A Nigerian woman has lost her job a week after criticising Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and President Muhammadu Buhari’s wife, Aisha, on Twitter.
In the July 5, 2017 tweet, Bolouere Opukiri described then-Acting President Osinbajo as ‘a novice’ for travelling out of the country at a time President Muhammadu Buhari was receiving medical treatment in London and tension was flaring between the executive and the legislature.
Senators had criticised Mr Osinbajo’s trip the day before, with Enyinnaya Abaribe of Abia saying it created “a vacuum” that Senate President Bukola Saraki should step in to fill.
In another post five days later, Ms Opukiri threw a shade at Mrs Buhari for railing against some ‘hyenas’ and ‘jackals’ within her husband’s inner circle, suggesting that Ms Buhari might not be as ‘classy’ as former first lady, Patience Jonathan.
The two tweets and other similar rants against Buhari administration figures were subsequently chronicled by some pro-government netizens and sent to the presidency.
The presidential amnesty office, where Ms Opukiri worked at the media unit, saw her abuse of ‘government official’ as a threat to national security and summarily dismissed her as recommended by the public service rules.
Ms Opukiri told PREMIUM TIMES her dismissal was a violation of her right to free expression as enumerated in the Constitution and vowed to challenge it in court.
Sacked for ‘prejudicial claim’, and ‘state security’
Laolu Akande, the spokesperson for Mr Osinbajo, received an e-mail from one of the administration’s supporters online with a quibble about Ms Opukiri’s continued stay in office despite her regular “insults” against the administration, especially Messrs Buhari and Osinbajo.
If “characters” like Ms Opukiri “continue to work in government”, it would portray the administration’s online supporters as “weak” and their loyalty “unrewarding,” the petitioner said in an e-mail seen by PREMIUM TIMES
Mr Akande forwarded the e-mail to Paul Boroh, then-head of presidential amnesty office, with an annotation: ‘Pls is this correct?’ according to details of the communication confirmed by PREMIUM TIMES showed.
Mr Boroh did not appear to have responded to Mr Akande’s e-mail, but he did order an immediate probe into Ms Opukiri’s online activities.
Ms Opukiri, 30, learnt of the complaints against her for the first time on July 12. She arrived at work on that Wednesday morning and was immediately summoned by Dedis Abel, then chief of staff at the presidential amnesty office, Ms Opukiri told PREMIUM TIMES.
She said Mr Abel, a retired colonel, told her she was the subject of a petition that came in from the presidency. He then detailed two soldiers to follow Ms Opukiri home to search her apartment for any material that could aid in their investigation of her online activities.
By noon, she appeared before a disciplinary panel and was confronted with printouts of her tweets, one of them was one in which she excoriated Mrs Buhari for her jackals and hyenas comment on July 5.
Ms Opukiri denied all allegations of misconduct in her response to the six-person disciplinary committee, including two women, according to her employee records seen by PREMIUM TIMES. She was not queried, but only made to respond to specific allegations when she faced the committee, all of which bordered on her use of social media.
Ms Opukiri was asked to go home and await further communications after her grilling. The committee went on to recommend Ms Opukiri’s dismissal when it submitted its report the same day, and she was dismissed the next day, July 13.
Her dismissal letter, seen by PREMIUM TIMEES, said she made ‘false claims’ against a ‘government official’ in her July 5 tweet. The claims were ‘prejudicial to state security” and also “inimical to the image of the Office of the Special Adviser to the President on Niger-Delta Affairs.”
The office based its actions on public service rule (PSR) 030407, which defines ‘false claims against government officials’ as a serious misconduct for which an employee should be dismissed as ultimate penalty.
Ms Opukiri was posted to the amnesty office as an in-house consultant on the re-integration of rehabilitated Niger-Delta militants as part of the amnesty programme launched by late President Umar Yar’Adua.
Tidal Streams, an outsourcing firm, which was Ms Opukiri’s primary employer, was given prior notice of her dismissal, the sack letter said. As an in-house consultant for a government agency, Ms Opukiri could be subjected to public service rules, according to senior civil servants who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES about the nature of her employment, including a permanent secretary and a director.
Ms Opukiri’s employment letter implored her to be ‘responsible’ in her conduct while on the job, but did not include a specific guideline about what she could engage in on social media.
Ms Opukiri said she was told that Mr Akande and other presidency officials mounted pressure for her dismissal. PREMIUM TIMES was unable to independently verify this claim.
She said the complaints were sent to Mr Akande following an online brawl she had with Segun Dada, another pro-government commentator on Twitter.
“He insulted me as a fat woman and I responded that he should be the last person to call anyone fat because his wife is also fat by nature,” Ms Opukiri said.
Mr Dada confirmed exchanging tense tweets with Ms Opukiri, which they both mutually deleted later, but strongly denied the allegations, telling PREMIUM TIMES he had never owned an iPad which was used to send the complaints to Mr Akande as indicated by the e-mail server.
“I have not and will never be personally responsible for anyone losing their job,” Mr Dada told PREMIUM TIMES in a message.
Mr Boroh could not be reached for comments. He was fired as head of amnesty office by Mr Buhari in March. His successor, Charles Dokubo, did not return PREMIUM TIMES requests for comments throughout the week. A spokesperson for the amnesty office made promises to return enquiries about matter but failed repeatedly.
Months after her dismissal, Ms Opukiri was re-engaged early last month by Double Helix Nigeria Limited, a new outsourcing firm contracted by the amnesty office, but she was asked to stop work within the first week. Tidal Streams had been dropped by the office shortly after Ms Opukiri left.
She said Mr Dokubo was asked to dismiss her again when he visited the State House early May.
“They told him they were aware that I had been reinstated and he immediately took steps to get me fired once again to avoid offending the presidency,” Ms Opukiri said. PREMIUM TIMES saw the May 2 employment offer from Double Helix, but could not independently verify claims that Mr Dokubo ordered her termination under pressure from the State House.
Emilia Achor, head of human resources at Double Helix, said the firm rescinded Ms Opukiri’s offer letter because it had “the rights” to do so. She offered no further explanation.
A telephone number for Tidal Streams did not connect.
Mr Akande also did not return PREMIUM TIMES’ requests for comments.
Analysts said the dismissal followed a trend of intolerance that has seen critics of the government being targeted.
Cheta Nwanze, a political and security analyst with SBM Intelligence, said in 2016 SBM was on the verge of sealing a contract when at the last minute the other party pulled out without explanation.
Mr Nwanze said a few months later he met a member of the other group who told him he had been reported because of his activities online. Mr Nwanze campaigned vigorously for Mr Buhari’s election in 2015. He said fell out with Mr Buhari after some early controversies by the administration. He regularly clashes with pro-government handles on Twitter.
Also, when Dipo Awojide, a disillusioned supporter of Mr Buhari, started raising his voice against the administration in 2016, he was reported to his employers at Nottingham Trent University in the UK.
Mr Awojide declined comments to PREMIUM TIMES about the matter, but he disclosed it on Twitter at the time.
PREMIUM TIMES also learnt of at least two other persons whose online activities were reported to their employers. They, however, declined to comment for this story and requested that their names should not be mentioned to avoid any backlash.
Free speech or recklessness?
Federal civil service rules have long been used to punish public officials for being critical of the government or senior officials, a practice that has continued to elicit mixed reactions from commentators.
Ms Opukiri’s dismissal came three years after the Nigerian government sacked an official of National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) for penning a critique of former finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
In the March 5, 2013 article, Yushau Shuaib, then NEMA spokesperson, highlighted a slew of complaints bordering on nepotism against Ms Okonjo-Iweala. He was subsequently queried, compelled to appear before a disciplinary panel and summarily dismissed.
Mr Shuaib challenged his dismissal in court. In November 2017, the National Industrial Court declared Mr Shuaib’s dismissal illegal and ordered his immediate reinstatement with full payment from the day of his sack in 2013.
More than six months later, Mr Shuaib has not been reinstated because the information minister, Lai Mohammed, who criticised the dismissal while an opposition spokesperson in 2013, appealed the ruling.
Nelson Ekujumi, a civil rights activist and public affairs analyst, said Ms Opukiri was reckless with her comments online and her dismissal would serve as a warning to other would-be critics of the government to be more circumspect about their public conduct.
“Your right to free speech is not absolute,” Mr Ekujumi said. “You cannot express your free speech to libel and slander people.”
“Your right to free speech does not allow you to make hate speech or make false allegations against people, be it a public official or a private citizen,” he added.
Mr Ekujumi said the amnesty office committed no wrongdoing since it followed the public service rules in dismissing Ms Opukiri.
But rights activist, Inibehe Effiong, condemned the government’s action as “extremely disproportionate.”
Mr Effiong, a Lagos-based lawyer, said the amnesty office should have forwarded complaints to Ms Opukiri’s primary employer rather than taking the action directly.
Still, even the public service rules applied against Ms Opukiri could be challenged in court because of obvious inconsistencies with the Constitution, Mr Effiong said.
Chapter one of the PSR said the the rules applied “only to the extent that they are not inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in so far as their conditions of service and any other law applicable to these officers are concerned.”
“The public service rules cannot override Section 39 of the Constitution which accorded all individuals a right to freedom of expression,” Mr Effiong said.
Chris Ngwodo, a political analyst, said Ms Opukiri was “serving at the pleasure of the president” and should not have used her social media account to issue uncomplimentary remarks against his administration.
According to Mr Ngwodo, while Mrs Buhari is not a public official but a public figure, Ms Opukiri’s reference to the Vice President in her posts, meant that her dismissal letter was accurate in describing her as having attacked a government official.
Even so, the analyst said Ms Opukiri could seek legal counsel for clarification of any potential ground for challenging her dismissal.