The rights of Nigerians to freedom of expression and association, including the right to hold view on any issue and propagate same, are clearly enshrined in our constitution. These rights, once compromised by those in the corridors of power, facilitate the emergence of an unjust system that aims at suppressing the ideals of democracy founded by the popular will of the overall majority. Current happenings in the nation have given cause for fears amongst Nigerians over the desecrations of these rights as spelt by our laws. From the North to the South, news of arrests and detentions of citizens noted for their criticisms have sent new wave of fear that our nation may be cascading down the slope of suppression.
In the face of controversy trailing the role of social media and introduction of blogging platforms for information dissemination, the speed of sharing information/news has become supersonic. Through the emergence of these social media activities, the world that was once described as a global village has been reduced into a global room, with the awesome power of the social media taking our planet to the dazzling heights of information dissemination never attained in the past. There are fears that those engaged in social media activism need to be checkmated in order to prohibit turning the cyberspace into as platform of destruction and hate speech. Sometimes, not only are the false contents of these social media platforms alarming, the cyberspace has been turned into a titanic battleground for the forces of light and darkness.
In the course of providing information/news, the incidence of misrepresentation are often not absent. In the event of falsehood aimed at creating disharmony among citizens, the role of government could turn out salvaging the reputation of leaders whose activities may have attracted the attention of social media activists. Before giving green light to government to proceed with the planned regulation of the social media, there is need to distinguish what could possibly be termed as crossing the red line in the use of the social media. When government comes up with the idea of regulating activities of social media, amidst the threat to personal liberty and freedom of expression, commentators are bound to suspect such moves.
In the light of the various clampdowns on persons accused of spreading falsehood and destroying the hard-earned personalities of individuals on the cyberspace, the need to resort to constitutionality is uppermost. What becomes abhorrent is when the judicial system are used to throw accused persons into jail in perpetuity without bail, while engaging the judicial systems and the police to elongate these detentions.
In this light, the current travails of Mr. Steven Kefas who has been in detention in Kaduna Prisons for over four months without bail readily comes to mind. After his arrest on May 8, 2019 in a commando style by men of Kaduna State Investigation Bureau (KSIB) in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, he was initially detained in Minikoro Police Area Command in the state and, a day after, driven to Kaduna. On May 13, he was arraigned before Magistrate Court 11 where he was charged to court over Facebook postings deemed to be capable of inciting public disturbance injurious to the image of the chairman of Kajuru Local Government Area, Mr Cafra Caino. Despite the prosecution’s vociferous debate on the need to deny bail to the accused, the court granted bail to Kefas after the two sureties satisfied the bail conditions.
Back to Port Harcourt where he was then working, Kefas would later turn himself in to the police on May 21 after mounting pressure on his sureties to either produce him or be taken in. During the second arrest and detention, the accused’s phone was seized as exhibit in total contravention of the earlier court order that barred the police from arresting him. Kefas was re-arraigned before another Magistrate Court on June 3 on a petition based by the Kajuru LGA chairman. The new Magistrate had turned down all entreaties to grant bail and gave permission to the police to detain the accused for two weeks in order to complete their investigations.
The judge had also declined the bail request based on the fact that the police had claimed that the accused, despite his detention, was still engaged in social media postings. No evidence was provided by them to prove their allegation. To the chagrin of those who attended the court session that day, the judge ordered Kefas back to prison on the assumption that purely passed for judicial travesty. How could an accused be engaged in social media activism when his phone was already under the custody of the police?
While Kefas’ lawyers were involved in frantic moves to secure bail for their client, on June 20, 2019, the case was transferred to the Kaduna High Court 2, presided by Justice Mairo Mohammed. After studying arguments for and against the bail, on June 27, the judge declined bail, hinging her verdict on Kefas’ engagement in social media during the first bail. If participation of Kefas in social media was the reason for denying him bail, why did the judge not include that as a condition for the bail? She adjourned the case to September 26, 2019, with a promise that she would only grant bail if the accused refrained from further social media postings.
The resumed hearing on the bail application never took placed on Septembwe 26, 2006. Early in the first week of this month, news filtered in that the case would come up on October 9, 2019. While hopes were high that finally bail would be granted, a message was sent to the court on the date of the resumed hearing that Justice Mairo Mohammed was indisposed and, therefore, had adjourned the case to October 29, 2019.
Before Wednesday, a coalition of civil rights groups under the umbrella of ‘Citizens For Steven Kefas’ had on Monday October 7, addressed a press conference in Abuja to draw national and global attention to the unjust detention of Kefas whose right to bail has been desecrated and violated. In the press conference addressed by Comrade Emmanuel Onwubiko, who is the National Coordinator of the Human Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA), the group called on the National Judicial Council (NJC) to probe the circumstances surrounding the long detention of Kefas for nearly five months.
As at today, Kefas remains Nigeria’s most detained accused without bail over a matter that is frivolous. It may be true that those opposed to the social media postings of Kefas are aware that the activist may not have committed any serious offence, and could have their case dismissed with the wave of the hand. To inflict maximum hardship on him, the resort to technicalities obviously becomes an option. As the long wait for Kefas bail grows worrisome, Kaduna-based human rights lawyer, Barr Gloria Mabeaim Ballason, on Thursday slammed a N500 million court suit against Governor Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai and five others at the Kaduna Federal High Court.
Kefas is not the first accused to suffer a long detention in prison without any justifiable cause. Elders of the Adara people whose monarch was kidnapped and subsequently killed in October 2018, were hounded into jail for 100 days in prison before their discharge by the court when the police could not provide a shred of evidence over charge of culpable homicide. Former Bureau Chief of Vanguard newspaper, Luka Binniyat, among many others, was not spared of detention. As legal fireworks commence on Kefas in the coming weeks, not a few Nigerians are praying that the bail be granted so that hearing on the substantive case can commence.