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REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde
Publisher of Sahara Reporters Omoyele Sowore arrives at the Federal High Court in Abuja, Nigeria Sept. 30, 2019.

A New York-based journalist has become the face of shrinking press freedom in Nigeria

Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo
By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo

On Tuesday, Nov. 12 Nigerian state security officers were reported to have fired live rounds of bullets at protesters and activists demanding the release of a New York-based Nigerian journalist Omoyele Sowore and other detained activists, according to media reports.

It was the latest sign of a Nigerian government which has started to clamp down on press freedom and regulating online debate. The change has been gradual and the Sowore case perhaps best captures how things have evolved.

Back in the summer of 2017, the Sowore and I, we were glued to the TV in the Sahara Reporters’ news room in New York City watching as Nnamdi Kanu, the rebel leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, spoke to his followers. 

As he spoke, a swarm of Kanu’s disciples mobbed him, clinging to every word about the supposed impending restoration of Biafra, an independent state to be carved out from Nigeria’s south eastern region . He had been granted bail after almost two years in jail, facing charges of treason for advocating the restoration of a breakaway state which had been the subject of devastating civil war some 50 years earlier. 

Eleven years ago Sowore founded Saharareporters.com, a citizen journalism platform dedicated to exposing corruption and advocating for good governance across Africa. The platform has broken major stories about malfeasance in high and low places in Nigeria. 

But only two or three of those caught in Sahara Reporters exposés’ had ever gone to prison. One of those who went to prison had even been pardoned and is once again a key player in Nigerian affairs. Most of the culprits have remained untouched by a weak justice system impotent in the face of the wealthy and the powerful. Eleven years of that frustrating reality had left Sowore jaded and itching for a new way to make an impact in Nigeria.

In 2018, Sowore moved the operations of Sahara Reporters to Nigeria and took on the daunting task of running for president in a country of 200 million people. He did not have the kind of resources needed to crisscross an underdeveloped country like Nigeria. Still, Sowore travelled wide, raised money online and across the world to participate in the 2019 presidential election. In the end, he did not have the kind of result that matched the impact his participation in the electoral process had.

In an interview with me this February on election night in Lagos he vowed to continue to find ways to remain involved even after the election. 

The next time I met him was at Crown Plaza Hotel in New York on July 2, 2019. I had come to interview Kanu who was rounding up his visit to the US. Incidentally, Sowore was also there to meet with Kanu who had fled Nigeria after the Nigerian military stormed his house on Sept. 9, 2017 while he was on bail. After Sowore’s meeting with Kanu, the two appeared on camera in front of the hotel to announce a desire to work together to tackle injustices in Nigeria. Their joint appearance made headlines across Nigeria.

The next time Sowore made news headlines was on the night of Aug. 3, 2019, when state security agents stormed his hotel room in Lagos and arrested him. President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has accused him of trying to overthrow the government of Nigeria using a protest he called RevolutionNow slated to take place that day.

Sowore has remained in detention with state security or Dept of State Services (DSS) ever since. He was charged with seven counts that ranged from treasonable felony, cyber stalking, and money laundering to insulting president Buhari. The government also cited Sowore’s meeting with Kanu in New York City as one piece of evidence against him.

On Sept. 24, Sowore was taken to a court sitting in Nigeria’s capital Abuja. His lawyers argued for bail and he was granted it by the judge. But the government ignored it. On Sept. 30, the Nigerian government took Sowore to another High Court where he was charged for the same offenses.

On Oct. 4, a different judge granted Sowore bail under very stringent conditions. First, was a bail of 100 million naira (about $300,000 dollars.) Secondly, he was also required to provide two sureties who own properties in Abuja worth 50 million naira each. Other bail conditions were that he would not leave Abuja during the duration of the trial and must deposit his passport with the court. In subsequent court appearances, Sowore’s bail condition was modified by the judge and on Nov. 6, the court ordered his release from DSS detention after perfecting his bail conditions. 

Despite claiming security services were ready to release Sowore but that nobody was there to receive him, there has been no follow-through. When activists showed up at State Security headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, to demand his release, the DSS opened fire on the protesters, beating them up, including journalists who came to cover the event. 

“There is absolutely no justification for security officers to shoot at or attack journalists working to cover a protest,” said Angela Quintal, Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in Washington, D.C. “Nigerian authorities must investigate allegations that Department of State Services agents targeted journalists doing their job, and hold those responsible to account.”

It’s important to note that though Sowore is a prominent journalist, the CPJ acknowledges it is unclear if his detention is directly related to his journalism given his political activism and participation in the last election. It says its investigation into the matter is ongoing.

Sowore is being tried with Olawale Bakare (aka Mandate). Asides from Sowore and Mandate, there are other journalists, activists and bloggers who are currently locked up in Nigerian prisons and detention facilities for the work that they do. They include Dadiyata Abubakar Idris, Stephen Kefas, Agba Jamingo and Jones Abiri.

While civic society in Nigeria is stepping up the fight to free Sowore and all those in government detention, Nigerian lawmakers are advancing a bill in the senate that would impose death sentence for hate speech. At the same time, the government of Nigeria is pushing for social media regulation that would all but shrink the democratic space in Nigeria.

Sowore may be the one locked up today but there is growing fear that the whole country is headed towards a return to the dark days of military dictatorship when freedom of speech was greatly restricted.

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