By Abiodun Odusote
Three security chiefs in Nigeria were convicted of contempt of court in November 2022 after failing to comply with various court orders. This is the first time that officials at this level have been held to account in this way. The Electronic and Financial Crimes Commission chairman, the inspector general of police and the chief of army staff all ignored orders to rectify errors they made in their duties. The Conversation Africa asked constitutional law expert Abiodun Odusote to weigh in on the implications of flouting court orders.
What is contempt of court and under what circumstances can a public officer be convicted for contempt in Nigeria?
Contempt of court is an affront to the authority and dignity of the court. One form it can take is disrespectful behaviour in the presence of the court – like rude gestures, shouting or interrupting the judge.
Another form it can take is breach of a written court order, including wilful disobedience or disregard of a court order. The person violating the court order is convicted of contempt and sentenced to terms of imprisonment or payment of a fine.
Like any other Nigerian, public officers have no immunity against contempt proceedings. The only exceptions are those who enjoy constitutional immunity while in office, including the president, the vice president, and governors and their deputies.
What is your view on the convictions of the three security chiefs in November?
The convictions are good for the rule of law and democracy. Democracy and the rule of law are inseparable concepts that make it possible for modern societies to function effectively and thus guarantee peace, harmony and egalitarianism. The rule of law allows democracy to thrive because law is the collective will of society, making possible equal rights, social order and justice.
I’m happy the courts have had enough of top government functionaries who fail to comply with court orders.
The chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission was originally ordered by the court to return to an applicant his Range Rover and the sum of N40 million (US$89,680). The commission had accused the applicant of corrupt practices. The chairman failed to obey the court order and was therefore convicted for contempt.
The inspector general was sentenced to three months in jail for disobeying a court order to reinstate and compensate a police officer who had been unlawfully retired.
The chief of army staff was also jailed for contempt for failure to obey a court order issued on 12 October 2022 in a suit between a citizen and the governor of Niger state, north-central Nigeria.
The police claim not to have been aware of the court order. This seems unlikely, because of the legal process that has to be carried out.
Before contempt proceedings can begin, the registrar of court issues two forms. The first form notifies the person of the court’s order. The notice says that flouting a court order is criminal and that it may attract sanctions from the court. The second form notifies the person that a contempt proceeding is about to be initiated against him. It gives the person the opportunity to comply with the order of the court to avoid sanction.
Under what circumstances can people not comply with court orders in Nigeria?
A court order must be obeyed until it is set aside on appeal. The court held in Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission v Barrister Toluwani Yemi Adebiyi (2017) that a person who has been convicted for contempt may ask for permission to appeal against the conviction and give reasons for the appeal. He may argue that the judge did not follow proper procedure in convicting him, or that the court does not have the power to convict him, or that the court exceeded its powers in convicting him.
What does ignoring orders indicate for the rule of law in Nigeria?
Ignoring any order of the court undermines democracy and the rule of law. No one should be above the law. Orders of the court should be obeyed immediately until set aside. Disobedience of a court order is an affront to the rule of law and democracy. Section 72 of the Sheriffs and Civil Process Act provides that the court can detain a person in prison until he or she has obeyed whatever parts of the order are supposed to be performed immediately.
So the consequences of ignoring a court order are grievous. It is even worse to ignore a contempt order. A contempt order is an order of a court after a party has been found guilty of ignoring court orders. It actually baffles me how this can happen, because the person who is found to be in contempt of court should ordinarily attend the court session when the order of the court is to be pronounced, and should be taken to the correctional facility on conviction and sentencing. Any appeal should be filed after the conviction order has been complied with.
Odusote is a Senior Lecturer, University of Lagos.
This article was first published in The Conversation.