Feb 10, 2014 – Nigerian Man Arrested & Jailed By Police Over Facebook Comment About Bayelsa State Governor
Tonye Okio is a former representative of the former governor of Bayelsa state, Timipre Sylva at the state’s liaison office in Abuja. His arrest and subsequent detention for 86 days without trial in a Bayelsa prison over a comment he was alleged to have posted on Facebook sparked off public outcry and condemnation in the print, electronic and social media. In this interview, after his release from prison, he spoke on what happened on the day of his arrest, how he was moved from Abuja to Yenagoa, his experience at state CID cell and in prison.
You were kept in prison for 86 days over what you posted on Facebook that the Bayelsa state government considered offensive. How did it all start?
Precisely on October 26, 2013 in the early hours of the day, around 9.00 a m or thereabout, my niece who came visiting was preparing breakfast for us. She left the kitchen to tell me some visitors were around to see me. I told her to usher them in and offer drinks to them because I was still in my room, trying to clean up for the day. But she said they insisted on seeing me. So I went out to meet them. But immediately I went out to meet them, they pointed their guns at me. They asked if I’m Tonye Okio and I said yes. I was afraid, I pleaded with them not to kill me and not to rape my niece because I didn’t know what they wanted.They told me they were not armed robbers, but policemen. Only about five of them came in, but in that confused state, when I went out I discovered they were many – over 15 of them were waiting outside. I asked them what my offence was, but nobody said anything to me. They just asked me to follow them. Before they moved me from my house, they took my phones and an ipad. When we arrived at their Abuja command headquarters, they told me I was arrested because I criticized the governor of Bayelsa State, Seriake Dickson, on Facebook and he ordered them to arrest me and take me down to Bayelsa. I pleaded with them to allow me talk with my people and my lawyer, but they said they would allow me at the appropriate time. When I insisted, they told me they had been given an order on what to do to me if I should try to be stubborn. They said they were taking me to Bayelsa by plane that day, but I didn’t know they were deceiving me. At about 4 pm I was told we were going to the airport. When they took me out of their office, I saw many policemen outside with three vehicles: A police van, one private car and a Prado jeep, so they put me in the private car. The police van was in front and another one was at the back. Immediately we drove out of their office they told me not to try anything because they were already given orders to do away with me. So they brought out clothe and blindfolded me. When the trip to the airport was taking longer than I expected, I became worried because I knew that if they were actually taking me to the airport we ought to have been there since we left the police command. At a point, I started asking if we had not arrived at the airport because my eyes were paining me. When I eventually realized they were not taken me to the airport I started begging them. I begged them not to kill me because I have children. I pleaded with them to pity my wife and my children. My father died at a young age; I didn’t want to die like him. I told them for whatever reason they might be holding me, I didn’t kill anybody, they shouldn’t kill me. I kept pleading with them and when we got far and in that fear, because I was blindfolded, I didn’t know where they were taking me to I started shaking. I was hypertensive. Before I knew what was happening I started urinating on my body. It was so horrible an experience. The two policemen who were sitting by my side also got wet and they jumped up and shouted at me. I told them I was afraid and begged them again not to kill me. They said, okay, but if I wanted to urinate again I should tell them so that they can wait for me to do so. At that point they removed the cloth from my face. From then when I was pressed I would tell them and they would stop the vehicle for me to ease myself. It was already night. I didn’t know where we were but soon I realized we were heading towards Bayelsa.
We got to Yenagoa around 1.00 am and I was thrown into the state CID cell. My little niece that was around during my arrest informed people and they began a manhunt for me. When they couldn’t trace me, they went round police stations in and around Abuja and that was what informed the earlier media reports that I had been kidnapped. They were not wrong; they shouldn’t be blamed because the people who came to arrest me and took me to police station came in plain clothes. Nobody would have known they were policemen. Like I said, when we got to Yenagoa they threw me into the CID cell. I saw hell there. The authorities needed to visit the place. People were brought out at night and they would not return to that place. I strongly believe the state CID in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State is a death zone. I and other detainees suspected that some of the people taken out were being eliminated. They would be taken out at night and no one would know what happened to them. I’m afraid, we are in the days of Idi Amin in Nigeria. What I suffered there was terrible and what is going on there now is horrible. I can’t imagine it. At a point, people had to rally round to get a lawyer for me.
How were you traced to the police station?
My little niece went to tell my people what happened and after the manhunt, which made them to visit all the police stations in Abuja, they eventually met me at their Abuja command before I was moved out to Bayelsa. But they didn’t allow them to get close to me and unfortunately before they returned from where they went to solicit for my release, the police had moved me to Bayelsa on the order of the state governor. So they wouldn’t have known where the police took me to.
What was the exact comment you posted on Facebook that made them to arrest you?
I was accused of making a comment that ‘a South-South governor was arrested abroad with $5 million and efforts were made to kill the case. I hear oga at the top has refused to be involved’ That was the statement I was accused of making. No name of any governor was mentioned because that is sub-judicial, whether I wrote it or not. Assuming I wrote it, I didn’t mention the name of a governor, I didn’t mention the name of a state and no name of a country was mentioned. It could have been South-South Ghana, South-South Ethiopia, South-South Namibia or South-South America. No name of a governor, state or country was mentioned, but Governor Dickson of Bayelsa owned up to it that I was referring to him. And he ordered the operation leading to my arrest and imprisonment.
Before the incident, was there any issue between you and the governor?
I don’t have any personal issues with him, but of note is that I have been a social critic on the social media regarding anomalies that is going on in government at the state and national level. I have always spoken against the anomalies and the inability of the state governor to meet up with the expectations of the people. I have spoken even on President Gooodluck Jonathan’s inability to meet up to the expectations of our people. I’m from Bayelsa, Ogbia, the same place with Mr president. But there are a lot of things we had expected from him, which he didn’t do. He has been in government for the past 14 years but not one kilometer of road to show for it in Ogbia Kingdom. He has moved from Deputy Governor to Acting Governor and to Governor. From Vice President to Acting President and now President for the past four years, yet we cannot be proud of one kilometer of road in our area. The major link road from Ogbia community to Oloibiri, where oil was first found, has been cut off by flood and till date that road is still like that. We don’t have electricity for many years and no water. Are we going to wait till we have an Hausa or Yoruba man as president before those things will be fixed? Should we wait for God to come down as president to do it for us? Charity begins at home. These are the things I have always spoken against. If we cannot get these things when we have our son as president when are we going to get them?
Was there any attempt to arrest you before this incident?
Well, there has been this insinuation that I might be arrest for these things I always talk about. The senior special assistant to governor Dickson on Social Media, Mr John Idimage, has never hidden his feeling that the government was against me, and that I could be arrested any moment. He has always said this, but I never thought they could carry out the action in this manner because the things I have always talked about are obvious. If Okio has said there was no electricity in Ogbia where Mr President comes from they should investigate whether it’s true or not. If I said there is no road there, is there road? They should find out. The available roads in this area were constructed by Shell Oil Company in the early 1960s, to link the oil locations. More than three quarter of Ogbia is without roads, no water. These are the situation and if I speak it out have I committed a crime? The governor that the president imposed on us has also not done anything for us. I don’t know how untruthful this was that I could be penciled down for arrest.
How true is it that you are a former staff of Bayelsa liaison office in Abuja?
I was the immediate past governor’s representative at the state liaison office in Abuja.
Is it because they felt you were speaking for the former governor that made them to arrest you?
First, I’m an Ogbia man before any other thing. First, a Bayelsan before any other thing. So whether I have been in a position in the past or not has not made any difference. Any other person can say so as well. The fact that I have worked with a former governor of the state does not mean I should not speak out against evil and what is good for our people.
What was your experience like when in detention?
I spent 10 days in police custody. All put together I stayed 86 days in detention.
In prison. I was remanded in Okaka prison, Yenagoa. After I had sued them for N2.2 billion for infringement on my fundamental human right, a day before the hearing, on November 6, they plotted a coup. Very early in the morning, around some minutes after 6.00am I was arraigned before a magistrate court. A Kangaroo court that I was not allowed to be represented by a lawyer. Only about five us were in the court room. The Magistrate Court’s clerk, police, the state counsel and myself. Our problem in this country is the judiciary. Both our economic and political problems are traceable to the corruption in the judiciary. If we had an upright judiciary we wouldn’t have had all the problems we have in Nigeria today. Imagine a magistrate, after reading the charges to me, asked if I was guilty or not, and that if I wanted the case to be heard in his court or not, and I told him I didn’t want it to be heard in his court yet. He went ahead to remand me in prison. I’m not a lawyer, but I have been informed that once an accused said he doesn’t want his case to be heard by a judge, he should hands off immediately. He sent me back to prison where I spent more days. My lawyer applied for my bail, but he refused. Later, he reluctantly granted me bail and gave me a bail condition to produce a Permanent Secretary from Bayelsa state who is an agent of the governor. It was like giving me bail with the right hand and collecting it back with the left hand. He went round to warn all the Permanent Secretaries not to stand in for me, so I was languishing in prison. None of them was ready to help. We went round, my wife suffered. She went about looking for their assistance with my children, but none of them was willing to help. I don’t blame them because we now a governor whose activities are tyrannical in nature. Everybody was afraid of him.
What exactly were the charges against you before the Magistrate Court?
What was read to me was “seditious publication.”
At what level is the case now?
Well, the matter is in court. The one against the police is also in court.
You went to the National Human Rights Commission after you were released. What did you go there to do?
You see, when all efforts at getting justice from the judiciary looked so bleak, my legal team and friends decided to reach out to the Human Rights Commission. But, of course, the agency was incapacitated because, according to them, they had rules and guidelines that once a matter is in court they don’t delve into it. However, I think he showed some concern over my matter and it is only good that since I’m out I went there to say ‘thank you’ to its chairman and those who showed sympathy to me while I was incarcerated. But it was so pathetic that the magistrate gave me a very laughable condition for my bail and we couldn’t see any way out, so we tried going to the High Court. But it was another round of joke all over the place. The judge couldn’t hear the case. He gave three adjournments with flimsy excuses. But finally he came because of the public and media outcry. I have to thank the Nigerian media. I really don’t know how I can thank them enough because they were really on top of the matter. I think the media are the last hope of ordinary Nigerians for now, because the judiciary is failing. My case was a clear breach of the law by the institutions of state-The police, Executive and Judiciary. I was unjustly kept in prison and it took a magistrate or a judge three months to reluctantly grant me bail. First, the bail condition was to get a Permanent Secretary to stand in for me, but the magistrate later came down to a director, but thank God they were able to secure my bail.