A woman from Nigeria reviewed tomato paste online.  Now she is facing prison
A woman from Nigeria reviewed tomato paste online.  Now she is facing prison

Abuja, Nigeria

A Nigerian woman who wrote an online review of a box of tomato paste is facing jail after the manufacturer accused her of a “malicious accusation” that damaged its business.

Chioma Okoli, a 39-year-old entrepreneur from Lagos, was prosecuted and tried in a civil court for allegedly violating the country’s cybercrime laws in a case that has engulfed the West African nation and sparked protests from locals who believe it is being persecuted for exercising its right to free speech.

Okoli, a small importer of children’s clothing, told CNN that on September 17 she asked her 18,000 Facebook followers to share their thoughts on a tomato paste she bought instead of her usual brands, saying she found it too sweet.

Her post, accompanied by a photo of an open can of Nagiko Tomato Mix produced by local company Erisco Foods Limited, drew mixed reactions from commenters, with one replying: “Stop spoiling my brother’s product. If (you) don’t like it, use another one rather than taking it to social media or calling customer service.”

Okoli replied, “Help me advise your brother to stop killing people with his product, yesterday I used for the first time and it’s pure sugar.”

A week later, on September 24, she was arrested.

In court documents seen by CNN, Nigerian police allege Okoli used her Facebook account “with the intention of inciting people against Erisco Foods,” adding in statement on March 7 that it had “discovered compelling evidence” against her from its preliminary investigations.

According to the police, Okoli is accused of “inciting Erisco Foods Limited knowing the said information to be false under Section 24 (1) (B) of the Cybercrime Prohibition Act of Nigeria.”

If convicted, she could face up to three years in prison or a fine of 7 million naira (about $5,000), or both.

Okoli was separately charged with conspiring with two other persons “with intent to incite persons against Erisco Foods Limited”, which the charge sheet noted was punishable under Section 27(1)(B) of the same act. She faces a seven-year sentence if convicted of that charge.

CNN has reached out to Facebook for comment.

Okoli is also being sued in a separate civil suit filed by Erisco, which said in a statement released Jan. 19 that it was protecting its reputation after her comments “led to several suppliers deciding to disassociate themselves from us.”

The Lagos-based food company said it had also “suffered the loss of multiple lines of credit” and had therefore filed a civil suit against Okoli seeking 5 billion naira (more than $3 million) in damages. The case is due to be heard on May 20, her lawyer Inibehe Effiong told CNN.

A spokesman for Erisco Foods, Nnamdi Nwokolo, told CNN the company would not comment further on the case “because it is pending in a court of competent jurisdiction.”

All around, who is currently pregnant with her fourth child, told CNN that she was arrested by plainclothes police while at church in Lagos and held in a leaky police cell.

“They put me in the cell around 6 pm (on September 24). There were no seats so I stayed until the next day. My feet were in the water (which was coming from the leaking roof). Sometimes I would squat to reduce the pressure on my legs. I thought about my children who were at home. I was talking to myself. I was thinking, I was praying, I was confused,” she said.

The next day, Okoli was flown to the Nigerian capital, Abuja, and held at a police station until her release on administrative bail was finalized a day later, she said.

Agreeing to publicly apologize to Erisko was a condition of her release on bail, she said, but her lawyer, Effiong, told CNN that she agreed to it under duress and therefore did not apologize after her release.

The police filed a case against Okoli in an Abuja court on October 5.

The first court hearing took place on December 7. She was represented by her lawyer but did not attend in person.

Okoli told CNN that a month later, on January 9, police entered her home in Lagos and attempted to arrest her, despite a restraining order issued by the court on November 8 barring her arrest without a warrant. CNN has seen a copy of the restraining order.

“They stayed in my building from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. My children couldn’t go to school that day and we couldn’t go out to get food because the cooking gas had run out,” she said. Eventually, she said, the police left.

National police spokesman Olumuyiwa Adejobi told CNN he could not comment on the case as the matter was before the courts.

“We will comment on the case when the court decides,” Adejobi said.

Counterclaim against the police and the food company

Effiong told CNN that Okoli’s legal team is now preparing for the two legal cases, which he described as a David vs. Goliath battle.

“In this case, we believe that David is right and Goliath is wrong,” Efong said.

In October, he filed a counterclaim for 500 million naira ($361,171). on behalf of Okoli against Erisko and the police in a Lagos court, challenging her arrest and detention, which he said violated her constitutional rights to personal liberty and freedom of movement.

In court documents related to the counterclaim, Effiong argued that his client’s arrest also violated her constitutional right to free speech. He said that he will also ask the court in Abuja, where she is on trial for cybercrime offences, to transfer the case to Lagos, where she lives, to the next hearing scheduled for April 18.

Nigerian legal and public affairs analyst Kelechukwu Uzoka told CNN there are limits to free speech protections.

“No law guarantees absolute freedom,” he said. “Although we have the freedom of expression, there are restrictions. You cannot slander or defame anyone.”

However, he added that “cyber crimes are difficult to prove in court. You must prove actual harm when the post was published. Erisco must prove that the Facebook post (by Okoli) affected his business as the moment it is made. He noted that in Okoli’s post, she used a word with three asterisks, which could be open to interpretation.

“Harassment and intimidation of Chioma Okoli must end now”, Amnesty International Nigeria said earlier this month when Nigerians started an online crowdfunding to support her legal fees.

Okoli’s case blew up protests at the Erisco facility in Lagos as many on social media called for a boycott of its products. The company’s founder, Eric Umeofia, however, refused to budge, saying in a recent documentary on local TV channel Arise that he would not withdraw the case against Okoli and that he would “rather die than allow anyone to tarnish my image, I worked 40 years for growth.’

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