Gabriel Ogbonna, a lawyer, said his prolonged detention by operatives of the State Security Service (SSS) would not have been possible without conflicting court orders obtained from magistrate courts in Abuja.
For over four months, the Aba-based human rights lawyer was illegally detained by the agency despite multiple court judgments ordering his release. He was however freed on Friday evening, days after the third judgement was pronounced.
PREMIUM TIMES reported how Mr Ogbonna was in March arrested for posting articles criticising the Okezie Ikpeazu-led government in Abia State, via his social media page.
After his arrest, he was docked alongside another person for cybercrime and publishing false and threatening messages against Governor Ikpeazu in a magistrate court sitting in Umuahia.
However, because the magistrate court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case, he was then remanded at a correctional facility in the state capital until April 28, when he was arraigned before the Federal High Court in Umuahia and was granted bail.
Mr Ogbonna was re-arrested by SSS operatives on his way out of the correctional facility in Umuahia on the same day. This was after he had perfected the bail conditions.
Afterwards, the SSS moved Mr Ogbonna to its office in the state and in April, took him to its headquarters in Abuja, where he was in custody without any charges until recently when he was charged with allegations bordering around cybercrime.
In this exclusive interview with PREMIUM TIMES, the lawyer shared his experience in the hands of the secret police operatives and how they obtained ex parte orders from magistrate courts to detain him indefinitely.
This was also corroborated by his lawyer, Nkem Okoro, who interrupted the interview at a point.
PT: Can you share your experience in the SSS custody with us?
Ogbonna: My experience was horrible. They kept people underground, in a dirty cell. When they question you and you refuse to respond, they can take you to one cell and lock you up. After two months, you will be the one begging them to release you and that you want to respond. I don’t pray for that kind of experience even for my enemy. It was really a horrendous experience. Even the food they serve there is horrible. They detain people for months. Some, (for) six months and beyond.
You know the SSS handles different cases now. If you have issues with your wife, you can report to them. They can arrest and detain you over land disputes. All sorts of irregularities.
My phone was seized and I was denied access to anyone for months. They said I cannot see anyone. They were chasing away those who came to visit me. It is after these people leave that they will inform you that someone came looking for you.
PT: That means you were not aware of the court judgement ordering your release while in detention?
Ogbonna: I was not aware until sometime ago when someone mentioned it to me. Even when my wife gave birth, it was one of the lawyers who broke the news to me, days after.
PT: Did they provide any reason for the continued detention while with them?
Ogbonna: The only reason they said, which I don’t agree with, is that I was cyberstalking the president with my social media posts. In fact, when the court ordered that they should release me, they became more hostile to me. They refused to charge me to court for five months.
It was when my lawyer served them the contempt of court procedure that they charged me to court. They were afraid that someone would go to prison. They brought me to court. For five months, I was there with no charge. They just locked me up and ignored me. I was later charged under the Cybercrime Act.
PT: From your experience in the hands of the SSS, do you think Nigeria is going to make a headway with this kind of practice?
Ogbonna: Nigeria is not going anywhere with this kind of practice. First of all, the Cybercrime Act is against section 39 of the constitution of Nigeria that gives everybody freedom of expression. Do you know that from a section of that cybercrime Act, it is an offense to criticise the governor, president, or anybody? Once you criticise somebody, they will say you are subjecting the person to hatred. I’m going to file a suit at the Federal High Court to declare some of those sections of the Act illegal. If you feel that somebody defamed you, sue the person, and get damages.
It is wrong for you to arrest somebody for criticising you and say the person has violated the Cybercrime Act. If a president is not doing well or a governor is not doing well and I criticise him and you are now telling me that I am guilty of the crime that I put the president under hatred; is that meaningful?
Even (Donald) Trump, he is often criticised in America. The United Kingdom prime minister, the people criticise him, but in Nigeria, it is a crime to criticise a president, a governor, or anybody. They will arrest you for cyberstalking. Cyberstalking when you criticise your president who is paid with your money?
If you write something, somebody can charge you that you have published a xenophobic material. Say something true that… “maybe the way Nigeria is going”… the herdsmen killings. Talk about Boko Haram killing or the bandits. Somebody will say you are attacking him. Is the government not responsible for maintaining security in the country? If somebody does all these, someone will arrest you and say you are breeding hatred. Which hatred? Are you not saying the truth?
The court is the last hope of a common man but what will the court do when the executive refuses to comply with a court order? Or the service says we don’t obey court orders.
Do you know what they do? Let me tell you what they do. Some of these services go to the magistrates in Abuja. Magistrates will give the order to detain you indefinitely. When that is going on, another magistrate will give an order to “detain this man for two weeks”. While the two weeks expire, they go for another one. While the ACJA (Administration of Criminal Justice Act) is clear as to how many times a court can make that order, some magistrates, judges in Abuja will continue making this order.
PT: So, you are saying the judiciary is going against itself?
Ogbonna: Yes. Sometimes, they subtly threaten them. Some of these agencies threaten the magistrate or judges. Maybe if the magistrate and judges have a pending case of corruption, they would subtly, not directly, but they will do something somehow so that the person will be threatened to issue that order. That is what happens in Nigeria.
Okoro: The application which they made to the magistrate to detain him, which they presented later in court contained the Terrorism Prevention Act. The magistrate has no jurisdiction to handle anything including the detention order under the Terrorism Prevention Act. It is only the Federal High Court that has jurisdiction over it. What they do is that once they give it the picture of terrorism, they send it to the magistrate, and out of fear for them, the magistrate will just grant an order detaining you.
It is only the Federal High Court that can grant an order remanding while the proceeding is going on. Also, cybercrime is also a federal offence and only a Federal High Court can grant the orders to. During the fundamental human rights suit filed for him, they brought those orders from the magistrate and the orders were in pursuant to an application they made based on the Terrorism Prevention Act, whereas, when they eventually charged him to court, they did not charge him to court under the Terrorism Prevention Act.
They deceived the magistrate, who also, ordinarily, ought to know that it has no powers under the Terrorism Prevention Act to detain anybody. The honourable thing any magistrate should have done is to decline jurisdiction and say “Go to the proper court”.
The judiciary is playing into the hands of the executive in trampling on the rights of the citizens. It is unfortunate but we will continue to pursue justice against the illegal detention, de human and degrading treatments they mete out to him in detention.
PT: With the repression on press freedom, do you consider the country safe?
Ogbonna: Nigeria is not safe for anyone. The economy of Nigeria…When Buhari took over power, the dollar was a bit more than 200 naira, now, a dollar is almost 500 naira. The economy has collapsed as a country. Security in Nigeria has gone worse than before. Some public officers no longer go back to their villages, particularly in the North, because of insecurity.
With the way the country is going, freedom of speech, you will talk, they will arrest you. How many people are standing trial? Go to SSS, go to Federal SARS, go to FCID. You will see so many people in detention because they said one thing against the governor, president, or one public officer. In those days, when people talk, we see changes, nowadays, they arrest you.
It becomes a problem to be a Nigerian. They are using that Cybercrime Act to suppress anybody and infringe on the fundamental human rights of Nigerians. That is why that law should be repealed.
PT: What were the interventions from the NBA when you went through all these?
Yesterday, I was invited to the NBA Annual General Meeting (AGM) and I spoke via live streaming. I was encouraged. They said they appreciate what we human rights lawyers do. When this matter started, NBA Aba (branch) was behind me. They were the ones who helped me in court to get my first bail. And later when I got to Abuja, the government intervened and some people started playing politics with my detention, the NBA Aba was no longer working the way they ought to. The person that was the leader that time was from the governor’s side. But now, NBA Aba has done an election. They have elected a new man. Right now, he appears to know what he is doing.
When it comes to the national, the new president, Olumide Akpata, I believe in the young man. And I would like to thank the new welfare secretary, Tunde Edun. That young man was behind us through thick and thin. He is the kind of lawyer the bar needs and God will bless him. He is the arrow-head when it comes to what the NBA national did for me and other activists who want a better Nigeria.
PT: As you are aware that while in detention, the NBA national secretariat held its election too, do you have confidence in the new leadership?
Right now, I would not say anything about Akpata because he was just sworn in yesterday.
PT: Okay. But you surely have expectations from the new president. What are they?
Ogbonna: This issue of new NBA fronted by the Northerners, he has to call them and ask about their grievances. The issue of El-Rufai is a notorious issue. Nigerians have eyes and we are seeing what is happening in Southern Kaduna. So, if the NBA took a stand against El-Rufai, I think the association is justified. Let’s tell ourselves the truth.
Do you know that El-Rufai is the only Muslim governor in Kaduna who has a Muslim deputy? If you are a Christian, you pick a Muslim deputy and vice versa. And now, see what is happening in Southern Kaduna. Akpata has the duty to bring back those lawyers who have decided to form a parallel association and make peace with them.
Also, when it comes to the issue of the welfare of members, that is why any association exists. When you have lawyers who passed through hell in the hands of the government and the NBA national is not doing much to save the person, it becomes a problem. The NBA should learn how to protect members. The NBA should learn how to give members welfare packages. We all pay welfare fees.
The NBA should also stand up when things are not going well in the country. When the country is moving towards tyranny, the NBA should be the group that will speak for the Nigerian people. In those days, we used to have it but nowadays, Paul Usoro (the former President) did not speak much maybe because he had some court cases. But now, we have Akpata who has no court case, he should speak. Lawyers are meant to be social engineers.
PT: In Abia state, where you were first arrested and detained, the state government is owing workers amid other challenges, does this worry you?
Ogbonna: Abia State is very pathetic. I have been talking about Abia state for years. I don’t want to say I’m tired of talking about the state. For instance, Abia Poly staff are owed almost 20 months’ salary. Doctors and teachers are being owed.
Some villages and towns are not motorable. Even in the geopolitical area that voted for the governor, some of them can no longer go to their villages because they’ve been cut off. The roads inside have been cut off. Come to Abia State and see yourself. Yet, we have a government. When you speak out they arrest you and detain you. When you speak out again, they will arrest you and take you to the DSS.
Although I don’t know for how long this will continue but it is a pity when you see what David Umahi is doing in Ebonyi State and you compare it with Abia. A flyover that the government started building six years ago, it has not been completed. Right now, Abia people call that flyover ‘Centre Table’. Very very bad. Yet, we are in a democracy. Everybody keeps talking on the air and nothing is happening. I wonder when Abia State will get it right.
PT: Do you mean it is a hopeless situation?
Ogbonna: They will get it right come 2023. Somebody will come forward. I don’t want to tell you who that person is. By 2023, somebody will come out and get it right in Abia State. Mark my words. That person is already aligning to make sure Abia State get it right. Abia State will beat Ebonyi state in terms of development come 2023.