By Ehichioya Ezomon
In an uncanny sense of exhilaration, but with deep concerns for the health of Nigeria’s polity, I was hoping that the Department of State Services (DSS) would “mess” with Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu of the Federal High Court, Abuja.
That was on Thursday, December 5, 2019, when the judge ordered that Omoyele Sowore (and Olawale Bakare) be freed within 24 hours, topping the directive with a fine of N100,000.
A proverb of the Esan people in Edo State says, “It’s not on its own volition that the palm kernel produces oil.” And as the Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulopo-Kuti, would intone, “khaki no bi leather.”
The Justice Ojukwu order wasn’t one for the DSS to forum-shop for interpretation. It’s absolute, decisive, distinct, explicit and obvious, and pregnant with dire payback. Pronto, the DSS released Sowore and Bakare, and also paid the fine.
Sowore, publisher of online Sahara Reporters and a presidential candidate in the 2019 general election, was arrested on August 3, 2019, two days to the “#DaysofRage” he had called for August 5, to advance his #RevolutionIsNow protests.
He was charged with treasonable felony, for allegedly attempting, in the mode of the recent Sudanese revolution, to bring down the government of President Muhammadu Buhari.
Thursday, December 5, marked 125 days that Sowore had spent in detention, exceeding the 45 days the court had allowed, and within the period, a couple of courts had granted him bail, which the DSS had spurned.
It had been excuses from the DSS: It’s either the defendant hadn’t met his bail bond; his sureties didn’t show up to pick him; or they didn’t submit themselves for vetting: all in attempts to subvert the court orders, and the rule of law.
A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and rights activist, Mr. Femi Falana, who’s Sowore’s lawyer, said that at the end of August 2019, he had compiled a list containing 32 court orders disobeyed by the Nigerian government.
In an interview, Falana said: “It doesn’t lie in the mouth of an attorney general or the president of a country to choose and pick which orders of court to obey. When you do that, you are reducing the status of the country to a banana republic.”
This was the situation on December 5 when the DSS came before Justice Ojukwu, and spun another alibi on why it couldn’t release Sowore: It prayed the court for an order to remind him at the Correctional Centre (Prison) in Lagos.
Rightly, the request, on the back of prior order the DSS ignored, touched a raw nerve in the judge, who ruled univocally, that Sowore be released within 24 hours, and with proof of compliance.
Considering previous disobedience to court orders, I had looked forward to the DSS, headed by Mr. Yusuf Bichi, conjuring a fresh excuse to shun the directive. But that wasn’t to be, as it had complied with the court order.
Then came Friday, December 6, and the prosecution and defence lawyers confirmed the DSS compliance, prompting Justice Ojukwu to praise the service, saying, “it was obvious they had demonstrated their commitment to the rule of law.”
To the judge: “No one is above the law. Those called to govern citizens, in the discharge of what is considered to be their statutory duties, must at all times conform with the rule of law. That is the path to greatness. The DSS has earned themselves the respect of the Nigerian citizens and all the arms of government.”
But unknown to Justice Ojukwu, who had adjourned the trial to the 11th, 12th and 13th of February 2020, for definite hearing, the DSS had yet an ace to play, swooping on the court, to re-arrest Sowore and Bakare for undisclosed “fresh charges.”
There’s pandemonium, as it became a tug-of-war between the DSS operatives and supporters to have custody of Sowore, who alleged an attempt on his life in a “choke-hold” by the operatives.
With the sounds of cocking guns, and Sowore supporters daring the operatives to “shoot,” the judge, lawyers and officials fled the court to avoid collateral fatalities from stray bullets.
Save the resistance from their supporters, and intervention by Mr. Falana, the DSS operatives were prepared to drag Sowore and Bakare from the court premises they had thus desecrated.
Falana had to chaperon them from the hallowed grounds, and out of the entrance gate, from where an operative, behind the wheel of Falana’s car, drove the defendants to the secret police office.
The DSS melodrama has willy nilly firmed the belief that the Buhari government is intolerant of opposing views, and is out to silence its critics by “unlawful” arrest, detention, arraignment, and flouting of court orders to free them.
Or is the government not aware of the antics of the DSS, whose Director General, Mr. Bichi, and his operatives are acting in the name of the State, and President Buhari’s?
Officials of government regularly blame the global community, and international organisations, “for distorting and/or spreading false news about happenings in Nigeria.”
Below are excerpts from some of these bodies on the Sowore saga: The Amnesty International has declared Sowore and Bakare, and a journalist, Agba Jalingo, as “prisoners of conscience.”
“When we see cases of injustice like this, it’s important to bring the world’s attention to it,” said the organisation’s Nigeria Director, Osai Ojigho, who told the CNN “it’s important that the world stands to demand” unconditional release of the detainees.
Similarly, The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and prominent figures, including Amal Clooney, co-president of the Clooney Foundation for Justice, have condemned Sowore’s arrest and continued detention.
“It is outrageous that Nigeria continues to imprison a journalist and presidential candidate after a court has ordered his release,” Clooney said, adding that, “TrialWatch will continue to monitor Mr. Sowore’s trial and calls on the authorities to implement the court’s order as soon as possible.”
This was before the Friday, December 6 “show of shame” inside the Federal High Court in Abuja. Will the government deny the social media live-streamed incident, and label it as a propaganda piece by outside conspirators?
The government maybe treating the Sowore matter as a flash in the pan, juxtaposed with the Col. Sambo Dasuki and Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky years-long cases and incarceration. But it’s a little excreta that soils the anus!
It’s time to halt the DSS escapades, before they did more damage to the image of President Buhari and his government, which should realise that disobedience to court orders destroys the foundation upon which the rule of law and democracy rest.
* Mr. Ezomon, Journalist and Media Consultant, writes from Lagos, Nigeria.