Recently, I read an article in a national newspaper about one Mr. Imo Eze, former Chief Press Secretary to Gov Sam Egwu of Ebonyi State, who has been languishing in detention, because, his newspaper, Ebonyi Voice, had published some articles on very astounding corrupt practices allegedly perpetrated by Egwu which the governor felt was injurious to his reputation. Later, I also saw another report about another journalist, Mr. Oluwole Elenyinmi, also being detained in Ebonyi State because of the same offence. It is like Ebonyi State is fast acquiring a reputation for wanton detention and harassment of journalists.
After reading the report, my interest in the matter was kindled and I began to make contacts in the state and neighbouring Enugu to find out why Mr. Eze was being detained (by then, I had not heard of the detention of Mr. Elenyinmi). One account had it that Egwu had sued Eze for libel. Libel? So what was he doing in detention in respect of a case that is totally civil?
Sam Egwu (below)
Well, another account said the man was standing trial for publishing “seditious materials” against the governor.Sedition again? Are they not aware that the law on that was killed by a judgment of the Court of Appeal in 1983?
I wanted to get the official account, so I called Dr. John Otu, Egwu’s formerInformation Commissioner, now Special Adviser on Media and Publicity. Incidentally, Eze had served as Chief Press Secretary under John Otu while hewas the Information Commissioner. The post Otu is occupying now is the one vacated by Eze, although with a different name.
As it turned out, John Otu himself did not have a clearer idea, and so he suggested I talk to the Ebonyi State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice. Now, I continued to call the Attorney General’s number, but he simply refused to take my calls. After some more attempts, he switched off his phone entirely. Till now, I have not been able to reach him, even though John Otu had promised, after I told him the difficulty I was having in reaching the man, to give him my number, and inform him I was calling. And no one from the Ebonyi State Government has tried to reach me to give me the officialposition on the issue.
Well, in this preliminary comment on the matter, my take is that it is the view of all decent people that no matter how bad Egwu may feel about the action of his former aide, nothing justifies Mr. Eze’s continued detention. As has been argued in the recent case of Rotimi Durojaiye of Independent Newspapers and Gbenga Aruleba of the African Independent Television (AIT) Vs the Federal Governemnt of Nigeria, there is no offence like “sedition” in our status books.
Calls for the unconditional release of the detained journalists have fallen on deaf ears in Ebonyi State. Only recently, the Committee To Protect Journalists (CPJ) in a statement signed by its Executive Director, Joel Simon, called on both the “Federal and Ebonyi State authorities to ensure that Imo Eze and Oluwole Elenyinmi are released immediately, and that all criminal charges against them are dropped.” According the CPJ, “the continued prosecution of journalists is undermining Nigeria’s democratic credentials.”
Nigerians, especially, the press and civil society, and all friends of Nigeria, should rise this time and the challenge the crude, illegal action of the Ebonyi State Government and insist that on no account should Gov Egwu or anyone use a dead law to intimidate journalists carrying out their legitimate duty.
I want to call on Egwu to effect the release of Eze and Elenyinmi right away. There is no justification for their continued incarceration in Egwu’s gulag no matter what the journalists wrote, and no matter the legal mumbo-jumbo they may dredge up in Abakaliki to justify the unjust action.There was a report that a magistrate court in Abakaliki, the state capital, had set bail for the journalists at 50,000 naira (US$400) and a surety from a civil servant of the rank of Permanent Secretary who must be living within the jurisdiction of the court. Of course, we know that no Permanent Secretary would dare sign such surety for these journalists in Abakaliki as Egwu would immediately sack him.
All men of decent will should rise in unanimous isolation of this crude assault on free speech, because, like I toldJohn Otu last week, it can be anybody tomorrow. Afterall, Imo Eze, Imo may have equally defended Egwu like he is doing now, not knowing that the same man he had defended would later clamp him in detention.
Sothis matter is not about Imo Eze (who I don’t even know). Indeed, having helped to set up and consolidate the iniquitous systemthat is today rubbing his nose on the mud, Eze hardly merits our sympathy. Who even knows how many journalists Egwu had detained while he was Chief Press Secretary, and how he had dredged up some queer logic to justify the Governor’s action.
But because, we recognize the need to ensure that our “elected” officials keep themselves under the rules that govern civilized society, we need to stand up and insist that Eze and Elenyinmi be released immediately and unconditionally.
Although, Egwu operates from Sani Abacha Lodge in Abakaliki, somebody should, please, remind him that military rule ended in principle in Nigeria in 1999.Perhaps, he may need to rename that Ebonyi Government House if its currentobnoxious name inspires some Abacha-like tendencies in him.
Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye, a Nigerian journalist and writer, is a columnist and member of the Editorial Board, Daily Independent newspaper. He is the author the book, NIGERIA: Why Looting May Not Stop (firstname.lastname@example.org)