My month-long experience in dehumanizing prison – Lawyer imprisoned for contempt

Human rights lawyer, Inibehe Effiong, who was jailed for contempt by Akwa Ibom State Chief Justice, Justice Ekaette Obot, in controversial circumstances on July 27, has regained his freedom Friday. He speaks with GODFREY GEORGES about his month-long experience in prison

Would you like to recount what your first day of detention in Ikot Ekpene Detention Center in Akwa Ibom State was like?

By the time I arrived, I was in no way disturbed by my grief. They first took me to Uyo Correctional Center but they didn’t admit me. They referred me to Ikot Ekpene, and I was to stay there for two weeks. Arriving at Ikot-Ekpene, I was admitted and immediately confronted with the reality of the abominable neglect of the country’s correctional centre. Even though the Ikot Ekpene prison building is relatively new, as it was recently renovated by former Governor Godswill Akpabio, life there is still very horrible.

Most Nigerians may not know how serious the condition is until they experience it. I had to take my shoes off when I was admitted. They took my properties and took them into account. Then I had to be shown the cell where I was going to spend two weeks. The Ikot-Ekpene detention center is terribly and disgustingly crowded. Inmates essentially live like animals. There are people who don’t even have space to lie. They sit with their legs tied and others sit close to them. This is the condition that some of them have had to live with for years since their conviction. I was so enraged by what felt like an attempt to replicate Nazi focus. But then I was told that there was what they called the “special cell”, a kind of “privileged cell” in the detention center of Ikot Ekpene. They told me that either I would adapt to the very dehumanizing condition I was in in the ordinary cell, or I had to pay for a place in the so-called special cell.

How much did it cost?

The officers said it would cost me 50,000 naira. I knew I only had two weeks to stay, but I had to pay that money to be able to get a place. We were three in the room. There was no bed; there was only a small mattress. I adjusted. As I said, I had always mentally prepared myself for incarceration. So we had to sleep on the floor. There was no mosquito net to protect me from mosquitoes. I had to share the toilet with other people. It was not palatable. But it’s even what people consider to be one of the best in the country. I don’t think that’s even proper for an inmate in this country.

How did you feed?

I never ate a single day what food they served. For me, these meals were not fit for human consumption. To say it was bad is to shed some light on the situation. Even to say it was terrible is an understatement. What the inmates eat there is not even something dog friendly, and I say that with an open mind. Every day, because my detention became like a kind of pilgrimage to the detention center, people came from all parts of the country to see me. Every day I had a retinue of visitors I had to spend time with. They had given some kind of special instructions or rules to the guards, it was a way of telling them that I was “a very high profile inmate whose life had to be watched”. I couldn’t make phone calls like the other inmates. I was watched tooth and nail. I didn’t have a problem with that. I cooperated with the authorities and complied with all the rules. Whatever they did, they were trying to make me not feel the reality of what was happening. When my transfer date came, August 10, 2022, that was the day they decided to torture me.

What do you want to say?

So that morning I prepared for the transfer. I gave my clothes to the dry cleaner, who is an inmate, and got ready. I had washed my things. All I needed was time to pack my things and start freshening up. But a man came that morning and told me to get ready because I was going to court. I thought there was a development in my case that I was unaware of. I challenged him but he insisted. I had to follow the inmate working with the files to see what was going on. They later apologized, saying it wasn’t actually a court appearance, but a transfer to Uyo. I insisted on speaking to the assistant comptroller of customs at this facility. When he came, he behaved differently. He was belligerent. He yelled at me, wondering why I wasn’t dressed for the transfer. He became very hostile. I couldn’t say anything. I just got up and went inside and my cell mates had to help me start packing. Since people were bringing me a lot of things, it was difficult for me to start packing. It took a long time because I was not warned enough. I was about to freshen up when an officer came and told me I was wasting time. I told him that I had to cool off first since I wasn’t running. The Assistant Comptroller of Corrections arrived with a full team of his men and they started yelling at me. I got really pissed off and told them I was not a criminal. If they wanted to transfer me, they would have to leave me a little decency, time to settle down.

The problem with the correctional center is that they don’t believe inmates have rights. For them, you are at their mercy. So when you want to speak in a way that suggests they’re treating you unfairly, they find that extremely offensive. At that time, they didn’t care who I was outside. Later the man came out and ordered some crazy guy to come in and handcuff me. Another burly officer grabbed me by the neck and I could barely breathe. A certain Enobong Gideon Eyoren was the officer directing the torture. He was a two star officer. The young man took it very personally. He acted very maliciously. He said all kinds of things and then he got me out of the van even though there was room to put me inside. It was drizzling. They didn’t give me the courtesy to sit inside the van. The other inmate they were taking to court, Moses Armstrong, was inside the van, but they picked me up and threw me inside the van and chained me to the back of the van with handcuffs and drove me like a dog to Uyo. The torture didn’t stop there. When I got to Uyo, that same officer started pushing and beating me. I kept wondering what was going on. When I entered, he ordered me to sit on the ground. They don’t understand that I have rights as a citizen and should be respected and treated with decency.

Eyoren became very violent and threatened to finish me off if I resisted. Imagine if I put up physical resistance! This same young man, I realized later, had been involved in many crimes. This is the character who was a corrections officer. I was not surprised that he was the one assigned to oversee my torture.

Is it true that they shaved your hair and beard?

Of course they did. They forcibly shaved my hair and beard despite my objections. It was a continuation of what started in Ikot-Ekpene. Throughout my stay in Ikot-Ekpene, I had my beard with me. Inmates keep beards. It is even very silly to say that it is a common practice. Correctional Service inmates take care of themselves. Nobody pays anything for them, so I knew (hair shaving) was malicious. Uduak Frank Akpan (the assassin of Iniobong Umoren), who was sentenced the day before my sentencing, had his beard as he wanted to keep it. He was someone who had been convicted of murder. My shave was malicious and deliberate. They wanted to do something that would hurt me. They didn’t just shave me, they completely shaved me. If you see my photo, you will see how different I am. I was almost shaved bald. They dehumanized me. When the information came out, they started trying to apologize inside while denying the seriousness of the action and not punishing the culprit.

What was the experience for you mentally?

I had a good sleep. I was not disturbed. I knew what the Honorable Chief Justice had done was a miscarriage of justice. So I was not disturbed by my incarceration. Every day when I woke up, I went to the chapel, read my Bible and a copy of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, which I had completed before the end of my incarceration. I interacted with inmates who needed advice. I helped those who needed financial support. During the last period of my stay in Uyo, I offered myself as much as possible to the inmates.

Did any of the detainees recognize you?

Almost everyone there knew me. There was hardly anyone who didn’t know who I was.

Akwa Ibom State Attorney General Uko Udom (SAN) justified your imprisonment by saying that the judge has all the power to decide what is contemptuous in court. How did you receive this?

Anyone who defends my incarceration, with due respect to the person, speaks either out of ignorance, personal vendetta, or blatant disregard for the truth. Nothing justifies my incarceration. I have not committed any contempt of court. There was nothing in my conduct that was contemptuous either in word or deed. I treated the learned Chief Justice with respect, and these claims that I banged tables and raised my voice are just fabrications. They did not take place. I will say it in front of any judge and any court in this country. They did not witness what happened in court. I was addressing the court about whether to invite armed men into the courtroom, and Monsignor decided to put me in jail for it. That’s all that happened. Even suppose I misbehaved, shouldn’t I be heard fairly? Can someone be convicted of contempt without a trial? You cannot have a free trial. No charges have been prepared against me. No charges were read to me. I haven’t had a chance to plead or even say anything. I was not asked to enter a platform. So what exactly are they standing for?

Do you plan to take legal action regarding this case?

There’s a series of lawsuits that were filed while I was in prison. Others will be vigorously pursued now that I have been released, including my appeal against the sentence. Whatever legal steps need to be taken, they will be taken. I will not shirk this responsibility. I am very grateful to the Nigerian Bar headed by Mr. Olumide Akpata and the First Vice President who came to visit me. They were a great support, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Jon J. Epps