By Azimazi Momoh Jimoh, Adamu Abuh, Segun Olaniyi, Nkechi Onyedika-Ugoeze (Abuja), Joseph Onyekwere, Bertram Nwannekanma, Kehinde Olatunji (Lagos), Saxone Akhaine (Kaduna) and Ayodele Afolabi (Ado Ekiti)

THE GUARDIAN

• Decision forced, damage control, say lawyers
• HURIWA wants Malami stripped of SAN
• CAN, ACF hail move, demand others’ freedom

Belated. Face-saving. These were the words used to capture President Muhammadu Buhari’s release of a former National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki and Sahara Reporters Publisher Omoyele Sowore from detention yesterday.

Buhari’s volte-face after consistent disobedience to court orders has been attributed to both domestic and external pressures over the illegalities he was accused of perpetrating by the prolonged incarceration of the duo and others. Within Nigeria, there has been heavy unrest . And just recently, some American lawmakers condemned Buhari’s ill treatment of Sowore and urged him to comply with judicial rulings.

To the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, there was nothing exciting about the release because for the pressure, the Federal Government would have continued to ignore court orders.

He told The Guardian in a telephone interview that the Buhari administration had demonstrated its inability to operate with democratic ethos.

Ologbondiyan queried: “What is exciting about the directive to release these people? Has this changed their penchant for disobedience to court orders and the rule of law?”

According to him, “This government has shown to the world that it is only interested in doing things its own ways regardless of the place of law and democratic order.”

He explained that the “Federal Government felt the heat of national and international pressure; so, there was nothing more for them to do than to order their immediate release.”

“Nigerians are not fooled by this and the government knows it,” he added.

The Director, Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Idayat Hassan, applauded the government for the decision to release Sowore and Dasuki.

But she thinks that the government might have caved in to pressures from civil societies groups within the country and influence from international governments.

“I think it is the groundswell of opposition they are receiving not just internationally but locally. The heat has been on them in the last couple of months particularly after the abduction of Sowore . You can even see that civil societies groups gave a 14-day ultimatum. “Everybody has been speaking against the government. So it behoves them to do the right thing at the right time. And I think that it is the right decision that they have made because they have nothing else to do but adherence to the rule of law. “ For me, I don’t think it has to do with the fear of possible sanction from the U.S. considering the fact that people are looking at what is happening all over the world in places like Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, and Latin America where little things ignited protests like this. So for a government that is so afraid of protest, it was just the right thing to do.”

A lawyer, Malachy Ugwummadu, noted: “This is coming too late, too little in the sense that nothing precluded the same Federal Government and AGF from directing the same releases soon after the express orders of courts. Recall that the orders sought to be obeyed now have been issued several months and weeks ago depending on the case.

“This is a damage control effort that has very little impact because of the profound damage that has been occasioned by the indiscretion of this government and the presently established tradition of disobedience of court orders. Just too bad and shameful that several governments, governance institutions and persons across the globe have had to express their resentment, disapproval and disappointment at the inexplicable refusal of the Federal Government to respect the orders of courts.”

He said further: “The AGF cannot, at this stage of the mess, excuse himself from the absurdity and disgrace brought about by this ugly and avoidable development. By S.150 of the 1999 Constitution, he is the chief law officer of the federation with a responsibility to advise the government on appropriate legal decisions and actions to take including respect for rule of law and court orders.

“The Federal Government, DSS and even Ministry of Justice must issue a public apology to the victims and pay adequate compensation to them pursuant to S.35(6) of the 1999 Constitution. Finally, every other political prisoner including Agba Jalingo and Abiri illegally held in captivity must be released and compensated forthwith.”

Indeed, other lawyers yesterday faulted the government’s directive for the release. They said the decision, coming after several courts had already ordered the release of the detainees, proves the disdain with which the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration holds the principles of separation of powers.

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Mr. Sylvester Elema, stressed that in a “normal democracy”, court orders should have been “superior” to any government directive.

Also, the publicity secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Kunle Edu, said the NBA welcomed the decision to release the duo from their “unlawful” detention. “However, it is unfortunate that court orders in Nigeria are now subjected to further decisions by members of the executive arm of government (acting as an appellate court) before they are complied with. This is a denigration of the court system, which should be the last hope of not only the common man but also the rich who find themselves on the other side of the law.”

He said further: “Court orders are subsisting and binding on the parties until set aside. No one has the privilege or discretion to choose whether to obey it or not, or when to obey it. The order of court is a law and no one should be above the law. I hope that the AGF did not actually make that statement because it gives an impression that the government will always choose which court order to obey and when to obey it.”

Another lawyer, Kano-based lawyer Abubakar Sani lamented: “Court orders financial autonomy for the judiciary – no action; DSS invades homes of judges and courts – all hell is let loose. What do these speak of our values as a people? That ought to be the question.

“Suffice it to say that the three arms of government are equal only on paper: in practice, the executive calls all the shots. Not only does it pay the piper, it is firmly in control of the instruments of coercion.”

On his part, Owerri-based lawyer, Augustine Ike, said: “It is an affront for the DSS not to release Sambo Dasuki, Omoyele Sowore and other prisoners of conscience as ordered by a competent court but be quick to comply with the directive by the attorney general, which came as a result of public outcry and fear of international sanctions. It further gives credence that the trademark of the Buhari-led government is impunity.”

Taking the denunciation further, pro-democracy and non-governmental organisation, Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) called “on the Nigerian Bar Association, the Body of Benchers and all legal regulatory bodies to strip the attorney general of the title of Senior Advocate, saying he has brought shame and global opprobrium to Nigeria.

In a statement by National Coordinator Emmanuel Onwubiko, HURIWA said: “We ask these illegally detained Nigerians to also pursue claims running into at least N10 billion each for the grave violations of their civil liberties by the current administration. It is a shame that we have a near-incompetent Chief Justice of Nigeria who has remained silent while the judiciary is ridiculed by the lawless executive arm of government.”

It added: “The rebuilding process of the battered judiciary may take years to be completed, given the extent of demolition of the independence and the integrity of the judiciary and the court system by the current government that lacks respect for the constitutionally guaranteed principles of separation of powers.”

Explaining why Sowore and Dasuki would be released, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) Abubakar Malami in a statement yesterday said: “My office has chosen to comply with the court orders while considering the pursuit of its rights of appeal and/or review of the order relating to the bail as granted or varied by the courts.

“In line with the provisions of Sections 150(1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), and in compliance with the bail granted to Col. Sambo Dasuki (rtd) (as recently varied by the Court of Appeal) and the bail granted to Omoyele Sowore, I have directed the State Security Services to comply with the order granting bail to the defendants and effect their release.

“The two defendants are enjoined to observe the terms of their bail and refrain from engaging in any act that is inimical to public peace and national security as well as their ongoing trial which will run its course in accordance with the laws of the land.

“I wish to reiterate again the utmost regard of my office for the entire judicial structure of Nigeria. This administration remains unrelenting in deepening the rule of law and the administration of justice in general.”

He added: “Whilst the Federal High Court has exercised its discretion in granting bail to the defendants in respect of the charges against them, I am also not unmindful of the right of the complainant/prosecution to appeal or further challenge the grant of bail by the court, having regard to extant legal provisions, particularly Section 169 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015.”

But a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Mike Ozekhome, said the release order “is salutary for democracy, respect for fundamental rights of the citizens and observance of rule of law.”

He noted: “I am happy the government has finally realised its faux pas. It is never too late to take corrective measures and make amends. The government should add El-Zakzaky to the list of detainees to be released. It should build on this fresh air of freedom to stop tormenting Nigerians with maximum fear and subjugation.

Northern leaders under the umbrella of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) also shared Ozekhome’s view. According to a statement by its spokesman, Ibrahim Biu, “ACF appreciates this magnanimity of the Federal Government especially in this season of Yuletide and urges it to extend the same to all those who have been granted bail by the courts and are still kept in detention by security agencies.” The group also called on “those released on bail to comply with the court bail conditions in accordance with the laws of the land.”

Similarly, a non-governmental organisation, Assembly of Patriots, commended Buhari for directing the Attorney General to release Dasuki and Sowore. Speaking in Abuja yesterday, the national publicity officer of the group, Olasukanmi Oyekale, urged the president to also review similar cases.

Senate Minority Leader Enyinnaya Abaribe joined the call on the presidency to release other detainees whom the courts have granted bail.

In a statement released by his media adviser, Uchenna Awom, Abaribe said: “The presidency must seize the momentum and release the rest. They must not be seen to be selective or acting on impulse. Again the Federal Government must now respect and adhere to the rule of law at times.

“It is becoming obvious that the country may face certain isolation from the international community if the government continues to disregard valid court orders. We must respect all statutory institutions of government and pay greater attention to the principle of separation of power. This is the way to go in a democracy.”

Ekiti State Governor Kayode Fayemi hailed Buhari for the release of the duo. “Again, the president has demonstrated that he is the father of the nation through his intervention that led to the release from detention of the two prominent citizens,” he said in a statement by his chief press secretary, Yinka Oyebode.

Fayemi who is the chairman of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum added: “The president, by this intervention, has reinforced the fact that nobody is deemed guilty of an offence until pronounced guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction. This is good for the country. We congratulate Col. Dasuki and Sowore and salute the president for the fatherly gesture.”

The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in a statement in Abuja said it was “very happy” with the decision of the Federal Government. It said the action was commendable and described it as “a new dawn for democracy.”

The umbrella body said: “As long as the Federal Government continues to respect the rule of law and the constitution, the Christian Association of Nigeria will continue to work with the government to ensure that there is peace and stability in the polity. We will not cease to pray for President Muhammadu Buhari and his team for a successful tenure of office.”

Meanwhile, Lagos-based rights group, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has sought the intervention of Mr. Clement Voule, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association, over Monday’s violent attack on Free Sowore protesters in Abuja.

The group urged Voule, to “publicly express concerns about the growing human rights violations and abuses in Nigeria and call on the authorities to end violent attacks on peaceful protesters.” It also urged him to take urgent measures to protect the rights of all Nigerians to protest anywhere in the country.”

In a petition dated December 24, 2019 and signed by SERAP’s Deputy Director Kolawole Oluwadare, the organisation alleged that the Nigerian authorities and the police on Monday failed to stop the attack on the demonstrators.

“We urge you to put pressure on the authorities to immediately and thoroughly investigate the attack, identify the perpetrators and ensure the prosecution of anyone found to be responsible.”

Reacting, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) condemned the violence unleashed by supporters of President Muhammadu Buhari.

In a statement by National Publicity Secretary Lanre Issa-Onilu, the APC said: “This incident stands condemned by our party. As the governing party, we recognise the inalienable rights of people, groups, including political parties to gather or carry out protest by themselves or through proxies within the ambit of the laws.

“We do not subscribe to a situation where such protests become chaotic or different protesting groups turn on one another, causing avoidable injuries. Such is clearly unacceptable to our laws and it is against the principled stance of our government.”

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