When an Abuja High Court, presided over by Justice Chizoba Oji, on Tuesday, convicted the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Abdulrasheed Bawa, of contempt of court, many weren’t surprised that he wasn’t put behind bars by the Inspector-General of Police, Usman Alkali Baba, as ordered by the court.
The court had committed Bawa to prison at Kuje Correctional Centre, until he purged himself of the contempt, over his continued disobedience of an order of court made on November 21st, 2018, when the EFCC was directed to return a Range Rover and the sum of N40 million to an applicant in a suit, Air Vice Marshal (AVM) Rufus Adeniyi Ojuawo, a former Nigeria Air Force director of operations. Four years after the judgement however, the anti-graft agency still didn’t obey the ruling.
Justice Orji in Tuesday’s judgement, had also mandated the Inspector-General of Police, Usman Alkali Baba to ensure the execution of the order. But in response on Wednesday, the Nigeria Police Force claimed that it was not aware of a court ruling that ordered for the imprisonment of Bawa, for contempt. Days after, the police still didn’t carry out the court directive or was the police not served the notice at all?
However on Thursday, Justice Chizoba set aside the contempt proceedings and all the orders of conviction for contempt against Bawa after hearing an application brought by him, but many say the anti-graft boss should have been imprisoned first before hearing his appeal.
But already now a well-known attribute of the President Muhammadu Buhari-led government, despite the order for his inprisonment, he still walked a free man, as he continued overseeing an anit-graft agency of government vested with the responsibility of arresting, detaining, suing suspects alleged to have committed fraud, (not confirmed fraudsters), and signing official documents. This adds to the growing list of cases of deliberate flouting of court orders by the Federal Government whenever court judgments don’t favour them.
One question to ask the EFCC is, will the agency get a jail sentence against a suspect and allow the suspect go free and file for appeal without them first committing the person to prison whether the judgement was wrong or not? Does the EFCC and other security agencies not detain suspects for whatever period of time before taking them to court, even if they are later found innocent? Why should it now be different in their own case? Because the case didn’t turn out in their favour?
Security agencies even on several occasions, have detained suspects for months and in many cases, years, before taking them to court. In other case, security agencies, in some cases, refused to release a suspect even after a court has ordered his or her release, few unlucky ones are released months after. The most recent one that comes to mind was the FG’s disobedience of the court order to release leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu which the FG was later able to get the court to set aside.
A much better example that further epitomises government’s utter disregard for the courts, was their arrest and detention of the leader of the Shi’a Islamic Movement in Nigeria, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky from December 14, 2015 to August 2019. The military had detained El-Zakzaky for about a year without charging him to court, until they were sued for illegal detention. Despite the release order, El-Zakzaky and his wife remained in custody till 2021. In July 2021, the court again ordered his release but they refused to, not until August 2021 before they finally bowed to pressure.
Furthermore, in ordering his release, the court directed that he be flown abroad to receive medical treatment, but since then, the FG has refused to release his passport that would have enabled him travel out for the treatment.
On Bawa’s case, legal practitioners and a human rights group faulted the EFCC for deceitfully using political advantage to evade justice and disobey court order. Lawyer, Mr. Maxwell Okpara on Wednesday, in his reaction to the conviction said the EFCC should have been imprisoned before his appeal was heard adding that, “whatever documents he signed between yesterday (Tuesday) and today (Thursday), all those documents are a nullity” until the court ruling is set aside.
Okpara added that Bawa can’t absorb himself of any blame as “he inherited that office from somebody. He received handover notes. He received the cases that were pending in courts. He received the orders that had been made before the courts. But he chose the ones that he would obey and the ones that he would not obey. And he did not go to court to explain himself. Once an order of court is made, whether rightly given or wrongly given, it stands to be the order until it is set aside.”
“As at the time Bode George was pursuing his case, he was still at Kirikiri maximum prison until the Supreme Court set it aside. Orji Uzo Kalu was there in Kirikiri prison until the court set aside the order convicting him.
“But as for the EFCC, Department of State Services, Police, and others, when you serve them a court order, if you write them a letter, they would say they are still reviewing it. A police constable would tell you that we are still reviewing a court’s judgment. So, I think this is a wakeup call,” the lawyer noted.
Responding to Okpara’s submission, the Human Rights Writers Association (HURIWA) in a statement on Wednesday, by its National Coordinator, Comrade Emmanuel Onwubiko, said, “The excuses by the EFCC that its chief executive, Mr. Abdulrasheed Bawa was not in office when the court order was handed down on 27th November 2018 does not make sense.
“Are they trying to say the Bawa, who has by the way been part and parcel of the Commission since inception, was not aware of the order or did not receive any handover note?
“The truth is that the non-compliance with the November 2021 order for four good years is perceived in many quarters as true to the character of the EFCC and other law enforcement agencies. The EFCC is being accused of being unfortunately reduced to a tool for political witch-hunt and the disregard for the rule of law is a norm, not an exception to them.
“This hydra-headed monster of selective application of the law, depending on the political alignment and sometimes the region and religion of the person in question, will continue to hunt the agency until it turns a new leaf. We expect that the young man heading the EFCC shouldn’t continue the trajectory of reckless disobedience of court orders that his predecessors were notorious for.
“We, therefore, call on the IGP to enforce the law and enjoin the rest of the law enforcement agencies who are fond of exalting themselves above the laws of the land to learn from Bawa’s fate,” HURIWA warned.
A human rights lawyer, Festus Ogun in a statement said, “Indeed, the court has spoken loud and clear that impunity cannot have a place in this country.”
“The EFCC Chairman cannot continue to act as though he is above the law. In a democracy, orders of court are meant to be immediately obeyed, especially by public office holders who swore oaths to defend and uphold the Constitution. Our tottering democracy is endangered when court orders are disrespected.
Asking Bawa to apologize for his misconduct, Ogun noted that it wasn’t enough for him to file a notice of appeal “because merely filing an appeal does not automatically guarantee a stay of execution.”
“If what we practice is indeed a democracy, then, we must play by its rules. The only way to enjoy relative sanity is for the rule of law to reign supreme. Both the low and mighty must bow before the law. There must be consequences for this gross impunity with the hope that others will learn from this,” Ogun added.
The continued willful flouting of court orders by government officials and parastatals as well as the attitude of being above the law or that such laws doesn’t apply to them, just because you feel the judgement is a wrong one is now becoming more evident that some animals in this country have more than ever before, become more equal than others.