Having served out the one-month detention warrant issued by the Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom State, Justice Ekaette Obot, Barr. Iniebehe Effiong, a human rights advocate, was on Friday, August 26, 2022, released from the Nigerian Correctional Centre, Uyo.
The lawyer-activist walked out of the Correctional facility into the waiting arms of family, friends, colleagues, well-wishers and journalists, all of who gathered in solidarity with him.
Effiong was ordered detained on July 27, 2022, following a contempt charge against him by Justice Ekaette Obot when he appeared in court as defence Council in a libel case between Governor Udom Emmanuel and Leo Ekpenyong in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State.
In his remarks upon regaining his freedom, Barr. Effiong thanked God and everyone who stood by him throughout his 30days incarceration. He also provided his side of the story concerning what transpired in court on July 27.
“I want to thank God Almighty, the one who said He knew me before I was formed in the womb. The one who said that He had consecrated me and that He has appointed us as prophets to the nation. I thank that God for making today to be possible.
“For me, like I always say, “History will vindicate the just.” Well, I have just finished my one month appointment with destiny. I came to the custodial centre to follow the path of my ancestors, the Gani Fawehinmis of this world, and those who over the years have had to sacrifice their personal comfort in order to defend their convictions.
“For me and those who came to visit me throughout my period of incarceration, you would have left with one clear message, that I was totally unbothered, totally unmoved and not perturbed. I consider 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 without having opportunity to hear clearly from me believed in my innocence, stood by my conviction and fought to vindicate me.
“I must also thank Mr. Femi Falana, SAN, my lead counsel, the other Senior Advocates of Nigeria, and of course other members of the NBA leadership who are also part of my legal team. My humble sovereign 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 organisations and the human rights community for standing by one of their own. I will not also fail to appreciate my friends in the media, the fourth Estate of the realm who have taken it upon themselves to take the truth to all the four corners of this world. And I thank conscientious Nigerians, conscientious Akwa Ibomites and every single person that has spoken out in my defence to demand my freedom in the last one month.
“Well, you would have heard that I was convicted for contempt of court, but I might just be, maybe the only person to be remanded as a lawyer at least currently in this country. I was said to have been convicted without any charge preferred against me, without an opportunity to take a plea, without my offence being disclosed or any of the principles of fair hearing being accorded me.
“So, for me, it is a great honour to have passed through this road. But let me state clearly and unequivocally that while I am grateful to God for this experience because as you may have seen it yourself, this has only strengthened me, this has only fortified me, I only feel sorry for those who feel they can break me by this incarceration, because the Inibehe that has just come out of incarceration is brimming with fire. 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’ (Book by Nelson Mandela) 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 any time pointed my hand at the Honourable Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom. I never at any time banged the table. I never at any time 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, whose office I respect, knows in her conscience that I never acted in any insolent manner. I never disrespected the court.
“All I did on the 27th of July when I announced my appearance along with my colleague Augustine to defend my client Leo Ekpenyong was simply to raise two fundamental observations. That I feel that every judicial officer with profound respect and that every legal practitioner in this country should pay attention to. When I arrived the court, My Lord had announced clearly that today His Lordship is coming in with anger and that the court will not tolerate any nonsense from anybody. And because we knew the antecedence of this matter, we have always accorded the court absolute respect.
“Even before we announced appearances, My Lord ordered the (Police) orderly to invite into the courtroom two armed Mobile Policemen. I am not against policemen being within 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 grounds of bias or likelihood of bias which application we filed on the 23rd day of June, 2022. And of course, as it has been, My Lord shouted me down and I rested the issue and said the court will take that application whenever the court deems fit.
“And of course, My Lord ordered that the cross examination should 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 say that with all sense of respect to the court, ordered a certain Saviour (Imukudo), a reporter with Premium Times to stand up and he stood up and My Lord asked him, ‘who are you?’ and he said he was an observer. My Lord said ‘who are you to observe the court, are you a 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 young and little years, for the eight years I have been practicing as a lawyer. My Lord ordered his phone to be seized and the policemen to take him away.
“I had a responsibility, having been called to the Nigerian Bar, having taken that solemn oath to defend the constitution of this country, myself being 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 did not confront court. I said ‘My Lord, with profound respect, section 36 of the constitution guarantees publicity of trial and provides that court proceedings shall be held in public.’ I was not even shouting at the court, I was urging My Lord. I said ‘My Lord, I had thought that in view of that constitutional provision that members of the public including journalists should be free to access the court and observe proceedings’ and of course, My Lord didn’t accept that.
“Maybe, that was my offence. I did not give up. I still urged the court and then My Lord said ‘except you are the one who brought him to tarnish my hard-earned reputation.’ So, I saw that the issue had become very personal. So, I rested the issue.
“I was about to start my cross examination and I turned back, again I saw two armed policemen with AK47, one to my right, one to my left. This had created so much hostility and I said ‘My Lord I have also observed the presence of two armed policemen in court.’ I said, ‘My Lord, even though I am ordinarily not intimidated by their presence but by their being here with arms seated behind me they have created hostility in the court which has made it uncomfortable for me and difficult for me to proceed with the proceedings’ and I pleaded with the court to excuse them. My Lord didn’t accept our plea. Again, maybe that was my offence. I did not give up because I have a duty as a lawyer to defend the course of justice.
“I said ‘My Lord, respectfully, 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 would be bound by the order of the court and I would proceed with my cross examination.’ At that point, My Lord picked a pen, My Lord started writing. You know as a lawyer when you are addressing the court and the court is writing you are excited 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 it was my committal order to prison. The next thing I heard was ‘you there, step out of the bar’. I stepped out of the bar. I did not fight. And then my Lord said ‘derobe yourself’ and I must also say again I did not derobe immediately. I must place the record as it is because I cannot derobe as a lawyer in court if I don’t know the reason why I should derobe. It is like taking away my Call-to-Bar certificate. I said ‘My Lord if I derobe I can no longer address the court as a counsel.’ My Lord said, ‘you are no longer a lawyer, I no longer recognize you because I am sending you to prison.’
“I didn’t believe it. The next thing my Lord did was to read what My Lord had already written ‘you are hereby sentenced to one month imprisonment, to be remanded at the Correction Centre until you purge yourself of contempt’.
“And then I had removed my wig. 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’. And I told the policemen, even if I escape, people outside will know that I am the one that is running. Where will I run to? Where in Akwa Ibom will I hide? So, I told them, I don’t have problem, I will follow you to prison. I will not be the first (to be there).
“All I have told you is what transpired. So, those who say 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. And I’m using this opportunity to publicly urge and appeal to My Lord the Honourable Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom State, Justice Ekaette Fabian Obot to please release the Close Circuit Television (CCTV) camera recording of that day. Because I am told, I am aware to the best of my knowledge that there is CCTV inside that courtroom, My Lord the Chief Judge’s court. Let all lawyers in Nigeria see when Inibehe pointed at the Honourable Chief Judge. Let them also see when Inibehe banged on the table. Even if I was the most insolent lawyer in Nigeria, you do not have to scandalize my name and attribute to me a conduct that never took place in court just to justify what is clearly unjustifiable.
“So, 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.
“I can announce to you that I have taken steps to secure the release of 17 inmates at the Uyo Custodial Centre, in fact one left last night. The others would have come but the authorities were concerned that people were gathering too much so I couldn’t wait. I was supposed to come out with them. We had to spend significant and substantial amount of money to make that happen. These are people that were admitted to bail at Magistrate Courts, but they had nobody to take them on bail. In fact, the young man who left yesterday was admitted to bail, subsequently his charge was struck out, the court did not come to inform the Custodial Centre. He was just there. It was until the person I asked to go and perfect his bail went to court yesterday, that they now came to secure his release. This is someone that had no business being in detention, but this shows you how bad the system is.
“So, the remaining 17 I am hopeful that before the end of today they will be out. And I am doing that to also let people know that the Criminal Justice system in Akwa Ibom and Nigeria as a whole need 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, by my experience I am now a witness of truth. By my own experience having been sent to prison with no offence disclosed, without any misconduct, then there are innocent people there.
“Well, the prison life is what I have always been prepared for. That is why I laugh at those who were celebrating my incarceration. I have always been prepared. I knew this was inevitable because you do not consistently fight those who are oppressing our people and you do not expect to be incarcerated. Life in the prison is a different life entirely. These 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 of some of these pathetic cases.
For me, all I needed to do was just to adjust a little to the environment. There are so many things I had to adjust to. But get this clear, if I have ever had sound sleep in my life it was while I was in the prison. I had opportunity of sleeping for not less than 8 hours a day. I don’t have that opportunity in Lagos. So, I must also thank My Lord for this well-deserved vacation. I am grateful to the Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom. You may think it is funny but the day I arrived here from Ikot Ekpene on the 10th of this month, I went to the clinic to check my weight. I was weighing sixty-something but as I am leaving I am seventy-something. So that shows that I was never bothered while I was in incarceration. That is why I pity those who say ‘oh when he comes out he will not speak again.’ The voice they so hate to hear is now louder,” Barr. Effiong concluded.