The recent decision of Hon. Justice John Tsoho of the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja declaring the suspension by the House of Representatives late 2016, of one of its members: Hon. Abdulmumin Jubrin, the lawmaker representing Kiru/Bebeji federal constituency in Kano state, as unconstitutional, null and void is highly commendable; a victory for justice and a loud testament of the commitment of the judiciary to the enthronement of the Rule of Law; the bulwark of any democracy.
It would be recalled that Mr. Jibrin was suspended by the House of Representatives for 180 legislative days following his accusation of the leadership of the House of padding the 2016 budget with fraudulent figures allegedly created for the benefit of Mr. Yakubu Dogara, the Speaker of the House and his acolytes. On the heels of this, a kangaroo ethics and disciplinary committee led by Mr. Nicholas Ossai had recommended his suspension from legislative activities for one full legislative year.
It was a slap on the face of democratic ethos accentuated by the impunity with which the leadership of the House of Representatives went about it at the time.
Apparently aggrieved with the circumstances of his suspension, the young lawmaker had approached a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja in suit No:FHC/ABJ/CS/595/2016 barely a month after the controversial suspension contending in the main that his fundamental rights to freedom of expression was infringed upon and that in any event, the rules of fair hearing were not afforded him as those whom he accused of padding the 2016 budget, sat in judgement over him.
For the House of Representatives at the time, the only condition upon which a revocation of the suspension would be considered was upon an unreserved apology by the suspended lawmaker to the House, as according to it, the action of the lawmaker was disrespectful to the House and therefore constitutes a grave act of misconduct for which a suspension was the price.
Delivering ruling on the Originating summons on Thursday, 24th May, 2018, the trial Judge described Mr. Jibrin’s application as meritorious. It pronounced the suspension as amounting to a nullity and affirmed the actions of Jibrin as being in conformity with his constitutional responsibilities as a member of the House. The Court further deprecated the conduct of the House describing the suspension as an “abuse of democracy” and thereafter ordered the House to pay all entitlements of the lawmaker throughout the period he served the unlawful suspension.
In the unmistakable words of the learned jurist, “the suspension was an interruption of his earnings which will be automatically restored especially when it has been decided that the action was a nullity by virtue of granting prayers 1 and 3 of the Originating Summons. When an action is declared a nullity, it is deemed it never happened”.
In the heat of the scandal that rocked the 2016 budget, dubbed by the media as ‘budget padding’ which culminated in the suspension of the lawmaker, I had written at the time in an article for the Premium Times entitled: Abdulmumin Jibrin as a Metaphor for Change, wherein I deprecated the recklessness and highhandedness of the Dogara-led House of Representatives in the manner it went about the suspension of Abdulmumin Jibrin.
I had concluded at the time thus, “how we handle the fleeting tiff between Jibrin and the leadership of the House will go a long way in voicing our true stance on corruption in high places. The options before us fortunately are twofold: whether to keep silent in the face of gargantuan injustice rocking the lower chambers of the National Assembly crusaded by Dogara and the lot “standing with him”, or to join arms with the only symbol of revolutionary change?Hon. Abdulmumin Jibrin, who is set to turning around the crooked norms of the past and enthroning a leadership style and a parliament of our collective aspirations. The option we elect, may we not forget will be for posterity to judge”.
It is highly commendable thus that Abdulmumin Jibrin and all those who stood by him saw the wisdom in challenging his suspension at the Courts, if anything, to put to constitutional test, the limits of the powers of the senate to suspend a serving senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria that has become a national concern in recent times. This salutary judgment needless to say has put that question to rest once and for all barring any right of appeal against the decision that may be entertained by the House of Representatives. And may its ‘soul’ rest in peace.
Further, the decision of the Federal High Court couldn’t have come at a better time, given the latest crisis that rocked the National Assembly where another senator of the Federal Republic was suspended by the 8th senate on political grounds that did not conform with the laid down rules of the disciplinary processes of the National Assembly.
This latest suspension has thus set the tone for the debate making the rounds in the polity on the extent of the interference of the Courts with the business of the National Assembly against the backdrop of the principle of separation of powers which advocates a seamless operation of the tiers of government in a democratic state.
Now, it is not in dispute that the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as altered), recognises the powers of the National Assembly to regulate its own procedure. This much is given Constitutional baptism by virtue of section 60 of the Constitution which provides succinctly as follows:
“Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, the Senate or the House of Representatives shall have power to regulate its own procedure, including the procedure for summoning and recess of the House”.
It is from this provision that the senate Rules and Standing Orders derive legitimacy and authoritative force. But it is instructive to note that the power of the senate to this effect, must be subject to the provisions of the Constitutions. That is to say, on no account must the rules and procedures of the senate be in conflict with the provisions of the grund norm of the land, qua, 1999 Constitution? in keeping faith with the constitutional doctrine of Supremacy of the Constitution as enacted courtesy of the provisions of section 1(3) of the Constitution.
Thus, to the extent that the powers of the senate to regulate its procedure are not at large, any action premised on such powers which offend the provisions of the Constitution or the Rules of the Senate must of necessity resurrect the provisions of section 6(6)(b) of the Constitution which provides unmistakably thus:
“The judicial powers vested in accordance with the foregoing provisions of this section-
(b) Shall extend to all matters between persons or between government or authority and to any person in Nigeria, and to all actions and proceedings relating thereto, for the determination of any question as to the civil rights and obligations of that person.
It is the appreciation of this legal jurisprudence of sorts that must have led the trial Justice John Tsoho to entertain the suit of Mr. Abdulmumin Jibrin when he observed that the action of the House of Representatives in suspending the man beyond the 14 days allowed under its Rules, violated the House’s Rules and Jibrin’s Constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of expression and fair hearing.
Apparently not confident in the impartiality of the Nicholas Ossai ethics committee to do justice in the matter at the time, Mr. Abdulmumin Jibrin had registered his suspicion of the committee and thus stayed away from the kangaroo panel that had already written its verdict before coming to the ‘tribunal’. Yet, in military style, the panel sat in judgment over him and handed down their verdict. All this, in flagrant abuse of the twin pillars of Natural Justice beautifully encapsulated in two Latin maxims namely Audi Alterem Partem and Nemo Judex in Causa Sua.
To the extent that Mr. Jibrin was not heard at the panel that recommended his suspension, such finding cannot jurisprudentially stand the fires of legal strictures as it looks with askance at the provisions of section 36(1) of the 1999 Constitution which has been given judicial fillip in a long line of cases with the popular case of Garba &Ors v University of Maiduguri (1986) 1 NWLR (pt. 18) 550 standing out in the circumstances of the case at hand.
As all of these constitutional safeguards were not complied with by the Dogara-led House of Representatives in hastily suspending the lawmaker who had spoken truth to power, it is instructive that the trial Court rose to the occasion by declaring the circumstances of such crude use of legislative power as unconstitutional, null and void as the dangers of allowing such undemocratic antics to find accommodation in our democratic process is better imagined than experienced.
Nothing indeed as the trial judge observed can be more ridiculous than the suspension of the member of a National Assembly on grounds that he reported cases of corrupt practices against its leadership to anti-corruption agencies. Ladies and gentlemen, these actions of the 8th National Assembly in surreptitiously suspending their own members on outlandish grounds simply because they have the means so to do, portends a grave threat to the institutions of democracy. We have seen this resort to surreptitious suspensions play out in more recent times in the cases of Senator Ali Ndume, the senator representing Borno South and even more recently, Senator Ovie Omo Agege which latter suspension gracefully has also been declared as unconstitutional by a Federal High Court led by the Hon. Justice Nnamdi Dimgba on the 10th of May, 2018.
Now, all of this leave behind an ugly portrait of a senate that is unaccommodating of dissent and has mastered the trade of silencing opposition voices through Machiavellian means; a sad commentary for a state still struggling to institutionalise participatory democracy. But it is the impunity with which this senate goes about its malevolent acts that is most disturbing and worrying. This much could be inferred from the response of the speaker of the House, Yakubu Dogara to the letter of apology written to the House of Representatives by Mr. Jibrin earlier in the month of March, 2018: “he has fulfilled all the conditions by writing this letter and so he is free to resume his legislative duties whenever he wants, if he so wishes”.
Gentlemen, if the senate, which constitute the symbol of any democratic state and the custodians of its laws are themselves guilty of the circumvention and abuse of the due process of the law for parochial considerations, then our civil liberties as citizens is at an all time low. It is thus against the backdrop of the foregoing that the Hon. Justice John Tsoho’s judgment the other day, is most instructive.
That said, for all the credentials of this decision, it is pretty unfortunate that it came rather belatedly coming at a time when the suspended senator had since served the full term of his suspension and have resumed plenary following his letter to the House of Representatives apologizing for his actions on the 13th of March, 2018. One would have thought that given the time sensitive nature of the case, the trial Court would have given it expeditious and accelerated hearing in order to meet the timeliness of the case. This again, is another evidence of the slow pace at which the wheel of our judicial process grinds. For an originating summons where much facts are not contested, it is to put it mildly, a near travesty of justice for the action to have dwelt in court throughout the duration of the illegal punitive term.
Nevertheless, its equipment of our jurisprudence cannot be faulted or deemphasised. This is more so as it borders on an area of our law still laden with much web of confusion. It is expected that the legislature both at the state and the federal levels would by this decision exercise some more restraint in the use of the powers in their Rule Books to settle political differences in the guise of sanctioning erring members of parliament. One of the guiding posts of the principle of the Rule of Law as given to the modern world by the English Jurist, Albert Venn Dicey (1835-1922) in his seminal work: An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution; is the carrying out of official actions in accordance with the dictates of the law and not by way of arbitrary official fiat or wide discretionary powers often subject to abuse. This too, must guide parliamentary actions and decisions in the 8th senate and beyond.