Roll Call of Governors Walking the Impunity Lane

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Ben Ayade

Nseobong Okon-Ekong writes that there is a growing resolve by an increasing number of state chief executives to deploy instruments of oppression to mute dissenting voices

It is over 100 days and counting since, Publisher of Cross River Watch, an online newspaper that pays attention to Cross River State, Agba Jalingo had his freedom curtailed ostensibly at the behest of Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State. Jalingo has a run-in with Ayade, his kinsman from Obudu and erstwhile friend.

The Cross River Watch Publisher is facing a four count charge of treasonable felony, terrorism and attempt to topple the state government and has been remanded over a report about an alleged diversion of N500 million by Mr. Ayade. After the initial one month, a federal high court in Calabar, the Cross River State capital denied Jalingo’s application for bail. The presiding judge held that the charges against the journalist were grave with one of them attracting capital punishment.

Associates of the Cross River governor and the publisher are surprised that the relationship between the two men could break down so irretrievably. Though he does not hold any official designation on Ayade’s team, Jalingo was frequently on the governor’s entourage around the country and abroad. He was said to be very influential and enjoying more perks in the governor’s office than some members of the state executive council.

What could not be discerned was whether Ayade was simply displaying the well-known Nigerian trait for favoritism or he was responding to undue pressure from the publisher to keep alleged wrong deeds of the governor away from the public. Sources close to both men have it that Jalingo’s demands on Ayade were becoming too much.

It reached breaking point when the publisher threatened to go to town with the N500 million diversion story against the governor. At that point, Ayade called his bluff and told his one-time friend that he will show him that he was the governor, promising to deploy state apparatus of coercion to shut Jalingo up.

The allusion to felony treason in the case of Jalingo may have a personal connotation for Ayade, who truly feels betrayed by a person he allowed unfettered access to his official and private estate.

In Cross River State, Jalingo who also doubles as a rights activist was beginning to acquire the image of a person who behaves in an unconventional way, that is largely unknown in that part of the country. Apart from opposing politicians, no individual or group has been known to express so much unambiguous criticism against the leadership of the state as Jalingo did with the N500 million diversion story against Ayade.

Living up to his boisterous character, Jalingo has remained unbowed. He has succeeded in drawing the attention of the world to his travail. Appearing in court manacled and wearing shirts emblazoned with copious messages like ‘Journalism is Not a Crime’, ‘Every Free Society Has a Journalist’ that announce the precarious condition of journalism and journalists in the country, he may have turned the tide of public opinion from his person to the bigger issue of rights violation in the larger society.

His associates recently leaked a conversation that forced the judge handling his case to remove his hand from the matter. This was viewed by some observers as a psychological victory for Jalingo, who continues to assert his innocence and willingness to remain strong in the face of his current hardship.

With Jalingo successfully kept out of circulation, Ayade is said to have been emboldened to take another victim, a former university lecturer, Joseph Odok. An ardent critic of Ayade, he was arrested on September 26 in Abuja on allegation of “terrorism” and driven all the way to Calabar by road. His plight was made public by the All Progressives Congress (APC) National Vice Chairman, South-South, Hilliard Eta.

He described Odok as a “dyed-in-the-wool member of our great party, the APC in Cross River State and a Buharist to the core, (he) has of course since his defection from the PDP always pointed out grey areas in Ayade’s administration of the state, including digging deep into areas Ayade’s apologists would not point out to the governor for correctional purposes.”

Interestingly, Ayade government is trying to tie Odok to Jalingo, perhaps to kill two birds with one stone. His lawyer, Oliver Osang, according to a report by Premium Times, said the police has been trying to “rope in” Mr. Odok in Mr. Jalingo’s case and that of the publisher of SaharaReporters, Omoyele Sowore, who is standing trial in Abuja over the #RevolutionNow protest.

“As far as I am concerned, there is no evidence from them to show that he (Mr Odok) is a terrorist or he was terrorising any government,” the lawyer said. “Whatever they are doing is politically motivated, it is just to punish him.”

The police spokesperson in Cross River, Irene Ugbo, also told the news website that Mr Odok was being detained because of his “connection” with the incarcerated journalist, Mr Jalingo.

In neighbouring Akwa Ibom State, Mr. Imo Akpan, a lawyer, has taken up the case of 21 year-old, Michael Itok who has been detained for close to three months for posting comments on Facebook considered as insulting to Governor Udom Emmanuel. The detained man was the Marketing Officer of Prudential Micro Finance Bank. The lawyer said governor was the complainant in the case. He has been brought before a magistrate court, which has no jurisdiction to entertain the case.

Mr. Akpan thinks it was a deliberate ploy to keep his client in prison. “You take him to a court that lacks jurisdiction, knowing that the judge or magistrate will say, ‘I don’t have the jurisdiction go and wait in custody, pending the advice of the Director of Public Prosecution in the Ministry of Justice’. So, that is why he has been in custody till date. We have filed an application for his release on bail on the ground that he is entitled to bail pending his actual arraignment in the appropriate court. We are awaiting hearing in that application.”

Another case of arbitrary imprisonment of a journalist was recorded in Akwa Ibom with the incarceration of Mary Ekere, who was remanded in prison for allegedly taking photos of task force officials carrying out a raid. Ekere is employed by The Post, an Akwa Ibom-based newspaper. She spent two nights in prison.

She was reportedly arraigned at a sanitation court but was taken back to prison despite meeting her bail conditions. The magistrate was said to have left the court without signing the bail documents. Ms Ekere, wearing prisons uniform, was taken to a sanitation court. Though she has since been released at the intervention of the Akwa Ibom State Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, whose Chairman, Amos Etuk upheld Ekere’s innocence and insisted on “her unconditional release.”

The action of the Emmanuel-led administration in Akwa Ibom State is shocking to many watchers of his government, as he was viewed as good tempered and accommodating. It is on record that. Mr. Emmanuel sacked one of his commissioners, Mr. Udo Ekpenyong, for allegedly insulting his predecessor, Senator Godswill Akpabio.

Governor Emmanuel further demonstrated his disdain for people who lack good manners when he publicly condemned the unruly behaviour that some youths exhibit on social media. He has also been reported, saying that he has condoned “insults” from the opposition in the state in the course of doing his job as governor, but will not be intimidated. In another case, the Akwa Ibom State governor asked the state house of assembly to probe the assault on a man who was attacked for allegedly insulting a local government chairman in the state. He said, “I roundly condemn the assault that took place at Abak LGA, currently circulating on the social media. Such actions are unacceptable in a civilized society and does not represent our core values.”

The battle of Jones Abiri with law enforcement agents in Bayelsa State shows the resolve of state chief executives to deploy instruments of oppression to mute dissenting voices. Abiri who publishes and edits his newspaper, The Weekly Source in Yenagoa, capital of Bayelsa has been in and out of detention since 2016 when he was first arrested. Many believe that he was detained for his scathing criticism of Governor Seriake Dickson. The lead story in his newspaper before his incarceration alluded to the fact that Dickson’s bad policies was wrecking Bayelsa State.

He was kept away from the public for two years and considered dead by many until pressure from the media and rights activists forced his abductors to present him before a magistrate court in Abuja. Since no evidence was provided against him for the allegation of demanding monies from oil companies and also the fact that he was not brought before a court of competent jurisdiction, the case was thrown out. Abiri was awarded N10.5 million as compensation for unlawful detention, which the government has not paid to him. Last May, Abiri was guest of the DSS again. He was taken to court on the same charges for which he was earlier set free. Though, he has been allowed to go home on bail, Abiri may yet be on the watch list of security agents.

In Zamfara State, which is controlled by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), leading members of the opposition, APC have been railroaded into prison for ‘insulting’ Governor Bello Metawalle. Bello Dankande, a former Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs in the administration of the former governor, Abdul’aziz Yari was sent to prison by an Upper Shariah Court in Zamfara for allegedly sponsoring social media users in sabotaging the state’s security. Mr Dankande was also accused of colluding with outlawed volunteers groups (Yansakai) to steal cows in Bakura Local Government Area.

The state chairman of the APC, Alhaji Lawal Liman, condemned the action and described it as political witch hunt. “I commend APC members in the state for their resilience in supporting the party in spite of the threats, intimidation and harassment from the present administration in the state under the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). I am appealing to members of the APC in Zamfara to consider the challenges as a test from God. You know it is normal in politics (for) members of the opposition parties to face such challenges; in spite of the challenges, APC maintains its position as the strongest political party in this state.”

News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reported that the state Secretary, APC Publicity Committee, Alhaji Ibrahim Danmalikin-Gidangoga was earlier arraigned before Upper Shariah Court 1, Gusau, over alleged defamation and incitement. On the same day, Ibrahim Danmaliki Gidan Goga, a renowned Nigerian journalist, human right activist, member of Forward with Buhari group, who was also a Commissioner for Information, special adviser to the Zamfara State Government and current spokesperson for the APC in the state, was harassed, humiliated and arrested before he was arraigned at the Upper Shari’a Court in Gusau over allegation of ‘insulting’ the Governor Bello Matawalle as well as a spurious allegation of inciting public disturbance.

Commenting on the Zamfara situation and similar ones around the country, Abuja-based human rights lawyer, Dr. Kayode Ajulo, noted, “One would have thought that the Hate Speech and Social Media Bills and laws of such nature are weapons in the hands of the ruling All Progressive Congress but the instant case has proven otherwise as it is clear that politicians and political lackeys are hell bent on using the instrumentality of the law to muffle opposition at all cost and by all means.

At this juncture, it is imperative to hint that you can always tell the degree of freedom in a country from the tone and temperament of its press, the variety and diversity of its print and electronic media, and the array of voices on its air waves. It is our belief that in a civilized and democratic society, aggrieved citizens have the right of speaking freely against or convening peaceful assemblies, meetings and rallies against unpopular government measures and policies. In a democratic society, criticism of government no matter how scathing can never amount to hate speech, democracy is better built when dissidents are able to air their opinions without fear of harassment, intimidation or arrest.”

He went further to situate his argument within the context of the Nigerian constitution. “Specifically, Section 39 of the 1999 CFRN as altered provides for the “right to freedom of expression and the press”. Subsection 1 of that section amplifies this further by stating that “every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information, ideas and opinions.

“Subsection 3 states that “nothing in this section shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society-

(a) For the purpose of preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, maintaining the authority and independence of courts or regulating telephony, wireless broadcasting, television or the exhibition of cinematograph films; or

(b) Imposing restrictions upon persons holding office under the Government of the Federation or of a State, members of the armed forces of the Federation or members of the Nigeria Police Force or Government security services or established by law.”

Wife of passionate critic of the Kano State governor, Abdullahi Ganduje, told journalists that security agents waited for her husband, Abubakar Idris, better known as Dadiyata, to arrive home from work, then whisked him away to an unknown destination. Dadiyata, a lecturer at the Federal University Dutsinma, Katsina State has not been seen since August 1. Because Dadiyata does not hide his liaison with leading figures in the opposition PDP in Kano state, many have suggested that his detention may be politically motivated.

In its bid to clamp down on dissenting voices, the Kano State government had embarrassed itself by arresting and detaining the wrong person. Musician Sanusi Abdullahi, better known as SK was mistakenly held in the place of Yakassi, also known as, YKS who released a musical video criticizing Ganduje.

The only glimmer of hope entertained by family members, friends and associates of Stephen Kefas, a journalist who consistently expresses unfavourable opinion about the administration of Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State, is alive is that the authorities have admitted that he is in their custody, but he has been refused bail.

As the groundswell of umbrage against the federal government’s tendency to close the civil space gathers momentum, THISDAY would like to lay emphasis on the fact that an increasing number of state governors are gaining notoriety for intimidation, harassment and human rights violations

QUICK FACTS:

* Publisher of Cross River Watch, an online newspaper that pays attention to Cross River State, Agba Jalingo is on trial for treasonable felony, terrorism and attempt to topple the government, at the behest of Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State. He has been remanded over a report about an alleged diversion of N500 million by Mr. Ayade

*A federal high court in Calabar, the Cross River State capital denied Jalingo’s application for bail. The presiding judge held that the charges against the journalist were grave with one of them attracting capital punishment

*Jalingo has ppeared in court manacled and wearing shirts emblazoned with copious messages like ‘Journalism is Not a Crime’, ‘Every Free Society Has a Journalist’ that announce the precarious condition of journalism and journalists in the country

* Jalingo’s associates recently leaked a conversation that forced the judge handling his case to remove his hand from the matter

*Ayade has been accused of taking another victim, a former university lecturer, Joseph Odok. An ardent critic of Ayade, he was arrested on September 26 in Abuja on allegation of “terrorism” and driven all the way to Calabar by road. He is a member of the All Progressives Congress

*In Akwa Ibom State, Mr. Imo Akpan, a lawyer, has taken up the case of 21 year-old, Michael Itok who has been detained for close to three months for posting comments on Facebook considered as insulting to Governor Udom Emmanuel

*Another case of arbitrary imprisonment of a journalist was recorded in Akwa Ibom with the incarceration of Mary Ekere, who was remanded in prison for allegedly taking photos of task force officials carrying out a raid

*Jones Abiri, who publishes and edits his newspaper, The Weekly Source in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State has been in and out of detention since 2016 for his scathing criticism of the policies of Governor Seriake Dickson

*Abiri was awarded N10.5 million as compensation for unlawful detention, which the government has not paid to him

*In Zamfara State, which is controlled by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), leading members of the opposition, APC have been railroaded into prison for ‘insulting’ Governor Bello Metawalle

*Section 39 of the 1999 Consittution as altered provides for the “right to freedom of expression and the press”. Subsection 1 of that section amplifies this further by stating that “every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information, ideas and opinions

*Abubakar Idris, better known as, Dadiyata, a lecturer at the Federal University Dutsinma, Katsina State has not been seen since August 1. Because Dadiyata does not hide his liaison with leading figures in the opposition PDP in Kano state, many have suggested that his detention may be politically motivated

*The Kano State government had embarrassed itself by arresting and detaining the wrong person. Musician Sanusi Abdullahi, better known as SK was mistakenly held in the place of Yakassi, also known as, YKS who released a musical video criticizing Governor Abdullahi Ganduje

*Stephen Kefas, a journalist who consistently expresses unfavourable opinion about the administration of Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State, has been refused bail