By Michael Jegede
On Friday, March 28, 2014, I was taken aback when I first read about the arrest of Mr. Ebere Wabara, a veteran journalist and associate editor with the Sun Newspaper on the facebook wall of a Port-Harcourt based media consultant and writer, Odimegwu Onwumere, in a Gestapo-like manner that easily reminds one of the military era.
According to Onwumere, who spoke with the wife of the senior editor and language expert, police officers from the Abia State Police Command stormed the Lagos residence of Wabara in the early hours of the day, and arrested him supposedly on the orders of Abia State Governor, Theodore Orji, without due recourse to the canons of democracy.
Wabara was said to have been first taken to Sholoki Police Station in Aguda, Surulere, then later to Oyingbo Police Station, both in Lagos, before he was eventually whisked away to Umuahia in Abia State, where he was detained. He was however released late Saturday night on bail, after the intervention of the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Abubakar, and told to report to the office of the Abia State Commissioner of Police the following Monday at 10 a.m.
The release of Wabara did not come without serious bashing and condemnation of the action of the police officers from individuals and different groups in the country. The Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Nigeria Guild of Editors (NGE) were quick to decry the molestation of one of their own and asked for his immediate and unconditional release. The likes of Femi Falana, the human rights lawyer, Richard Akinola, a lawyer and journalist, Igho Akeregha, acting president of Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO and Hon. Victor Afam Ogene, Deputy Chairman, House of Reps Committee on Media and Publicity, all added their voices in knocking the action of the policemen, describing it as undemocratic, unlawful and appalling.
They all wondered why Wabara, a responsible media expert should be so bundled all the way from Lagos to Umuahia in handcuffs like a common criminal. They noted that there was need for the Nigerian Police and indeed other security agencies to carry out their operations in more civilized manner, at least, to give a clear indication that we are truly in a democracy. Akinola particularly liken the case of Wabara to his own abduction in 1996. According to him, “Wabara’s abduction reminds me of October 13, 1996, when I was similarly abducted by Abacha men. It is despicable that this is happening under a democratic government. There is no rationale for the abduction.”
Upon his release, the Sun associate editor who also doubles as the media adviser to former Governor of Abia State, Orji Uzor Kalu, reportedly took ill and was hospitalizedas a result of the dehumanizing treatment said to have been meted out to him by the police during the period of 36 hours he was held hostage. For this reason, he could not report in the office of the Abia State Police Commissioner on Monday as directed while he was being granted bail.
Notwithstanding his health condition, Wabara was arraigned in absentia by the Abia State Police Command and slammed with a 10-count charge bordering on seditious publications against Abia State Governor at an Umuahia Magistrate Court. In the matter cited as Commissioner of Police vs Ebere Wabara with Charge No U/11/C/2014, the embattled journalist was alleged to have committed sedition with his articles in The Sun and other local media between January and March 2014. Wabara was accused of sedition for publishing articles such as; “Demystify a Master Strategy”,“Go to Akwa Ibom, Weep for Abia”,“T.A. Orji’s 7 years Demystification of Kalu,” among others.
Speaking with newsmen after the court proceedings, Governor Orji’s counsel, Chukwunyere Nwabuko, said: “Freedom of expression is not a licence to disparage a sitting governor. That is not our law. It is very terrible thing when people throw caution to the wind in the name of journalism.”
However, some legal pundits have argued that the Law of sedition is a relic of imperial rule that died with colonialism and was buried with it thereafter. Commenting on the status of the law of sedition in Nigeria, foremost constitutional lawyer, Professor Itse Sagay (SAN), said the Court of Appeal repealed the law over two decades ago.
His words: “Sedition is a colonial law, which went away with colonialism. It was a law meant to protect the government from being brought into disrepute. Now we have a constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression. As such, the law of sedition can’t co-exist with the provisions of the constitution on freedom of speech and expression. The Court of Appeal declared over 20 years ago that sedition has ceased to exist and that is the way it must be.”
Human rights barristers, Fred Agbaje and Festus Keyamo, in their separate submissions totally agree with Professor Sagay. Agbaje for instance said: “The law of sedition, which is grounded in Section 61 of the Criminal Code, is one of the colonial heritage Nigeria has inherited. Under the law, any publication that brings the government into disrepute is actionable. But in the State vs. Nwankwo in 1983, the Court of Appeal in Enugu declared the law as not only contrary to the constitution of Nigeria, particularly the provisions on freedom of expression, but also one law that can no longer stand the test of modern jurisprudence.
“The court was vehement in its assertion that Nigeria is no longer the slave-yard that colonialists thought it was. The Court of Appeal has placed a nail on the coffin of the law. Where a writer exceeds his bounds, there should be a resort to the law of libel. Criticism is an indispensable right in a democracy.”
In 2006, a similar incident had occurred where two journalists, Gbenga Aruleba of African Independent Television (AIT) and Rotimi Durojaiye of Daily Independent were charged for sedition over a presidential jet story during the Olusegun Obasanjo administration.
Durojaiye had published a piece on June 12, 2006 with the caption: “Controversy over age, cost of presidential jet.” Durojaiye who is now the Daily Editor of the newspaper said research by Daily Independent showed that the government had bought a five-year-old aircraft from the German carrier Lufthansa and not a new jet directly from Boeing, as it claimed. Aruleba was joined in the sedition charge for making the Daily Independent article the subject of discussion the following day in his national talk show programme on AIT.
In a publication captioned: “Who is afraid of sedition?” written to condemn the action of Obasanjo’s regime then, Reuben Abati, a highly respected journalist and popular critic of government activities at that time (now on the side of government) said: “Sedition, the law under which two journalists and two media houses, Gbenga Aruleba with the African Independent Television and Rotimi Durojaiye of the Daily Independent Newspapers are currently being tried at an Abuja Federal High Court is a relic of colonial rule, a tool of tyranny, and a dead law, duly pronounced so by the courts, whose reinvention is a comment not on the practice of responsible journalism but on the growing resort of the Obasanjo administration and the ruling Peoples Democratic Party to a culture of intolerance that is completely antithetical to democratic norms…”
It is important for those in charge of governments at all levels in the country to know that we are now in an era where citizens are very much free to exercise their fundamental human rights as enshrined in the constitution. As noted by Lagos lawyer and Alternative Dispute Resolution Practitioner, Valentino Buoro, “if the government feels so much injured in its reputation, it should file a libel suit against the journalist and his publishers and allow an independent court to adjudicate on the matter. Battering, starvation and dehumanization in any form do no good to the democratic credentials of an elected government.”
Michael Jegede, a journalist and public affairs analyst wrote from Abuja