Inibehe Effiong is a Lagos-based human rights lawyer who was on July 27, 2022, committed to prison in Akwa Ibom State for contempt of court.
In an exclusive interview with a Daily Post correspondent in Uyo, Effiong narrated how he flew into Uyo to defend his client in a libel case, what transpired in court that led to his incarceration, and his expectations from the judicial system. Excerpts!
July marked one year of your incarceration for contempt of court. Do you feel remorseful?
Yes, exactly one year ago, on July 27, 2022, I was remanded in the Correctional Centre (prison) for one month by the Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom State, His Lordship, Hon. Justice Ekaette Fabian-Obot, for alleged contempt of court. The Chief Judge never gave me the opportunity to defend myself. I was not put in the dock. I was not tried. No charge was preferred against me or read to me. No opportunity was given to me to say anything.
Did you anticipate your incarceration, and what led to your sentencing?
Well, I cannot actually say that I envisaged that, but before then, His Lordship had threatened to send me to prison and had called me the most unprintable names imaginable. I arrived at the court that historic morning in the company of my colleague, Augustine Asuquo, Esq., hoping to offer my professional services to my client, Leo Ekpenyong, Esq., in two libel suits filed by the immediate past governor of Akwa Ibom State, Mr. Udom Emmanuel, and Senator Effiong Bob.
I can say that the events that played out that day showed strongly that the agenda for the day was specifically to send me to prison for daring to file applications asking the Honourable Chief Judge to recuse herself from the two libel cases on grounds of bias or likelihood of bias. It was as if I deserved death for filing the recusal motions.
So what prompted you to file such an application that the Chief Judge should recuse herself?
First of all, one would have thought that when the impartiality of a court is challenged by way of an application for recusal, the court should stay action on every other matter and determine such an application, which goes to the very heart and foundation of our justice system.
In this case, I filed the two motions for recusal on the 23rd day of June, 2022. The two cases came up on the 24th day of June, 2022; the 29th day of June, 2022; and again on the 27th day of July, 2022.
If the excuse for ignoring the motions on June 24 and 29, 2022, was that they were not ripe for hearing, what was the excuse for not taking the applications on July 27, 2022? Should a court continue with the hearing of the substantive case when there is a pending motion calling into question the neutrality of the court? I will leave this question for the courts and possibly the National Judicial Council (NJC) to decide.
Before I filed the motions, I wrote to the Hon. Chief Judge and pleaded with My Lord to reassign the two cases, which had the same facts. My Lord, in her wisdom, refused to accede to my request.
Part of the grounds for the two recusal applications was that my Lord had previously entered default judgments and awarded damages against my client in favor of Mr. Udom Emmanuel and Senator Bob to the tune of N1.5 billion and N150 million, respectively.
I filed separate applications asking the court to set aside the default judgments. The court, after very problematic proceedings, agreed that the judgments violated my client’s right to a fair hearing. But in setting aside the judgments, His Lordship descended heavily on my person in a way that I couldn’t comprehend.
My thinking, which formed part of the grounds of the motions for recusal, was that since it is the practice that when a judgment is set aside, the case usually starts de novo before another judge, it was better for the cases to be reassigned. This is because the mind of the court may have been prejudiced, notwithstanding that the said judgment has been set aside.
Another ground of the applications was that my client felt extremely scared after my Lord attended the wedding of the daughter of Senator Effiong Bob during the pendency of the two libel cases, which arose from the same alleged online publication (a publication my client vehemently denied) with identical pleadings, witnesses, and representation. There is video evidence of this. This is one of the issues the NJC should look into: whether it is proper for a judicial officer to associate with a litigant in that manner during the pendency of a contentious matter.
Another ground related to repeated aspersions cast on my person by His Lordship These facts are there for the whole world to see.
You claimed that there was a premeditated decision by the court to remand you; can you explain more?
Yes, I say so because, immediately after my Lord entered the courtroom on July 27, 2022, his Lordship ordered the court’s orderly to go outside and bring in armed policemen into the courtroom. The atmosphere in the court became more tense than it had ever been. Counsel on both sides waited for the orderly and the armed policemen to come inside the courtroom before appearances could be announced. Soon afterwards, two mobile policemen with AK-47 rifles entered the courtroom and sat directly behind me.
Throughout my five years in the faculty of law at the University of Uyo and one year at the Nigerian Law School, Lagos Campus, my lecturers never taught me that armed men with assault rifles can be allowed inside the courtroom. Since my call to the Nigerian Bar, I have appeared before inferior and superior courts of record across the country, and I have never seen policemen or anyone with an assault rifle inside the courtroom. I have always thought that the courtroom is a solemn place.
Immediately after we announced our appearances, I again drew His Lordship’s attention to the pending motions for recusal, but my Lord, as usual, shouted me down and ordered the claimant’s witness into the witness box for the continuation of cross-examination. I did not argue. I obeyed and resumed cross-examination from where I stopped on the last adjourned date.
I was going to the third question when His Lordship interjected and ordered a journalist from Premium Times to stand up. His Lordship asked him who he was, and he introduced himself. Immediately after he mentioned Premium Times, My Lord instructed that he should leave, and his cellphone was seized. What was I supposed to do as a minister in the temple of justice in this circumstance?
My thinking was that I had a duty to the profession to respond to what I considered a regrettable development in the courtroom. I addressed the court on the expulsion of the journalist and told his Lordship that since the Constitution guarantees publicity of trials, journalists and indeed members of the public should be free to access the court and observe proceedings. My Lord was infuriated and said that it was His Lordship’s court and that except I was the one who brought in the journalist to smear her reputation, I should mind my business. I simply kept quiet on the issue of the journalist.
However, I used that opportunity to draw the attention of the Court to the presence of the armed mobile policemen behind me and told His Lordship that their presence had created hostility in the courtroom and that it was not consistent with the norms of the legal profession to have armed men inside the courtroom. I pleaded with the court to direct them to exit the courtroom. His Lordship rejected my entreaties.
I then decided to make a formal application for the policemen to be ordered to vacate the courtroom. Immediately after I said “My Lord, I am now applying formally...”, my Lord picked up a pen and started writing what I wrongly assumed was my formal submission on the impropriety of having armed policemen with assault rifles inside the courtroom.
Unknown to me, it was my committal order that My Lord was writing and not my submissions.
I was still on my feet addressing the court when the honorable Chief Judge said, You there, step out of the Bar’. My Lord did not even refer to me by name, but I knew the order was for me. I was stunned, confused, and speechless. Immediately after I recovered from the momentary confusion that enveloped me, I stepped out of the Bar.
The next comment My Lord made was ‘derobe yourself’.
Is it true that you were hesitant when the Honorable Chief Judge made the pronouncement?
I admit that I did not comply with this order immediately. I rather told His Lordship that if I derobed, I would no longer be able to address the court as counsel. I was expecting some explanation of why a lawyer should derobe while addressing the court. At no time did my Lord say anything about contempt or suggest that I was about to be committed for contempt. When My Lord did not respond to my position that I would not be able to address the court if I derobed, I removed my wig.
His Lordship then read out the pre-written order committing me to one month's imprisonment. At no time did His Lordship say anything about contempt, my conduct, or my comment being contemptuous. The issue of contempt never came up. The only time the word contempt was used was when the pre-written committal order was read out.
But it was reported you pointed fingers at the Chief Judge and hit the table, which is a crime and amounts to contempt. What is your take on that?
It was during my stay in the Correctional Center that I heard that it was stated in the record of proceedings that I, Inibehe Effiong, insulted the Chief Judge and that I pointed at the Chief Judge and banged on the table.
The then governor’s lawyer, Mr. Samuel Ikpo, a senior lawyer who came out after my committal to tell fictional stories to the media in order to scandalize me, did not utter a word in court while this was playing out. He said nothing. He did nothing. He just sat there looking stunned, possibly shocked by the development (if indeed he was shocked).
All that I can say today is that if there is a God in Heaven that rules over the affairs of men, may I, Inibehe Effiong, never succeed in life. May a curse be upon me and my entire unborn generations if I ever pointed my hand or finger at the Chief Judge, if I banged on the table as it was reported a year ago, or if I even told the Chief Judge that the proceedings would not continue unless the journalist was brought back to continue his work. May adversity never depart from me and my household if I do these things.
But if these accusations against me are false, may God not allow those who lied against me to escape misery. May their generations suffer worse injustice and victimization, and may darkness never depart from their households. I am making these supplications because what really offended me and still hurts me deeply to this day is not the fact that I was imprisoned. But the lies that were told in desperation to justify my imprisonment
It took 21 days before what was presented to the world as a record of proceedings could be made available. This is a document of just 4 pages. Yet it took 21 days to produce it. I won’t say more on this.
It was speculated that you planned to go for an appeal after your one-month jail term; what is the situation now?
Yes, but after I had served my full term, efforts were made to discourage me from pursuing my appeal at the Court of Appeal. The case file was not made available on time for the compilation of records. When it was made available, records of the case and certain documents suddenly developed wings. In the end, I was only able to do a self-compilation out of time. The motion to regularize the same is still pending without a date for hearing (yet). I weep for the legal profession in Nigeria. I am a victim of injustice in the Nigerian Judiciary.
But I still believe firmly that the same judiciary will absolve me. But like Fidel Castro said, in the end, history will absolve me. I have helped many people in this country get justice through our courts. But for a moment, I felt that justice in Nigeria was a mirage. Despite what I went through a year ago, my faith in our court system has not died.
In all these cases, did you make any effort to resolve this through the intervention of your union, the NBA?
I notified members of our noble association, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), and the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the NBA passed a resolution for my case to be taken before the National Judicial Council (NJC). Unfortunately, the current President of the Bar has abandoned me to my fate and completely forgotten about my travails.
When I was released, I wrote officially to Mr. Y. C. Maikyau, SAN, to thank the entire National leadership of the NBA for standing by me during my ordeal. The President replied at the time and directed me to send him a written brief on my case. I delivered a detailed written brief of 16 pages with not less than 14 attached documents as proof of its content to the President on October 4, 2022.
Ten months after I submitted the brief, the President of the NBA has neither contacted me (directly or indirectly) nor taken any action (to my knowledge) on my case. I was later told informally not to bother because Mr. President had no interest in pursuing my matter and wondered why his predecessor, Mr. Olumide Akpata, did not submit the petition to the NJC before leaving office. I only wish Mr. President had informed me officially that his administration would not follow through with the resolution passed by the NBA NEC led by Mr. Olumide Akpata. It would have enabled me to decide whether to pursue the matter at the NJC on my own or not.
So what do you want, or what is your message?
I just want lawyers in this country to know that this is not about one lawyer by the name of Inibehe Effiong. This is about a dangerous precedent for the legal profession and legal practice. Tomorrow is pregnant. Injustice to one is injustice to all.
I want to once again publicly express my eternal gratitude to Mr. Femi Falana, SAN, who has been a mentor and a father figure to me even before my call to the Nigerian Bar. He has done for me what I can never repay him for. I am also grateful to Mr. Olumide-Fusika, SAN, Mr. Ebun Adegboruwa, SAN, Mrs. Funmi Falana, the current Chairman of SPIDEL, Mr. Aikpokpopo Martins, the immediate past Chairman of SPIDEL, Mr. Monday Ubani, Mr. Olakunle Edun, Femi Adeborisada, Nsikak Akai, Esq., my dearest colleague in chambers, Augustine Asuquo, and other members of my legal team who have stood by me.
As for Mr. Olumide Akpata, I wonder what would have happened if he was not the leader of the Bar when I was incarcerated. Who would have spoken out for me, especially given that the leadership of the NBA branch in Uyo had openly sided with the Government of Akwa Ibom State and didn’t even care to pay me a visit? The leaders of the Uyo Branch of the NBA sold me out, and I want history to record this. But for the National leadership of the bar and my legal team led by Mr. Falana, SAN, lawyers, and activists of conscience, I would have been left completely vulnerable.
I was never bothered by my incarceration. It is a price that I had to pay for seeking to uphold the very sanctity of our judiciary. But I was worried about my image being slandered without anyone available to defend the truth of what transpired.
I also want to say, dear Mr. Olumide Akpata, if you come across this, please know that I am forever in your debt. I recall that the corrupt political actors in Akwa Ibom, who have always hated my advocacies and public criticisms of their misrule, were so relieved when you left office. They told me in different forums that the support the NBA National under your leadership gave me would end with your tenure. Some of the pro-government leaders of the Bar in Uyo publicly insulted you at their Branch meetings and questioned why you should intervene in my case. But you remained consistent until the last day of your tenure.
I thank the Nigerian civil society, the human rights community, the NLC, Mr. Chidi Odinkalu, Richard Akinnola, Sowore, Abdul Mahmud, Deji Adeyanju, Agba Jalingo, Firsts Baba Isa, Rinu Oduala, Aisha Yesufu, SERAP, etc., the media, and other conscientious Nigerians for many editorials and public condemnations of the injustice that was done to me.
It is only by standing up for those who are not in a position to stand up for themselves that humanity is preserved. History will vindicate the just.