The Supreme Court has affirmed the N25m damages awarded against the Department of State Services and four others for the unlawful invasion and sealing off of Punch Nigeria Limited’s office in Lagos in 1994.
The four others are the Attorney General of the Federation, the Inspector-General of Police, the Commissioner of Police in Lagos State and the Chief of Army Staff.
Following a fundamental rights enforcement suit, which The PUNCH, through the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN), filed against the DSS and the others, the Federal High Court in Lagos had on July 29, 1994 awarded N25m damages against them in favour of the newspaper company.
The court equally awarded a separate N100,000 in favour of then editor of The PUNCH, Bola Bolawale, for his unlawful detention by the security agents.
The court upheld Punch Nigeria Limited’s prayer that the “invasion, search without warrant, sealing off, seizure and/or occupation of its business premises at No.1 Kudeti Street, Onipetesi, Ikeja, Lagos State and the consequent stoppage of the newspaper’s lawful business by the respondents,” were a gross violation of the newspaper’s fundamental rights preserved by sections 36 and 40 of the 1979 Constitution as well as Articles 9 and 14 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act Cap. 10 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1990.
According to the Supreme Court’s brief history of the case, following the invasion of its office and the arrest of its then editor, Bolawale, Punch obtained an order of the Federal High Court in Lagos directing the security agents to produce Bolawale in court on June 20, 1994 to show cause why he should not be released.
In spite of the court order, the security agencies neither appeared in court nor produced the editor.
But a counsel from the AGF’s office wrote to the court praying that the case be adjourned.
Though Fawehinmi opposed the application for an adjournment, the court eventually adjourned till June 28, 1994 for hearing.
But when the proceedings resumed on June 28, 1994, the AGF and the security agencies still failed to show up and did not send any lawyer.
Fawehinmi went on to argue the suit and the court in its July 29, 1994 entered judgment in favour of the newspaper company and awarded N25m damages against the defendants.
Jolted by the judgment, the defendants, on August 10, 1994, went on appeal, seeking to reverse the judgment.
After the appeal had been in court for five years without the appellants filing their briefs of argument, AGF and the security agencies taking any concrete steps, Punch, on June 4, 1999, filed an application, urging the Court of Appeal to dismiss the appeal “for want of diligent prosecution.”
Eventually on March 8, 2004, about 10 years after the appeal was filed, the Court of Appeal dismissed it “for want of diligent prosecution.”
Aggrieved by the dismissal of their appeal, the appellants filed another application, urging the Court of Appeal to reverse itself.
Following the rejection of the application by the Court of Appeal, the AGF and the security agencies then appealed to the Supreme Court.
But in a June 14, 2019 lead judgment of a five-man Supreme Court panel delivered by Justice Olu Ariwoola, the apex court also dismissed the appeal.
The other members of the panel were Justices Olabode Rhodes-Vivour, Chima Nweze, Paul Galume and Sidi Bage.
Justice Ariwoola held, “It is clear that the appeal of the appellants was dismissed pursuant to Order 6 Rule 10 of the Court of Appeal Rules for failure to file the brief of argument within the prescribed time and there was no application for extension of time to file the said brief out of time. The appeal was, therefore, properly dismissed and the dismissal order is final and irreversible.”