Ending era of disregard for court’s order

Lawyers: Undermining the judiciary’ll endanger democracy

TUNDE OYESINA writes that lawyers have frowned at the unending spate of disregard for court orders by agencies of government which has been undermining the rule of law and occasioned disrespect for the third arm of government

Some senior lawyers have expressed deep concerns over ways and manners the judiciary is being undermined by other organs of government stating that such act weakens the rule of law and human rights.


The lawyers spoke amidst similar concerns raised by the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, while declaring open the 2022 conference of the Nigerian Bar Association Section on Public Interest and Development Law (NBA-SPIDEL) in Abuja. Ariwoola, who was represented at the event by one of his colleagues at the Supreme Court, Justice Uwani Abba Aji, noted with dismay that politicians and particularly, the executive arm of government, have constantly interfered with the independence of the judiciary.

In recent times, happenings in the judiciary have shown that the third arm of government is being undermined by the other two arms of government. By the provisions of the Constitution, the three arms of government are to work independently, having had their powers separated. However, the reverse is the case as far as judiciary is concerned.


Undermining of the judiciary as seen in the last few years ranges from maltreatment of judges by security operatives to disobedience of court orders by other agencies of government.


Various reports have shown that judicial immunity has always been more at risk under civilian rule than its opposite, military dictatorship. This is ironical because the received wisdom and expectation is that the reverse ought to be the case; thus justifying the dictum of Hon. Justice Katsina-Alu, JCA (as he then was) in EMECHETA vs. OGUERI, supra, of “the need to protect judges from wanton attack“.


While this phenomenon is always regrettable in a democracy, it is not altogether surprising. This is because in their infamous desperation which has become the hallmark of Nigerian politicians and their supporters, they typically brook no opposition and will not allow anything (including the law) to get in their way.

Instances of disregard for court orders

Chief among the agencies often found wanting in the disobedience of court orders is the Department of State Services (DSS) established on June 5, 1986. Before becoming the State Security Service, it was known as National Security Organization.

The Security Service is also a department of the Ministry of Defence. One of the popular cases of such abuse is that of the leader of the Shiite Islamic Movement of Nigeria. The incident started after an altercation between members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria and soldiers escorting the then Nigeria Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai.

The incident led to a reported death of over 300 Shiite members . After the incident, El-Zakzaky and his wife, Zeenah, were detained on charges of murder. The Kaduna state government stated that during the incident that led to the massacre, a soldier, Corporal Yakuku Dankaduna, was killed.


However, in 2016, a Federal High Court ordered the release of El-Zakzaky and his wife. The court also ordered the payment of N50 million as damages to the Shiite leader and his wife for ‘violating their rights by being held in unlawful custody’. This pronouncement was made by Justice Gabriel Kolawole.

The DSS however failed to obey this court order, saying El-Zakzaky and his wife were kept in custody for their safety. It was not until after about five years of illegal detention that El- Zakzaky and his wife were acquitted and discharged by the Kaduna State High Court on 28th of July, 2021.

Another instance of disobedience of court orders was when Omoyele Sowore, a presidential candidate and activist, was held in detention despite a November 6, 2019 order by an Abuja Federal High Court that the DSS should promptly release him on bail.

The detention led to public outcry and condemnations. The DSS had charged Sowore for treason after planning a protest tagged “#RevolutionNow”. The police said it already deemed the planned protest an act of terrorism . Sowore and other organisers of ‘RevolutionNow’ movement also condemned the federal authorities for allegedly lying against them that the protest would be violent. In Sowore’s case, the court had threatened to imprison the DSS Director General.


In a “notice of disobedience to order of court” issued by the court and addressed to the DSS DG, the Federal High Court directed the boss of the secret police to comply with its directive or face grave consequences, which includes “commitment to prison”.

Amnesty International also reported that the Nigeria Attorney General defied an Abuja Federal High Court order to hand over the soldiers who were allegedly responsible for killing three policemen in Taraba state in August 2019.

Another prominent case of such disobedience had to do with the former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, who was accused of diversion of $2.1 billion and illegal possession of fire arms. Although Dasuki was granted bail on at least six different occasions by various courts, the Nigerian government persistently refused to comply with the court orders.

After over four years in detention, Dasuki was eventually released by the Buhari’s administration. The court of appeal in Abuja, noted that the DSS and its Director-General acted outside their constitutional powers on the long period of the detention of a Nigerian citizen and imposed a fine of N5 million on them to be paid to Dasuki as compensation for breach of his fundamental right.

A former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Tanko Mohammed, in 2019, had vowed to resist disobedience of court orders, although, the situation continues without any sign of dwindling. A report by Amnesty international noted that the Buhari’s administration has disobeyed 40 court orders as at November, 2019. The spate of disobedience of court has continued unabated leading to tensions over the respect for democracy in the country.

Attack on judicial officers

Aside disobedience of court orders, wanton attacks on judicial officers have equally been experienced in this country. In October 2016, the homes of no less than seven judges were raided by armed agents of the State on the ground of looking for evidence of official corruption and economic crimes.

In 2019, another assault was reenacted when the then Chief Justice of the Federation, Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen (rtd), was first sus-pended by President Buhari on the strength of an ex-parte order made by the Code of Conduct Tribunal, after which he was charged before the same Tribunal for what was described as ‘trumped-up charges’. He was subsequently forced into premature retirement from his exalted position as CJN.


In a similar vein, Justice Hyeladira Nganjiwa of the Federal High Court was similarly indicted and charged to court by the EFCC for corruption and was only reprieved by the Court of Appeal on the ground that, as a serving judicial officer, he enjoyed immunity from all infractions, except crimes allegedly committed by him outside the scope of his official duties and functions.

The court held that he could only be prosecuted for official corruption by law enforcement agencies if he had first been stripped of “the toga of judicial immunity” by the body constitutionally charged with exercising disciplinary control over them. Another infamous attack on the Judiciary was reportedly perpetrated by thugs led by a former Governor- elect of Ekiti State in September 2014.

The presiding Judge, Justice Adeyeye Ogunyemi, was reportedly physically assaulted and brutalised in the attack. This followed a similar attack a week earlier on another judge in the state, Justice Olusegun Ogunyemi, by persons reportedly led by thugs loyal to the same Governor-elect.

That judicial officer was reportedly so traumatised that he was forced to flee the state for his dear life. Just last year, specifically, on Friday, 29th October, 2021, the official residence of the now retired Supreme Court Justice, Justice Mary Odili, was attacked by some armed faceless men believed to be security agents in a gestapo-like manner.

It was believed their mission was to either kill or maim the judge under the thin guise of executing a search warrant at an obviously wrong address, even when the place of the supposed search was clearly stated on the Magistrate Court-endorsed search warrant. There was nothing similar between No 9, Imo Crescent which was endorsed on the search warrant and No 7, Imo River Street, Maitama (Justice Odili’s residence).

CJN, lawyers fume

In the meantime, condemnations have being trailing the unending spate of disregard for court orders, among other acts of undermining the judiciary. Speaking on the issue, the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, cautioned politicians and the executive arm of government to refrain from acts that may undermine the judiciary and endanger the nation’s democracy. The CJN spoke while declaring open the 2022 conference of the Nigerian Bar Association Section on Public Interest and Development Law (NBA-SPIDEL), in Abuja.

Ariwoola said: “This conference is timely and the theme fitly reflective of the season and time we are in. The electoral process has been set in motion and the 2023 elections are just a stone’s throw away. “We are fully aware that it is in a period like this that the executives or those seeking and aspiring for political positions will not tread on the path of the rule of law, the Electoral Act and the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, but will rather act on their whims and fancies to clinch to power.

“Interestingly, the judiciary shall be in the centre stage of this to equipoise between the electoral players and further catalyze and administer justice, fairness and equity in the courts where their petitions shall flow. “Without equivocation, the past and present political regimes in Nigeria have not ceased to intervene and interfere in the premises of the judiciary and have almost diluted its supposed sanctity, whittled down its powers and authority and tampered with its independence and autonomy through various ways and means.

“The underminers of judicial authority must understand that since the three arms of government, though separated, but fitly fused, are joined together to bring out the best in any government or democracy, undermining one arm or the other is to spell doom and anarchy for that government, even to the detriment of the undermines”.

In his welcome address, Monday Ubani, NBA-SPIDEL chairman, said the conference theme, ‘The undermining of judicial authority in democracy’, was chosen with care to highlight the fact that other arms of government have not treated the judiciary well in terms of obeying court judgments, provision of basic facilities for efficient discharge of judicial functions, and taking care of the welfare of the judges.

“The judiciary has remained a poor cousin, a weeping and aggrieved sibling in a relationship of three brothers of equal age and status. This is very unfair,” he added. In a similar vein, Human rights crusaders, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN) and Mr. Joseph Otteh, have blamed lawyers, judges and politicians for undermining the judiciary.

They spoke on the topic: “Consequences of undermining the Judiciary under democracy” during the 62nd Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) recently held in Lagos. Speaking at a breakout session of the NBA Section on Public In-  and Development Law (NBASPIDEL), Falana said the courts have not allowed lawyers to represent their clients confidently and judiciously. He alleged that the courts give attention to political cases than cases of thousands languishing in detention, adding that only cases of the rich and politicians are attended to speedily.

An instance, according to him, was the case involving the deposed Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi. He said Sanusi’s case over deposition was filed, processed, assigned to a judge, heard and judgement given same day. He noted that it is not possible for a common man to achieve similar feat in the country. Falana urged judges to learn to manage cases before them, saying the procedure where cases of senior lawyers are heard first in court must stop.

“Our judges must learn to manage their courts, if we must ensure speedy dispensation of cases. I see no reason the provision in the Legal Practitioners Act that allow cases of senior lawyers to be heard first in court must continue. “We must stop it and adopt more efficient ways of freeing the court docket”, he said. On his part, Ozekhome said: “Nigeria is in quagmire, judges are afraid to deliver judgement because government is on their neck”.

This factor, he observed, is one of the consequences of undermining the judiciary. He, however, said that the judges must be given independence. For Otteh, the Executive Director, Access to Justice, a host of factors limit the functionality of judges in the court. He identified overcrowded dockets and escalating cost of accessing justice as major barriers.

He said the courts are not responsive enough to the issue of people in terms of having access to the judicial process. “We are still paper driven, which is labour intensive and we are not prepared enough for another pandemic”, he said. Otteh frowned at delays trailing cases, attributing the snag to transfer of judges without adequate preparations.

“Our judges really fail to exercise the courage they need to display when they face challenges like impunity from the state. If the judi-  ciary cannot faithfully exercise its authority, it would be undermined”, Otteh added.

On his part, Dr. Uju Agomoh, Director PRAWA, wants the judiciary to use its powers to stop overcrowding the custodial centres in the country. She was particular about controlling the rate of reception into custody and duration inmates spend in prison. She also want lawyers to embrace the legal instrument for prison reforms in their legal practice to overcome the challenges besetting the correctional service.

A public affairs analyst, Awosusi Kehinde, while weighing-in on the issue noted that the country is drifting towards dictatorship and the only way out was for those who are responsible for such decisions to be held responsible. He opined that there is a need for judicial activism if the menace will be curbed. Kehinde said: “There is a need for judicial activism such as punishing heads of agencies that flout court orders.

The disrespect for courts does not naturally portray the country well, and does not also portray them as a respecter of human rights, we are fast drifting to the era of authoritarianism, should things continue like that”. In his own reaction, Deputy Director of Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), Kolawole Oluwadare, noted that disobeying court orders is not in the interest of Nigerians. He urged judges to be decisive in holding the sanctity of the judiciary.

“Disobedience of court orders is not in the interest of Nigerians, whether as regards human rights, socio-economic rights or other rights as it were, you would understand that the 1999 constitution has concept of separation of powers and checks and balances.

When government decides to disobey the court, they are not only disobeying the constitution but also disrupting the balance of a constitutional democracy”, Oluwadare said. He noted further that the judiciary must rise up to the occasion by ensuring that there are punishments for disobeying court orders.


According to him, this will help in serving as a deterrent to others. “Judgment of the court must be obeyed, if the law is continually disobeyed, it means that the essence of the law has been lost”, he stated.





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