Confusion trails Imo governor’s assent to detention law

Confusion. Anger. Resentment. These are the reactions that are now trailing, afresh, the controversial Imo State Administration of Criminal Justice Law (ACJL), 2020, which empowers the state governor to detain anyone at his pleasure without the need for a court warrant.

While it has left the majority of the Imo State House of Assembly members confounded, as they claim ignorance of the obnoxious sections of the new law, especially the sponsor of the original bill, Frank Ugboma (Oguta Constituency), social commentators and legal luminaries are seething with anger; Imolites are also wondering why the governor assented to such derogatory law.

Sections 484 and 485 of the law, signed into law last month by Governor Hope Uzodimma, provides that the governor may effect such detention notwithstanding the provisions of any other law. The law does not recognise the need for an arrest warrant for any person who it deems to be “in legal custody.”

Section 484 of the law reads: “Where any person is ordered to be detained during the Governor’s pleasure, he shall, notwithstanding anything in this Law or in any other written law contained, be liable to be detained in such place and under such conditions as the Governor may direct and whilst so detained shall be deemed to be in legal custody.”

A former Dean, Faculty of Law, Imo State University, Owerri, Prof. Nnamdi Obiaraeri, had while delivering a lecture at the Ahiajoku Convention Centre, Owerri, blown the whistle on the antithetical nature of the ACJL assented to the governor, especially sections 484 and 485 empowering the governor to determine where to detain juveniles and persons of unsound mind.

A rash of condemnation had since followed the alarm raised by Prof. Obiaraeri; with many residents saying the governor could abuse law and order the arrest and detention of perceived political opponents at his pleasure.

In an additional statement of condemnation, Obiaraeri said: “It is a bit perplexing and disturbing that not a few members of the Imo State House of Assembly have issued statements publicly denying knowledge of the passage of the now controversial Chapter 38 (sections 484 and 485) of ISACJL, 2020 during their deliberations in the state legislature.

“This developing story should be a source of worry to all men and women of good and enlightened consciences, although it will not form the basis of or colour our further response or opinion on the legal implication of the now controversial Chapter 38 of ISACJL, 2020.

“Any commentator must note that throughout the gamut of the ISACJL, 2020 and particularly Chapter 38 of ISACJL, no reference was made to who will make the said ‘order’ and to what class of offence(s) the said order of detention at the ‘Governor’s pleasure’ will be made and under what law such contemplated offences are created.

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“Importing extraneous provisions of other laws (as some commentators have done in order to desperately save a bad situation) that are not expressly contained in the wordings of Chapter 38 of ISACJL, 2020 is not helpful.

“It is beyond argument that only the provisions of Chapter 38 of ISACJL, 2020 fall to be interpreted the way it is presently enacted. We restate our earlier held view that the inelegant way Chapter 38 of ISACJL, 2020 was drafted, makes it an open-ended weapon that can be turned into a tool of oppression and repression, hence, our early warning and the deluge of public outcry that has trailed it.”

Obiaraeri stressed the need for the controversial Chapter 38 of ISACJL, 2020 to, among other things, clearly specify that it is for the Court (being a High Court or Magistrate) to order any person to be detained at the Governor’s pleasure upon conviction for the murder of persons under the age of 17 years or conviction of persons of unsound mind or other related offences.

“No naked usurpation of judicial powers is allowed under the rule of law. Elegance is the soul of legislation, while ambiguity lends it to abuse,” he added.

However, some members of the House, led by the Speaker, Dr. Chiji Collins, said the bill, before it was passed, went through all the legislative proceedings, including first, second, and third readings, and committed to the committee stage, adding that those who were kicking were ill-informed about the contents of the law.”

Some state legislators also addressed a press briefing where they defended the law, insisting that it did not give the governor power to arrest at will. They explained that Imo State was the 30th state to domesticate the law, stressing that the legislative processes of the bill were completed during the short administration of Emeka Ihedioha.

Following Obiaraeri’s revelation, an Imo-based non- governmental group, SAVE IMO, in a statement by its founder, Ebubeagu Ekenulo, asked the governor to withdraw his assent, expunge the vexatious areas and represent to the Imo State House of Assembly.

The same views were canvassed by many dissenting voices just as the sponsor of the original bill, Frank Ugboma (Oguta Constituency) issued a statement, stating that he did not insert the areas under contention.

He wondered at what stage the sections were inserted without his consent.

Ugboma, who is the deputy minority leader in the Assembly, said his original bill was about 372 sections, expressing disgust over how it got to 400 and more. He added that the development came to him as a rude shock:

“Some Sections in the recently gazetted ACJL came to me with a rude shock. As the Chief Sponsor of the Bill, I have had cause to search through all the documents that culminated in the Bill. I must say that I have done this repeatedly and have equally taken further pains in reaching out to my colleagues in the House. I must admit that they have each expressed shock over the sudden obnoxious sections of the Law, more particularly Section 484 of the said ACJL of Imo State.

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“For the avoidance of doubt, the Bill I presented had about a total of 372 Sections. How and where it was amended, recreated and reshaped into Section 484 and beyond remains a mystery and a legislative wonder of our time, as what I presented and circulated to my colleagues during plenary, both in the First and Second readings did not contain such obnoxious and embarrassing Section 484. Neither was it deliberated in the House Committee of the whole. It indeed never existed in the House,” Ugboma said.

He stressed that no one has been able to explain to the members of the 9th House how and at what stage the said Section 484 was inserted into the Bill, adding that it smacked of evil manipulation to throw Imo people into the dungeon.

“As a Lawyer, I have had cause to fight against such obnoxious laws and as an activist, there is no way this section would have scaled through plenary in the 9th House which I am part of. All of us are already available victims of these obnoxious sections. Not even those who practiced this calculated affront on the Constitution are exempted.

“This particular provision is a nullity ab initio, in view of the unambiguous provisions of sections 1(1), (3), 4,5,6 and 36 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as amended). This is very appalling.

“In my quest to ascertain which hands of Esau made it into the Bill I presented, attention was drawn to a list said to be the names of Imo people that facilitated the domestication of the Law in the state. It needs not to be overemphasised that in law-making, such contributions and/or inputs from members of the public are usually submitted to the House for deliberations. I am however saddened that there is no record of the presentation of such obnoxious contributions to the House. There is no record anywhere that such contributions were laid and/or circulated to members during plenary,” he added.

Ugboma disclosed that a committee of Assembly members to ascertain how such a horrendous act was practiced on the ordinarily good legislation would be constituted. “Its outcome, I believe, would interest all lovers of democracy and enable future legislative vigilance. This was not the Bill I presented and sponsored.”

He concluded: “In the manuscripts that I received after each hearing and which I have today compared with that given to my colleagues, there is no hand of Esau. This has informed my view and I have today forwarded a Bill for the immediate amendment of those offensive and draconian sections.”

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Also, the immediate past Deputy Speaker of the IMHA, Okey Onyekanma, in his objection to the sections via a statement, titled ‘Imo ACJL 2020: Section 484 did not pass through Imo House of Assembly’, said: “I want to use this opportunity to inform the good people of Mbaitoli State Constituency and by extension, all Imo people, that I am not privy to the clandestine insertion of some obnoxious, vexatious, and anti-democratic clauses to the Imo State Administration of Criminal Justice Law Amendment Bill 2020 which was purportedly passed by the Imo State House of Assembly, and signed into law by the Governor, Senator Hope Uzodinma.”

But Arthur Egwim, a member representing Ideato North constituency and Chairman, House Committee on Public Complaints, with his colleagues, including Uju Onwudiwe (Njaba Constituency), Dele Onyemaechi (Owerri West Constituency), Chigozie Nwaneri (Oru East Constituency), Johnson Duru (Ideato South Constituency) and Emezie of Onuimo constituency, stated that the processes of passing any bill were observed by the House in passing the law.

They disclosed that a team of seasoned legal luminaries constituted by the erstwhile Chief Judge of the State and the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice screened and ratified it.

Egwim explained that sections 484 and 485 of the law were in agreement with the relevant portions of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended.

Egwim said: “The clauses were only domesticated and fine-tuned to suit our environment and peculiarity. The 36 states of the country have adopted this law without qualms. We don’t really understand why it is being politicised to heat up the polity.”

He continued: “It was first muted by the Eighth Assembly, where it was not concluded, hence, it was resurrected in the 9th Assembly. Besides, it is not an executive bill. As a ranking member of the state legislature, I can’t fold my hands and watch while the confusion rages.”

For him, if the sponsors of the bill ab initio are not comfortable with the law, they should do the legislative needful by presenting another bill for an amendment or the contending areas, rather than venting media anger.

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