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In Nigeria, The Law Functions For The Elites Only

Whereas The Average Citizen Loses Freedom Just for Talking

By Omolola Roseline Pedro

(Abuja) Freedoms of speech, expression, and the press are constitutionally guaranteed, in Nigeria, but the battle over the freedom of a citizen to express his or her opinion online has pitted a corporate giant against an opinionated Nigerian woman unfurling her opinion about a popular tomato paste on social media.

Nigerian courts have curbed public speech when it comes to sedition, criminal defamation, and so-called false-news laws, according to Freedom House. Freedom of news sites is surveilled in Nigeria’s 12 northern states by Sharia (Islamic law) statutes. The government won’t allow Internet service providers to host sites that advocate for the independence for the secessionist state of Biafra, which collapsed in 1970. Abuja has accused journalists of undermining national security when reporting on operations against Boko Haram or when they challenge government’s restraints of free and fair reporting on unrest, saying detailed reporting may impact security operations.

That being the case, you might think that a Nigerian citizen can say anything he or she wanted to say about a food product on a public website, and you would be wrong.

Say it ain’t so! CEO Erisco Foods Ltd. Eric Umeoifa. Credit: Udoma Voice.
Say it ain’t so! CEO Erisco Foods Ltd. Eric Umeoifa. Credit: Udoma Voice.

Last September, Chroma Okoli posted on Facebook that a tomato puree she’d just purchased for the first time contained an unhealthy amount of sugar. Less than a week later, its manufacturer complained to police about her, leading to her arrest and detention by Nigerian police.

The 39-year-old, who is pregnant with her fourth child, has been trapped in a legal battle ever since, accused of a cybercrime punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine of seven million Nigerian naira (£3,526).

Her case, which a court adjourned to 28 May, has sparked nationwide debates over whether sharing your opinion online can be considered a crime and whether a company has the right to bring a lawsuit over an unfavorable review and raised questions over Nigeria’s harsh Cybercrime Act.

Barrister Inibehe Effiong, Representative for Chroma Okoli. Credit: Inibehe Effiong on X.
Barrister Inibehe Effiong, Representative for Chroma Okoli. Credit: Inibehe Effiong on X.

Speaking with Truth Nigeria in an interview, Inbee Effiong, a lawyer representing Ms. Chroma Okoli, says that the arrest and trial of Okoli is a violation of human rights and cannot be ignored.

The lawyer said that the legal team is actively working to ensure that the management of Erisco Foods faces the consequences of its action.

“In cases of human rights violation, we should always strive to defend the law and not yield to intimidation by law enforcement agencies.

“This idea that once a “big man” or a moneybag is the one instigating the police or the SS, the victim has to apologize, cry and beg should not be promoted by lawyers,” Effiong said.

He added that the case is already a matter of public interest and Erisco Foods Ltd will be sued in due time.

In September 2023, a Nigerian businessman and CEO of Erisco Foods Limited, Eric Umeofia, facilitated the arrest of Chioma Okoli, over her review of one of the products of the food company, Nagiko Tomato Mix.

Okoli had on September 17, 2023 taken to X and Facebook to post her experience using the product saying, “I decided to taste it. Sugar is just too much”.

Erisco Foods Ltd who thinks that its products are undeserving of reviews consequently decided to arrest the reviewer for an offense they called “a malicious attack on our reputation” on the 24th of September 2024.

 A big backlash from the public followed, however. Citizens have called on the management of Erisco Foods to “discontinue the illegality as it’s not a crime to review a product” including protests from various civil society groups in the country.

Since 2023, many twists and turns have surfaced in the case of the pregnant 39 year old entrepreneur, who claims she was ‘kidnapped’ by men of the Nigerian Police in her Lagos home and transferred to Abuja, the country’s capital,  where she was charged with “instigating Erisco Foods Limited, knowing the said information to be false under Section 24 (1) (B) of Nigeria’s Cyber Crime Prohibition Act.”

The controversial “Cyber Crime Prohibition Act,” has reared its ugly head again. In 2021, conflict reporter Luka Binniyat found himself hauled into court and a long wait in prison awaiting bail, for the same crime.  Binniyat’s case, still unresolved, ensued from a complaint that his fair and factual report about the misuse of the term “farmer-herder” clash was evidence of inciting violence against Kaduna State Security Commissioner Samuel Aruwan.

Epoch Times journalist Luka Binniyat, who current reports for TruthNigeria,  had been reporting on Christian persecution in Nigeria by suspected Fulani jihadists, had been charged with cyberstalking the head of state security for Nigeria’s Kaduna state because of his reporting.

Binniyat was arraigned on Nov. 9 at the Barnawa Magistrate’s Court in Kaduna. Human rights advocates say that cyberstalking is a charge often used in Nigeria to silence the press.

Samuel Aruwan, the commissioner of state security in Kaduna, filed a criminal complaint against Binniyat that prompted his arrest on Nov. 4, 2021.  An article by Binniyat published on Oct. 29 in The Epoch Times was evidence of inciting violence and had endangered him personally, Aruwan told a press conference on Nov. 8, 2021.

Chioma, if found guilty, could face up to three years in jail or a fine of 7 million naira (about $5,000), or both.

Omolola Roseline Pedro writes on law and lifestyle for TruthNigeria.

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