A Federal High Court in Lagos, Friday, nullified an arrest warrant against Ebere Wabara, the associate editor of The Sun Newspapers, by an Abia Magistrate Court.
In his ruling, Okon Abang, declared the court’s bench warrant for the journalist as illegal and unconstitutional, and barred the police from further arresting or detaining him or Chuks Onuoha, his colleague.
Mr. Wabara, who is also the Special Assistant, Media, to Orji Uzor Kalu, former Abia State governor, was forced out of his home in March 2014 by police officers from the Abia State Police Command in the presence of his wife and two kids.
The abduction was purportedly orchestrated by Theodore Orji, the Abia State governor, over some scathing articles penned by the journalist against his administration.
In his ruling on Friday, the judge urged Mr. Orji to be tolerant of criticisms rather than seeking self-help by using state machinery to oppress his critics.
“The governor should realize that we are in a democratic era, which guarantees freedom of speech,” Mr. Abang said. “Journalists have their role to play and whenever anybody feels aggrieved by their action, the way to deal with them has been spelt out by the constitution of the country. The action of the governor is barbaric, archaic, unconstitutional, undemocratic.”
The judge also berated John Ukpai, the Abia State Chief Magistrate, for being overzealous, urging him to refuse to be used as a tool by the executive.
In 2014, police officers from the State Criminal Investigation Department, in Umuahia, invaded Mr. Wabara’s home between 6.30 a.m. and 7.30 a.m.
He was taken, first, to Sholoki Police Station in Aguda, Surulere, then later to Oyingbo Police Station; both in Lagos.
The officers, who reportedly identified themselves to Mr. Wabara, told him that some unnamed person had written a petition against him in Abia State.
Narrating how the abduction happened, Adanna Wabara, said that her husband had gone downstairs to take something from his car.
“Shortly after, I heard him shouting, and I ran downstairs,” Mrs. Wabara said. “I saw between seven and eight men, who said they were policemen. They said he needed to follow them to Umuahia, that there was a petition against him for sedition.
“They took us back into the house, one of them brought out an I.D Card, showing that he was a policeman. They requested to search our bedroom. They did, and collected my husband’s laptop and telephone.
“I followed as they took him to Sholoki Police Station, but later, I had to take the children to school. By the time I returned, they had moved him away. His phones could not be reached, and he had not eaten.”
Mrs. Wabara said that the incident has “deeply traumatized” her entire family, including their eight and six-year old kids.
A statement signed by Femi Adesina, editor-in-chief of The Sun, condemned the abduction, likening it to the dark, heady days of military dictatorship.
“The Sun Publishing Limited sees the abduction of Mr Wabara obviously on the orders of the Abia State Commissioner of Police, Mr Adamu Ibrahim, and perhaps under the further instruction of the state governor, Chief T. A. Orji, as a throwback to the dark days of military dictatorship, when might was right, and the strong trampled on the weak,” Mr. Adesina said in the statement.
“It is unconscionable, repressive and flies in the face of all that is decent and civil. It has all the trappings of autocracy, rather than democracy.
“If Mr Wabara infringed any law, we would have expected the police to invite him to answer questions, and then charge him to court. The approach that has been adopted is Gestapo-like, and unbecoming of those who instigated it.
“Those entrusted with the upholding of the law are not expected to trample on others. This is what the policemen from Abia State have done, and it runs contrary to the code of conduct for policemen as espoused by the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Dikko Abubakar,” Mr. Adesina added.
The Sun said that when it contacted the Force Public Relations Officer, Frank Mba, a Chief Superintendent of Police, he made efforts to resolve the matter, urging that Mr. Wabara’s statement be taken in Lagos, and that he be given the opportunity to thereafter report in Umuahia.
“But apparently, the invaders from Abia had another design, obviously to keep him in detention over the weekend. It is simply despicable,” Mr. Adesina added.
Mr. Wabara was taken to Umuahia in handcuffs but was released the next day, an ordeal which landed him in hospital.
His ill health, however, did not deter the police from slamming him with 10-count charge bordering on seditious publications against Mr. Orji.
Due to his absence in court, the police secured a bench warrant against him and his surety, Mr. Onuoha, The Sun’s Correspondent in Umuahia.
Messrs Wabara and Onuoha then instituted a suit at the Federal High Court in Lagos against the Inspector General of Police (IGP); Abia State Chief Magistrate, Mr. Ukpai; and the Attorney General of Abia State, Umeh Kalu.
In the trial, the applicants’ counsel, the late Bamidele Aturu, prayed the court to grant all the reliefs sought by his clients in the interest of justice.
He urged the court to dismiss the preliminary objection filed by the respondents on the issue of jurisdiction and look at the substance of the suit.
The Attorney General of Abia State, Mr. Kalu, submitted that the issue of jurisdiction was very crucial in order for the court to determine whether it could entertain the suit or not, and prayed the court to dismiss the suit for lack of jurisdiction.
However, the trial judge, while giving his verdict on the issues canvassed by both parties, ruled as follow:
The court held that on the issue of jurisdiction, it was the applicant’s claim that determined whether a court has jurisdiction or not and in the case of the applicants, both the principal relief and the consequence relief bordered on fundamental rights, which court has jurisdiction on.
It held that both State High Court and Federal High Court have concurrent power to entertain fundamental right suit.
On the issue of territorial jurisdiction, the court held that “it was not in dispute that the first applicant was arrested in Lagos before taken to Abia state, and with that fact, both Lagos and Abia Division of the court have jurisdiction to entertain the suit.”
On the substantive suit, the court held that the magistrate erred in law by issuing bench warrant against the applicants.
The court held that filing a charge against a person before a court did not constitute arraignment.
Justice Abang said the applicants were never arraigned before the Magistrate, which means they were not before the court and the court did not has jurisdiction to issue bench warrant against them.
The trial judge said his court would not have had jurisdiction in the matter if the applicants had been arraigned before the Magistrate but they were not.
The court submitted that the Magistrate assumed jurisdiction in a matter that was not before him and even if the applicants were before the court their offence was no longer in existence because the era of colonialism was over.
The court granted the reliefs sought by the applicants and also awarded cost against the applicants.
After the judgment, the applicant’s counsel, John Nwokwu, in his remark before the court dedicated the victory to his late principal, Mr. Aturu.