WE SPEAK OF FREEDOM
TEXT OF A WORLD PRESS CONFERENCE ORGANISED BY THE NIGERIAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMUNITY (NHRC) AND THE JOURNALISTS FOR DEMOCRATIC RIGHTS (JODER) ON SUNDAY, DECEMBER 29 AT MARYLAND, LAGOS
Ladies and Gentlmen of the Press!
We apologise that we have to bring you out of your holidays this special season. We are obliged to call upon you due to the human rights condition in Nigeria. It is currently facing severe challenges. As the country inches towards its 100 years anniversary, it is regrettable that basic human rights, especially freedom of speech, continue to come under atrocious attacks.
This time, we are focusing on Bayelsa state for many reasons. Apart from being the home state of Mr President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, we are compelled to draw your attention to the fact that one of us, a citizen reporter and social media activist, has been behind bars for well over two months on the direct orders of the Governor of Bayelsa State, Mr. Henry Seriake Dickson.
The victim, Mr Tonye Okio, spent Christmas in detention with hardened criminals, denied access to his family. He will spend the NEW YEAR in prison where he has been detained. As we stand before you today in freedom, a fellow Nigerian is suffering unimaginable political persecution.
Mr. Tonye Okio was abducted from his Abuja residence by agents of the Bayelsa State Governor. He is in prison where he is being subjected to deliberately harsh and dehumanizing conditions. Currently, due to the kind of food that Mr Tonye Okio has been fed with, he is weak, malnourished and may die unless urgent action is taken to save this Nigerian citizen. That action is for him to regain freedom now. Tomorrow may be too late.
So, today, we are launching the “FREE TONYE OKIO GLOBAL CAMPAIGN”. We have informed advocacy groups across Africa, Asia, Europe and North America, that “TONYE OKIO MUST BE FREE.”
On October 26, 2013, armed men invaded the Abuja home of Mr Tonye Okio and whisked him away. It is astonishing that Mr Okio was arrested by operatives from Bayelsa State. He was tortured, humiliated and suffered depression. The abductors wanted to bundle him to Yenagoa, the Bayelsa State capital by air through Port Harcourt, but the air trip was aborted. He was subsequently taken by road, chained like an animal and brought to the Government House in Yenagoa. After the operatives had received their briefing from the State Governor, Mr. Seriake Dickson, Mr Okio was subsequently remanded in Police custody. At the police station, for several days, he was not allowed access to his family and friends. He was subjected to all sorts of indignities.
For 10 days, he was kept in a dingy cell without good food and good water. His captors threatened to kill him. They boasted that he would be wasted and his body “thrown to the sea for the fishes to feed on.”
Okio’s offence was that he had been using the social media platform to criticise the state Governor, Dickson and President Goodluck Jonathan. He was arrested for the alleged offense of spreading seditious information and rumour mongering. It may interest you to note that the offence of sedition is strange to our laws as it is. The treatment being meted out to Tonye therefore reminds us of the despicable atrocities in the era of the late Idi Amin Dada of Uganda and the late General Sani Abacha.
Mr Okio was accused of starting a rumour on the social media platform saying that a serving South-south governor had been arrested in the U.S. in connection with financial crimes involving $5 million.
Although, the said story did not name anyone, the allusion that a former governor from the unnamed state was in a similar circumstance arrested some years ago was said to be the reason why Okio was picked up. The Bayelsa State Governor, Mr. Dickson, was said to be abroad when the story hit the social media circles.
Under Nigerian laws, the Police is not allowed to keep anyone in its custody beyond 24 hours but Tonye was held for 10 days without trial. In fact, he had to go to court to challenge his illegal detention. On November 5, 2013, one day before the case seeking enforcement of his fundamental human rights was slated for hearing, the Police secretly charged Tonye before a Magistrate Court for defamatory publication against the Bayelsa State Governor. Tonye was not represented in court as his lawyers were not given prior notice about the case. After taking his plea, the Magistrate adjourned the matter to November 21, 2013 – 16 days beyond powers of the Magistrate to adjourn criminal cases as contained in Section 231 of the Criminal Procedure Law of Bayelsa State.
On November 21, the Magistrate Court granted Tonye Okio bail under a most unacceptable condition. The condition was that an agent of the complainant – a serving Permanent Secretary in Bayelsa State – has to stand as surety for Tonye. Dickson is the complainant, and no Permanent Secretary in Bayelsa State is willing to stand for Tonye for fear of victimization. Reports have it that all Permanent Secretaries in the State have been warned to steer clear of the “Tonye matter”.
Following this development, Tonye approached a Bayelsa High Court for variation of the bail terms. After failing to sit on two previous occasions, the court finally heard the application on December 16, 2013, and fixed December 18 for ruling.
On that day, the judge again failed to turn up in court, and judgment was subsequently shifted to January 20, 2014 by the court registrar.
This is where we are!
Unfortunately, it is not only Tonye that is a victim of Governor Dickson’s impunity. Tonye is only a symbol. For several weeks, a business man, Engr Fakuma Ilagha, was held in the same Prison with Tonye until he as granted bail. He was charged as an accomplice to Tonye just because his phone number happened to have been found in Tonye’s handset!
There is also the case of Mr. Melford Esinte, another social media critic of Governor Dickson. Melford had been arrested on two previous occasions for his Facebook postings based on directives from Mr. Dickson. A few days to Christmas, he was again arrested. This was how a close friend of Melford put it on his Facebook page:
“Melford was first arrested on 23 November 2013, and was
charged to court after spending some days in police
custody, and granted bail on the ground that any
responsible person can stand surety for him. Immediately
his bail condition was met, and he was stepping out of the
magistrate court premises, he was arrested again.
Apparently, his persecutors were not satisfied with the
ease with which his bail came about, he was again
charged and granted bail over the same offense he is
being accused of. Meanwhile, on his first arrest, they had
tried to broker a deal with him to implicate Sir Tonye Okio
who has remained imprisoned on Dickson’s order. But he
turned down the offer, as he saw no reason why he should
connive with the authorities to implicate Sir Tonye Okio,
who is held in prison for his vociferous nature on the state
of governance in Bayelsa and the nation at large.
After Melford’s second arrest and subsequent bail, he was
asked to be reporting at the station whenever his attention
is needed, and he has so honoured their invitations until
yesterday morning when he was asked to come to the
station by 6 am, on getting to the station, he was bundled
into a waiting vehicle, denied access to his phone, and
driven straight to Sagbama where a magistrate was
awaiting his arrival.
After the hearing the charge proffered against him, the
magistrate requested for a Level 16 officer that must be
from Sagbama or a gazetted traditional ruler from
Sagbama. Such conditions given to a man who has no
dealings whatsoever with the governor’s local government
area is not only callous and insensitive but also a bad
omen for our judiciary.”
Like Tonye, Melford will spend the New Year in prison because he dared to speak out. All of us that use the social media are under threat if the Bayelsa State Governor is not called to order. The real danger is that other governors could copy the “Bayelsa Example”. Indeed, lawyers have pointed out that this is the first case in Nigeria of criminal defamation purported to have been committed on Facebook.
We insist that keeping Tonye Okio in prison custody ostensibly for social media activism is a national embarrassment. It insults our collective intelligence. There is no doubt that the persecution of Tonye Okio only symbolises the state of human right violations that is on-going in Bayelsa State. In many homes, people have been forced to flee for fear of political persecution. It is disgusting that Bayesla, is gradually assuming the status of a Police State where dissent is not allowed and repression of the opposition has become a state policy.
1) Today, we call for the immediate and unconditional release of Mr Tonye Okio.
2) We call on human right activists across the world and at home to blacklist the Governor of Bayelsa State for impunity, and assault on free speech.
3) We call on the National Human Rights Commission to institute a fact finding mission to Bayelsa State to ascertain the state of human right violations in the state.
4) We call on the Bayesla judiciary not to allow itself to be used by unprincipled politicians holding the state hostage.
5) We call on President Goodluck Jonathan to rise up to the responsibility of leadership, and intervene to halt the impunity going on in Bayelsa State.
6) We call on the international community to speak out now for the people of Bayelsa State before it is too late.
Thank you for your kind attention.
1) MR SAMUEL OLORUNWA
2) KEHINDE ADEGBUYI
3) MRS NONYE GRAHAMS
4) MR MICHAEL POPOOLA AJAYI
FOR: THE NIGERIAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMUNITY (NHRC) AND JOURNALISTS FOR DEMOCRATIC RIGHTS (JODER).