The chain of events that led to the one-month incarceration of a young Human Rights Activist Lawyer, Inibehe Effiong, in two of Nigeria’s pitiable, inhumane and dehumanising correctional centres, are bizarre and hard to believe.
Inibehe Effiong went to Uyo, the Akwa Ibom State capital, to defend a client before the Chief Judge’s Court, in a case of defamation allegedly against the Akwa Ibom State Governor, Udom Emmanuel, but instead he began a nightmarish journey to the dungeons of Ikot Ekpene and Uyo Correctional Centres. He narrated his harrowing ordeal to Onikepo Braithwaite and Jude Igbanoi last weekend
The CJ of Akwa Ibom State said you were disrespectful to the court and unruly, and committed you for contempt. What really transpired that day? What exactly was the contemptuous conduct you were accused of?
I arrived at the court early on July 27, 2022 along with my colleague, Augustine Asuquo Esq, to defend my client, Mr Leo Ekpenyong, who is also a legal practitioner, in a libel suit filed by the Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Mr Udom Emmanuel, over a certain publication in an online medium which my client has vehemently denied responsibility. I waited for the arrival of the trial Judge, His Lordship, Honourable Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom State. At about 10am, my lord entered the courtroom, and immediately and furiously, ordered his orderly to bring in the policemen. The proceeding of the day could not commence, because my lord did not call for appearances until the policemen had arrived. Soon afterwards, the orderly arrived in company of two stern looking mobile policemen. Both of them carried AK47 rifles. They sat behind me, one to my right and the other to my left. My lord, at that point, announced that his lordship was coming in with anger and that my lord was not going to tolerate nonsense from anybody. The courtroom was extremely tense. His lordship ordered the Governor’s witness to enter the witness box, for continuation of cross-examination. I stood up and reminded the court of our pending motion for recusal which we filed since June 23, 2022, but was repeatedly not taken. As usual, my lord ordered me to proceed with the cross- examination, and insisted that the recusal motion would be taken when the court deems fit. I did not argue.
I started cross-examining the witness. I was on the third question when his lordship interrupted me and called upon a journalist with Premium Times, Saviour Imukudo to stand up. My lord asked him who he was, and he answered that he was an observer. My lord asked him if he was a party to the case, to observe the proceedings. The gentleman responded that he was a journalist. My lord then asked him if he was a government journalist, to which he answered that he works for Premium Times. Immediately he mentioned Premium Times, my lord became very angry and ordered the policemen to seize his phone and take him out. I should mention that Saviour is known to my lord, because that was the second time that his lordship had sent him out of the courtroom. Premium Times had been covering and reporting developments in the case.
After Saviour was arrested and taken out of the courtroom, I intervened and addressed the court on the development. I said my lord, we were thinking that since Section 36 of the Constitution guarantees publicity of trial and provides that court proceedings shall be held in public, members of the public including journalists, should be free to access the court and observe proceedings. My lord was infuriated by my comments, and made deprecatory comments against me. My lord went further to accuse me of using the said journalist to destroy his hard earned reputation, which his lordship said his lordship had built for over 30 years. I should mention that although the Chief Judge is a woman, I am using masculine adjectives like “he” instead of she, because, in practice, we refer to female Judges using masculine adjectives. At that point, I knew that the issue had become very personal, so I rested the matter and did not make any further comment again. I never at any time said that if Saviour was not brought back into the courtroom, I was not going to continue with the case. That is the truth.
I was about to continue with the cross-examination of the Governor’s witness, when it occurred to me that the two armed policemen were still seated behind me. I said my lord, I have also observed the presence of two mobile policemen inside the courtroom with AK47s, and that even though I was not ordinarily intimidated by their presence, that their presence had created hostility in the courtroom and made it hard for me to continue with the day’s proceeding. I urged my lord to order them to leave the courtroom, as they had no business bringing AK47 inside the courtroom. My lord reacted furiously to my observation. I then informed the court that I was now making it as a formal application, in which case the court had to deliver a ruling one way or the other. Immediately I said that I was formally applying for the policemen to be excused from the courtroom, my lord picked a pen and started writing. I thought my lord was taking notes of my submissions, not knowing it was my committal order that was being written. I expressly informed his lordship that it was not consistent with the norms and traditions of our profession for policemen to bring AK47 rifles inside the courtroom, but that if his lordship was minded to allow the policemen to remain inside the courtroom, the court could overrule me and I would be bound by the court’s decision, and would proceed with my cross-examination.
The next thing I heard was my lord ordering me to step out of the Bar, which I obeyed. His lordship then ordered that I should de-robe myself. I then said my lord, if I de-robe I will no longer be able to address your lordship as counsel. My lord responded that his lordship no longer recognised me as a Lawyer, because my lord was sending me to prison. The next thing my lord did was to read out the committal order his lordship had earlier written, and sentenced me to one month imprisonment for contempt of court.
I was astonished and utterly speechless. My colleague, Augustine Asuquo, stood up and pleaded profusely for my lord to reconsider the decision, but his lordship rejected his pleas. My lord then ordered the same armed policemen whose presence I had objected to, that they should hold me and make sure that I did not escape, and ordered the Registrar to bring a conviction warrant into his chambers. That was how I was taken into a van and driven to Uyo Custodial Centre, but they did not accept me because they claimed that I had to spend the first two weeks in Ikot Ekpene Custodial Centre which had been designated as Covid-19 Isolation Centre.
I never banged any table. I never pointed or shouted at my lord. I never referred to my lord as “you”. In fact, I do not recall ever using the word “you” to refer to any Magistrate, let alone a Judge in court since I became a Lawyer. Those words attributed to me, never took place in court. Those accusations that you read about, came to my attention while I was in prison. I am innocent. It is just an attempt to justify what was done to me.
I should mention that, my lord usually fixes Governor Udom’s libel case and the sister case filed by Senator Effiong Bob against my client in isolation. What I mean is that any date my lord will sit on the two cases, no other case will be listed in the Cause List. That explains why there were no other Lawyers in court, except those of us involved in the case. I was never told what offence I had committed. No charge was prepared or read to me. I was never asked to enter the dock. I was not given the opportunity to take a plea, or to say anything. At no time was I asked to withdraw any comment. Those making these claims against me, will face the judgement of God and history. I believe their consciences are already judging them. The Court of Appeal will decide whether the manner in which I was treated, is consistent with the Constitution of this country.
Now that you have regained your freedom, what are your next steps apart from the appeal that Mr Femi Falana, SAN has already filed?
I will exercise my constitutional right of appeal, and also pursue other legal remedies available to me under the law. I am also grateful to the NBA, for resolving to take up my case. I am eternally grateful to my mentor and lead counsel, Mr Femi Falana, SAN, Mr Olumide-Fusika SAN, the immediate past 1st Vice President of the NBA, Mr Aikpokpo Martins, Mr Monday Ubani, Nsikak Akai, Augustine Asuquo, Eseme Philip, and every member of my legal team and other SANs who have so far indicated interest to join my legal team for their love, support and dedication to my case.
I am particularly grateful to the National leadership of the NBA, the National Executive Committee of the NBA, the immediate past President of the NBA, Mr Olumide Akpata, who went to great length to defend me, despite the sinister, vindictive and politically motivated campaign of calumny launched against me by a section of the Uyo Branch of the NBA, who would rather see me crucified because of their political affiliation with Governor Udom Emmanuel and animosity towards my person. If they did not want to identify with me because I belong to the Ikeja Branch, they should have stayed neutral. But, they decided to play the role of the devil’s advocate. Throughout my one month incarceration, the Uyo Branch did not visit me in prison. Rather, they called a meeting with the sole agenda of lying against me, and poisoning the mind of the delegation sent by Mr Olumide Akpata. They denied my colleague the opportunity to speak, despite indicating his interest to address the meeting as an eye witness.
The Ikot Ekpene Branch sent a delegation of about 10 executive members led by the Branch Chairman, to visit me. But, the leaders of the Uyo Branch were more concerned with scandalising my image.
A former Attorney-General of Akwa Ibom State, Mr Uwemedino Nwoko, alleged that your problem is that you lack proper mentoring, and the fact that you never had any form of pupilage is the cause of your problems. That you haven’t learned to say ‘as the court pleases’ and other nuances of the legal profession. What is your response to this?
Let me be frank with you, I was going to ignore the vituperations of Mr Nwoko, SAN against me, because I firmly believe that every rational person that watched the widely circulated interview that he granted to malign me would easily decipher that his assertions were actuated by malice, made in bad faith and dictated by uncontrollable vindictiveness. You know in this part of the world, when a younger person responds to an elder, some people will see it as insult, irrespective of what the elder may have done or said against the younger person. So, I initially did not want to respond to him.
But, on second thoughts, if I do not respond, the remarks he made may be referenced in the future, and mistaken as truth. I was on the same flight with Nwoko, SAN from Uyo to Abuja on July 25, 2022. As I boarded the aircraft, I saw him seated in one of the front seats. I greeted him by saying Learned Silk, good afternoon Sir. He just smiled in a dismissive way, and I passed. Every single time that I meet Mr Nwoko, I always accord him respect. Even though I fundamentally opposed the way he conducted himself while in office as Attorney-General (AG) and do not share his political ideology, I have never treated him with disdain. I have always greeted and respected him, as my senior at the Bar. Regrettably, Mr Nwoko does not reciprocate the courtesy that I accord him. He has consistently sought to put me down. With the sort of bitterness and animosity that he exudes towards me, one may be tempted to think that I made advances towards his wife or that I eloped with his daughter. How else would you describe the sort of condescending and diabolical comments that he made against me, while I was in prison? He showed neither empathy, nor a desire for justice. I am much younger than him in age, and at the Bar. But, he reacted to my incarceration as if I am competing with him. He has always treated me, as someone who is a threat to his source of livelihood and standing in the society.
For the benefit of those who do not know, Mr Nwoko’s animosity towards me assumed a dangerous dimension after a certain young man by name Kufre Carter was arrested in April 2020 by the SSS on the instigation of the Akwa Ibom State Government, over alleged defamation. The case was politically motivated, legally indefensible, and initiated in a desperate attempt by the State Government to cover the perceived fraudulent manner that the government handled funds collected from donors to contain the spread of Covid-19. I took up the case of the young man, pro bono. Mr Nwoko SAN was the AG at the time. The Chief Magistrate Court had imposed stringent bail conditions on Carter, including that he should produce a surety who must be a Permanent Secretary or a level 17 Civil Servant and imposed a bail bond of N3 million. I filed a motion at the High Court, praying for variation of the onerous bail conditions. Mr Nwoko decided to personally oppose the application. He appeared in court in person as the AG, and argued against variation of the bail. The High Court aligned completely with my submissions, and totally discountenanced his arguments. Mr Nwoko saw the ruling as a fatal humiliation, given the public attention that the case had elicited. Before the legal fireworks began in the court on the day the motion was heard, Mr Nwoko said to me loudly to the hearing of everyone, “Inibehe, are you aware that your client has apologised to the Governor?” I responded by telling him that there was no apology from my client, and that, in any event, it is the Governor who should apologise to my client for the violation of his rights. He said to me, “Is that so?” and I answered him in the affirmative.
The State Government was desperate to get a soft landing through undeserved apology, given the anger of the public over the dubious charge which was eventually thrown out by the trial court. I was also determined to ensure that the government did not resolve the case based on their sinister and oppressive terms, in order to make them understand that in this country, not everyone will prostrate before corrupt politicians. That was why Nwoko, SAN could not accept the decision of the learned Judge, which set aside all the stringent bail conditions imposed by the Chief Magistrate Court.
Immediately the High Court delivered a ruling against him, Mr Nwoko served us with a frivolous Notice of Appeal and a baseless motion for stay of execution, which is almost unprecedented in the history of legal practice in Nigeria. I am not aware of any precedent where the State represented by the AG, filed an appeal against an order varying bail conditions of a Defendant with a motion for stay of execution. How do you stay the liberty of a citizen, whose fundamental right to liberty is guaranteed by Section 35 of the Constitution? Bail is at the discretion of the court. It was a clear case of persecution. I felt scandalised as a Lawyer. The SSS told me that Mr Nwoko had written to them, not to comply with the order of the High Court. It was nothing short of prosecutorial misconduct, and gross abuse of office. But because impunity has become a culture in this country, people like Mr Nwoko, SAN can afford to do whatever they like when they occupy public office, without consequences. I had resolved at the time to write a petition against him to the NBA. But, I reconsidered my decision and moved on, having secured the release of my client.
Since then, Nwoko, SAN has bitterly sought to denigrate me at the slightest opportunity. I have respect for Senior Advocates of Nigeria. It is a rank of distinction and honour. However, I believe that the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria would be thoroughly embarrassed by the comments and conduct of Mr Nwoko. He said that I lack mentorship. That is false. There are a number of Senior Advocates of Nigeria that hail from Akwa Ibom State. I respect them. It is only Mr Nwoko that has publicly and consistently sought to ruin me. He is a consultant to the Akwa Ibom State Government, and the Akwa Ibom State Government perceives me as their number one nemesis because I have consistently exposed and spoken out against their misrule. How can a learned Senior Advocate say that a lawyer does not know how to say “as the court pleases”? Is that not ridiculous? In the eight years of my practice, no Judge has ever accused me of insolence. I cannot recall ever disparaging any judge or senior colleague in court. His allegations against me are entirely false, and he knows it.
Do you know that Mr Nwoko went to the extent of Lawyers Mr Falana, SAN, Mr Monday Ubani, and other senior Lawyers in the country and tried to poison their minds against me? He is using his status as a SAN against me. But, history will vindicate the just.