The Federal High Court in Abuja on Monday ordered the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) to immediately release the international passport of a former Rivers State governor, Peter Odili.
NIS operatives had seized Mr Odili’s passport at the Nnamdi Azikwe International Airport in Abuja upon his arrival from a trip to the United Kingdom on 20 June, 2021.
Displeased with the seizure, Mr Odili, who said the reason for the seizure was not disclosed to him, sued the NIS and its Comptroller-General to retrieve his passport.
In their defence, they said Mr Odili’s passport was seized based on request from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), which claimed to have him on a watch list.
But delivering judgement on the suit on Monday, the judge, Inyang Ekwo, declared the action of the NIS as “illegal and unconstitutional.”
“No citizen of this country should be treated like this, irrespective of class or social status,” the judge held.
Mr Ekwo dismissed the NIS’ preliminary objection anchored on a contention that Mr Odili’s suit was premature and incompetent because he failed to write a pre-litigation notice to the service demanding the release of his passport before instituting the court action.
He also rejected another grounds of the objection anchored on the respondents’ claim that the name on the seized passport did not correspond with the name of Peter Odili that instituted the legal action. The judge said the claim by NIS was an attempt to mislead the court.
‘Passport seizure, an act of disobedience of previous court orders’
The passport seizure was also not justifiable because it was done at the behest of the EFCC, the judge said citing two previous decisions of the Federal High Court restraining the EFCC from either arresting or prosecuting Mr Odili concerning his tenures as governor of Rivers State.
PREMIUM TIMES had reported that the 2007 judgement cited by Mr Ekwo was delivered by Ibrahim Buba of the Federal High Court controversially issuing an order of perpetual injunction blocking Mr Odili, who was Rivers State governor between 1999 and 2007, from prosecution for corruption allegations levelled against him by the EFCC.
Mr Ekwo ruled on Monday that NIS complied with EFCC’s directive to seize Mr Odili’s passport in disobedience of the court judgement.
“The respondents (NIS) complied with the directive of the EFCC in disobedience of the subsisting orders of court.
“If at all the EFCC gave the directive to put the applicant on watchlist, then that directive was made in violation and disobedience of the existing and valid orders of court,” Mr Ekwo held.
EFCC’s “request was made in violation and disobedience of valid orders of court” and the NIS ought not to have complied, the judge said.
“The respondents have violated the fundamental rights of the applicant to freedom of movement and to own property as guaranteed under Sections 41 and 44 of the constitution.
“I also find that the seizure of the applicant’s international passport was wrongful, illegal, contemptuous, arbitrary, and above all unconstitutional.
“The seizure of the applicant’s passport was done in a manner that dehumanized, belittled, harassed and derided him.
“The act of the respondents in this case lack constitutional backing and was statutorily aberrant.”
The judge reminded law enforcement agencies in Nigeria that they are first and foremost agents of the law and must act in accordance with the law and uphold the law.
In arriving at his decision, Mr Ekwo ordered the NIS to immediately “release and return the applicant’s international passport.
He also issued “An order of perpetual injunction is hereby made restraining the respondents from further harassing, embarrassing, intimidating or interfering with the applicant’s right to move, freedom of movement inside and outside Nigeria in any manner whatsoever including interfering with his use of his international passport.”
He also directed “the respondents to write a written apology to the applicant for the embarrassment occasioned by the unlawful seizure of the applicant’s international passport.”
“Any action taken in disobedience of order of court lacks validity,” the judge declared.
The former Rivers State governor said in his fundamental rights enforcement suit which he instituted against NIS and its comptroller-general that his passport was seized from him at the Nnamdi Azikwe International Airport in Abuja for undisclosed reasons.
He claimed the passport numbered B50031305 was seized from him on June 20 by NIS operatives upon his return to Nigeria from the United Kingdom where he had gone for his medicals.
He said his traveling documents were checked and returned to him, but while waiting for his luggage, an official of NIS demanded his passport for a routine check.
According to the ex-governor, he gave the passport to the official who never returned it.
He claimed to be a law-abiding and senior Nigerian citizen with no record to warrant the seizure of the passport from him.
He prayed the court to compel the two respondents to release the passport to him and issue an order of perpetual injunction against the respondents “from further harrassing, embarrassing, intimidating or interfering with his fundamental right to freedom of movement.”
However, the NIS said in its defence that the former governor’s passport was seized based on a request of the EFCC.
The anti-graft agency had attempted to prosecute Mr Odili for corruption after he completed his second and final term as governor in 2007, but was barred by a judge of the Federal High Court, Ibrahim Bawa, who issued an order of perpetual injunction shielding him from trial.
The NIS, through its lawyer, Jimoh Adamu, tendered a letter by EFCC requesting NIS to seize the passport on the basis that the ex-governor was on a watch list.
Support PREMIUM TIMES' journalism of integrity and credibility
Good journalism costs a lot of money. Yet only good journalism can ensure the possibility of a good society, an accountable democracy, and a transparent government.
For continued free access to the best investigative journalism in the country we ask you to consider making a modest support to this noble endeavour.
By contributing to PREMIUM TIMES, you are helping to sustain a journalism of relevance and ensuring it remains free and available to all.
TEXT AD: To advertise here . Call Willie +2347088095401...