Last week, the Federal High Court upheld the constitutional validity of the controversial Executive Order 6 (EO6) issued by President Mohammed Buhari on July 5 this year. Based on the court ruling the federal government has directed the Nigeria Immigration Service and other security agencies to place no fewer than 50 high profile persons directly affected by EO6 on watch-list and restrict them from leaving the country pending the final determination of their cases.
Even though the names of the “50 high profile persons” have not been published by the federal government they are presumed to be either standing trial in the various high courts or being investigated for corrupt practices by the anti-graft agencies. Sadly, the travel ban is a sad reminder of the reckless placement of political opponents on security watch list and seizure of their passports by the defunct military junta. But in Director-General, State Security Service v Olisa Agbakoba (1999) 3 NWLR (Pt 595) 340 the Supreme Court did not hesitate to condemn the violation of the right of the respondent to freedom of movement through the seizure of his passport by the appellant. It was the view of the Court that the right of citizens to freedom of movement guaranteed by section 41 of the Constitution and article 12 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act could not be abridged or abrogated by the Executive outside the procedure permitted by law.
Notwithstanding that the decision was handed down in the heyday of a ruthless military dictatorship the current political dispensation has witnessed the secret imposition of travel ban on many citizens. Thus, apart from placing over a hundred citizens on security watch list the passports of the late Chief Emeka Ojukwu, Mallam El-Rufai, Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, Mr.Sanusi Lamido Sanusi (now Emir of Kano) etc were seized without any legal justification by the Obasanjo and Jonathan regimes. It is on record that both El-Rufai and Sanusi successfully challenged the seizure of their passports at the federal high court which ordered the release of the passports and awarded damages to them. In one of the proceedings of the Chukwudifu Oputa Panel on human rights abuse, I had complained against the refusal of the State Security Service to remove my name from the watch list compiled by the defunct military junta. in justifying its decision to retain my name on the watch list on the grounds the SSS claimed that every democratic country has a list of persons whose activities are closely monitored at home and abroad for “security reasons”.
However, the power of the anti-graft agencies and the courts to place criminal suspects on watch list or subject their passports to temporary seizure has never been in doubt. To that extent, the directive to place the 50 high profile suspected persons on watch list and restrict their movement is highly superfluous, completely unwarranted and totally uncalled for. In fact, it is an ingenious design to expose the Buhari administration to ridicule. If the federal government had done some background check it would have discovered that the names of the 50 VIPs have long been placed on security watch list while their passports have been impounded by the anti-graft agencies or the courts as one of the conditions for admitting them to bail. It is public knowledge that whenever the defendants wish to travel abroad for medical treatment they usually apply for the interim release of their passports. Since the courts have taken judicial notice of the perilous state of medical facilities in the country such applications are usually granted. And once the suspects return from the foreign medical trips their passports are returned to the registry of the trial courts.
No doubt, indigent accused persons standing trial for stealing, fraud or other economic crimes in Nigerian courts are not entitled to such privilege because they have no money to acquire passports not to talk of paying for foreign trips and medical treatment abroad. In Joshua Dariye v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2015) LPELR-24398 (SC) the Supreme Court noted the resort to delay tactics by members of the bourgeoisie standing trial for corruption who usually apply for the release of their passports to enable them to travel abroad for urgent medical attention. According to their lordships, “There are cases where the accused develop some rare illness which acts up just before the date set for their trial. They jet out of the country to attend to their health and the case is adjourned. If the medical facilities are not available locally to meet their medical needs is because due to corruption in high places, the country cannot build proper medical facilities, equipped with the state of the arts gadgets”.
Notwithstanding such judicial indictment of politically exposed persons seeking medical treatment during trial, the law has not authorised the Executive to restrict the movement of criminal suspects. In February 2009, the federal government regime directed all Nigerian embassies and high commissions not to renew the passports of Messrs Nuhu Ribadu and Nasir El Rufai (now Kaduna state governor) on account of intra class feud. Both of them were then living in exile. But as soon as the attention of former President Umaru Yaradua was drawn to the case of the Director-General, State Security Service v Olisa Agbakoba (supra) he ensured that the illegal directive was immediately withdrawn. For the umpteenth time, I am compelled to caution the Buhari administration to wage the war against the menace of corruption within the ambit of the rule of law. Since the 50 high profile criminal suspects covered by EO6 have been placed on watch list while their passports have been seized by either the anti-graft agencies or the courts the travel ban slammed on them by President Buhari ought to be withdrawn without any delay.
Femi Falana SAN.