The Court of Appeal in Ilorin, Kwara State, has nullified the lower court’s judgment that awarded a N4billion cost as sum of damages against SaharaReporters and its founder, Omoyele Sowore, in a suit between the two and Bukola Saraki, Nigeria’s Senate President.
On Tuesday, the Appeal Court set aside the judgment of Justice A.S. Oyinloye of the Kwara State High Court in Ilorin delivered on June 28, 2017.
The Appeal Court judges — Honourable Justice Ibrahim Mohammed Musa Salauwa, Honourable Justice Chidi Nwaoma Uwa and Honourable Justice Hamma Akawu Barka — unanimously ruled that the judgment be nullified and assigned to a new trial judge at the lower court for a retrial.
The account of Sahara Reporters Media Foundation, a Non Governmental Organisation, was garnisheed in a suit between SaharaReporters, an online citizen journalism news website, and the Senate President even though the foundation was never named in the suit, neither is it a news publishing platform.
Justice Oyinloye had entered a judgment of N4billion against SaharaReporters and its founder, Omoyele Sowore, over allegations of defamation involving Saraki. However, the judgment was used to obtain a garnishee order against the foundation, a separate entity.
Sometime in 2017, Saraki had sued SaharaReporters and its founder to the tune of N1billion each as general damages for four different publications on SaharaReporters.
He also sought the court “for injunction restraining the Defendants from further writing, printing or causing to be written, printed or circulated or otherwise published of the Claimant, the said or similar libel".
However, Stanley Imhanruor, a senior lawyer from Falana & Falana’s Chambers, who represented SaharaReporters at both the High Court and the Appeal Court, argued that his clients were never served in the motion on notice neither were they given an opportunity to defend themselves during the hearings that led to Justice Oyinloye’s judgment.
Paul Erokoro, Saraki’s lead counsel, had claimed in court that he could not serve the counter affidavit on the counsel for SaharaReporters because there was no address for service within the court’s jurisdiction. He argued that he had no obligation to serve counsel directly unless the court ordered him to do so or if he sought the court’s leave to serve counsel directly.
Imhanruor contested this argument, stating that his chambers had sent one Adams Adebara to the chambers of Tunde Olomu & Co to pick up the counter affidavit, to no avail. He told the court that, rather than give the document to Mr. Adebara, the chambers rudely dismissed him.
He explained to the court that Saraki’s lawyer had asked Adebara, who was to collect the counter affidavit, to meet with him on the premises of the court so that the bailiff could serve him, but Erokoro failed to deliver on his promise. He told the court that multiple calls to Erokoro were ignored.
The case was, however, withdrawn from the lower court, having lost faith in the process and an appeal filed at the Court of Appeal.
The protracted case had taken several turns before the eventual judgement of the appeal court. In one of the hearings at the Federal High Court in Ilorin, journalists and student activists who had gone to court to observe the hearing were harassed by alleged loyalists of the Senate President.
Reporters from CoreTV, AIT News, and ChannelsTV who were in court to cover the proceedings were harassed and their cameras seized. They were also forced to erase footage of the court proceedings and the assaults that took place in the premises of the court.
The touts, perceived to have been supporters of the Senate President, also assaulted a middle-aged woman, Funmi Jolayemi Ajayi, stripped her naked and beat her. Ajayi, a civil society activist, had travelled from Lagos to observe the court proceedings in Ilorin.