By Joseph Otteh
On July 26, 2019, a Federal High Court presided over by Justice Nkeonye Maha made an order pursuant to an application brought by the Federal Government where she “designated the activities of the Shiite organisation in any part of Nigeria “as acts of terrorism and illegality” and made an order proscribing the existence and activities of the [Islamic Movement in Nigeria] in any part of Nigeria under any guise either in groups or as individuals.”
We are dismayed by the ruling and orders of the court and regards it as deeply unfortunate. With respect, the court clearly sacrifices the constitutional and due process rights of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, IMN group in the very flawed process it followed to arrive at its decision. The court, contrary to longstanding judicial practice, allowed and used a decidedly one-sided account of a case to frame its final ruling and orders on the case.
A legitimate judicial process takes account of, and hears the cases and defences of everyone accused of misconduct and/or whose interests would be affected by a court decision and orders. To that extent, Justice Maha’s ruling is strongly objectionable. It did not follow nor respect basic constitutional standards applicable to a judicial proceeding, but disavowed inexplicably and without justification.
In a democracy, legislations must pass the tests of constitutionality to be enforceable by a court. The court ought to have satisfied itself that the legislation under which it acted, which so gravely imperils the fundamental rights of citizens to assemble and move freely, champion their causes and practice their religion, passes constitutional muster. It did not do so, unfortunately.
The ruling has condemned and criminalized a faith community without affording them the basic right to even challenge how the federal government – which has persecuted them over a long period and extrajudicially killed hundreds of their members – characterized them.
Many Nigerians are expressing growing concern that our courts, in a period when they ought to stand resolute as bulwarks of constitutional freedoms, are drawing a blank at critical moments, and giving the raw might of executive power unrestrained leeway over the rights of citizens. It probably bears repeating that when a Judiciary fails to step up to the plate and safeguard the rights of individuals or groups when threatened, including those who suffer political persecution because of their beliefs or their unpopularity, democracy fails, and then the people are effectively silenced and unable to hold power to any form of accountability.
Justice Maha’s decision has done far-reaching damage, at least now, to the rights of a group and its members to defend their rights peacefully and legitimately. The court has criminalized them by the stroke of a pen, labelling them as terrorists and exposing them to further risks of criminal jeopardy. It is a hugely unfair and inequitable thing for a court of justice or of law, to do.
Convener, Access to Justice, Joseph Otteh