Gabriel Ogbonna, a lawyer, said his prolonged detention by State Security Service (SSS) personnel would not have been possible without conflicting court orders from Abuja local courts.
The Aba-based human rights lawyer was illegally detained by the agency for over four months, despite multiple court judgments ordering his release. It was, however freed on Friday evening, days after the third judgment.
PREMIUM TIMES reported how Mr. Ogbonna was arrested in March for posting articles on his social media site criticizing the Okezie Ikpeazu-led government in Abia state.
After his arrest, he was docked with another person for cybercrime and published false and threatening news against Governor Ikpeazu in a district court in Umuahia.
However, since the district court did not have jurisdiction to rule on the case, he was detained in a correctional facility in the state capital until April 28, before he was indicted and released on bail in the federal court in Umuahia.
Mr. Ogbonna was arrested again on the same day by SSS staff on his way out of the Umuahia correctional facility. This came after he perfected the conditions for bail.
The SSS then moved Mr. Ogbonna to his state office and took him to his headquarters in Abuja in April, where he was held without charge until recently when he was charged with cybercrime-related charges.
In this exclusive interview with PREMIUM TIMES, the attorney shared his experience in the hands of the secret police and how they had received ex parte orders from local courts to hold him indefinitely.
This was also confirmed by his lawyer, Nkem Okoro, who interrupted the interview at some point.
PT: Can you tell us about your experiences in SSS detention?
Ogbonna: My experience was terrible. They kept people underground in a filthy cell. If they question you and you refuse to answer, they can put you in a cell and lock you up. After two months, you will be the one asking them to release you and asking you to respond. I don't pray for this type of experience, including my enemy. It was really a terrible experience. Even the food they serve there is awful. They hold people down for months. Some, (for) six months and beyond.
You know that the SSS is now dealing with different cases. If you have any problems with your wife, you can contact them. They can arrest and detain you for land disputes. All sorts of irregularities.
My phone was confiscated and denied access to anyone for months. They said I can't see anyone. They drove away those who came to see me. After these people leave, they will tell you that someone has been looking for you.
PT: That means you were unaware of the court ruling ordering your release while in custody?
Ogbonna: I was only aware of this some time ago when someone told me. Even when my wife was born, it was one of the lawyers who brought the news to me days later.
PT: Did you give a reason for the continued detention while with you?
Ogbonna: The only reason they said that I disagree with is that I followed the president with my social media posts on the internet. In fact, when the court ordered that they release me, they became more hostile to me. They refused to try me for five months.
When my attorney served them the contempt of trial, I was put on trial. They were afraid that someone would go to jail. They took me to court. I was there for five months for free. 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 believe that Nigeria will make progress with this type of practice?
Ogbonna: Nigeria is not going anywhere with this type of practice. First, the Cybercrime Act violates Section 39 of the Constitution of Nigeria, which gives everyone freedom of expression. Do you know that from a section of this cybercrime act it is a criminal offense to criticize the governor, the president, or anyone else? As soon as you criticize someone, they will say that you are exposing the person to hatred. I will be filing a lawsuit in the federal court to declare some of these sections of the law illegal. If you feel that someone has defamed you, sue that person and receive compensation.
It is wrong for you to arrest someone who criticizes you and say that the person has violated the Cybercrime Act. If a president is not doing well or a governor is not doing well and I criticize him and you tell me now that I am guilty of the crime that I hated the president; does this make sense?
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Even (Donald) Trump is often criticized in America. British Prime Minister, the people criticize him, but in Nigeria it is a crime to criticize a president, a governor or anyone. They are going to arrest you for cyberstalking. Cyberstalking when you criticize your president who is paid with your money?
If you write something, someone can accuse you of posting xenophobic material. Share some truthfulness that… “perhaps the way of Nigeria”… the killings of the shepherds. Talk about killing Boko Haram or the bandits. Someone will say you are attacking them. Isn't the government responsible for maintaining security in the country? If someone does all of these, someone is going to arrest you and say that you breed hatred. What hate? Aren’t you telling the truth
The court is a common man's last hope, but what will the court do if the executive refuses to obey a court order? Or the service says we are not obeying court orders.
Do you know what they do Let me tell you what they do. Some of these services go to the judges in Abuja. The judges will order you to be held indefinitely. In this case, another judge will order "this man to be held for two weeks". As the two weeks expire, they choose another. While the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) makes it clear how often a court can make this order, some judges and judges in Abuja will continue to make this order.
PT: So you're saying the judiciary is against itself?
Ogbonna: Yes. Sometimes they threaten her in subtle ways. Some of these agencies threaten the judge or judges. If the judge and judges have a corruption pending case, they might act subtly and not directly, but they will somehow do something to threaten the person for giving that order. That's what happens in Nigeria.
Okoro: The application they made to the judge for detention and which they later put on trial contained the Terrorism Prevention Act. The judge is not responsible for the treatment of objects, including the detention order under the Terrorism Prevention Act. Only the federal court has jurisdiction. What they do is that as soon as they give him the picture of terrorism, they send it to the judge and, fearing for them, the judge will just give an order that will hold you down.
Only the Federal Court of Justice can issue remand detention during the proceedings. Cybercrime is also a federal offense and only a Federal Court of Justice can issue the orders. During the basic human rights lawsuit filed for him, they brought these orders from the judge and the orders were in line with a motion they had made under the Terrorism Prevention Act, while ultimately they did not bring him to court when they finally tried him to be brought to justice under the Terrorism Prevention Act.
They deceived the judge, who usually should also know that he has no powers under the Terrorism Prevention Act to arrest anyone. The honorable thing a judge should have done is deny jurisdiction and say, "Go to the right court."
The judiciary plays into the hands of the executive when it tramples on the rights of the citizens. It is unfortunate, but we will continue to seek justice against the illegal detention, the humane and degrading treatments they inflict on him in detention.
PT: Do you think the country is safe in the face of the repression of press freedom?
Ogbonna: Nigeria is not safe for anyone. Nigeria's economy … When Buhari took power, the dollar was just over 200 naira, now one dollar is almost 500 naira. The economy collapsed as a country. Security in Nigeria is worse than before. Some officials are no longer returning to their villages due to insecurity, particularly in the north.
With the way the country goes, free speech, you will speak, they will arrest you. How many people are on trial? Go to SSS, go to Federal SARS, go to FCID. You will see so many people in custody for saying something against the governor, the president or an official. In those days when people talk we see changes, these days they arrest you.
Being Nigerian becomes a problem. They use this Cybercrime Act to repress someone and to violate the basic human rights of Nigerians. Therefore this law should be repealed.
PT: What were the NBA interventions when you went through all of this?
Yesterday I was invited to the NBA Annual General Meeting and spoke via live streaming. I was encouraged. They said they value what we human rights lawyers do. When this matter started, NBA Aba (branch) was behind me. You helped me get my first bail in court. And later, when I got to Abuja, the government intervened and some people started making policy of my detention. The NBA Aba was no longer working the way it should. The person who was the leader at the time was on the governor's side. But now NBA Aba has carried out an election. You have chosen a new man. Right now he seems to know what he's 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 social secretary, Tunde Edun. This young man was behind us through thick and thin. He's the kind of lawyer the bar needs and God will bless him. He's the arrowhead when it comes to what the NBA national did for me and other activists who want a better Nigeria.
PT: Knowing that the NBA National Secretariat held its election while he was in custody, do you have confidence in the new leadership?
At the moment I wouldn't say anything about Akpata because he was sworn in yesterday.
PT: Okay. But you certainly have expectations of the new president. What are you?
Ogbonna: This edition from new NBA Before the northerners he has to call them and ask about their complaints. The edition of El-Rufai is a notorious edition. Nigerians have eyes and we see what is happening in South Kaduna. If the NBA speaks out against El-Rufai, I think the club is justified. Let's tell the truth to ourselves.
Do you know that El-Rufai is the only Muslim governor in Kaduna who has a Muslim deputy? If you are a Christian, choose a Muslim substitute and vice versa. And now you see what is happening in South Kaduna. Akpata has a duty to bring back those lawyers who have decided to form a parallel association and make peace with them.
Therefore, there is also an association when it comes to the well-being of the members. When you have attorneys who have gone through hell in the hands of the government and the NBA national doesn't do much to save the person it becomes a problem. The NBA should learn how to protect members. The NBA should learn how to give charity packages to members. We all pay social fees.
The NBA should also stand up when things aren't going well in the country. As the country approaches tyranny, the NBA should be the group that speaks for the Nigerian people. We had it in those days, but these days Paul Usoro (the former president) didn't speak much, maybe because he had some legal proceedings. But now we have Akpata who has no trial, he should speak. Lawyers are supposed to be social engineers.
PT: In Abia state, where you were first arrested and detained, the state government owes workers different challenges. Do you worry?
Ogbonna: Abia State is very pathetic. I've talked about the state of Abia for years. I don't want to say that I'm tired of talking about the state. For example, Abia Poly employees are owed almost 20 monthly salaries. Doctors and teachers are owed.
Some villages and towns are not passable. Even in the geopolitical area where the governor was elected, some of them can no longer go to their villages because they have been cut off. The roads inside were cut off. Come to Abia State and see for yourself. We have a government, however. If you say something, they'll arrest you and hold you. If you speak again, you will be arrested and taken to the DSS.
I don't know how long it will last, but it's a shame when you see what David Umahi is doing in Ebonyi State and when you compare it to Abia. An overpass that the government began building six years ago has not yet been completed. At the moment the Abia people call this flyover "Center Table". Very very bad. However, we are in a democracy. Everyone keeps talking in the air and nothing happens. I wonder when Abia State is going to get it right.
PT: Do you think it's a hopeless situation?
Ogbonna: You will get it right in 2023. Someone will get in touch. I don't want to tell you who this person is. By 2023 someone will come out and get it right in the state of Abia. Remember my words. That person is already lining up to make sure Abia State is doing everything right. Abia State will beat Ebonyi State in terms of development in 2023.