Why a Nigerian woman faces jail time for reviewing tomato puree

Why a Nigerian woman faces jail time for reviewing tomato puree

On September 16, 2023, Chioma Okoli posted a review of the Nagiko tomato puree she bought at a street market in Sangotedo, Lagos, on her Facebook page.

She was telling the few thousand followers on her small-business page that it tasted more sugary than other products, asking those who had tried it what they thought.

The post received a diversity of opinions, but it reached a head when a Facebook user commented: “Stop spoiling my brother product, if [you] don’t like it, use another one than bring it to social media…”

Okoli responded, saying: “Help me advise your brother to stop ki**ing people with his product…” Two days later, the post had garnered more than 2,500 comments, to her surprise.

That Sunday, as she was stepping out of church with her husband, she was accosted by two men and one woman in plainclothes who said they were police officers, she said. They took her to the Ogudu police station still dressed in her church attire.

“They took me into one room, I sat down and they brought more than 20 pages and told me those are my charges. I had forgotten about the post, then I remembered,” the 39-year-old mother of three told Al Jazeera. “They were charging me with extortion, blackmailing and that I run a syndicate.”

Okoli is just one of several Nigerians who have been arrested, detained or charged for allegedly violating the country’s cybercrime laws [PDF], which are meant to secure critical national information as well as protect citizens from cyberstalking. But rights groups say more and more, it’s being used against journalists, activists, dissidents and even ordinary people publishing reports and expressing their freedom of speech.

The 2015 act was introduced to enhance cybersecurity but its broad, nebulous language has given the authorities and powerful people leeway to weaponise it against journalists and dissidents who speak truth to power, said Inibehe Effiong, a Nigerian activist and lawyer representing Okoli.

This February, the act was amended by the president following a 2022 ECOWAS court ruling directing the country to review it, stating that it is not in line with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. One of the major changes was section 24, which was used to target dissidents on cyberstalking charges.

“It appears that the Nigerian police have not come to terms with the legal implications of the amendment,” Effiong said. “The import of it is that abusing someone on the internet is no longer a cybercrime, or a journalist carrying out his journalistic work cannot be criminalised or prosecuted.”

Even as the act has been reviewed, Anietie Ewang, the Nigeria researcher for Human Rights Watch, said it is still highly susceptible to manipulation by authorities.

“[This is] because the wording is vague and, as we know, the authorities have a way of using such provisions to fit their purpose. They have ways of interpreting citizens’ actions to be an intention to break down law and order or to threaten life,” Ewang said.

‘Coerced statement’

The day after Okoli’s arrest in Lagos, she was flown to the capital city Abuja to be interrogated at the headquarters of the police force, where she was held for a few days.

Eric Umeofia, the CEO of Erisco Food Limited, the company that produces Nagiko tomato puree, came to the station too. Okoli was brought to see him in an office where he shouted at her while she cried, she told Al Jazeera.

“He started shouting [saying], ‘so it was you that want to destroy my business of 40 years’,” she said, adding that he accused her of being paid by someone to destroy his business, while demanding that she name the person who paid her.

Umeofia also demanded an apology from Okoli, and that she post a public statement on her social media and in three national daily newspapers. The company also filed a civil lawsuit against Okoli seeking 5 billion naira (over $3m) in damages.

Okoli said she wrote a statement twice but both were rejected. She was asked to copy an already prepared confession statement.

“It was like a 100 people sitting on one person, asking him to do one thing,” she told Al Jazeera, saying she had no lawyer present. “I had to copy everything and give [it] to them and they accepted it. And they now released me to go after three days.”

On September 29, 2023, NAFDAC, Nigeria’s foods and drugs regulatory agency, said the sugar level in Nagiko puree is safe for human consumption.

Erisco, in a statement, said Okoli made a “malicious allegation” against the brand and it will use every lawful means to clear its name and reputation. The police have charged her with two counts of “instigating people against Erisco Foods Limited, knowing the said information is false”, and called for her to shut down a GoFundMe campaign page that was set up to support her legal defence after her case gained public sympathy.

Her lawyer has meanwhile filed a 500 million naira ($374,175) lawsuit against Erisco Foods Limited and the police.

During the ordeal, Okoli says she fell sick and her suckling baby also suffered after having been weaned prematurely because her arrest meant she could not breastfeed for days. Her small business’s Facebook page, through which she sells imported baby clothes, was hacked too.

The experience has changed her, Okoli said. She is no longer her lively, outgoing self and she now prefers to stay alone indoors and away from the public, she said.

“I don’t go to church again, I do my church online,” she said. “I don’t know how to explain the type of life I am living now but this is what the whole thing has turned me to.”

On January 9, the police tried to rearrest her despite a court restraining order. They accused her of jumping bail, and remained at the door for several hours until eventually leaving after she locked herself in and said she wouldn’t see them until her lawyer arrived.

No country for journalists

Okoli’s case has provoked an outcry from Nigerians and rights groups who express concern for what such arrests mean for freedom of speech. Meanwhile, journalists trying to expose wrongdoings have also found themselves victims of the law.

On May 1, journalist Daniel Ojukwu was walking through Herbert Macaulay Way in the Yaba suburb of Lagos, when at about 1pm a team of five plainclothes police officers stopped him.

One of them held him by the waist and another brandished an AK-47 in front of him, he said. He requested to see a warrant but they showed him one issued for a wrong name.

“I told them I wanted to make a phone call so someone would know where I was but they said no. When I insisted on making a call, they bent me over, handcuffed me and threw me in the van,” Ojukwu told Al Jazeera. “They emptied my pocket, took everything on me.”

They took him to the Panti police station and told him only that he had committed a cyber offence. They then locked him up with more than 30 people – some alleged murderers – and made to sleep on a hard floor, he said.

His family discovered where he was being kept three days later. On the fourth day, he was flown to Abuja after news spread that other journalists were planning to come to protest at the station.

Ten days after his arrest in Lagos, he was released after meeting bail conditions. He believes he was arrested for exposing allegedly corrupt practices by a former government adviser.

The police, however, insist his arrest was linked to an investigation into his online financial activities — they have not specified the allegations against him.

“The detention of Mr. Ojukwu is linked to allegations of violating provisions of the Cybercrime Act, and other extant laws pertaining to cyber related crimes,” the police said in a May 10 statement. “These allegations stem from a report concerning financial transactions and contract execution upon which he was petitioned to the Nigeria Police for investigations. With our preliminary forensic investigation, and recovery of some contents generated by the suspect, Mr. Ojukwu has a case to answer and as such will be arraigned in court upon conclusion of investigations.”

Ojukwu, though, says it is the police that has questions to answer.

“At this point in time, I have not been charged to court but they have my international passport … so they are still tugging at me like a puppet. It was a harrowing experience but even though,” said Ojukwu, who had an asthma attack in detention.

Since the Cybercrime Act was introduced in 2015, at least 25 journalists have been prosecuted under it according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Nigeria is ranked 112 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

“It is essentially because many times there is a lack of political will to engage and do the right thing and other times there is no accountability when the wrong thing is done,” HRW’s Ewang said.

‘Victims are examples to others’

Being plucked off the street and kept in limbo for days was an unnerving experience for Ojukwu. He was worried he could just vanish without a trace like Abubakar Idris — popularly known as Dadiyata — one of numerous journalists and commentators who have disappeared.

Dadiyata was a social media personality who openly criticised the government. On August 1, 2019, gunmen visited his house and took him away and he has not been heard from or seen since then. The government has denied involvement in his disappearance.

“My family said [my arrest] was the worst period of their lives, they thought I had been kidnapped,” Ojukwu told Al Jazeera. “They thought the worst and they do not want to go through that stress again.”

He said that although “everybody is against me continuing journalism”, he is determined to keep reporting as soon as he is back on his feet, writing social justice stories and exposing corruption despite the obvious dangers.

Ewang said the stress and dehumanising experience of police detention in Nigeria, even before a case goes to court, is a deterrent for those who want to speak up or criticise the authorities. Victims are being used as a scapegoat to send a chilly message to dissidents, she explained.

Nigeria’s already patchy human rights record could suffer further unless it is addressed urgently, said Ewang, who added that a lack of accountability from authorities was a key challenge.

“If nothing is done to ensure that that law is tight and amended in a way that protects citizens’ rights, we will continue to see it being used by the authorities to perpetrate abuses and that is something we should all be worried about,” she said.

On May 28, Okoli was arraigned in court, where her lawyer disclosed that she had suffered a miscarriage during the struggles of the ongoing case. She was remanded to prison and only released after meeting a 5-million-naira bail.

She is anxious about the trial, which will take place on June 13; and about what the final court ruling may be and how it might impact her and her family. If found guilty, she could face up to three years in prison.

“All I do is just pray and ask God to take control,” she said. “I know within me that I did not commit any crime.”


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