The High Court of the Federal Capital Territory sitting in Abuja has delivered a landmark judgement that should be useful lesson to security agencies that employ arbitrary powers to intimidate hapless citizens on flimsy grounds.
Justice MM Dodo last week ruled against the Nigeria Police Force in a case involving the arrest in Ogun State of a centenerian and four others, and detaining them in Abuja for six months without preferring charges against them.
According to court records, the police arrested Mr Ishola Shodiya, and four others who had petitioned the Inspector General of Police about the alleged illegal activities of a named individual in Shefu Elelede village in Ibafo community in Ogun State. The others are Bamidele Alabi, Rasaq Saibana, Olufemi Fadipe, and Adeoye. The petition, made in March 2009, was apparently the source of their travails.
Instead of investigating the substance of the petition, the police arrested and threw them into detention. Without any means of livelihood in Abuja and no relations to provide their basic needs, the five survived by living off the goodwill of fellow inmates of the police cell where they were detained.
Their plight caught the attention of a legal practitioner, Mr Nnaemeka Ejiofor, who then petitioned the office of the Inspector General in October 2009, demanding their arraignment if they had committed any offence or be released. When no response to the petition was forthcoming, Mr Ejiofor took the matter to court, seeking the enforcement of the fundamental human rights of the detainees.
Justice Dodo ruled in favour of the four, and awarded them compensation of fifteen million naira to be paid by the police.
The experience of Mr Shodiya and others may not be unique, considering the documented widespread arbitrary arrests and detentions that the police are known for. But the judgement in their case demonstrates that the police and other security agencies cannot abridge citizens’ rights arbitrarily and with impunity. It also illustrates the need for such cases, and there are hundreds of them, to be brought to the public domain and the courts of justice for adjudication.
Arbitrary use of power, particularly by personnel of uniformed agencies, is a challenge that has to be addressed, both administratively and judicially. Given the frequency with which this happens in various parts of the country and involving virtually all the military and paramilitary services, there is need to redesign the codes of discipline of all of them to bring them in line with modern democratic practices.
The notion that the uniform confers on the wearer the privilege to bypass legal channels and abuse the civil rights of others without being called to account, is not only erroneous and misguided, it should be made clear that it can no longer be tolerated.
Not long ago, a senior Nigerian Air Force officer was ordered by a Lagos High Court to pay a hefty fine for abusing the human rights of a civilian, because she was alleged to have obstructed his convoy by not getting her car out of the way quickly enough, despite the blaring sirens.
This was not an isolated case; there are several others, and they give the services a bad name. It is possible that some of the officials involved in them do not have the authority of their principals or departments to behave the way they did; but because they acted while they were in uniform, and sometimes claiming to be on official duties, the public only sees the hand of the authorities, and place the blame on them.
In the case of Mr Shodiya and others, the policemen who took them from their abode in Ogun State and illegally detained them for so long in Abuja, must be acting on superior orders. Who gave the orders? Why was the office of the Inspector General reluctant or unwilling to act on this serious example of abuse of the rights of citizens by police personnel? How would suspects be taken from Ogun State and be taken over hundreds of kilometres to Abuja, without any provision for their upkeep being made? The Inspector General should thoroughly look into these issues and determine whether the NPF should not recover the judgement debt from the police personnel involved in this conduct, and take measures to discipline them to serve deterrent.