The dispute between the recently arrested sex therapist named Jaruma and Ned Nwoko, the billionaire businessman, has raised questions on the boundary between criminal and civil defamation in Nigeria.
Legal practitioners have also questioned the need for police involvement in what could have been just another case for the civil courts.
Last November, Regina Daniels, Nwoko’s wife, had disowned Jaruma for claiming she used one of her potions to preserve her marriage to the businessman.
Jaruma had fired back at the actress and alleged non-delivery on an advertisement contract for which she claimed to have paid Regina the sum of N10 million.
The discord swiftly deteriorated into a social media row where Jaruma accused Nwoko of benefitting from her product. The businessman-cum-politician had denied involvement with the sex therapist and her products.
He also accused Jaruma of publishing falsehoods against him and Regina. Jaruma was eventually arrested by the police in Abuja.
The sex therapist, born Hauwa Muhammed, was recently arraigned by the police at the Abuja upper area court for defamation of character, false news publication, and intimidation after Nwoko had filed a petition to that effect.
Jaruma was thereafter remanded in police custody ahead of subsequent adjudications on the matter.
But was her arrest and detention in order?
Criminal Case or Civil Case
Criminal cases are ones between citizens and the state (government), wherein the state (government) is usually the complainant. The victim of crime is the nominal complainant in criminal cases.
Talk of criminal cases and you have such issues as assault, murder, identity theft, alcohol-related crimes, fraud, or any action explicitly forbidden by state laws as they cut across a much broader range of interests.
On the other hand, a civil case arises from disputes and disagreements between people, companies, or businesses.
It most often involves a breach of contract, landlord-tenant matters, divorce matters, wills and estate matters, debt recovery matters, non-delivery of purchased goods or services, among others.
In civil cases, an entity goes to court against another. Such cases typically don’t involve police or law enforcement agents. Cases of this nature are often aimed at seeking monetary compensation or the performance of a duty.
Civil cases can also be about the complainant seeking the imposition of court restrictions on an entity to prevent them from doing something harmful to the other party or to ensure that the defendant respects certain rights.
Defamation in Nigerian Context
In defamation — the case against Jaruma — a person damages the reputation of the other, whether by slander or libel.
Defamation, in Nigeria and certain legal jurisdictions in the country too, can either be deemed criminal or civil.
The publication of words that can cause hatred, contempt, ridicule, or damage to the reputation or profession of a person to the hearing of such person or a third party without justification can be considered a criminal offense.
Section 375 of the Criminal Code Act states that “any person who publishes any defamatory matter is guilty of a misdemeanor and is liable to imprisonment for one year.”
It also adds that “any person who publishes any defamatory matter knowing it to be false is liable to imprisonment for two years.”
Sections 391 to 395 of the Penal Code for northern states and the FCT Abuja also account for criminal defamation.
This is although legal practitioners have long clamoured for criminal defamation to be expunged from the law in Nigeria, as has been done in developed countries like the UK, Norway, Sri Lanka among many others.
Section 39 (1) of the 1999 constitution states that every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including the freedom to hold opinions and to receive; impart information without interference.
This is subject only to the laws of the country as to libel, slander, or injurious falsehood. And even where such a situation arises, it would be a matter for a court of law to determine and not the legislature.
Defamation & Police Involvement
The Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) of 2015 excludes the police from interfering in civil disputes.
According to section 8(2) of the act, a suspect shall not be arrested merely on a civil wrong or breach of contract.
The Nigerian Police (Establishment) Act 2020 also frowns at officers’ interference in civil disputes, unless on the order of a competent court, where Section 32(2) prohibits officers from arresting anyone based on a civil wrong.
Beyond jurisdiction technicalities, Inibehe Effiong, a human rights lawyer, argues that the line between civil and criminal defamation is smudged, where the law is often activated in cases involving influential personalities.
“My opinion has always been that defamation is a civil matter, not something that should be criminalised,” he said.
“In Nwoko’s case with Jaruma, it’s not so much about the law as it is about the waponisation of the police institution. Nwoko has a very disgraceful history of weaponising the police against anyone who stands up to him.
“This is not the first he has deployed the police as his personal thug. He has done this in his own community where he was accused of land grabbing. He used the police to witchhunt those who accused him instead of filing a suit.
“The police in Nigeria has become a tool in the hand of influential persons that is used for personal vendetta.”
Questioned about the basis for police involvement, Frank Mba, the spokesperson of the police force in Abuja, stated that he had yet to be briefed on the full facts of Ned Nwoko’s case against Jaruma and is in no position to comment on it.
Jaruma’s Arrest in Order?
The justifiability of the arrest of Jaruma for her row with the Nwokos remains a matter for the courts to rule over.
Effiong argued that it raises questions when the police move to arrest one party over a verbal dispute involving two.
“I know Ned Nwoko’s wife and Jaruma engaged in social media banter where they exchanged words. They insulted themselves online. For the police to now take sides and arrest one is preposterous,” the human rights lawyer stated.
“I do not understand why Jaruma was arrested. This kind of madness shouldn’t happen. The fact that a billionaire has money to throw around shouldn’t make the police engage in acts that protect the interest of such a person.
“I saw some of the exchanges between the two parties. Why are the police taking sides in the matter? Jaruma said she paid Regina Daniels N10 million to help her advertise her product and that she didn’t live up to the agreement.
“She called her out on social media and that led to a series of altercations between the two of them, at which point Ned Nwoko came into the picture. Regina, in turn, also made some disparaging comments against Jaruma.
“Should Jaruma also have Regina arrested? Intelligent police officers would have said, ‘well, let’s not get ourselves entangled with this. Let them sort out their issues in a civil court.’ But that’s not what the police do in Nigeria.”
Effiong raised concerns about the jurisdiction of the Abuja area court where the sex therapist was arraigned.
“It’s an area court. I know the FCT high court ruled at least in two cases that that court lacks criminal jurisdiction. If that is the case, and she was arraigned before an area court, then that is a violation of her rights,” the lawyer said.
“When a higher court has made a pronouncement on a matter, an inferior court must abide by it. If that is case, then Jaruma and her lawyer may wish to file a petition against the head of the court who made the order.”
‘Criminal defamation shouldn’t exist in democracy’
Effiong called for the expungement of criminal defamation from Nigerian laws, describing it as a tool for the rich.
“The court of appeal has ruled that the right to freedom of expression includes saying what is offensive,” he added.
“If I can only say something that is pleasant, then what is freedom of expression? Criminal defamation shouldn’t have a place in a democratic society.
“If someone makes a claim and the other feels it’s injurious, the other should file an action in a civil court, not using the mercenary of the state.
“In 80 to 90 percent of cases where people were arrested for the so-called offense of criminal defamation, the petitioners or complainants are politicians, business persons, lawmakers, or some rich people in the society.
“It is a law that is being used by the rich to silence the poor. It’s activated to protect people of influence and that makes nonsense of a society where there should be equality before the law.”