Human rights lawyers and activists have continued to express their concerns over the controversial arrest and prosecution of a man who named his dog “Buhari”.
Joachim Iroko, a 41-year-old trader, was charged in Ogun State on Monday for naming his pet dog “Buhari”. Mr. Iroko said he named the dog as a mark of respect for President Muhammadu Buhari.
Bolaji Ojikutu, a Chief Magistrate who heard the matter, granted him a 50,000 bail and adjourned the case till September 19.
But the case has left many apprehensive about free speech in Nigeria.
Lawyers and activists accusing the police and the government of acting swiftly on what seems less important, while far graver offenses receive no response.
“I am going to request the attorney-general of Ogun State to discontinue the frivolous charge,” said Femi Falana, a rights lawyer.
Mr. Falana said Mr. Iroko’s ordeal had no place in the Nigerian statute, adding that labelling his dog with his desired name was in exercise of his fundamental rights to free speech which should not be curtailed by the Nigerian state.
“It is against Section 36(9) of the Constitution to charge a man for a criminal offence that is unknown to law,” Mr. Falana said. “It is also illegal to use the machinery of government to harass any citizen.”
“If the president is aggrieved by the naming of dog after him, he is at liberty to sue for libel. But the police cannot invoke criminal proceeding to intimidate the fellow.”
Inibehe Effiong, a human rights lawyer, said the “fixation” with Mr. Iroko despite sundry pressing issues, highlights the “reckless, arbitrary and intolerable abuse of law enforcement powers by the police”.
Mr. Effiong, who is the convener of Coalition of Human Rights Defenders, a public interest think-tank, said Mr. Iroko had only exercised his freedom of speech and expression which did not amount to a contradiction of the statute under which he’s being prosecuted.
“The fact that an individual or a section of the public considers a person’s conduct repulsive and reprehensible does not necessarily bring such conduct within the contemplation of Section 249 (1) (d) of the Criminal Code so as to occasion a likelihood of breach of the peace,” Mr. Effiong said.
Mr. Effiong, who coordinated the fundraiser for Mr. Iroko’s bail on social media, said the timing of the police action looked “highly suspicious”.
“Let’s ask the police one question: why are they just arresting him now?” Mr. Iroko said. “He got the dog as a gift in December 2015 and gave it the name. Nobody complained for more than eight months.”
Mr. Effiong said he was raising a legal team of about 100 lawyers to defend Mr. Iroko against “what everyone can now see clearly is an attack on his fundamental rights to free speech”.
Fola Olubanjo, a public affairs analyst, said Mr. Iroko’s arrest and prosecution should not be seen as a mere episode in the headlines.
“I’ve been watching the way the news media has been reporting this matter and I must be honest with you it’s not thorough enough,” Mr. Olubanjo said. “This should just not be so.”
Mr. Olubanjo said the recent violent attacks against people exercising their fundamental rights to speech and expression were enough to spur the government to adopt zero-tolerance towards any form of repression of free speech, if only to serve as a form of orientation.
“A woman was killed in Kano and another in Abuja. In both cases, they only exercised freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution,” Mr. Olubanjo said. “The government clearly doesn’t understand that if people are being arrested over a matter that is clearly in consonance with the principles of free speech, then no one should act surprised when a mob kills anyone for preaching the gospel on the streets.”
Mr. Olubanjo said the fact that the Buhari administration did not speak out against the injustice being meted to Mr. Iroko by elements of the state was equally condemnable, especially when he had a record of being allegedly intolerant of freedom of expression in the past.
“Look, this is a government led by someone with a terrible human rights record, specifically the repression of freedom of expression and freedom to say anything without fear,” Mr.Olubanjo said.
“Clearly, they’re not doing much to show that they’re willing to let democratic principles guide them in the way they conduct the affairs of the state.”
But Liborous Oshoma, a Lagos-based lawyer and public affairs analyst, however said the matter must be dissected beyond merely free speech.
Mr. Oshoma said Nigerians should not focus on criticising the government when the matter was clearly one of showing tolerance to engender peaceful coexistence.
“The man is an Igbo man and he named his dog Buhari. Not only that, he was also said to have written same on the dog in a neighbourhood of mostly Hausa people,” Mr. Oshoma said. “He definitely intended to provoke and incite violence in that neighbourhood.”
Mr. Oshoma said the neighbours were right to report the matter to the police, saying “it shows clearly that they have the peace of the environment at heart.”
“The matter is like having a white man walk his dog with ‘Nigger’ boldly written on it,” Mr. Oshoma said. “Ordinarily, you don’t want to do that unless you’re ready to get picked up by the police.”
Mr. Oshoma said citizens must be able to distinguish the focal point between free speech and hate speech or deliberate attempt to incite violence.
Hours after Mr. Iroko was released, the presidency put out a statement illustrating saying the controversy was “laughable”.
It was the first public response on the matter.
Since coming to power in 2015, no fewer than five persons have been arrested on matters bordering on free speech.
Barely three months into the government, three bloggers, Demond Ike, Seun Oloketuyi and Chris Nwandu, were arrested and charged for offences that allegedly contravened Cybercrime Act in Lagos.
Mr. Ike spent six months in custody, parts of which were in Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison.
A month later, Emmanuel Ojo, was arrested in Abeokuta allegedly on the orders of Ogun State governor, Ibikunle Amosun, after posting some “offensive” materials on Facebook. The charges preferred against him remained stalled in the Abeokuta Division of the Federal High Court.
Mr. Ojo said he had since fled Nigeria to another West African country after “threats from powerful people became unbearable”.
Three weeks ago, Abubakar Usman, a pro-government blogger, was also arrested and detained for nearly two days for apparently publishing a report critical of the head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Ibrahim Magu.
Mr. Iroko said he had three dogs. He named one “Obama”, the second “Buhari”(later killed) and one after himself “Joachim”.
Mr. Effiong said it was unfortunate that Mr. Iroko would be arrested while those who killed his dog and threatened violence against him were allowed to walk free by the authorities.