© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
Of detentions without trial
By Simon Kolawole
A week ago, Mr Femi Falana, the human rights lawyer, raised the alarm that the Nigerian Navy had been holding 15 Nigerian citizens captive without trial since September 2018. Worse still, one of them got a court order to be released from illegal detention but the naval authorities have ignored it — which, to be fair, has been a consistent behaviour of government institutions in recent times. Time after time, Nigerians are being detained irrespective of court orders, under the nebulous excuse of “investigation is still going on” and “state security” — in absolute disregard for the rule of law. We have no way of knowing how many Nigerians are currently in detention and for how long.
In the military era, we had the obnoxious Decree No. 2 under which citizens were detained indefinitely and incommunicado. The decree reigned for decades until Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar repealed it in the dying days of his administration in May 1999. Why did he repeal the decree before handing over power to President Olusegun Obasanjo? Every law made by the military automatically becomes an Act of Parliament in a democracy, except it is repealed. The incoming National Assembly could repeal the law but it was going to be too risky to allow the draconian legislation to be passed on to a democratic government. The new administration might be tempted to retain it!
Now that we are in a democracy, you would think it should not even be a matter for debate that the laws should be followed and court processes respected by the security agencies. Vice Admiral Ibok-Ete Ekwe Ibas, the chief of naval staff, is said to have personal issues with two of the detainees who are naval officers — Navy Captain Dada Labinjo and Lt. Commander Sherifat Ibe Lambert (also known as Mrs Bola Labinjo). Their families, doctors and lawyers have no access to them. Thirteen others are also in detention along with the Labinjos for an undisclosed offence — in a democracy!
I know one of the detainees and I am aware of some details of the incarceration, particularly the fact that they are being held incommunicado and indefinitely. I was very glad that Falana issued a press statement to alert the world to what is happening in Nigeria. The lawyer (who himself was a serial victim of Decree No. 2 decades ago) said that when they were arrested, they were immediately dumped in a military detention facility at Apapa, Lagos. To legalise the arrest and detention, the naval authorities obtained a remand warrant from a magistrate court in Apapa. This warrant has an expiry date but that means absolutely nothing to the naval authorities.
After three months of incarceration without any criminal charges filed against the detainees, the magistrate court reviewed their case on January 7, 2019, and ordered the naval authorities to immediately release them from illegal custody, Falana said in the statement. Not only did the authorities disobey the second court order, the Chief of Naval Staff was said to have ordered that they be transferred to another military detention facility in Abuja. Mrs Labinjo filed for the enforcement of her fundamental right to personal liberty at the Federal High Court and the court directed the Navy to release her. Again, the Navy ignored the court.
As Falana has pointed out several times, civilians are not subject to service law under which the naval authorities have continued to hold the victims in military detention facilities. So while the Navy can defend detaining the Labinjos at all, it cannot explain why civilians are being held. Ibas can also not logically explain why the detainees have been denied access to their family members, medical doctors and lawyers. Mrs Labinjo lost her mother last month and you can bet that she has not yet been informed. Nobody in the family has access to her. The old woman did not see her daughter for months, and the daughter could not pay her last respects at the burial as well.
Falana further said: “As the prolonged incarceration of the detainees cannot be justified under the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended or the Armed Forces Act, they should be released from custody or arraigned before a competent court of law if there is reasonable suspicion that they have committed any criminal offence whatsoever. However, to curb the growing culture of official impunity in the country we are compelled to call on the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami SAN to charge the naval personnel responsible for the violations of the fundamental rights of the detainees with contempt of court and acts of torture under the Criminal Code Act and the Anti Torture Act.”
My biggest headache is: why would they be detained for so long without any charges? Even if they committed murder — which is probably the most grievous crime in the law — why not charge them to court? Why hold them indefinitely and incommunicado? Why deny them access to their doctors? Why prevent them from accessing their lawyers? Is this an acceptable behaviour of any institution in a democratic setting? A journalist that was released after spending two years in DSS detention came out to say he saw inmates who had been in detention for seven years. In a democracy! Only God knows the fate of these detainees. No matter their offences, they deserve their day in court.
The case of the Labinjos has further reinforced my stand that the military should never rule Nigeria again. In recent times, there has been a lot of buzz on social media for the return of military rule, particularly after what happened in Sudan. There is this excitement that, as in the past, the military would come and “rescue” us from the civilians who are “misruling” the country. I have warned those who have ears: be careful what you wish for. One of the most amazing facts of life is our ability to get over the memory of pain. Things that once hurt us can still appeal to us when the pains have subsided. That would be the only reason why anybody who has witnessed military rule in Nigeria would ever wish for a return to the era of the jackboots. Please count me out.
If any segment of Nigeria should wish for military rule, it shouldn’t be the media. The civil society and the media are usually the first casualties. These soldiers do not believe in civil liberties. Freedom means nothing to them. Truth is not a defence when they come for you. I still remember, with pains, the arrest and detention of the late Mr Godwin Agbroko, then editor of the TheWeek magazine, in December 1996 by the military authorities over a story that alleged a dispute between Lt. Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi, then chief of army staff, and Col. Yakubu Mu’azu, who was commander of Brigade of Guards. Agbroko was arrested and detained in a military underground cell for five months. He did not see sunlight for one day until his release! Yet the story was not false.
I read some ridiculous argument on Twitter last week that somebody was equal to Chief Gani Fawehinmi because he too was advocating for the masses on social media. Those who were old enough under military rule and witnessed the activism of Fawehinmi would never say such a thing. Fawehinmi was arrested and detained incommunicado by the Babangida and Abacha military governments probably a million times — because of his activism. Anybody who wants to compare himself with Fawehinmi should first go and spend one week in Gashua prisons, sleeping on the bare floor in burning heat, in solitary confinement. Then we can begin to think of doing the comparison.
It is quite tragic that some people are beginning to see the military as a better option. Democracy, no matter how flawed, is the way forward. There are inbuilt mechanisms that can strengthen its practice, although it takes time. People say democracy is a journey, not a destination. The flaws of democracy and our current pains should never in any way make military rule more attractive to us. I find it very disturbing that the navy is behaving badly despite court orders — as pointed out by Falana — but the other side of the coin is: if they can do this in a democracy, what hope do we have under military rule? If you think the frying pan is hot, wait until you slip into the fire.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
Mr. Ibrahim Magu, acting chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), dropped a heavy accusation on Wednesday which might have escaped the attention of most Nigerians: that some governors promote insecurity in their states in order to inflate their security votes. “We have also seen evidence of theft of public resources by some state governors – cashing on the insecurity in their states,” Magu said. Believe it or not, that is the truth. When kidnapping started in 2006, ransom-payment by state governments became a lucrative business, creating a dirty conspiracy from the bottom to the top. Nigeria is an incredible country. Evil.
STITCH IN TIME
Who remembers Chief Ojo Maduekwe’s ‘citizen diplomacy’? I must say I was very impressed with the aggressive way the Nigerian government came to the rescue of Zainab Aliyu and Ibrahim Abubakar who were arrested in Saudi Arabia over drug-related allegations. They were saved a certain public execution. I have read comments suggesting something fishy about the proactive moves by the federal government. Fellow Nigerians, if you were Zainab or Ibrahim, you would be dancing day and night to God for saving you from the beheader’s sword — not analysing the fine details of the rescue strategy. Hope Nigerian life begins to matter to government now. Kudos.
In my previous article in which I highlighted and celebrated the 70th anniversary of the United Bank for Africa (UBA), I did name a few global companies that are more than 100 years. However, my friend, Ikechukwu Eze (spokesman of former President Goodluck Jonathan), called to remind me that The Merck Group, a German multinational pharmaceutical, chemical and life sciences company, was founded in 1668 — and that means it is 351 years old! What an example! Meanwhile, I’ve also been reminded that I left out Wema Bank Plc from my list of Nigeria’s oldest banks. It started as Agbomagbe Bank in 1945 and is now 75 years old, making it, and not UBA, the third oldest. Historic.
Did you recently read on social media that NEWSPAPER is the acronym for ‘North East West South Past And Present Event Reports’? Did you believe it? What then would the ‘paper’ in tissue paper mean? ‘Past And Present Excreta Remover’? For the record, ‘news’ is from the French word nouveau, meaning ‘new’ — or ‘tiding’. It was pluralised along the line to ‘news’ (‘tidings’) in what was clearly an adaptation of nouveaus from French. Paper, on the other hand, is derived from the French word ‘papir’ — a child of the Latin ‘papyrus’ which means ‘paper reed’ and is the material used to produce paper. So ‘newspaper’ is nothing more than ‘news’ printed on paper. Simple.