ABUJA, NIGERIA (PUNCH)--The campaign against impunity and intolerance by the media, civil society, the general populace and the international community recorded a modest, but significant victory on Tuesday as the Federal Government bowed to sustained public pressure to release detainees in wrongful custody.
The Federal Government, which had rejected entreaties to release the publisher of Sahara Reporters, Omoyele Sowore, and an ex-National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki (retd.) after both men were granted bail by the courts, made a U-turn on Tuesday and ordered the release of the two men.
The decision of the government, which was made public late evening on Tuesday came 13 days after PUNCH published a hard-hitting editorial criticising the human rights record of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) and his government’s penchant for ignoring court orders. The editorial had also informed the public of PUNCH’s decision to prefix the president’s name with his army rank as a military dictator in the 80s and to refer to his administration as a regime pending the time that the President and the regime would purge themselves of their contempt for the rule of law.
The Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), in a statement in Abuja, disclosed that he had directed the Department of State Services to release Sowore and Dasuki.
Sowore was released at about 7.20pm on Tuesday. The activist, who wore a pink shirt, was received by some of his supporters outside the DSS headquarters. He stopped briefly to speak to reporters.
He, however, had a change of heart based on the advice by one of his associates, who told him not to grant an interview.
The activist briefly stepped out of a red Toyota Camry car as if he wanted to grant an interview, but later said, “I wish Nigerians Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.”
When he got into the vehicle, he raised a clenched fist and shouted #RevolutionNow, before the vehicle departed the DSS headquarters.
Confirming the ex-NSA’s release, his lead counsel, Mr Ahmed Raji (SAN), told The PUNCH at 8.11pm on Tuesday that “he (Dasuki) was released some moments ago.”
A close associate of Dasuki confirmed to The PUNCH that the former NSA arrived in his Abuja home to the embrace of friends and family members at 9:30pm. “He has arrived home. He came in a black Range Rover,” he said.
The associate said although Dasuki was released about 8:11pm, he was was busy with “some documentations.”
While Dasuki had been in the custody of the DSS since December 2015, Sowore was rearrested on December 6, barely 24 hours after he was released from custody that lasted over four months. Both men were kept in detention despite court orders ordering their release.
The PUNCH editorial ignited a massive storm of a controversy that lasted several days. Tthe editorial titled, ‘Buhari’s lawlessness: Our stand,’ published on December 11, berated the regime for ignoring court orders on the release of detainees, including Sowore, Dasuki, the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, Ibrahim el-Zakzakky, and his wife, Zeenah.
The newspaper said Buhari, who ruled the country as a military head of state from 1983 to 1985, had failed to “wean himself off his military antecedents.” It stated that the “regime’s actions and assaults on the courts, disobedience of court orders and arbitrary detention of citizens reflect its true character of the martial culture.”
Rather than admitting its shortcomings, the Presidency in two conflicting statements, a few hours after the editorial was published, expressed reservations about it.
While the President’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr Femi Adesina, said PUNCH decision was an indication that the country did not lack freedom of speech, Buhari’s Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Mr Garba Shehu, accused the newspaper of “personal hatred and animus” towards the President.
But many Nigerians at home and abroad commended the newspaper for the editorial and lauded its symbolic protest against the regime. Lawyers who spoke to our correspondents also pooh-poohed claims in some quarters that the newspaper’s position was unconstitutional.
Nigerian Bar Association and lawyers, including Femi Falana, SAN; Mr Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN, and Abubakar Sani, backed PUNCH, saying the newspaper had not violated any law by referring to Buhari as a retired major general.
Adegboruwa had said, “The organisation (PUNCH) has had that track record of always standing up to illegality, impunity and lawlessness and today, Nigerians have been celebrating the courage of PUNCH newspapers.”
But the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Prof Itse Sagay, and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Dr Alex Izinyon, had disagreed with PUNCH. While Sagay said PUNCH’s decision was disgraceful, Izinyon stated that the editorial was unconstitutional.
Despite the denials of the Presidency, the editorial had impacted on the polity in the last three weeks as it gingered Nigerians dissatisfied with the state of lawlessness that had characterised the Buhari regime to speak up.
For instance, the Sultan of Sokoto and President-General of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar, at the 2019 fourth-quarter meeting of the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council in Abuja on December 12, had said, “If you are served a court order and you deliberately refuse to obey it because you are a governor, President or any influential person, then you are setting a dangerous precedent.”
On Friday last week, six United States of America’s senators wrote the Attorney General of the Federation over detention of Sowore despite court orders.
A follow up editorial by the newspaper on Monday also reiterated the newspaper’s stance. The second front page editorial warned that the country’s gradual descent into autocracy and the regime’s growing disregard for court orders could only be halted if the president retraced his steps.
I have directed DSS to release Sowore, Dasuki – Malami
But Malami in his statement said that the Buhari regime was determined to respect the courts and promote the rule of law.
His statement reads, “The office of the Honourable Attorney General of the Federation has reviewed the pending criminal charges against the duo of Col. Sambo Dasuki (retd.) and Omoyele Sowore.
“Whilst the Federal High Court has exercised its discretion in granting bail to the defendants in respect of the charges against them, I am also not unmindful of the right of the complainant/prosecution to appeal or further challenge the grant of bail by the court having regard to extant legal provisions, particularly Section 169 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015.
“However, my office has chosen to comply with the court orders while considering the pursuit of its rights of appeal and/or review of the order relating to the bail as granted or varied by the courts.
“In line with the provisions of Section 150(1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), and in compliance with the bail granted to Col. Sambo Dasuki (retd.) (as recently varied by the Court of Appeal) and the bail granted to Omoyele Sowore, I have directed the State Security Service to comply with the order granting bail to the defendants and effect their release.
“The two defendants are enjoined to observe the terms of their bail and refrain from engaging in any act that is inimical to public peace and national security as well as their ongoing trial, which will run its course in accordance with the laws of the land.”
Disobedience of court orders
Sowore was arrested on August 3, 2019 in Lagos for calling for a form of social protest called the #RevolutionNow protest, which the Federal Government interpreted to be a call for an overthrow of the Buhari regime. His co-defendant, Olawale Bakare, was later arrested in Osogbo, the Osun State capital.
A judge of the Federal High Court in Abuja, Justice Taiwo Taiwo, had earlier in September ordered Sowore’s release from custody after the expiration of the 45 days period granted the security agency to keep him in custody. The DSS refused to comply with the order.
The agency had also snubbed court’s bail granted to both Sowore and Bakare by Justice Ojukwu after they were arraigned before the judge.
But following the 24-hour ultimatum issued to the DSS by the judge on December 5, the two men were released from custody, but only for the operatives of the agency to invade the court on December 6, to rearrest Sowore. The armed security agents who invaded the court disrupted proceedings and caused pandemonium within the court. During the court invasion the judge fled her court and lawyers scrambled for safety.
The Dasuki conundrum
On September 1, 2015, Justice Adeniyi Ademola who was then of the Federal High Court in Abuja granted the former NSA bail on self-recognition shortly after he pleaded not guilty to the charges of illegal possession of firearms, and money laundering, among others.
On December 18, 2015 Justice Baba Yusuf of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory in Maitama, Abuja, granted bail in the sum of N250m with one surety to Dasuki, who was being prosecuted on charges relating to the diversion of funds meant for procurement of arms needed to fight insurgency in the North-East.
On December 21, 2015 Justice Peter Affen of the same FCT High Court also granted bail to him and his co-defendants with respect to another set of 22 counts of misappropriation of about N13bn in the sum of N250m with two sureties in like sum.
DSS operatives on December 29, 2015, re-arrested and took Dasuki into custody shortly after he was released from Kuje Prison in Abuja on meeting the bail conditions imposed on him by the courts.
Displeased with his continued detention in violation of the court orders, Dasuki’s legal team approached the ECOWAS Court of Justice, to seek redress on behalf of the ex-NSA.
The regional court on October 4, 2016, ordered Dasuki’s unconditional release from illegal custody and awarded N15m damages in his favour and against the Federal Government.
When the orders were not complied with, the ex-NSA also filed a fundamental rights enforcement suit before Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu of the Federal High Court in Abuja.
In her judgment delivered on July 2, 2018, the judge granted fresh bail in the sum of N200m with two sureties.
Following an appeal by Dasuki, the Court of Appeal on June 13, 2019 reduced the bail conditions imposed on him by Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu of the Federal High Court’s July 2, 2018 judgment.
The lead judgment, delivered by Justice Tinuade Akomolafe-Wilson, had reduced the bail sum from N200m to N100m, and also cancelled the condition that he must pay N100m to the account of the Federal High Court which would be retrievable only after the completion of the cases against hi.
Also cancelled was the Federal High Court’s condition that Dasuki’s sureties must submit evidence of tax payments for the years 2015, 2016 and 2017.
The appellate court also awarded N5m damages against the Federal Government for the unlawful detention of the ex-NSA, who has been in the custody Department of State Services since December 29, 2015, despite a series of court orders directing his release.
Following a further application for the variation of the bail conditions, another three-man panel of the Court of Appeal, on November 22, 2019, cancelled the condition that Dasuki must produce a Grade Level 16 civil servant with landed asset worth N100m within the Federal Capital Territory.
In the lead judgment delivered by Justice Stephen Adah, the court held the it was wrong for courts to make the presentation of civil servants sureties for bail.
How Malami reversed himself on Sowore’s release
Meanwhile, the directive by the AGF for the release of Sowore and Dasuki came barely eight days after he said he had no power to issue such directive to the DSS to release the Sahara Reporters publisher from custody without recourse to court.
The AGF was, in the statement by his spokesperson, Dr Umar Gwandu, on December 16, reacting to the letter by Sowore’s lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), sent to the AGF’s office to demand the activist’s release.
Falana’s letter, dated December 13, had followed the announcement by the AGF’s office that it had taken over the prosecution of the Sahara Reporters publisher and his fellow detainee Olawale Bakare from the DSS.
The release of the two men generated lot of reactions on Tuesday.The Arewa Consultative Forum said it commended the decision of the Federal Government to release Dasuki and Sowore.
The ACF stated this in a statement in Kaduna by its National Publicity Secretary, Alhaji Muhammad Ibrahim-Biu. The ACF called on those released to comply with their bail conditions.
On his part, the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Rev. Samson Ayokunle, in a statement, described the Federal Government’s action as “a Christmas gift to the populace.” A cross-section of Nigerians on social media also commended the move.
But the Minority Leader of the Senate, Enyinnaya Abaribe, in a statement by his media adviser, Uchenna Awom, urged the Presidency to release other detainees that the courts had granted bail.
The Peoples Democratic Party, in a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Kola Ologbondiyan, said Buhari ordered the release of Sowore and Dasuki because of national and international pressure.
Sowore’s lawyer, Falana; Chief Mike Ozekhome,SAN, and other lawyers also commented on Sowore and Dasuki’s release.
Falana said, “We call on the Federal Government to release other political detainees and criminal suspects in line with valid and subsisting orders of courts.
“In particular, we request the Federal Government to liaise with the Kaduna State Government to withdraw the charge filed against Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky and his wife, Mrs Zeinat Elzakzaky, who have been detained since December 14, 2015.”
On his part, Ozekhome said, “I am happy the government has finally realised its faux pas and is seeing the same light which I saw since 2015, when I kicked against the illegal incarceration of Dasuki.It is never too late to take corrective measures and make amends.”
A former 2nd Vice President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mr Monday Ubani, said the release of the two men was in compliance with a series of court orders which the government had always breached.
The immediate past President of the Committee for Defence of Human Rights, Mr Malachy Ugwummadu, said the release of the two men came too late.
He stated, “It is coming too late, too little in the sense that nothing precluded the same Federal Government and the AGF from directing the same releases soon after the express orders of courts.
“Recall that the orders sought to be obeyed now have been issued several months and weeks ago, depending on the case. This is a damage control effort that has very little impact because of the profound damage that has been occasioned by the indiscretion of this government and the presently established tradition of disobedience of court orders.”
The Ekiti State Governor, Dr Kayode Fayemi, in a statement by his Chief Press Secretary, Yinka Oyebode, hailed Buhari for releasing Sowore and Dasuki.
John Alechenu, Ade Adesomoju, Sunday Aborisade, Adelani Adepegba, Success Nwogu and Godwin Isenyo