Nigerian woman faces jail for giving tomato paste bad review on Facebook

by Saint Ekpali | Apr 25, 2024

Last September, Chioma Okoli posted on Facebook that a tomato puree she’d just purchased for the first time contained an unhealthy amount of sugar. Less than a week later, its manufacturer had her arrested and detained by Nigerian police.

The 39-year-old, who is pregnant with her fourth child, has been trapped in a legal battle ever since, accused of a cybercrime punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine of seven million Nigerian naira (£3,526).

Her case, which a court adjourned to 28 May, has sparked nationwide debates over whether sharing your opinion online can be considered a crime and whether a company has the right to bring a lawsuit over an unfavourable review and raised questions over Nigeria’s harsh Cybercrime Act.

Okoli, who runs a small business selling imported children’s clothes in Lagos, posted on the social media site to accuse Nagiko Tomato Mix, which is made by Erisco Foods Limited, of having a high sugar content – and asked her 18,000 followers for their opinions on it.

An online spat ensued, with commenters weighing in to either agree with Okoli or defend the product. The situation escalated when one Facebook user replied: “Stop spoiling my brother’s product. If [you] don’t like it, use another one than bring it to social media or call customer service.” Okoli responded: “Help me advise your brother to stop ki***ing people with his product, yesterday was my first time using [it] and it’s pure sugar.”

Erisco, an indigenous company, released a statement describing Okoli’s claims as “untrue and unfounded” and petitioned the police to act, accusing her of criminal conspiracy, de-marketing and cyberbullying.

Okoli was arrested as she attended a church near her home on 24 September and detained until the following day. She was then flown to the Nigerian Police Force’s headquarters in the capital, Abuja, and detained for another 24 hours, before being released on bail. It is unclear why Okoli was taken to Abuja, given both she and Erisco are based in Lagos, and the police did not respond to openDemocracy’s request for answers.

While at the force headquarters, Okoli wrote a public apology to Erisco, saying: “I regret my actions, and wish to be forgiven. I pledge that this will never happen again. I undertake to retract all my earlier post on this matter immediately, this is without any compulsion.”

Politician Dozie Ikedife Jr. last month told a TV interviewer that he had stood as bail guarantor for Okoli after being contacted by one of her aunties, who, like him, is from Anambra state. In the interview, he claimed Erisco’s founder and CEO, Eric Umeofia, had been in the police headquarters while Okoli wrote the apology, and accused Okoli of absconding to Lagos after her release and failing to return to the police station in Abuja after seven days to explain how the matter was resolved – which had been a condition of her bail. Okoli’s counsel, Inibehe Effiong denied Okoli absconded and claimed she had been “forced” to write “the so-called letter of apology”.

The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control released a statement on 29 September confirming that the sugar levels in the Nagiko Tomato Mix were safe for consumption. The following week, police charged Okoli with two counts of “instigating people against Erisco Foods Limited, knowing the said information to be false”, and accused her of violating “some salient parts” of the Cybercrime Act.

Effiong has filed a 500 million naira (£303,654) lawsuit against Erisco and the police on Okoli’s behalf, arguing that her right to personal liberty was violated by being unlawfully detained for more than 24 hours without charge. The lawsuit also wants the company and the police to “publish an unreserved written apology” to Okoli in three national newspapers and on Erisco’s Facebook page.

Erisco has responded with a five billion naira (over £3m) defamation lawsuit against Okoli, which it said in a statement on 19 January is to “safeguard the brand and the company’s reputation”, claiming her comment had “resulted in several suppliers deciding to disassociate themselves from us”.

Effiong has said he will file a countersuit to this on behalf of his client. Speaking to openDemocracy, he said Okoli should be the one claiming defamation because Umeofia, Erisco’s CEO, has “called her a criminal on national TV, accused her of belonging to a criminal syndicate, and accused her of blackmail.”

When approached by openDemocracy, Erisco said: “We don’t want to comment on the issue as the matter is pending in court.”

People will be more careful with their words, people will be faster to sue, and people will be more liable.

Can product reviews be conspiracy or cybercrime?

Legal expert Chinenye Nwafor believes Okoli should not have been charged with criminal conspiracy because a conspiracy must involve a person conspiring with somebody else to commit an offence, according to Nigeria’s Criminal Code.

“You cannot infer conspiracy from her assertion [because] there’s [no] place Chioma [Okoli] alluded to [another] person in that [Facebook] post,” she told openDemocracy.

Human rights lawyer Mauyon Amosu agreed, saying Okoli was simply exercising her right to freedom of expression, which is protected by both Nigeria’s 1999 constitution and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.

“What Chioma [Okoli] did was just constructive criticism and she did not tell anyone not to buy the product,” Amosu said. “It was her opinion.”

If Okoli could be reasonably found guilty of anything, Nwafor told openDemocracy, it would be breaching Section 24 (1)(b) of the Cybercrime Act, which states that it is a crime for a person to “knowingly or intentionally send a message or other matter by means of computer systems or network that he knows to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another”.

The prosecution may still face a problem with this argument, though. “How do we prove that Chioma [Okoli] knew what she was saying to be false?” Nwafor asked. “To ground an action against her, it needs to be proved that she knew that statement to be false.”

The government is currently amending Section 24 of the Cybercrime Act, following a separate order by the Economic Community of West African States’ Court of Justice in March 2022. The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, a nonprofit promoting transparency and accountability in Nigeria, successfully challenged the law’s legality and constitutionality in the court, arguing that it violates the right to freedom of expression enshrined in Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. It is not clear when the new amendment will come into force, or if the revision would have affected Okoli’s arrest.

Nigeria’s Cybercrime Act was fast-tracked through Parliament in May 2015 and became the country’s first legislation to specifically deal with cybercrime-related offences, such as cyberbullying, online fraud, and unlawful activities carried out on social media by an individual or groups with malicious intent.

Whether or not Okoli has committed such a crime has divided public opinion. Okoli has received support from many people who consider Erisco to be a ‘corporate bully’ and suggest boycotting it. Yet there is no consensus on the difference between a product review and a cybercrime, or what might be considered an excessive abuse of power by a company or the police.

Enough is Enough, a citizen advocacy group that held a solidarity walk in support of Okoli, believes she is being oppressed by Erisco. “Giving feedback is not a crime [so] we don’t see any reason why Chioma [Okoli] should be indicted,” said Hope Ukaigwe, the group’s media associate.

Others have come out in defence of the company. “Erisco is (only) trying to protect its brand,” said Davidson Nze, the executive director of Human Rights and Justice Group International, a nonprofit promoting and creating awareness about citizens’ rights. Nze added that Okoli “acted in ignorance” and should have written to the company for them to investigate the product, instead.

A legal expert at the Ministry of Police, whom openDemocracy has agreed not to name due to fears they could lose their job, said although Okoli’s comment “is not a light statement to be ignored, she can sue for the violation of her human rights” if she is found not guilty.

For Jacob Abiodun Dada, a professor of human rights law at the University of Calabar, Okoli could “file for malicious prosecution” against her prosecutor for groundless charges.

Whatever the court’s judgment, Nwafor believes the case will change Nigerian society. “People will be more careful with their words, people will be faster to sue, and people will be more liable.”

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