Aba-based lawyer and rights activist Emperor Ogbonna recently secured his freedom after five-month detention at the Afara Correctional Facility in Umuahia and Department of State Security (DSS) custody in Abuja, following a complaint about his Facebook comment by the Abia State Government. He relives his experience with our correspondent Sunny Nwankwo.
The internet was awash with your arrest by the police some months back. Tell us what actually happened?
On the March 24, I was in my office when the then Commissioner of Police (CP) Ene Okon came with a team of 20 or 15 policemen and told me that I was under arrest.
They didn’t tell me the offence I committed for which they were arresting me. I however joined them to Umuahia. It was when we got to Umuahia that they showed me some Facebook posts, claiming that I posted something about the Government of Abia State.
I told them that I didn’t post anything about the governor of the state, that I only made a comment under a post.
Shortly after that, they took me to a Magistrate Court in Umuahia, the state capital, that doesn’t have the jurisdiction to hear the matter. The Magistrate knows that I am a lawyer. But despite knowing that she didn’t have the jurisdiction to hear the matter, she went ahead to make an order, remanding me in custody (prison custody). Before we could know what was happening, I was already in prison.
Lawyers in Aba and Umuahia were going to court to secure my release, but the judges were not willing to release me, maybe because the governor was the complainant in the matter.
When several attempts to get me released failed, my friends all over the world started petitioning the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, asking that the Federal High Court should constitute itself and release me since the State High Court wasn’t willing to release me.
The Federal High Court made an order for my release after one month I was charged to court for cyber-stalking the governor and publishing some materials against the governor using my Facebook social media handle.
I told them that I didn’t do anything, that it is a witch-hunt. They just wanted to silence my voice in Abia State because I am a critic of the government and I want good governance in Abia State. I am not doing it because of any selfish reasons, but because of my passion for the state to measure up with their Ebonyi, Rivers State and other counterparts within the Southeast and Niger Delta region.
Before they released me, some people came to my prison cell purportedly sent by the government, asking me to sign that I was the person that forged an oath-taking document between the incumbent (Okezie Ikpeazu) and the former Governor, Senator Theodore Ahamefule Orji. I told them that I can’t sign what I didn’t do. They said that if I didn’t sign it, that they would go to my wall and post things and take it to President Muhammadu Buhari. I told them that I was innocent, that I had never posted or written anything against Buhari, that I don’t know where they were getting what they wanted to post and maintained that I was not afraid of anybody.
When I refused to sign it, the next day, the court gave an order that I should be released. The lawyers perfected my release, but as I was going, the Chief of Staff to the Governor (Agbazuere) led a team of DSS officials who waylaid me on the road while I was leaving the court and attempted to arrest me.
But the prison authority resisted their moves, stressing that I was still under their custody. As I was about leaving the prison yard facility, Agbazuere again came with the same DSS men again who picked me up and took me to the DSS office in Umuahia.
At the DSS office, they brought some articles which they claimed were picked up from my Facebook wall.
I told them that police took my phone from me when they arrested me in Aba and I believe that they (police) were the people that doctored and posted such on my Facebook wall since they had my phone with them, giving the impression that I was the person that wrote those things against Buhari.
The things that they said that I wrote weren’t my language, but they did it just to bring me down. I was tortured and threatened, but I still maintained my innocence. I was in the custody of the DSS both in Umuahia and Abuja for up to five months. While I was in DSS custody, I read and saw where people were protesting over my detention and demanding for my release.
I was innocent, but the DSS kept me in their custody over what I knew nothing about.
My lawyers never relented. They were making efforts for my release. Their efforts yielded a positive outcome when a Federal High Court in Umuahia made an order that I should be released and ordered that I should be granted N1.5m for unlawful arrest and illegal detention.
The DSS was served both in Abia State and Abuja, but they refused to release me. In the end, my lawyers went to Abuja where they got an order from the court in Abuja that I should be released as well. By that time, lawyers in Nigeria started protesting, the human rights community was demanding for my release among other personalities pressurising the government for my release.
When I saw that the government and the leadership of the DSS were unconcerned with what was happening, I decided to embark on a hunger strike. I stopped eating food and I told them that I was ready to die in their custody since they (DSS) didn’t want to release me even after courts have asked them to release me.
When they saw that I was actually ready to die, they hurriedly took me to court. The court ordered that I should be remanded in prison after it granted me bail, but the DSS wanted to take me back to their facility. I insisted that I wasn’t going to go anywhere, but the prison where the court ordered that I should be kept.
I told them that the only way they could take me to their facility was if I was dead because the DSS cell is not where you can even wish your enemy to be.
What was your experience at the Afara Correctional Facility?
The place is substandard. I never ate their food for one day, I was eating outside. I was afraid of being poisoned, that was why I was very careful with what I ate. The good thing was that the warders were very friendly. They were treating me with dignity. Upon my arrival at the facility, the Comptroller of Prisons in Abia State came and spoke to me. He assigned some warders to take care of me.
And what was it like at the DSS facility?
Those people are something else. I will leave the torture that they gave me when I get to the court. But like I said, it is not a place that I wish my enemies to be. I will leave what I will do about the torture I received there for my lawyers to handle. The torture was against my fundamental human rights.
How were you able to cope with the emotions that ran through you when you remembered your pregnant wife while in detention?
It wasn’t a good experience. For the five months that I was at the DSS facility, I had the opportunity to make only two phone calls. The DSS would sometimes come to tell me that my wife had put to bed, just to make me happy. But one day, I told them that I wanted to talk to my wife. They didn’t allow me, but after I insisted, I was allowed to call my wife. She told me that she hadn’t given birth, but I told her that she was going to deliver that day.
It was the same day that she was delivered of a baby boy; Chinualumogu Bryan Ogbonna, hours after we spoke. I told my wife that she was going to be delivered of a boy whom I named after the late literary icon, Chinua Achebe. One day, I will take him to Achebe’s family to introduce him to the family as a boy I named after their progenitor.
Anybody who knows me is aware that my family is my greatest asset. Being away from my wife and my children for over five months was an ugly experience that I wish would never happen again by the grace of God.
How much impact did your five months incarceration have on you?
I was made to pass through the most inhumane condition. I never knew that this kind of suffering exists in Nigeria.
A man who hasn’t been found guilty or convicted by any court, and yet, they were torturing me and kept me in custody for over five months over a post I made on my Facebook timeline which they claimed were against the Cybercrime Act.
The Cybercrime Act now makes it a crime to criticise the President and Governors; what type of law is that? What type of crazy and stupid law is it that makes it a crime to criticise a President or a Governor? Just because you said something that will make people not like the President, you are charged for cybercrime?
Does it mean that you cannot criticise a President or Governor if they are not doing what they are supposed to do? How can they say that criticising the President or the governor when they are doing what is not good becomes inconsistent with Section 21 and 26 of the Cybercrime Act? What kind of Law is that?
I have already filed a case at the Federal High Court for the court to determine whether sections 21, 26 and 27 of the Cybercrime Act is not inconsistent with the rights to freedom of expression of section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
How can Nigerians be subjected to a tyrannical law? Even if what you are saying is true, it doesn’t matter, once what you are saying is a criticism of somebody, it becomes a crime. Do you know that ECOWAS Court has already nullified the law? It held that it is inconsistent with section 39 but because ECOWAS Court doesn’t have binding powers, that is why they are still charging people under the Cybercrime Act, but I am going to make sure that I will be the last person that will be arrested in Nigeria over the Cybercrime Act, because I will make sure that the court nullifies that law.
The five months of incarceration has made me stronger and in honesty, I am no longer afraid of anybody. I used to be a timid and shy person, but now, I am no longer afraid of anybody.
DSS facility is the highest detention centre in Nigeria. I was kept there for months and was taken to the prison as well. So, tell me why I should be afraid again.
I am now committed to a greater resolve; to ensure that Nigerians live in liberty and that they experience good governance.
I don’t have any problem with the President. The Abia State government in their attempt to ensure that they silenced my voice just did what they did to appear as if I have a problem with Buhari. But one good thing with me is that such things make me stronger.
Is it true that you were being sponsored by a candidate of a political party in the state against the Abia State Government?
Such an assertion is a lie from the pit of hell. It was while I was in the prison that I read from the papers that I was being sponsored by Dr. Alex Otti, the gubernatorial candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) in the 2015 and 2019 general elections.
The truth is that, I have never met Alex Otti in my life, even as this interview is ongoing.
I like Alex Otti as a person. I see him as an achiever. I like what he says and I see him as a man that will make a good governor in Abia State. I challenge anybody to go to my account to see if Alex Otti has ever given me any dime.
When I was incarcerated, I was told that people were donating food stuffs, others were giving my family money to take care of things, maybe, he (Otti) was among the people that donated food stuffs or money for my family’s upkeep while I was still in detention, but as for me, Alex Otti has never given me any personal money.
I also like the governor of Abia State, Dr Okezie Ikpeazu. The only problem is just that some people who are working with him, give him the impression that I am his enemy and he will think that I don’t like him.
They equally alleged that IPOB is sponsoring me. Any person making such an allegation doesn’t visit my Facebook wall and other social media because I don’t believe in the division of the country, but that the country should be united and citizens of states should be treated equally.
It is the issue of giving the dog a bad name to hang it.
How would you access the role of the judiciary going in the last five months?
The judiciary is still being controlled by the government and that is very bad. Look at what happened to me in Abia State.
The Magistrate that remanded me in prison is my junior. She is my junior as a lawyer and if I were to be a Magistrate, she will still be my junior.
She knows that I am a lawyer and knew that there was nothing in the evidence, but she still went on to remand me because the government wanted her to remand me.
The judges in Abia State could not grant me bail because the governor was the complainant.
NBA tried, but the bail wasn’t forthcoming because they (judiciary) were hamstrung by the Executive.
The DSS after arresting you will go to one court and the court will give them power to detain you for a month or two. How can a court do that? How can you detain someone for one or two months without any fair hearing or prosecution? How can you keep someone in detention for a long time because a court order says so?
You can see that the court is being controlled by the government and that is not right.
So many times, the courts in advanced countries will stand against any decision of the Executive which is anti-people, but it is not so in Nigeria. It is not good and doesn’t help human rights development in Nigeria. It doesn’t help good governance and even during elections.
How do you think these issues will be addressed?
The judges need to stand on their own. The constitution has already made a provision for protection of judges; every judge has security of tenure, meaning that he or she cannot be removed easily, even in a State High Court; the governor doesn’t have the powers to remove a judge without the input of the NJC (National Judicial Commission). But the question is, are the judges in Abia State aware of that?
When the judges understand that their tenure is protected by law, then, they should go on to make decisions that are far-reaching without giving out themselves to the Executive.
Can we still say that the court is the final arbiter for the common man, if you, a lawyer, were subjected to this trauma?
The truth about it is that I am not writing the judiciary off. There have been so many good instances where the court has come to the rescue. That I am a freeman today is because of the court.
Sometimes we see the court being controlled by the Executive. Sometimes, you will equally see one or two judges insisting not to be controlled by the government.
But the truth remains that the court is being controlled by the government to a large extent.
It appears that you would to take a chill pill in your activism after this ordeal?
No. It will not. Rather, it has made me stronger. I now believe more in humanity. I now believe that we can have good governance. I am not afraid of anybody any more. I will not insult you, but I will protect what belongs to me. I will protect my rights and that of others around me.
It has also made me to start thinking of joining politics because you cannot stay in one place and continue to complain. If you think that the local, state and federal governments are not doing well, you have to enter to make the change. The best way to do something is to do it yourself; it is the best way to achieve something.
I want to serve. I want to be there for the people. I want to help to make a better Abia State, a better Southeast and a better Nigeria.
I want to use this opportunity to encourage the courageous activists that we have in the state and Nigeria as a whole. They shouldn’t be dampened in the spirit or be discouraged in the face of persecutions from the government.
Gani Fawehinmi was in prison 86 times, yet when he died, the whole country stood still. Governors were begging for his corpse to be brought to their states for them to honour him.
Mike Ozekhome, Femi Falana and others have been detained countless times. Being in detention is what happens when you are an activist. It is what happens when you want things to get better in the country.
But what I don’t want is the government being a threat to your life.
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