces it to a respecter of persons. At a time Nigeria is groaning under the suffocating grip of ravaging corruption which has festered because culprits are hardly punished, the need to entrench the rule of law and the willingness of all, regardless of status or standing in society, to submit totally to it for the public good is overwhelming.

In the context of the expectation of next level change, the rule of law should rank high in the arsenal of the Buhari administration. Therefore, violation of basic court procedures and infringement on the constitutionally guaranteed human rights and freedoms of citizens by security agencies remains worrisome. Therefore, the administration and all its agencies must not only respect the rule of law and follow due process; it should be seen to do so judiciously. It bears emphasizing that democracy and its institutions are strengthened if the rule of law is observed by custodians of state institutions. The executive must be diligent and the judiciary, as the gut of democracy, must exercise their independence for the good of the country.

The tragedy of Nigeria is that its leaders are yet to imbibe the essential attributes of the rule of law. For them, law is no more than a modern tool of fulfilling their political dreams and aspirations. Once due process is jinxed, rule of law takes a back seat. It gives way to an obnoxious philosophy, negative as it were, that makes holders of public office unaccountable and beyond reproach. This pernicious concept inures for all time and purposes with the result that a leader and his cronies invariably get away with atrocities committed while in office. The result on society is a pandemic of impunity and lawlessness. For the reasons of decency, of self-respect, of a sense of propriety, and consideration for best practices in public office, the DSS should have resisted the temptation to resort to such a crude display of raw power, if only because any such action inside a courtroom has very bad optics.

Either way, the DSS brigandage is a sad commentary on due process of law in Nigeria, in addition to being the shame of a nation. And it is most embarrassing to Nigerians that this could occur, even in a country with the facade of a civilized nation. In all of these, Nigerians who are traumatized by lack in every area, who groan under the yoke of poverty are the ultimate losers. It is also a pity that well-meaning Nigerians merely watch in bewilderment this egregious assault on the judiciary, forgetting that the price they pay for this is good governance. What times like this require are virile civil society organizations, a dynamic citizenry, a vocal populace and a Nigerian Bar Association that is bold enough to decry audacious abuse of state authority and powers. Nigerians cannot afford to be guilty of conspiracy of silence, mute indifference and cold complicity which their silence would suggest should they continue to ignore these humongous travesties of justice without a modicum of decorous protest. This is where the National Assembly must come in to save its own reputation by calling out this executive lawlessness and DSS overreach and assault on the judiciary.

The sad thing, though, is that despite this frenetic energy dissipated on Sowore, the critical question remains: what is the redeeming value in remanding him in custody? What will Buhari and Nigerians gain from all of this besides international condemnation and opprobrium? As a needless rigmarole, the focus on Sowore amounts to governing by distraction; that is governance within the context of doing nothing. This is the kind of shadow-boxing that puts the president and his administration in odium and disrepute. Whether or not he authorized the unwarranted assault on the judiciary; President Buhari bears responsibility for that irresponsible action, as the buck stops on his desk. And history will judge him harshly if he does not speak up against this assault and insist on its never happening again.