Despite nullifying the Senate’s decision to suspend Delta State senator, Ovie Omo-Agege, the court’s judgement agrees with the upper chamber’s powers to discipline its members.
An Abuja Division of the Federal High Court on Thursday set aside the April 13 suspension of Mr Omo-Agege after declaring his suspension for 90 legislative days as a violation of constitutional provisions empowering the Senate to punish its members.
Mr Omo-Agege was suspended following comments he made at the floor of the Senate accusing the upper legislative chamber of conspiring against President Muhammadu Buhari.
Reacting to the Senate’s decision to amend section 25 of the electoral act, Mr Omo-Agege said the proposed amendment was a plan to hinder the chances of Mr Buhari in the 2019 general election.
The altered section would have placed the election of the president after those of the legislators and governors respectively.
In a response to Mr Omo-Agege’s allegation, a Kogi state senator, Dino Melaye suggested that the matter be referred to the Senate’s ethics and privileges committee for investigation.
The committee has since investigated and submitted its report where it recommended the suspension of Mr Omo-Agege for 181 days.
The Senate, however, reduced the suspension to 90 days.
Ahead of the suspension and shortly after the committee began investigating Mr Omo-Agege, the senator approached the court with a motion seeking a suspension of his investigation.
Mr Omo-Agege also asked the court to determine whether the said investigation did not amount to an abuse of his fundamental rights to freedom of expression.
Mr Omo-Agege asked the court to determine whether in the light of his motion, the privileges committee still had the legal authority to proceed with the said investigation.
He prayed the court to determine whether the outcome of such an investigation could be made binding upon him. In all, Mr Omo Agege brought seven issues to be determined by the court.
After making his seven prayers, Mr Omo-Agege also asked the court to include other orders as may be considered necessary by the court.
On their part, the first and second defendants, namely the Senate and its President, Bukola Saraki, questioned the jurisdiction of the court in entertaining the matter. They asked the court to determine whether it could entertain the matter, having regards to the legislative immunity enjoyed by the Senate.
The defendants also asked the court to determine whether Mr Omo-Agege had fulfilled the necessary pre-conditions for filing the case.
The issues raised by the first and second defendants were, however, resolved against them.
The court, presided by Nnamdi Dimgba, found no merit in the submissions of the defendants that their legislative powers rendered it impossible for the substantive issue to be brought before a court of law.
The judge also said it was injurious for the defendants to submit that the plaintiff did not comply with the necessary provisions for the presentation of his motion.
The seven prayers sought by Mr Omo-Agege which centered on questioning the Senate’s powers to discipline the plaintiff were also rejected.
Delivering the judgement; the judge ruled that he “is of the view that the legislature can discipline its members and that the Senate is empowered to regulate the activities of its members”.
“It is well within its powers to caution the plaintiff,” the judge ruled.
The judge said the decision of the defendant to suspend a senator found guilty of misconduct is akin to a lawyer being disrobed by the Legal Practitioner’s Privileges Committee, for allegations of judicial misconduct.
The judge also ruled that that the submissions of the plaintiff regarding the ethics and privileges committee were erroneous.
According to him, the fact that a criminal proceedings had already been filed before a court of law, does not stop the committee from proceeding with its own duty and reaching a decision.
The judge ruled that although Mr Omo-Agege had a right to freedom of speech, his right to freedom is not absolute.
The judge also said Mr Omo-Agege should have known that as a senator, he is bound by the ethics of the house and his right to freedom of expression should be expressed on the floor of the legislature, not on the pages of newspapers.
In a nutshell, the judge ruled that since all the seven prayers sought by Mr Omo-Agege were premised on the submission that the Senate cannot proceed with the disciplining of its member, if such a member’s case is before a court of law, all the reliefs sought would be refused.
However, considering the omnibus prayer; wherein Mr Omo-Agege had asked the court to issue such other orders as it may consider necessary; the court then ruled that the Senate’s method of exercising its powers amounted to a violation of those powers.
Reading through a part of the report where the suspension of Mr Omo-Agege was partly hinged on his decision to file a court case, the judge said the house should not have punished its member for exercising his right to seek redress in court.
“Access to court is a constitutional right; it cannot be taken away,” he ruled. The judge regarded the action of the Senate as “an affront on the judiciary”.
He ruled that according to section 4 (8) of the constitution, the exercise of legislative powers shall be subject to the decisions of a court of law and that where the Senate is found to be acting in violation of its constituted authority, that section shall be fully invoked.
Considering the number of days in which Mr Omo-Agege was suspended, Mr Dimgba said the law only allows for the Senate to suspend its member for 14 days.
The judge therefore regarded Mr Omo-Agege’s suspension as an illegality, describing it as a deprivation of the rights of Mr Omo-Agege’s constituency members.
Subsequently, the judge nullified the suspension of Mr Omo-Agege and ordered the refund of his salaries.
The Senate has since filed for a stay of execution of the judgement, indicating it has no plan to reinstate Mr Omo-Agege.
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