Knees on its neck, hands tied, now Nigeria’s democracy can’t breathe

By Editor on 23/06/2020

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When, on September 11, 1963, Justice George Sodeinde Sowemimo, one time Chief Justice of the Federation (CJN), pronounced his verdict and sent Chief Obafemi Awolowo, former Premier of Western Nigeria to jail, he was brave enough to admit that ordinarily he would not have trod that path.

In his words before the sentencing, he clearly demonstrated the circumstances of the case, especially its politics, which left him with no choice, hence his infamous statement: My Hands are Tied.

No matter how anyone tries to interpret the statement thereafter as has been the case in many quarters, the only plausible construal distillable from every angle is that he did not give that verdict freely.

It is now history what that singular pronouncement left Nigeria with and how that era ended. But it is safe to say, and let it be so said that, that event and others linked to it before and after, is part of the reasons Nigeria has remained in its prostrate state till date.

Going by the much-advertised statement of the architects of the January 15 coup, the first in Nigeria, that one of the objectives was to free the late sage and make him the Prime Minister it makes sense, outside any further or better explanation that the first military intervention in Nigeria, one way or the other, has its root in the seeming injustice done to Awolowo, the Nigerian judicial system and in the end, the polity.

Yet, it might be that the coup makers were not saying the truth. Yes, it might be just a way of fishing for an excuse to exculpate themselves of blame, as being argued in some quarters. But what would they have clung to if that event did not present such a popular opportunity, for whatever it was worth?

It showed that the perception that Awolowo was dealt a dirty political hand rather than justice resonated with the people. And who was the major culprit? – The courts – the judiciary.

That is why every Nigerian must be scandalised by what is happening in the polity today. The circumstances that led to Sowemimo’s pronouncement, has again crept into the polity in somewhat more dangerous, reformed, reframed and repackaged form.

The judicial system is once again lending itself as tool to suppress individual agitations. That is dangerous, we must warn again!

Quite recently, state actors have elevated treason, terrorism and other high crimes to almost everyday charges in our courts even for the very ordinary and mundane offences to deal with clearly political issues.

Omoyele Sowore, was charged with treasonable felony for organising a simple protest through his #RevolutionNow. Agba Jalingo was charged with a similar offcence in Cross River for disagreeing with his state Governor, Ben Ayade. The same charge was slammed against Kufre Carter, a radio journalist in Akwa Ibom State for embarrassing the state government and Governor Udom Emmanuel.

In Imo, the case of Ambrose Nwaogwugwu, Director General of the New Media Centre of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), was no different. He was charged for terrorism offence, another high crime for offending Governor Hope Uzodinma.

Add Stephen Kefas in Kaduna, who had to spend 150 days in detention for merely reposting a story written by a newspaper that Cafra Caino, the Council Chairman of Kajuru Local Government Area of Kaduna State did not like. Add Rotimi Jolayemi, a journalist detained for broadcasting a poem deemed insulting to the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Muhammed, just to mention a few more.

A few days ago, it was the turn of spokesperson of the Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP), Ikenga Ugochinyere, who was arrested at the instance of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, for "lying" against the members of the House of Representatives.

All these have one common denominator, the anger and discomfiture of political actors in high places, rather than what such high crimes, which are quite rarely committed in any country portray. There are no threats to the state which form the basic ingredients to make terrorism or treason stand. None! Yet, the courts entertain them.

This is clear danger to the fluid, free and robust society, which democracy conduces going by its time-tested definition as – Government of the people by the people and for the people.

Now, if Nigerians do not see the implications of this trend or connect the dots to the dangers thereof yet, it is because they are probably fighting a bigger, more telling and more compelling immediate issue of the hunger in the land, worsened by the advent of the devastating COVID-19. But even with empty stomachs, people must fight, because what is at stake is far worse than hunger. Conversely, there is no other word for what we are being confronted with currently. It is Dictatorship with a capital letter “D.”

More troubling is not about the fact that politicians in high offices have increasingly become intolerant of criticisms but the manner they are going about covering the real issue with this veneer of legalism through the judicial system. Issues that are purely civil are elevated to high crimes to ensure that the accused are not granted bail or that they at least, spend a lot of time behind bars. The motive is simple – Intimidation. Even if the charges could not stand the test of legal interrogation in court, at least, make it weighty enough to earn the target long stays in detention. In this queer thinking conviction is not the endgame but long detention to show where the power lies. Quite ingenious! Yet it is working so far.

That is why in the instant cases mentioned above, none of the detainees spent less than a month in detention. To ensure its efficacy, for an offence that out to be bailable with minimal conditions, the accused now has to produce the proverbial heart of the Danda, the ant, to be able to secure bail. The implication is that only the most daring would now dare travel the route, which is really nothing outside mere criticism of a politically-exposed personality.

For instance, in the case of Carter, the magistrate court which initially granted him bail on N3million bond also asked him to provide a surety who must be either a Permanent Secretary with the Akwa Ibom government or a civil servant of grade level 17, plus a letter from his village head attesting to his identity.

How could he achieve that? Which public officer at that level would want to risk their jobs with all that comes with them in that manner? That alone underscores the problem at hand and the role the judiciary is playing as a working tool for intolerant state actors to have their way to intimidate their political opponents.

In the instant case, it had to take Carter’s lawyers efforts at a higher court outside the control of the states, which reduced the conditions to get a reprieve for him. Therein lies what Nigeria is dealing with.

Sadly, even where the courts act as they should, security agencies become the problem. In the case of Sowore, even after Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu ordered his release from detention, it had to take some weeks for the Department of State Security (DSS) to obey the valid order, just like in that of Carter, ostensibly still acting on the body language of the government in power.

In the case of Ugochinyere, the CUPP spokesman, a valid order by an Abuja Federal High Court against his arrest was not enough for the police to dither awhile before picking him up. The worry then is, if the police could not obey a court order not to perform an act, who then is safe?

Yes, even the Police Act, which specifies how the personnel should engage with the public, clearly makes it very poignant that they can only obey Lawful Orders. How else is this injunction betrayed and the law so brazenly raped than when a court order is so wantonly and disdainfully disregarded? What is the hurry in carrying out the arrest without discharging the order first?

If anyone is still in doubt about the danger ahead, the case of Agboola Ajayi, the Deputy Governor of Ondo State, who was denied his egress out of the Government House Akure, by the police, should suffice as enough pointers.

Even more disturbing is that the action of restricting Ajayi, who enjoys immunity, was carried out by a commissioner of police, the highest law enforcement officer in the state, who amongst other equipment, should wear the knowledge of the law like a wedding ring.

That it was not his juniors that committed such a blunder, but the numere uno himself, who has so much to lose, including his commission, were the law working effectively and efficiently, tells the entire story. Obviously, the commissioner ought to know the risk he was taking regarding his career by undertaking such an odious task, but because he knows that there would be no consequences, he finds it convenient to do so all the same.

This is the time for all Nigerians to stand up and start shouting from the rooftops to ensure that this dangerous trend is nipped in the bud before it spreads like the COVID-19 the world is currently dealing with.

We at will not keep quiet, because we have passed this road before and are witnesses to where it leads. That road is clear – infamy.




Posted on June, 23 2020

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