By Tope Akinnola
Without the repeal or abolition of Section 84 of the Sheriff and Civil Process Act 2014, there can never ever be genuine and lasting police reform carried out in Nigeria. The archaic law is the greatest weapon of oppression in modern Nigeria. The antiquated law is the loudest impediment to access to justice against not only police brutality, but also a cocktail of other injustices from other agents of government. The obsolete law, which is non -existent in every civilised nation all over the world today — if there is, I challenge you to mention one — is the biggest obstacle to cautioning or moderating the bestial instincts of all law enforcement operatives and security officials against the citizens of the country.
It is a law that must be expunged, totally, otherwise, the government can institute a million judicial panels of enquiry — which gives a similitude of seriousness — to look into cases of police brutality, but it will all be a charade — that is, a sham — without addressing the foundational and fundamental impediment to obtaining justice by victims of police brutality for all time.
This obscure and abortive law is one that has not only encouraged a culture of impunity among law enforcement operatives who are agents of the state, but has also emboldened the top hierarchy of the police to be imbued with a culture of lack of accountability when it comes to protecting human rights and enforcing same culture on the broad spectrum of their officers.
Genuine police reform must begin by examining or looking at the root causes of the culture of impunity among police officers generally and other state security agents which include officers of the military establishment, Customs and Immigration Service, and so on and so forth.
This law, as engraved in Section 84 of the Sheriff and Civil Process Act, reveals that where money liable to be attached by garnishee proceedings is in the custody or under the control of a public officer in his official capacity, the consent of the Attorney General of the Federation or Attorney General of a State (as the case may be) be obtained before such attachment may be made. This more or less grants the Attorney General, an official of the executive arm of government, an unwarranted high level of power to determine whether certain judgments of courts may be enforced against monies in custody or control of a public officer.
The practical implication of this is that if a court pronounces a judgment involving a monetary award against the Nigeria Police Force for instance, the police can disobey the court judgment by refusing to pay the damages to victims of police brutality, if the Attorney General does not give his/her consent for the money to be paid, regardless of if a garnishee order has been issued by the court.
This consent requirement of Section 84 of the Sheriff and Civil Process Act 2014 on the judgement enforcement power of courts is a travesty — a grotesque misrepresentation of justice — unnatural, and also against the principle of separation of powers as well as checks and balances among the three arms of government. Thus, it is, and has always been, a recipe for oppression and tyranny by the executive arm of government.
It is trite law that the power of the court to enforce its own judgments is the fulcrum or pivot upon which it proceeds to adjudicate over a matter. Why? Because of the simple fact that the judgments of the courts must be enforced as the courts must not act in vain. But section 84 of the Sheriff and Civil Process Act has punctured and created a gaping hole in the balloon of the power and legitimacy of court judgments as guaranteed under the 1999 Constitution, as amended.
Now, a further scenario is that, if per adventure, the Attorney General consents to the court judgment given by a court of competent jurisdiction against the police to punish police criminal misconduct or brutality, the Central Bank Governor, another agent of the executive arm of government, can refuse to allow the money to be paid. Isn’t that a shame?
The origin of this absolutely unreasonable law could be traced to 1945 Colonial Nigeria, and enacted by the British to contain and constrain, restrain and restrict, in fact, deprive Nigerians from getting justice from the colonial government of Her Majesty, the Queen of England. It also ensured that the colonial government was not held accountable for its many nefarious actions that were inimical or criminal to Nigerians.
It is as a result of this law that somebody like Daniel Bisiriyu’s widow, Mrs Toyin Bisiriyu, has been denied getting justice for eight solid years, even after a constitutionally constituted and legally empowered court awarded N15 million as “exemplary, aggravated and special damages” against the police in favour of the widow and her four children — don’t forget, since eight agonising years ago for the family of the deceased!
Her husband and the family’s breadwinner was unjustly shot in the stomach by a police officer in 2008 (that is, 12 years ago) in Lagos. He did not survive the brutal gunshot. And in a judgment delivered on May 25, 2012 — four years after the degenerate act — Honourable Justice B. I. Molokwu declared: “His (Bisiriyu’s) shooting and death are totally senseless. No sympathy was shown by the defendants to the family of the deceased. The identity of the police officer who shot the deceased was a closely guarded secret by the 1st to 3rd defendants, just as the reason for the shooting. It shows an utter disregard for human life and the dignity of human person.”
The major obstacle to enforcing the judgment of the honourable court which was not even appealed by the Nigeria Police Force was the absurdity of the requirement to gain the Attorney General’s consent to enforce the law. For eight anguished, emotionally tormenting and distressful years for the family of the deceased — up till this very moment — the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation refused to give consent for the court judgment to be enforced.
There are countless numbers of judgments in which monetary awards were pronounced to be given to either victims of police brutality or families of victims of police extra judicial, or mindless killings by trigger-happy cops like that of the above that the Attorney General has blatantly refused to consent for the judgments to be enforced too.
It is tough enough for victims of the brutality of state agents or families of the victims of extra judicial killings to get justice from the judiciary in Nigeria. But when they do in the law courts, the executive arm of government kills it at will, thereby further encouraging the culture of impunity across all establishments of state security forces.
If the saying, “Action speaks louder than words,” have any credence at all, it means that the action or inaction of the Attorney General lends support, by default, to the perpetrators of police brutality and not to the brutalised, frustrated, disenchanted victims of police criminal misconduct. I don’t have words for this than to say that it is beyond barbaric and bizarre.
Nigerian legislators, therefore, have a critical role to expunge this hopelessly irritable and barbaric law which is only meant for savages. Even among the British from whom the colonial law originated, the law does not exist anymore in their land.
To demonstrate that Britain does not follow the unreasonable and uncivilised or savage law also, the story of Paul Smith, a victim of police criminal misconduct, and who won a court judgment of £25,000 compensation from Sussex Police for his wrongful arrest, false imprisonment, and police brutality claim, speaks volumes. For the court award to be paid, there was no need to get the consent or approval of the Attorney General of the United Kingdom. There is absolutely also no provision in British law that the Governor of the Bank of England can consent to, or frustrate the execution of monetary judgments against police brutality or against agents and agencies of the state.
The court judgment, either from the lowest or highest courts, is all that is necessary, as in all civilised societies.
Mr Smith’s court judgment has been used as a case study in law schools in the UK, and it is believed to be one of the first cases in the UK where an innocent victim of police misconduct used evidence from the police’s own body worn cameras to help prove his claim of shocking police misconduct and brutality.
In December of 2019, the UK-based newspaper, The Guardian, reported that UK police out-of-court settlements totalled £30m in four years. Please note that this figure was considered as just ‘tip of iceberg’ in terms of people on the receiving end of unlawful police behaviour compensation.
Moreover, the police explored out-of-court settlements because if the courts had given judgments in the cases of police brutality factored within the four-year period under review, a much more humongous amount of compensations or damages would have been paid by the police force, all without the consent requirement of the Attorney General of the United Kingdom.
While the UK has moved on and distanced itself from such barbaric and savage laws like Section 84 of the Sheriff and Civil Process Act still being followed and adhered to in Nigeria, is it not curious and totally unreasonable for Nigeria to still have it in her extant laws?
If Section 84 of the Sheriff and Civil Process Act is removed from the laws governing the country today, the government and top hierarchy of the police will have no option than to adjust assiduously and as a matter of top priority make it their ultimate, daily and regular duty to rein in security and law enforcement officers of the law under their command, thereby reducing the current spike of wanton disregard for the rule of law and criminal misconduct in police-citizen interactions.
Like I have already lucidly pointed out at the beginning of this discourse, any attempt at police reform in the country without expunging this completely stupefying and barbaric law is only a charade, an act out of pretence, and an illusion without lasting effect in the polity and for generations yet unborn.
Tope Akinnola 08138633000