By Sageer Kabeer
An FCT High Court has sentenced a civil society activist, Ibrahim Garba Wala (IG Wala) to seven years imprisonment over offences bordering on criminal defamation and public incitement.
Justice Yusuf Halilu on Monday convicted Ibrahim Garba Wala, who is the convener of Citizens Action to Take Back Nigeria (CATBAN) in three of the four count charges brought by the office of the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF).
Justice Halilu convicted him with managing an unlawful association, public incitement and defamation of character, and awarded the maximum sentences of seven years, three years and two years jail terms respectively.
The office of the Attorney General of the Federation filed a six-count charge against Wala for posting in his Facebook and Twitter accounts different publications accusing the chairman of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), Abdullahi Mukhtar Mohammed of diverting N3bn from the pilgrims’ funds.
He was charged with unlawfully managing an unregistered non-governmental organization, CATBAN “incite the public against a public official, one Abdullahi Mukhtar Mohammed, the chairman National Hajj Commission on a social media platform (Facebook).”
He was also charged with making the social media posts and video of pilgrims lying on the floors with intent to incite public against the NAHCON boss.
The convicted activist was accused of publishing false information titled: “Corruption in Hajj Commission! Official documents made available to CABTAN reveals that the Chairman of NAHCON after the 2017 Hajj operations makes no less than N3 billion for himself…” knowing such publications will harm the reputation of the NAHCON boss.
The judge also agreed with the prosecution that Mr Wala criminally defamed Mr Mukhtar after he alleged that the NAHCON boss “made N3 billion for himself” from the 2017 Hajj operations.
The judge said Mr Wala wrote on his Facebook page that he has documents to prove the allegation.
He, however, said the activist failed to provide the document to prove his claims in court.
“Where is the document proving N3 billion made by chairman hajj commission?
“Why has the accused person failed to tender such document now that he has been dragged before a court of law?” the judge said.
He said by his inability to provide relevant documents to prove his ‘huge allegations’, Mr Wala “has made the case of the prosecution less cumbersome”.
The offences are contrary to section 97b, 89b, 114 and 397 of the Penal Code Law Cap 89 Laws of the Northern Nigeria 1963.
The judge noted that having listened to the pleas by the convict’s lawyer, Onyia and his friend to temper justice with mercy, he was left to award the full sentences due to the “unacceptable and very insulting conduct of the convict, which is in the realm of contempt ex facie curiae” following a fresh video of the convict against the court surfaced on social media.
“The rights in the social media is not endless, where such rights are recklessly used as used by the convict without any atom of justification especially in this age and time when people have found safe havens in blackmail for financial gains and other gains, the court cannot allow that to happen,” the judge said.
The lawyer brought a Kano-based businessman, Bilyaminu Garba, who attested to the character of Wala that he has been civil society person with a passion for the welfare of the masses.
But prosecution counsel, Magaji Labaran drew the attention to a new video made in the courtroom by Wala telling his social media followers that he has been unjustly convicted by the court.
Labaran said comments made by those who responded calling for protests amounted to contempt of court and could put the lives of the prosecution team and the judge at risk.
“I have no problem on the evidence of his character and the allocutus by his lawyer. The essence of this trial is to see the justice of it,” he submitted.
“My greatest challenge is that the convict is not remorseful. The convict posted on the social media that he was not given justice by the court. I consider this post on Facebook as tactical means of putting the lives prosecution team and with all due respect, to the court in danger.”
Speaking after the judgement, Labaran told journalists that: “This is one of the best things to happen in this era where hate speech has become prevalent and people will find it convenient to make a reckless statement on the pages of the platform of social media.