SINCE we have eyes but cannot see, the Department of State Services, DSS, invited us to look again at the viral video of the invasion of Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu’s courtroom on Friday. Laughable, if it wasn’t a travesty. The previous day, the judge had given the DSS 24 hours to release the publisher of Sahara Reporters, Omoyele Sowore, who was arrested on August 3, but detained for 72 days after the first court order for his release, bringing his total detention period to 125 days.
Apart from the ultimatum for Sowore’s release last Thursday, the judge also awarded a cost of N100,000 against the DSS. But as Justice Ojukwu read her ruling, nothing in the ultimatum or fine could convey the judge’s frustration. You needed to be in court to feel the atmosphere as the judge struggled between consternation and incredulity to restrain her anguish.
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The corridors of the Federal High Court 7, her court, were jammed with camera tripods and assorted TV broadcasting flags. The courtroom was full. There were probably just as many people sitting inside as there were people standing or craning in from the crowded doorway. On that Thursday, at least two armed DSS operatives were standing at the door; the third, a female operative, wearing a vest and intermittently issuing instructions to the armed ones, was one leg in; and a fourth operative was right inside the courtroom at the rear-end. It was tense, and odd. Why the court vicinity was crawling with armed operatives, I didn’t know. But they were there, poised.
At the end of the proceedings on that Thursday, it would have been easier to get a camel through the needle’s eye than to make it through the corridor to the courtyard, down the staircase, and out of the court premises.
Lead counsel to Sowore, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), and Mr. Femi Aborisade, both had a hard time squeezing through the horde to keep Sowore’s supporters at bay and, at the same time, restrain operatives from manhandling him. It was not just odd and chaotic. It was sickeningly stone-age – and in my view, unnecessary.
But the DSS said it operates by a much higher standard. That it has absolute respect for the courts and that the video that went viral was stage-managed.
I have watched the video until my eyes were watery and it’s obvious that the only lens that absolves the DSS from the invasion are the lens of its own binoculars. The service cannot and should not condone this outrage. And it’s not funny.
If, as the DSS claimed, Sowore’s supporters pinned him to the ground in a choke-hold inside the courtroom, then the operatives around should have been in earnest to save him from his supporters since, as we have been told, he is still a person of interest to the service.
It’s ludicrous to claim that the courtroom was invaded by Sowore’s supporters and yet for the leader of the DSS team to apologise to the judge in chambers, as Falana said. Did the DSS leader apologise on behalf of Sowore’s supporters?
Whatever Sowore said, as the DSS claimed, after he was briefly released on Thursday, that was not sufficiently important to report to the court on Friday morning before the judge recessed, could not have been the basis for his re-arrest. Except, of course, if the service read his mind in court and knew what he wanted to think even before he could think it, like Big Brother 2.0.
The thrust of the Presidency’s response that the DSS had the right to arrest Sowore also misses the point completely. It was not the power of the service to arrest that was at issue or whether the service is beholden to the Presidency. It was the manner of the arrest – an outrage that should never happen in any law-abiding country.
But maybe such occurrences are becoming too familiar to be concerning. And that familiarity is a real danger. In Cross River State, Agba Jalingo is facing a charge of terrorism for an article in which he asked Governor Ben Ayade to account for N500m that was supposed to have been used to start a community bank.
Whatever Jalingo’s motive for the article, the governor’s answer cannot be to give the impression that he is misusing his power to settle a personal score with the accused.
And yet between the governor’s sledgehammer and the decision of the court to try the case in secret (with hooded witnesses and yet no electronic recording of even the secret trial), the public is left to wonder what exactly is becoming of vital public institutions, if not the heads of such institutions themselves.
There’s a rash of this nonsense all over now and it’s hard to know if the infection is coming solely from Abuja, or if others are simply victims of horrific self-exposure.
From Taraba State where a first-year student was expelled for criticising Governor Darius Ishaku, to Kaduna, where Governor Nasir El-Rufai has promised hell for Facebook “anarchists”; and from Kano where a singer got a two-year jail term for allegedly defaming Governor Abdullahi Ganduje in a song, to Katsina and Zamfara, there is an undisguised attempt to criminalise speech, in the misgiven name of hate speech.
Universities, which used to be the bastion of freedom, have also been infected. The authorities are behaving like village headmasters, wielding the cudgel and executing students for everything from off-campus video sex to plain disagreements over the state of infrastructure in the schools, students welfare or even the treatment of faculty.
Tackling the menace
Only a fool would deny that some people out there have not exploited the dark side of social media for havoc. But the major platforms, especially Facebook and Google, have come under increasing pressure lately and have been obliged to improve their filtering process and to act more swiftly in taking down malicious or incendiary posts.
Perhaps if national libel laws can also be amended to join the mega platforms as parties in libel lawsuits in more jurisdictions, they will abandon the current shenanigans that they’re simply disinterested purveyors of content. They are not.
In Nigeria, Section 24 of the Cybercrime Act provides extremely severe penalty for offences contemplated in the so-called hate speech bill. But those who think a law is incomplete without a taste of blood think the penalty is not severe enough. That is wrong.
The director general of DSS, Yusuf Bichi, first caught public attention because of the quiet and professional way he approached his job. Coming after Lawal Daura who competed with sister agencies for influence and vied with politicians for spotlight and controversy, Bichi seemed old school. Which was good for him and the service. But that appears to be changing. The service under him is now making headlines that make the Daura era look like the golden age of silence.
What happened in Court 7 on Friday, the shadow of which has been lengthening across the country, is a dangerous trespass. President Muhammadu Buhari cannot look the other way because these violations are being carried out in his name and on his watch.