The Federal High Court in Abuja, on Tuesday, declared as illegal, the Special Joint Investigative Panel that was constituted by the Inspector General of Police, Mr. Idris Ibrahim, to uncover those behind violence that marred the December 10, 2016, legislative re-run election in Rivers State.
In a 106-paged judgment that lasted over five hours, Justice Gabriel Kolawole described the Police probe panel which included operatives of the Department of State Service, DSS, as “a strange contraption whose existence will create legal doubt”.
Justice Kolawole held that the 15-man Special Joint Investigative Panel is a body unknown to any law in the country.
He maintained that neither the Police Act, Security Agencies Act nor the 1999 Constitution, as amended, empowered the IGP to set-up and co-opt the DSS which is not answerable to him but to the Presidency, into the Rivers re-run probe panel.
According to the court, the Special Panel, in so far as it was not limited to the Nigerian Police Force over which the IGP has authority, but co-opted another security agency, does not have the backing of any known law in Nigeria.
“It is to this extent that the panel is unknown to the Nigerian Law or Criminal Justice System, even though its findings may be useful to bona-fide security agency as a working document,” he said.
The court however acknowledged that under section 4 of the Police Act, the IGP, has the power to constitute an investigative panel.
Meanwhile, the court declined to quash the report of the panel, saying it would leave it to the discretion of the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice to in the exercise of his powers under section 174 of the constitution, decide whether any valid charge could be drafted on the basis of a report that emanated from “a body unknown to law”.
Justice Kolawole said he could have nullified report of the panel which Police has already submitted to the AGF, assuming a copy of it was tendered before the court by the plaintiffs.
He said the court could not also disband the panel since it has already concluded the said investigation and submitted its report.
The Judge held that the Police panel lacks the power to indict any person or to make definitive pronouncements, saying it could at best make recommendations. He said the exercise that was conducted by the panel could at best be described as “ministerial in nature in line with the concept of covering the field”, saying it could neither be judicial or quasi-judicial in nature.
Consequently, the court granted relief one in the suit that had the Rivers State government, Governor Nyesom Wike and Attorney General of Rivers State as 1st to 3rd plaintiffs respectively.
Earlier in the judgment, the court decried that despite the concept of separation of powers, a state governor, even though regarded as the chief security officer of the state, lacks powers to control the security apparatus in the state.
He noted that section 251 of the constitution only have governors “illusion of powers of command of Police in their states”.
The court further observed that contrary to the doctrine of separation of powers, the way the constitution was drafted Police Commissioners are not under obligation to comply with order of the governor of their state, but that of the President.
The plaintiffs had through their lawyer, Chief Mike Ozekhome, approached the court to challenge the legality of the Police probe panel which they said was merely out to indict and ridicule governor Wike.
Aside the IGP, other defendants to the suit were the DSS and a deputy commissioner of police, Damian Okoro.
The plaintiffs prayed the court to restrain the defendants or their agents from enforcing or executing matters contained in a letter the IGP wrote to Wike on December 20, 2016, pertaining to the probe.
Wike told the court the IGP had in the said letter entitled, ‘Investigation into allegations of crimes committed during the last re-run elections in Rivers state’, stated that the, “purview of the investigation will cover allegations of bribes taken, several brazen murder incidents (including that of serving police officers), reports of gross human rights abuses, acts of sabotage/terrorism, kidnapping for ransom and ballot box snatching, all of which were perpetrated in connivance with several federal and state civil servants as well as highly placed politicians within and outside the state.”
The letter also requested the governor to furnish the Police investigative team with all necessary information and exhibits that may assist the team in the investigation.
Ozekhome insisted the action of the police to constitute a panel to investigate crisis that trailed the re-run election was illegal, unlawful, unconstitutional and null and void.
He said it would be in the interest of justice for the court to set aside the IGP’s letter to governor Wike and direct the Police boss to await the outcome of the commission of inquiry already set up by the Rivers State government.
However, all the defendants urged the court to dismiss the suit as frivolous and highly bereft of any merit.
Both the police and the DSS argued that prayers Wike sought before the court were capable of creating a very “dangerous precedent” if granted.
“The prayer being sought by the plaintiffs will create a dangerous precedent if granted because it will mean that a terrorism suspect can go to court and say I cannot be investigated.
“We have shown in our addresses that no citizen can go to court and pray the court to stop the police from investigating criminal offences,” said the police counsel, Mr. Femi Falana.
On his part, DSS lawyer, Mr. Tijani Gazali, while aligning with Falana’s submissions, said there was evidence that IGP’s decision to set up the special investigative team was informed by complaints and petitions received on the crimes committed during the rerun.
The defendants further insisted that no court has the power to stop the police from carrying out its constitutional duty of investigating crimes.
They reminded the court that section 4 of the Police Act and section 215 of the Constitution had vested the police with the power to investigate all manners of crime.
Justice Kolawole had earlier rejected Wike’s application for an interim order of injunction barring the panel from proceeding further with the probe pending hearing and determination of the substantive suit.
Wike had through a supporting affidavit he attached to the suit, told the court that it was security operatives, mainly the Police and the Army that orchestrated violence following their partisan stance during the poll.
He said some untoward behaviour of security operatives deployed for the exercise were caught on tape and presented to Nigerians and the whole world by various reputable television stations.
In the affidavit deposed to by one Harrison Obi, a lawyer in Ozehkome’s chamber, Wike told the court that after the election, he constituted a commission of inquiry to look into immediate and remote causes of the violence with a view to avoiding similar occurrence in subsequent elections and punishing the perpetrators of the act.
He said the commission of inquiry was set up under the Commission of Inquiry Law, Cap 30, Laws of Rivers State.
Wike maintained that he is legally empowered to embark on the inquiry as the Chief Security Officer of the state, adding that terms of reference of the panel of investigation set up by the Police clearly suggested that the goal of the intended probe is already pre-determined.
He told the court that Police has already reached numerous conclusions against him, indicating that its investigation would be biased.
Ozekhome said the intention of the Police was to produce a pre-determined damning report to convict Wike through the medium of the Commission of Inquiry.
He said with conclusions already drawn and reached by the Police without hearing from his client, the investigation would only amount to a “smokescreen and rubber stamp to give credence to the governor’s guilt”.
Consequently, he prayed the court to set aside the content of the letter by the IGP and order Police to await the outcome of the committee of inquiry already set up by Wike.
However, the IGP in his preliminary objection before the court accused Wike of attempting to use the suit to cover his tracks.
It will be recalled that the police panel earlier revealed that it recovered over N100 million bribe money from some officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) that conducted the Rivers poll.