…AGF, police, Chief of Army Staff to pay damages
The Supreme Court on Friday affirmed the award of N25m damages to Punch Nigeria Limited, the publisher of PUNCH Newspapers, over the unlawful invasion and sealing up of the company’s premises on June 11, 1994, by security agencies under the regime of the late dictator, General Sani Abacha.
Security operatives comprising mainly the men of the Department of State Services and mobile policemen had invaded the company’s premises in the wee hours of June 11, 1994, the eve of the first anniversary of the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by late Chief MKO Abiola but annulled by the then Ibrahim Babangida’s regime.
They disrupted the company’s business operations, harassed and detained its staff on the premises between 3am and 11am and continued to detain the then editor, Bola Bolawole, much thereafter.
Justice T. A Odunowo, then of the Federal High Court in Lagos had in his judgment delivered on July 29, 1994, awarded the sum of N25m in favour of PUNCH as damages.
Condemning the invasion of the company’s premises under the guise of protecting public security, the Federal High Court had in its judgment delivered about 25 years ago, ordered respondents comprising the Attorney-General of the Federation, the Inspector-General of Police, the Lagos State Commissioner of Police, the Department of State Services and the Chief of Army Staff, to pay the sum of N25m to the company as damages.
On Friday, the Supreme Court, in a unanimous judgment of its five-man panel led by Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour, affirmed the Federal High Court’s judgment, after dismissing an appeal filed by the Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation on behalf of itself and other respondents sued by PUNCH before the trial court.
A three-man panel of the Court of Appeal in Lagos had earlier on March 18, 2004, dismissed the appeal by the AGF office for lack of diligent prosecution.
Between July 8, 1996 when the government’s appeal was entered in the Court of Appeal, and March 18, 2004, when it was dismissed, the appellants never filed the appellants’ brief of argument or an application for extension of time to do so.
On April 4, 2005, over a year after the judgment of the Court of Appeal was delivered, the appellants, through their lawyer, Chiesonu Okpoko, filed an application, asking the Court of Appeal to set aside the judgment.
The application was opposed by PUNCH and its then editor, Bolawole, who was detained by the government forces during and after the June 11, 1994 invasion, and jointly filed the fundamental rights enforcement suit before the Federal High Court.
On October 18, 2006, a three-man panel led by Justice Ayo Salami (who later rose to become the President of the Court of Appeal), affirmed the objection by PUNCH’s lawyer, Mr. Clement Onwuenwounor, and dismissed the government’s application.
The appellants had further appealed to the Supreme Court to challenge the October 18, 2006 ruling of the Court of Appeal.
Delivering the lead judgment of the apex court on Friday, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, affirmed the decisions of the Court of Appeal and dismissed the appellants’ case.
In agreeing with Onwuenwounor, who also represented PUNCH at the apex court, Justice Ariwoola held that the appeal was unmeritorious.
Justice Ariwoola held, “I am convinced without any iota of doubt, that the court below (Court of Appeal) was right in dismissing the appellant’s application to set aside its ruling of March 18, 2004 dismissing the appellant’s appeal, pursuant to Order 6 Rule 10, Court of Appeal Rules, 2002.
“In the circumstance, the sole issue distilled for determination is hereby resolved against the appellant.
“In the final analysis, for being unmeritorious, this appeal is liable for dismissal and it is accordingly dismissed. The appeal is dismissed.”
The foremost human rights activist, the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN), had on behalf of PUNCH and its editor who was detained by the security agencies of the then military government, on June 13, 1994, filed the fundamental rights enforcement suit before the Federal High Court in Lagos following the June 11, 1994 invasion of the company and its subsequent sealing-up by the then regime.
Justice Odunowo, in his judgment, condemned the act of the then military government, which he said acted without any justification.
He had held, “These violations cannot be justified on any of the grounds that the invasion was done in the interest of security, public safety, public order or public morality.
“Even if a state of emergency was declared, it is still incumbent on the government to pay due regard to the rule of law which implies that every person, including ministers, judges and other officials, is subject to the ordinary laws of the land.”
He added, “The invasion, search without a warrant , forcible seizure and occupation of the 1st applicant’s business premises have been shown to be unlawful. The uncontradicted evidence is that these unlawful acts still persist.
“As far as I am aware, a state of emergency has not been declared in this country to warrant the seizure and occupation of the 1st applicant’s premises.
“Nothing has been put forward to justify the detention of the 2nd applicant.”
He also stated that “the respondents have not justified the forceful detention of the 2nd applicant (Bolawole) for a couple of days.”