Barr. Inibehe Effiong.
This is a verbatim account of the first press interaction granted by human rights lawyer, Barr. Inibehe Effiong after his release from the Uyo Correctional Center on Friday 26th August.
By Abasifreke Effiong
I have just finished my one month appointment with destiny. I came to the the custodial center to follow the path of my ancestors, the Gani Fawehinmi of this world and those who have over the years had to sacrifice their personal comfort in order to defend their convictions.
For those who came to see me during my incarceration, you must have gone home with one clear message, that I was totally un-bothered, totally unmoved and not perturbed. I considered it an honour to be incarcerated for standing by the truth.
I want to extend my appreciation to my family, they have been solidly behind me. I want to thank the Nigerian Bar Association, the Olumide Akpata-led administration and all lawyers of conscience in this country who even without having an opportunity to hear very clearly from me believed in my innocence, stood by my convictions and fought to vindicate me. I must also thank Mr. Femi Falana SAN, my lead counsel, the other Senior Advocates and of course even members of the NBA leadership who are also part of my legal team, my very own bosom friend and brother, Augustine Asuquo who is standing beside me and every lawyer that has been part of my legal team for standing solidly behind me. Again, I must also thank the Nigerian Civil Society and the Human Rights community for standing by one of their own, but I won’t fail to appreciate my friends in the media, the fourth estate of the realm who had taken it upon themselves to take the truth to all the four corners of this world. I thank conscientious Nigerians, conscientious Akwa Ibomites and every single person that has spoken out in my defense to demand my freedom in the last one month.
• My Incarceration
Well, you would have heard that I was convicted for contempt of Court. But I might just be, maybe the only person who had to be remanded as a lawyer at least currently in this country and was said to have been convicted without any charge preferred against him, without an opportunity to take a plea, without his offense even being disclosed or any of the principles of fair hearing being accorded him. So for me it is a great honour to have passed through this route. But let me state it clearly and unequivocally that while I am grateful to God for this experience because as you may have seen for yourself, this has only strengthened me, this has only fortified me, I can only feel sorry for those who thought they can break me by this incarceration, because Inibehe that has just come out of incarceration is beaming with fire to fight for the common people of this country. And no oppressor can quench that fire.
But let us not be mistaken, I never, and I say this as a child of God, you can see while in incarceration I had the Bible as my companion and I had “Long Walk to Freedom” as my friend. And these are the books that kept me active for the last one month. So I say it as a child of God that I never at anytime pointed my hand at the Honourable Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom. I never at anytime banged at any table. I never at anytime shouted at the court. These accusations only came to me while I was in incarceration. But you know deception and lies may prevail for a while but there are two judges that no man can deceive, the Judge of Heaven and the judge of conscience. The Honourable Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom whom his office I respect knows in her conscience that I never acted in any insolent manner. That I never disrespected the court.
All I did on the 27th of July when I announced my appearance alongside by colleague Augustine to defend my client Leo Ekpenyong was simply to raise two fundamental observations that I feel every judicial officer in this country with profound respect and every legal practitioner in this country should pay attention to, namely: one, because when we arrived the Court, my Lord had announced clearly that today his Lordship was coming in with anger and that my Lord will not tolerate nonsense from anybody. And because we knew the antecedent of this matter, we have always accorded the Court absolute respect. And then even before we announced appearances my Lord ordered the orderly to invite into the Courtroom two armed mobile policemen. I am not against policemen being in the Court, I want to be understood clearly because the judiciary cannot function without the aid of the police. The police is an integral part of the administration of justice. And then I reminded the Court when the policemen arrived that my Lord, there is a pending application for recusal urging my Lord to disqualify himself from this case on ground of bias or likelihood of bias which application we field on the 23rd day of June 2022. And of course as it has been, my Lord shouted me down and rested the issues – and I said the Court will take that application when the court deems it – and of course that cross examination must continue and a certain witness for the Governor, one Richard Peter, that is the name he gave the Court entered the dock and I started cross-examination. I was on about the second or third question, when my Lord furiously and I am saying this with all sense of respect to the Court ordered a certain Saviour, a reporter with Premium Times to stand up and my Lord asked him ‘who are you?’, he said he was an observer and my Lord asked him, ‘who are you to observe the court, are you are party to this case?’, he said no my Lord, I am a journalist. My Lord asked ‘are you a government journalist?’, and he said No, I work with Premium Times. Hell was let loose. What I witnessed was unprecedented in my eight years that I have been practicing as a lawyer. My Lord ordered his phone to be ceased and policemen to take him away.
I had the responsibility having been called to the Nigerian Bar, having taken that solemn oath to defend the constitution of this country and being myself an advocate of press freedom and of course a citizen who knows what is and what is not right, to speak out. I stood up, I didn’t confront the Court and I said my Lord with profound respect that section 36 of the constitution guarantees publicity of trial and provides that Court proceedings shall be held in public. I was not shouting at the court, I was urging my Lord that I had thought that in view of that constitutional provision that members of the public including journalists should at least be free to access the Court and observe proceedings and of course my Lord didn’t accept that. Well, maybe that was my offense, I did not give up. I still urged the court, and my Lord said except you are the one who brought him to tarnish my hard-earned reputation, so I saw that the issue has become very personal so I rested the issue, I didn’t argue.
Those who say that I said if you don’t bring in the journalist, I won’t continue, those are false. The Court knows such things never happened, no such utterances were made by me. And then I was about to start my cross-examination and I turned back again I saw two armed policemen with AK-47, one to my right, one to my left. This had created so much hostility and I said to my Lord, I have also observed the presence of two armed policemen in Court, and I said my Lord even though I am ordinarily not intimidated by their presence but by their being here with arms seated beside me, they have created hostility in Court which had made it uncomfortable for me and difficult for me to proceed with the proceeding and I pleaded with the Court to excuse them. My Lord didn’t accept our plea. Again, maybe that was my offense, I did not give up because I have a duty as a lawyer to defend the course of Justice and I said my Lord, I am now making it as a formal application in which case your Lordship would have to render a decision and I said however if your Lordship overrules me, I will be bound by the order of the Court and will proceed with my cross-examination. At that point, my Lord picked pen, my Lord started writing. You know as a lawyer when you are addressing the Court and the Court is writing, you take it that the Court is taking note of what you are saying. Unknown to me, I thought my Lord was writing what I was saying not knowing that it was my committal order to prison. The next thing I heard was will you dare step out of the bar. I stepped out of the bar, I did not fight. I stepped out. And my Lord said derope yourself. I must say again that I did not derope immediately, I must place the record as it is because I can’t derope as a lawyer in Court if a reason has not been given why I should be deroped, it is like taking away my call to bar certificate. I said my Lord if I derope I can no longer address my Lordship as counsel, my Lord said you are no longer a lawyer, I no longer recognize you because I’m sending you to prison. I didn’t believe it. The next thing, my Lord read what my Lord had already written, you are hereby sentenced to one month imprisonment to be remanded at the correctional center until you purge yourself of contempt. Then I had removed my wig. I just stood there. And my Lord ordered the two armed policemen, ‘hold him hold him, make sure he does not leave. Hold him make sure he does not escape’. I told the policemen even if I escape, people outside will know that I am the one running and where will I run to, where in Akwa Ibom will I hide? So I told them look I don’t have any problem, I will follow you to prison, I will not be the first.
All that I have told you is all that transpired. So whoever said Inibehe does not know how to say ‘as the Court pleases’, Inibehe was disrespecting the Court, these are lies. And I say that on my honour. I am using this opportunity to publicly urge and appeal to my Lord the Honourable Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom State, My Lord, Hon. Justice Ekaette Fabian Obot to please release closed circuit television recording of that day because I’m told, I’m aware to the best of knowledge that there is CCTV inside that courtroom. Let all lawyers in Nigeria see when Inibehe pointed at the Chief Judge, let them also see when Inibehe banged at the table. Even if I was the most insolent lawyer in Nigeria, you do not have to have to scandalize my name and attribute to me a conduct that never took place in Court just to justify what was clearly unjustifiable. What I have told you is the truth , any account outside what I have told you is a lie and it will remain a lie forever.
• Experience in Prison
I can announce to you that I have taken steps to secure the release of 17 inmates at the Uyo custodial center. In fact one left last night. The others would have come out with me but the authorities raised concern that people were gathering too much. I was supposed to come out with them. We had spent reasonable amount of money to make that happen, these are people who were admitted to bail at Magistrate Court but they had nobody to take them on bail and they were just there. In fact the young man who left yesterday was admitted to bail and subsequently his charge was struck out, the court did not come to inform the custodial center and he was just there until the person I sent had to go to court to perfect his bail yesterday that was when they came to secure his release. This is someone that had no business being in detention in the first place, this shows you how bad the system is. So the remaining persons will be out before evening. I am doing this to let people know that the criminal justice system in Akwa Ibom and Nigeria as a whole needs to be revisited. There are a lot of innocent people that are there. The society may condemn all of them as criminals. But if there was any doubt that I had as a lawyer that innocent people can be sentenced, I am now a witness of truth. My own experience having been sent to prison with no offense disclosed, with no misconduct, there are innocent people there.
Well, the prison life is what I have always been prepared for. That is why I laughed at people who were celebrating my incarceration. I have always been prepared, I knew this was inevitable because you cannot consistently fight those who are oppressing our people and you do not expect to be incarcerated. Life in prison is a different life entirely. This are the abandoned citizens of Nigeria, they have been abandoned by the federal government of Nigeria, they have been abandoned by the Akwa Ibom state government. As a matter of fact, I have also undertaken to take up cases of some of the inmates and in the coming days you will get to learn about some of these very pathetic cases. For me, all I needed to do was to adjust to the environment. But get this clear, if I had ever had sound sleep in my life, it was while I was in the prison. I have never had the the opportunity of sleeping for more than eight hours a day. So for this, I must also thank my Lord for the very well deserved vacation. I’m grateful to the Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom. You may think it’s funny but the day I arrived here, when they brought me from Ikot Ekpene on the 10th of this month, I went to the clinic to check my weight, I was weighing 60 something as I’m leaving, I’m weighing 70 something. So that shows that I was never bothered while I was in incarceration. That is why I pitied those who said oh when he comes out he will not speak again. The voice they so heard is now louder.
• Maltreatment in prison
I know there is one issue that everybody wants me to address, you would have seen some difference in the way I look. Now I must make this clear to you that that issue is going to be addressed not today not out of fear, but I can assure you that that issue is going to be addressed. So I will plead with you at this time not to talk about it. Thank you very much.