Recent legal tussle over the citing and conviction of the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Usman Alkali Baba for contempt of court was as instructive as it was intriguing. Beyond the drama that culminated in the discharge of the contempt declaration is the highlight of a running theme of disregard of court orders by public office holders. If nothing else, the Baba’s conviction emphasizes the point that no one is above the law, no matter his high office; and it is time public officers accord due respect to judicial orders, in the interest of democracy and good governance in the country.
Nigerians were taken by storm when Justice Mobolaji O. Olajuwon of the Federal High Court, Abuja brought the full weight of the law to bear on the IGP, Usman Baba a few weeks ago. Without mincing words, his lordship sentenced the IGP to three months imprisonment for contempt of court. This order was made following a suit filed by a former police officer, Mr. Patrick Okoli, who was unlawfully and compulsorily retired from the Nigeria Police Force in June 1992. In its judgment, the Bauchi High Court on February 19, 1994, ordered that Okoli be reinstated with all rights and privileges; but the Office of the IGP failed to obey the order.
The stance of the Police did not change despite the issuance of further court orders compelling it to do the needful. Not even the directive of the Police Service Commission (PSC) and intervention of the House of Representatives could persuade the Office of the IGP to act in accordance with the law. Unrelenting but determined to reap the fruit of his judgment, Okoli then approached the Federal High Court for a committal order against the incumbent IGP.
In granting the request, Justice Olajuwon remarked: “It is unfortunate that the chief enforcer of the law is one who has deliberately refused to comply with the same law. It is important to state that obedience to orders of court is fundamental to the good order, peace and stability of a nation. It is a duty which every citizen, who believes in peace and stability of the Nigerian state, owes the nation and the court has a duty to commit the individual who has failed to carry out the order of the court for contempt, so as to prevent the authority and administration of law from being brought to disrespect and to protect the dignity of the court.” Consequently, the court ruled that the IGP should be committed to prison for three months until he obeys the order issued by the court since October 21, 2011.”
Reacting to the development, the Police initially denied having prior knowledge of the 2011 reinstatement order but later filed an application praying the court to vacate the contempt order on the ground that the said order was substantially complied with in 2015. Rather surprisingly, the court aligned with this submission and accordingly set aside the committal order against the IGP.
Ironically, during the contempt proceedings, Justice Olajuwon had stated as follows: “The terms of the Orders of this Court are clear and unambiguous. This court is satisfied that the respondent (presently and those before him) has had proper knowledge of the Orders of this Court; there is no denial of such knowledge and the receipt of Forms 48 and 49. The respondent filed a counter affidavit, was duly represented in court by different counsel, who stated how they had written several legal opinions which were not attended to. The refusal and failure of the respondent to comply with the orders of this court has been proved in this case…” This pronouncement clearly shows that the court believed Okoli that the IGP was in contempt of court.
The reversal of that order appears to be a judicial somersault, as the self-same Justice Olajuwon, while considering the application of the IGP to set aside the contempt order, held that there was evidence that the IGP had substantially complied with the 2011 order since 2015 and therefore, his application “is worthy of sympathetic consideration.” On the face of it, the only evidence tendered by the IGP to substantiate his claim of compliance was a letter written by the then-IGP in 2015 to the Police Service Commission (PSC) directing the latter to reinstate Mr. Okoli. And there was hardly any proof that this directive was eventually acted upon; and this was what prompted the contempt proceedings in the first place.
In effecting the arrest of former IGP, Tafa Balogun in 2002, the Pioneer Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and Assistant Commissioner of Police, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu had stated: “The point is that whoever crosses the line will be dealt with -whether a constable or an IGP; it’s the same thing. The solution is not to cross the line. When you execute your mandate honestly, you become blind to the position of individuals. Justice is blind.” Indeed, it is upon this assertion that the rule of law is founded! Every person is subject to the law, regardless of their standing in society.
From several cases of unjustifiable arrests, unfair trials, disobedience to court orders, and lopsided appointments, among others, the present government has repeatedly demonstrated self-arrogated superiority over the rule of law. In October 2016, operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS) invaded the homes of senior judicial officers without following due process. Also, on December 6, 2019, a group of armed DSS officials besieged the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court to arrest Omoyele Sowore in outright defiance of the orders of the court which had admitted him to bail. Again, in 2021, a combined team of ‘unknown’ security agents invaded the residence of Justice Mary Odili, Justice of the Supreme Court (as she then was) while executing a search warrant in respect of another property! None of the perpetrators of these unlawful acts were ever sanctioned.
Furthermore, instances abound where the Presidency itself vehemently refused to obey court orders. This negative attitude should have no place in the public sector, in the overriding interest of Nigeria. No nation can prosper in a state of anarchy, particularly when the culprits are public office holders. Therefore, for the growth and development of the country, the President, Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation, service chiefs, and all public officers should discharge their respective duties strictly in compliance with the law. They are obligated to comply with all subsisting court orders whether favourable or otherwise.
Importantly, the court should not hesitate in exerting its coercive powers against any individual or institution that disregards its orders.
Noteworthy, the judiciary will be perceived to be enabling the desecration of the temple of justice if it keeps setting aside its decisions without legal justification. Also, it should not be seen to be administering justice only in matters involving non-state actors and indigent people. Let justice be done though the heavens fall! The judiciary should manifestly conduct its affairs in a manner that inspires public confidence.