Chidi Odinkalu, a Nigerian human rights advocate, has demanded an open trial in the case of “injurious falsehood” and incitement instituted against him by the Kaduna State Government.
The Chief Magistrate’s Court in Kaduna has been hearing the charges behind closed doors since they were filed at the apparent instance of Governor Nasir El-Rufai in March.
Mr El-Rufai, accused of using repressive tactics against critics, had sparred with Mr Odinkalu, a former head of the National Human Rights Commission in February in a dispute over the number of people killed in an attack in Kajuru, Kaduna State.
Mr El-Rufai said that about 66 Fulani residents were killed in the mid-February attack. The Nigerian Army later gave the same figure after the governor came under public criticism for his comment, which many saw as an attempt to incite the Fulani against Christian minorities of the area in the run up to the general elections.
The police declined to give casualty estimates from the attack, but stated at the time that suspects had been taken into custody in connection with it.
Mr Odinkalu was amongst the prominent voices that came down heavily on Mr El-Rufai for his comment on the attack, a function usually left to the police and other law enforcement authorities.
The activist also said the governor’s claim of 66 deaths was suspicious because there was no immediate corroboration from other sources, especially traditional and religious leaders in the affected communities.
Subsequently, the Kaduna State authorities filed charges of injurious falsehood and incitement against Mr Odinkalu before a chief magistrate, seeking the activist’s imprisonment.
The charges were filed even after the police had declined to prosecute Mr Odinkalu after questioning him under an atmosphere the activist described to PREMIUM TIMES as “highly respectful and civilised.”
Mr Odinkalu’s lawyers have been attending hearings in the matter, which has been largely characterised by what he described as “unnecessary adjournments and secrecy”. Little progress has been made in the case seven months after it was filed.
At the last hearing on the matter on October 4, the defence attorneys reiterated their challenge on the jurisdiction of the court and also demanded that further hearing should be in an open court.
The hearing so far has been conducted in the chamber of the magistrate handling the matter, a situation Mr Odinkalu said was unacceptable for such litigation.
The next hearing was fixed for October 11, and Mr Odinkalu said his lawyers will emphasise it be conducted in the open.
Mr El-Rufai has gone after several activists and journalists with allegations of incitement since assuming office as Kaduna governor in 2015.
In March 2017, the governor instigated the police to go after Audu Maikori, an entertainment executive, after he shared a story of killing in Kaduna that turned out to be false. Even though Mr Maikori took the false story down from his Twitter handle and apologised for sharing it without questioning its veracity, he was still arrested two times and charged to court.
A court later dismissed the government’s case and awarded N40 million damages to Mr Maikori. Two years later, however, no compensation has been paid to the Chocolate City boss.
In a recent case, Stephen Kefason, a social media commentator and critic of Mr El-Rufai, has spent more than 140 days in jail on allegations of injurious falsehood. He was lured and arrested by state agents in Port Harcourt and transported to Kaduna, where he has been kept in jail despite calls for his release.
On Wednesday, he was hauled back into prison after a court adjourn the case, which was instituted following a public caution issued against him by Mr El-Rufai.