The point has to be made that defamation (whether civil or criminal) is private or personal in nature and public officers or government agencies are barred by law from suing for defamation.
In the case of Omega Bank Plc V Government of Ekiti State (2007) 16 NWLR (PT. 1061) 445 AT 478 – 479 PARA. E (CA), the court held that “…in view of the personal nature of libel actions, public officers have no right to sue or be sued for libel. In the instant case, the respondent being public officers had no right of action in libel”.
The idea that an organ of government or public officers cannot sue for defamation is premised on the ground that state resources must never be deployed against citizens to intimidate them into silence. In Omega Bank Plc V Government of Ekiti State (Sic) the court established that, “An organ of government, that is the state or a governmental department which has corporate status may not sue for defamation. This is based on the premise that it would be a serious interference with the freedom of expression of opinion as guaranteed under section 39 of 1999 constitution if the wealth of the state derived from the state’s subjects could be used to launch against those subjects for defamation because they have, falsely and unfairly as it may be, criticised or condemned the management of the country. If a right of action is granted to the government/public officer to maintain an action in libel, the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression will be curtailed. Thus, in the instant case, the respondents lacked the locus standi to maintain an action in the tort of defamation”. This position of law was also reinforced in U.B.N. Ltd v Oredein (1992) 6 NWLR (Pt. 247) 355.
Moreover, the court held thus: “It will be against the public interest for government/public officers to use the tax paid by the people to institute actions against them in libel. If right of action is granted to the government /public officers to maintain an action in libel.” the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression will be curtailed.” The justifiability of libel actions at the instance of public offices and public institutions and the desirability of allowing public institutions/bodies to use tax payers’ money to fund libel actions against the very same tax payers were issues which were determined.
It is sad to note the rising spate of intolerance of public officers. The fact remains that in 2018, President Buhari declared that Nigerian youth are lazy, uneducated and wanting everything free. Nobody sued the President for defamation. How come government agencies are quickly launching defamation suits these days?
Against the foregoing, I hereby give the Nigeria Police Force an ultimatum of 24 hours to release the three persons arrested for “insulting” the President and governor of Katsina State. Otherwise, I shall approach the court to determine the constitutionality of the act and to enforce the fundamental human right of the victims.
Tope Akinyode is a human rights lawyer and National President of Revolutionary Lawyers’ Forum