The alleged invasion of the Federal High Court Abuja by the personnel of the Directorate of State Security Service (DSSS) penultimate Friday has generated no little fury in the polity. Kehinde Osasona and Joshua Egbodo take a look.
DSS invades judges’ houses in Abuja
When in 2016 operatives of the Department of State Service between late Friday night and the early hours of Saturday simultaneously invaded the houses of two Justices of the Supreme Court – Justices Walter Onnoghen and Sylvester Ngwuta – as well as two judges of the Federal High Court, Justices Adeniyi Ademola and Nnamdi Dimgba, it generated no little uproar.
Justices Onnoghen, who was the second in rank and later became Chief Justice of Nigeria, and Justice Ngwuta were neighbours at the Judicial Officers’ Quarters in Abuja, while Justices Ademola and Dimgba lived next to each other at the Apo Legislative Quarters, Abuja.
DSS operatives surrounded the judicial officers’ houses for hours before they eventually broke in at about 1am on Saturday. It was learnt that after searching the houses, the security agents eventually took Justice Ademola away at about 5am.
Also, DSS arrested Justice Muazu Pindiga, who was the first chairman of the Rivers State Election Petition Tribunal, before he was changed midway into the hearing of the dispute arising from the 2015 governorship election in the state.
The DSS later gave reasons for the operation thus: “The Department of State Services (DSS) in the past few days has embarked on series of special sting operations involving some Judges of the Supreme, Appeal and High Courts.
“These operations were based on allegations of corruptions and other acts of professional misconduct by a few of the suspected Judges.
“The Service action is in line with its core mandate, as we have been monitoring the expensive and luxurious lifestyle of some of the Judges as well as complaints from the concerned public over judgment obtained fraudulently and on the basis amounts of money paid.
“The judges involved were invited, upon which due diligence was exhibited and their premises searched. The searches have uncovered huge raw cash of various denominations, local and foreign currencies, with real estate worth several millions of Naira and documents affirming unholy acts by these Judges.
“Meanwhile, some of them have made useful statements while a few have declined even with the glaring evidences that were found against them in terms of material cash, documents and property recovered pointing to their compromise”, according to its official, Abdullahi GARBA, who addressed the press.
Though invasion of high profile homes subsequently did not come to public light, the incident created bad blood between the Service and the judiciary. In fact, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onoghen later had a running battle that culminated in his suspension and subsequent retirement.
Then, there was a lull but not for long.
There was mild drama in a Federal High Court Abuja when about 15 operatives of the Department of State Services re-arrested Sahara Reporters publisher, Omoyele Sowore, and his co-defendant, Olawale Bakare, after the Friday’s proceedings. It seems the operatives of the DSS invaded the courtroom to effect the arrest.
The operatives in a bid to effect fresh arrest, a stampede occurred as Sowore and his supporters tried to resist the operatives of the DSS numbering about 15. The development disrupted the proceedings which Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu was conducting after Sowore’s case was adjourned. The judge was forced to suspend sitting directing that the rest of the cases on her list for the day should be adjourned.
Following the furore the drama generated, the DSS first denied that its personnel were responsible for the uproar in the courtroom. According to the agency’s spokesman, Peter Afunaya, its operatives were not involved in the desecration of the courtroom, saying it is a law abiding agency that takes pride in observing the rule of law.
Some three days later, the Presidency threw its weight behind the DSS following the uproarious condemnations that greeted the invasion of the court by the DSS to re-arrest the embattled Presidential candidate of the African Action Congress on Friday in Abuja.
The presidency said that the DSS acted under its constitutional powers and that it does not necessarily need the permission of the presidency in all cases to carry out its essential responsibilities that are laid down in the Nigerian Constitution – which was the foundation for the restoration of democracy in our country in 1999.
Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, stated that the Presidency noted some of the insinuations in the media about the arrest by the DSS of the agitator, Omoyele Sowore.
“Sowore called for a revolution to overthrow the democratically elected government of Nigeria. He did so on television, and from a privileged position as the owner of a widely read digital newspaper run from the United States of America.
“He founded an organisation, Revolution Now, to launch, in their own words, “Days of Rage”, with the publicised purpose of fomenting mass civil unrest and the elected administration’s overthrow.
“No government will allow anybody to openly call for destabilization in the country and do nothing. Mr. Sowore is no ordinary citizen expressing his views freely on social media and the internet.
“He was a presidential candidate himself, who ran – and lost – as the flag bearer of the African Action Congress (AAC) in the February 23 general elections.
The APC comes to its defense
The party said it would not be drawn into arguments over the powers of the Department of State Services (DSS) to arrest and re-arrest Sowore over his actions and utterances. The constitutional mandate of the DSS already addresses that.
“Also, the presidency has clarified that the DSS does not necessarily need the president’s permission in all cases to carry out its essential and constitutional responsibilities.
Again, whether Sowore flouted any of his bail conditions or staged the incident in court is another matter which the court and prosecuting agency should address.
“The APC, therefore, unequivocally rejects the inciting messages and criminal antics of some individuals and partisans who have embarked on a campaign of calumny against this administration and are calling for a forceful takeover of government.
“Our laws are clear on treason and Nigerians would expect decisive actions from our law enforcement agencies and government. Any attempt to truncate our democracy and threaten our collective peace and safety must and will be resisted using the full weight and instrumentalities of the law”, the APC said in a statement signed by its National Publicity Secretary, Lanre Issa-Onilu.
Sowore stage-managed drama- Coalition
However, the Convener of the Guidance for Democracy Initiative, Prince Danesi Mohmoh, who said he was speaking on behalf of some civil society organizations alleged that what took place in the court room on Friday was a drama plotted to mislead the media, thereby misinforming Nigerians.
“Watch the video keenly; the people inside the court room were not DSS operatives. I am, not speaking for them, but they were not DSS operatives. Sowore and his master, Femi Falana, know best what they planned in the court; the simple message was just to give Nigeria a bad name amongst committee on nations.
“We do not see any reason the media will be cajoled to misinform the public. I was at the court the same day, and my message there was clear, that the judiciary upholds only the constitution and jettison pressure from any political and tribal sentiment.”
He, however, urged the DSS and police to apprehend and prosecute those involved in the drama, saying “I am using this medium to call on the DSS to speedy the investigation on that video footage and those people perpetrated the act should be brought to book.
We did it- DSS
But the DSS swiftly rubbished the claims of the Convener of the Guidance for Democracy Initiative by issuing public to Justice Ojukwu, whose court was invaded.
In no uncertain terms the apology is a clear admittance it actually carried out the invasion and in some way washes it hands off the sycophantic claim by the Convener of the Guidance for Democracy Initiative that the invasion was staged-managed by Sowore and his counsel Femi Falana SAN.
Condemnation heats up
The Coalition for Whistleblowers Protection and Press Freedom (CWPPF) leapt into the fury by condemning the State Security Service (SSS) over its attempt to re-arrest the Sowore in a courtroom.
The coalition is an alliance of media and civil society organisations, including Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ), Sahara Reporters (SR), Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), The Cable and Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ).
The coalition called on President Muhammadu Buhari to punish the agents involved in the attack on the court as well as the agency’s leadership.
In a statement signed by Stephanie Adams, the group’s media officer on Saturday, the coalition said the failure of President Buhari and his government to take immediate and decisive action would put a permanent blemish on the administration’s human rights record.
The coalition described the action of the SSS operatives who invaded the court as an assault on the authority and independence of the judiciary.
It said prior to the release of Messrs Sowore and Olawale Bakare on Thursday, the SSS had refused to release the activists for months, despite orders for their release on bail issued by different judges of the Federal High Court.
It described the action of the agency as an unacceptable violation of the principles of the rule of law in a constitutional democracy.
The coalition called on the United Nations (UN), the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to investigate the human rights situation in Nigeria, warning that the country is rapidly descending into totalitarianism and tyranny.
The coalition said any delay by the international community in taking firm action to address the Nigerian situation could result in a violent conflict in Africa’s most populous nation, which would constitute a grave threat to international peace and security, particularly in the region.
The counsel to Sowore, Femi Falana, SAN known for his erudite interpretation of legal matters brought some dimensions into the issue. First he accused the SSS of not being truthful.
While debunking the claim by the SSS, Femi Falana, Mr Sowore’s lawyer, said not only did the SSS officials invade the court premises, causing the court to hurriedly end its activities, their leader also apologised to the judge.
“When I informed the court that fresh charges were being filed against our clients and that they could be re-arrested, the prosecution denied any such plan.
“As soon as the case was adjourned the SSS pounced on Sowore and caused a disruption of the proceedings of the court. Having taken over the court room vi et armis Justice Ojukwu hurriedly rose and asked the Registrar to adjourn all other cases. After the learned trial judge had risen for the day she summoned the heads of the prosecution and defence teams to her chambers.
“When the lead prosecutor, Dr Liman Hassan SAN denied knowledge of the invasion of her court she directed him to invite the head of the sss team in the court. When challenged to justify the invasion of the court the officer could not. He apologised to Justice Ojukwu on behalf of the SSS.
The judge then directed the officer to withdraw the SSS operatives from the court room. The directive was complied with as the operatives withdrew from the court room but rushed out to join their colleagues who had taken over the entire court house,” Mr Falana wrote.
Here are some of his arguments:
DSS desecrate court
However, the following facts underscore our insistence that the Service was solely responsible for the desecration of the hallowed chambers of the court:
By the advantage of information technology, the whole world has placed responsibility for the gangsteric desecration of the court on the SSS. The SSS cannot extricate itself from the abominable acts of 6th December, 2019.
“Though, ordinarily, officers of the Service do not wear any uniform, on the 6th day of December, some of them were in mufti, many were not only armed but also masked while others disguised in lawyer’s black and white suit. Regardless of the form of appearance, the officers of the Service inside Court No. 7 were identifiable by their roles and acts of seizing Sowore and pinning him down.
“It is an utter poor reasoning to say that Sowore’s supporters were also those bent on injuring him in order to arrest him. The argument of the Service in this respect is as unfortunate and pitiable as the earlier argument of the Service in respect of the Late Chief Gani Fawehinmi who was once accused of wanting to set ablaze his own house.
“If Sowore’s supporters subjected him to such brutalisation in the presence of sss operatives why were they not arrested for contravening the provisions of the Anti Torture Act, 2017? Or were the SSS operatives expecting the supporters of a defendant wanted by the State to kill him in their presence?
“Before submitting himself for arrest Sowore had rightly demanded for a warrant of arrest and detention order but the SSS operatives were unable to produce either.
DSS’ reason for re-arrest
In rationalizing the re-arrest of Sowore, which is denied in the same Press statement, the Service alleged that Sowore held meetings with some people. Assuming without conceding that Sowore held meetings with some people in Transcorp Hotel as alleged by the SSS, why did the Prosecution not inform the trial court that the defendant had breached his bail condition?
Claim of being law-abiding
“The SSS says it is a law abiding institution. But why did it refuse to comply with the order of Justice Taiwo to release Sowore? Why did the SSS threaten to report the judge to the NJC for granting bail to Sowore?
“Why did the SSS subject the order of Justice Ojukwu for the release of Sowore to its own approval by asking the sureties already verified by the judge to report themselves to the SSS? Why the SSS wait for the 24-hour ultimatum issued by the trial judge before releasing Sowore and Bakare?
“Incidentally, the current prosecutor, Dr Liman Hassan SAN was the counsel to the defendant in the case of FRN v Air Commodore Mohammed. In that case the order of Justice Nnamdi Dimgba for the release of the defendant on bail was flouted by the SSS. As if that was not enough, the SSS invaded the home of the judge on 8th October 2016 when the houses of judges accused of corruption were raided. Even though I have never appeared before Justice Dimgba I have always known him as a judge of impeccable integrity. So, I challenged the SSS for painting an incorruptible judge with the brush of shame. It was after my intervention that the NJC gave the judge a clean bill of health.
“Thereafter, the judge was compelled to withdraw from the case. The SSS thought that it had won but it was a phyrric victory. Thus, Justice John Tsoho (current Chief Judge of the federal high court) to whom the case was re assigned reiterated the orders of Justice Dimgba and proceeded to rule that trial would not commence in the case until the defendant was released from custody. It was at that stage that the SSS complied with the order of the federal high court.
“Finally, it is common knowledge that this country was ruled by military dictators for about three decades. On no occasion did security operatives invade court premises to arrest political activists inside a court room. Therefore, the bizarre harassment of courts cannot be tolerated under a democratically government that claims to operate under the rule of law.” Femi Falana, SAN.