Chioma/Erisco Saga: When the Customer is ‘Not Always Right’ 

The “customer is always right” is a popular slogan which gives high priority to customer satisfaction. While it might apply in some climes, the ongoing imbroglio between Chioma Okoli, and the CEO of Erisco Foods Limited, Eric Umeofia, over her ‘negative’ review of one of the company’s product which she posted on social media, has proven that cliche wrong. Sunday Ehigiator reports thatthe singular review has pitted Okoli against the Nigeria Police Force and the company, with most Nigerians now calling for boycott of Erisco Foods 

Like it’s said in popular parlance, and attributed to former Uganda President, Idi Amin, “There is freedom of speech, but I cannot guarantee freedom after speech.” This easily summarises Chioma Okoli’s ordeal in the hands of the CEO of Erisco Foods Limited, Eric Umeofia.

On September 17, 2023, Chioma posted on her Facebook profile that she purchased a tin of Nagiko Tomato paste and discovered that the product contained “too much sugar”.

Replying to a comment on Facebook, she insinuated that the product was killing consumers due to its amount of sugar.

Erisco Foods released a statement describing her allegations as untrue, and she was subsequently arrested, a move condemned by Nigerians, who described it as intimidation.

The Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC) also waded into the case and summoned Erisco following the arrest.

Days later, Okoli was arrested by men of the Nigeria Police Force in Lagos and transferred to Abuja following a petition by Umeofia. Both parties have been in court since then.

The issue has since attracted public attention recently with many Nigerians questioning the essence of the ‘Freedom of Speech Act’ if a customer can no longer air his/her opinion and a product he/she paid to get.

The Backstory

Narrating Chioma’s ordeal, a Social Commentator identified on X as General Oluchi explained that, “Chioma posted her review about Nagiko tomato Mix, a product manufactured by Erisco Foods, on Facebook and carried on with her day. Eric Umeofia or his company never contacted her regarding it.

“A week later, @EriscoOfficial tagged her to their post on Facebook discrediting her review. When people attacked her online, she wrote a second post to clarify herself and then tagged @EriscoOfficial, but they ignored her.

“Emperor Eric Umeofia wrote a petition to his friend the IG of Police to arrest Chioma Okoli with no investigation whatsoever. Nine days later, two policemen from Abuja and a policewoman from Lagos approached Chioma and her family at church and lured them to the station claiming that they had questions for her regarding a package she received.

“When they got there, they presented her with Eric Umeofia’s accusations, showed her the Facebook post, and wanted her to admit to running a crime syndicate that had been calling Eric on the phone to extort money from him!

“They took her phone, searched it, found nothing but withheld it saying they were waiting for ‘orders from above’ before they could let her go! A few hours later, the policemen returned and ordered another policewoman to throw Chioma in jail and then told her husband to go home and that she wouldn’t be coming with them. Her husband slept in the car at the police station because he didn’t want to leave without his wife.

“The next day, they told Chioma that they were taking her to Abuja by air. Her husband found a seat on the same plane and booked his flight as well to follow them. When they got to Abuja, CSP Oliver began yelling and asking her who sent her to bring Eric Umeofia down and where their hideout was located. He accused her of crime and extortion. He then ordered her transfer to Asokoro police station.

“The next day, Eric Umeofia, his PA and lawyers met Chioma. Eric Umeofia told her that ordinarily, he wouldn’t come to the station; he would simply order his boys to kidnap and kill her. He said this repeatedly in front of the police, his lawyers, and PA (at least 7 people heard it).

“He then told her to write a letter indicating that she lied about the product and that she was guilty of defamation. He asked for the apology to be shared on her Facebook page, in 5 national Newspapers, and in 5 magazines and then get a bank draft of N5 billion.

“Eric Umeofia’s lawyer handed her a written statement with all that he already demanded and asked her to acknowledge it or she won’t go home. So, she did.

“Then she was given a piece of paper to write an apology to Eric Umeofia which she also did just so they would leave her alone, but Eric and his team rejected the letter. They wanted her to admit to running a crime syndicate sent to destroy his business but Chioma refused to write such because it wasn’t true!

“They also bullied her husband to force her to do as they please. They called him a weak man etc., asking why he couldn’t control his wife. They succeeded in bullying her to copy their apology draft by herself so it would look like she wrote it herself. That was how they let her go.

“She was still threatened at different hours by anonymous callers asking her to hurry and post her Facebook apology. Eric Umeofia then began a media tour with the forced apology letter!

“Innoson (Innocent Chukwuma), and Capital Oil (Ifeanyi Ubah) tried to intervene but Eric Umeofia swore he would never leave Chioma alone!

“Innoson advised him to make Chioma an Ambassador of his brand, and kill the story but he refused claiming that Nnewi businessmen are after him and they used Chioma so she will become a scapegoat.

“On January 9, 2024, Nigerian Police invaded Chioma’s home and ransacked everywhere in search of what they couldn’t disclose to her and her family. They came at 6 am and left at 6 pm but found nothing. Chioma’s life is in danger and I’m asking all Nigerians to put sentiments aside and imagine themselves in her shoes. She needs your support!”Eric Umeofia’s Justification

In an interview with Arise TV, Umeofia announced an N5 Billion lawsuit against Chioma. Umeofia was seen dramatically analysing how the lady tried to kill his brand by criticising his product.

He made it known that before the incident, he had a lot of orders from China but had been affected because of the lady’s criticism. He stated that N5 Billion was too small for him to collect from the lady for the offence.

He likened his company’s face-off with Chioma to the incident involving Mmesoma Ejikeme, a 2023 Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) candidate who circulated a fake examination result, and also described the event as a case of “the weak oppressing the big”.

Umeofia claimed Nigerians have continued to “attack him” on the issue the same way they attacked the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Boards (JAMB) in June 2023, when Mmesoma claimed she had scored 362 in the UTME exams.

“If you don’t like it (Nagiko Tomato Mix), buy another one. But because she is determined [sic]. People tell her not to destroy this product… She said it’s a lie… he will abuse you [sic]… people should go and read what she (Chioma) posted, to show you that she is determined to kill us. So, why must I leave her?

“I have credit lines of $15 million from two customers and now it is suspended from China because they said I am not likely to pay them the credit if they give me.”

Umeofia added that he was still expecting Chioma to post an apology letter she had written before her release on her Facebook page.

“If she doesn’t post it (the letter of apology) there, we are going for the N5 billion. Even that is small money for me to ask from her.

“$30 million, do you know how much it is? I will tell you, that for the past five years, I have never had any credit facility in Nigeria. No loan.”

Police Insist on Prosecuting Chioma

In a recent development, the Nigerian police have reiterated their decision to prosecute Chioma, alleging her online commentary on Erisco Foods Limited’s tomato paste violates the Cybercrime Act of 2015.

The police spokesperson, Olumuyiwa Adejobi, made this known through a statement on Thursday, March 7, 2024, advising Chioma to cease bail jumping and submit to the judicial process for resolution.

According to the police, initial investigations have revealed significant evidence suggesting Chioma’s involvement in breaking existing laws, especially concerning the appropriate use of cyberspace.

According to him, “The Nigeria Police Force reaffirms its commitment to upholding the rule of law in the Erisco Tomato matter. The involvement of Mrs. Chioma warrants scrutiny as she stands accused of violating some salient parts of the Cybercrime (Prohibition, Prevention, etc) Act, 2015 as preliminary investigations conducted have unearthed compelling evidence indicating Mrs. Chioma’s alleged role in the violation of extant laws, particularly those related to the proper use of cyberspace. 

“This case in point underscores the necessity of enforcing existing legislation, including the Cybercrime Act, to counteract the current spate of violations of the Act and the spread of misinformation and disinformation on social media. 

“It is vital to reaffirm that the Nigeria Police is poised to enforce all laws without fear, favour, or sentiments in its commitment to ensuring justice and transparency for all citizens. 

“We therefore advise the suspect to cease the continual jumping bail and turn up in court, as a neutral arbiter, to determine the matter, and allow justice to take its course.”

Call for Support

According to reports, the case was filed in Abuja instead of Lagos State where Chioma resides and that requires a lot of money to travel back and forth. Forthwith, Chioma’s Lawyer and Human Rights Activist, Inibehe Effiong, on his X handle, has called on well-meaning Nigeria to contribute and show support toward Chioma’s ordeal.

According to him, “At the instance of Mrs Chioma Edoka Okoli and her husband and based on inquiries from members of the public on how they can support Chioma’s cause, we are constrained to launch a Legal Defense Fund campaign to enable us to prosecute and defend the three lawsuits arising from the review made by Chioma on Facebook on the Nagiko Tomato Mix manufactured by Erisco Foods Limited.

“Account Details: Fidelity Bank Plc, Account Number: 6326255286, Account Name: Chioma Blessing Edoka, Account Type: Savings

“Recall that in September 2023, Chioma made a review on her Facebook account on the sugar quantity in the tomato product after she purchased it from the market. She was later arrested and detained by the IGP Monitoring Unit.

“This fundraising campaign has become imperative given the dimension that the case(s) has assumed.

“Chioma’s current residence is no longer safe for her and her family. She recently became pregnant and also has little children to care for. It is important to state that her residential address was publicised in the media by the CEO of Erisco Foods Limited. The siege laid on her house on January 9, 2024, demands that she relocate to a more secure environment.

“Thus, part of the legal defence fund will be used to immediately secure a new accommodation for Chioma and her family. There are several court cases related to this matter.

“The first case is Charge No: FHC/ABJ/CR/470/2023 between the Inspector General of Police and Chioma Edoka Okoli pending in Abuja. The second case is Suit No: FHC/L/CS/2164 between Chioma Edoka Okoli V. Erisco Foods Limited & 6 Others, in which we sued Erisco and the police to enforce Chioma’s fundamental rights.

“The third case is a civil suit which we have been informed has been filed by Erisco Foods Limited at the Lagos State against Chioma for alleged defamation.

“Whenever we are served with the suit filed by Erisco at the High Court of Lagos, we shall file a counterclaim (counter sue) against the company for their repeated defamatory statements against Chioma.

“They have publicly accused her of belonging to a criminal syndicate and collecting money from competitors to damage Erisco products. These allegations are malicious and false and we intend to ventilate our grievances in court.

“Another line of action that we are exploring is to seek redress over the publication of the residential address of Chioma in the media by the CEO of Erisco, Chief Eric Umeofia. Doxing is a grave infringement of Chioma’s right to privacy. It is also contrary to the Nigeria Data Protection Act, of 2023.

“We are also considering filing fresh suits against Erisco and the Police over the siege at her residence on January 9, 2024, which lasted for over 10 hours.

“Chioma is a victim of abuse of police powers. The fact that the IGP’s office is directly involved in this oppression makes it more worrisome.

“We, therefore, appeal to conscientious and patriotic Nigerians and public-spirited organizations to contribute to the Legal Defence Fund to enable Chioma to urgently secure a new accommodation and defend herself in the different court cases.

“The cost of flights from Lagos to Abuja, coupled with hotel accommodation, for Chioma and her counsel to attend the Abuja case alone is very high. It has already cost us reasonable resources.

“It will cost millions of Naira to relocate Chioma and her family and also take care of the legal expenses. She is not in a position to afford these. Despite her financial impediments, we believe that justice is worth pursuing and we intend to fight to a logical conclusion.”

Coalition Stages Walk for Chioma Okoli

Civil Society Groups last week staged a walk tagged #Istandwithchiomaokoli in the Ikeja area of Lagos State, in solidarity with Chioma Okoli, a pregnant mother of three children, who has been embroiled in a legal battle with the manufacturer of Erisco Foods, after posting a review of one their tomato paste products on Facebook.

The walk, tagged, #IStandWithChiomaOkoli, set off from Kadiri Street, off Oregun Road, Ikeja, Lagos by 8 a.m.

The coalition, comprising Enough is Enough Nigeria, Purple Women Foundation, and Women Advocates Research & Documentation Centre (WARDC), held the walk over the bully by the Nigeria Police Force for reviewing Erisco Foods tomato product.

While inviting all Nigerian consumers, including He4Shes, to join the walk, the organisers said the event is being held as part of the activities to mark the 2024 International Women’s Month.

It was reported that some Nigerians on X had also threatened to boycott all Erisco Foods products for allegedly bullying and intimidating Mrs Chioma Okoli, a female customer who was arrested for giving the tomato product of the company a negative review.

Nigerian police last week asked Chioma Okoli to show up to allow justice to take its course in the matter involving her and Erisco Foods Limited.

In January 2024, policemen on the alleged orders of the Inspector-General of Police, Kayode Egbetokun, invaded the residence of Okoli in Lagos State.

It was reported that the police team from Abuja who claimed to be acting on the orders of the Inspector General of Police moved to re-arrest Okoli without serving any court order authorising them to do so.

Also in January, Okoli’s Lawyer disclosed that Okoli had received N1.9 million in donations from Nigerians for legal fees.

The Force Public Relations Officer, ACP Olumuyiwa Adejobi, in a statement on Thursday, reaffirmed the commitment of the police to “upholding the rule of law in the Erisco Tomato matter.”

Social Media and the ‘Freedom of Speech and Expression’

The term ‘freedom of speech and expression’ includes any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used. 

Freedom of speech is understood as a multi-faceted right including not only the right to express or disseminate information and ideas but also the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas.

The value of freedom of speech and expression lies within social interactions. The 2011 Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression is a strong statement of the importance of freedom of expression on the Internet.

The Rapporteur emphasises the need for clear rules, in contrast with the arbitrariness he observes today, which allows for increasing surveillance and monitoring of communications

However, the freedom of speech and expression does not confer on the citizens the right to speak or publish without responsibility and the legislature may enact laws to impose restrictions on the right to speech and expression on several grounds.

Social media is open to misuse as well, as several cybercrimes can be easily committed through social media. This justifies the State to regulate online content in the interests of the public at large, the necessity of which cannot be denied.

Article 19(3) of the ICCPR for instance, imposes restrictions on the following grounds, “for respect of the rights of reputations of others and protection of national security, or public order, or public health or morals.”

Nigeria’s constitutional framework on freedom of opinion and expression and other associated rights to freedom of conscience and thought as well as the freedom of the press complies with international standards.

Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution, Federal Republic of Nigeria provides inter alia that “every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information without interference …” 

Notably, the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act (2011) in Nigeria has enhanced the enjoyment of rights to freedom of information thereby strengthening people’s right to opinion and expression.

However, a global fundamental challenge in need of urgent resolution in the digital age is how to protect human rights and freedom on the internet and Nigeria is no exception, as the Chioma Vs Erisco Foods saga has further proven that.

Related Articles