The enemy within

Nigeria: repressive government vs recalcitrant journalists

The Buhari regime’s efforts to muzzle the press threaten to set Nigerian democracy back by decades

Newspapers sold in the streets in Nigeria
Photo: STEFAN HEUNIS / AFP

I was in Lagos chewing roasted corn a little past 6pm one evening in October 2019 when an Abuja – based journalist rang me to inform me of a meeting at the headquarters of the Nigeria Correctional Service (NCS). The authorities were going to use the media to discredit my latest investigation, and I would subsequently be arrested and prosecuted on trumped-up charges. Back in July, I’d voluntarily spent two weeks in detention — five days in a police cell and eight as an inmate in Ikoyi Prison — to track corruption in Nigeria’s criminal justice system, beginning from the moment of arrest by the police to the point of release from prison. To experience the workings of the system in its raw state, I adopted the pseudonym Ojo Olajumoke and feigned an offence for which I was arrested and detained in police custody, arraigned in court and eventually remanded in prison.

I dismissed the phone call with a wave of the hand until exactly 9.41pm, when a WhatsApp message from a friend directed me to a tweet by @ AbdulMahmud01, who, I have to say, is a board member of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), which co-funded the story I had written with TheCable. Mahmud, relying on his sources, was sure I would be arrested. I made two more calls that night and it was clear I was in trouble. The first thing I did was to pull out of a Goethe Institut event in Lagos, where I was to join three other panellists in discussing the subject ‘Fake or Fact: Disinformation and (New) Media in Nigeria’. Dr Chidi Odinkalu, the former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), kick-started the trending of a hashtag ‘KeepFisayoSafe’ that would eventually force government to back down on the planned arrest. The outrage that followed preceded — and scuppered — the arrest. Other journalists, though, were not that lucky. One of them, Agba Jalingo, was well into his detention before it became public knowledge.

In July 2019, the journalist had accused Ben Ayade, the governor of Cross River, a state in Nigeria’s South-South, of diverting N500 million (about $1.4 million) released for the establishment of the Cross River State Microfinance Bank. He seemed to have good evidence, having consistently reported, through the years, about the establishment of the bank and its failure to take off eight months after the supposed release of the funds. Since his arrest in August last year, the Nigerian government has charged Jalingo with disturbance of public peace, cybercrime, terrorism and treason. Twice the court granted him bail, and twice the government denied him the opportunity to enjoy it. After almost a year of struggling to convince Nigerians that it was innocent of involvement in Jalingo’s arrest, the Cross River State government finally officially took over his prosecution in February this year.

Omoyele Sowore, human rights activist and founder of online news agency Sahara Reporters, hadn’t even kicked off his #RevolutionNow protests when the Department of State Services (DSS) picked him up at a private apartment in Lagos on 2 August, 2019 — three days before the start of the #DaysOfRage. He was grilled in Abuja for days before the orders of a federal high court were sought for his detention. But after state security disobeyed two orders by the same court for Sowore’s release on bail after months in detention, the tide started to turn against the government. On 24 December, three days after six US lawmakers wrote to the Nigerian Attorney-General to protest Sowore’s continued detention, the government released him, disguising their action by simultaneously freeing Sambo Dasuki, the former National Security Adviser (NSA) who had been held since 2015 for alleged misappropriation of counterinsurgency funds.

Locally, the release was preceded by a landmark move: Punch, Nigeria’s most widely read newspaper, published a weighty editorial announcing that all its titles would henceforth prefix President Muhammadu Buhari’s name with his rank as a military dictator in the 80s, Major General, and refer to his administration as a regime, “until they purge themselves of their insufferable contempt for the rule of law”. In all three instances, the most notable constant was the bad press that government was getting or would have got. Jalingo’s Cross River Watch series projected the state government as corrupt, inept and unworthy of public trust. Sowore’s #RevolutionNow protests would have spotlighted the deep seated economic maladministration and insecurity that have plagued the Buhari administration since inception. My investigative series unveiled the sham that is the administration of criminal justice in Nigeria; it was a dent in the image of the judiciary, the police, the prisons and the interior ministry altogether.

The irony of this media repression is that Buhari and the state governors of his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), ascended to power via the polls on the back of dissent with the former ruling party and championed by the media; the same group suddenly cannot stomach or overlook unflattering media coverage. It must irk them deeply that despite the repression, these journalists are not only refusing to cave in, they’re waxing strong. Their persecution appears to be further fuelling their drive rather than dampening it. The grace with which Jalingo has handled his trial belies the length of his incarceration. His broad smiles, loud cheers to supporters and generally boisterous demeanour on court days do not in any way suggest he’s spent six months in prison. Four weeks after the government tried to arrest me for investigating the police, prisons and courts undercover, I embarked on another undercover mission — this time to a government-run psychiatric hospital, the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital in Lagos, where admission conditions are undignified. I was their patient for three weeks, including 10 straight days on ward admission.

The previous arrest threat didn’t stop me and, as a matter of fact, I’m currently on my second investigation since that saga. Sowore, meanwhile, remains as bullheaded as he always was. In early February, when I met him in Abuja at the makeshift home he’s currently restricted to due to a clause in his bail conditions barring him from travelling out of Nigeria’s federal capital, he insisted his ongoing face-off with the state would be a “fight to the finish”. “I don’t care that I cannot travel out of Abuja; that’s their problem, not mine,” he told me confidently. “There’s no need to run away. We have to stay and fight this battle until the very end.” Repeated efforts to muzzle the press under the Buhari regime threaten to set Nigerian democracy back by decades. However, just like it was with every oppressive military administration of the past, this government will be outlasted by the media — because, as we have seen, the current targets of media oppression are on their crusade for the long haul.

Fisayo Soyombo (@fisayosoyombo) is former editor of TheCable, a Nigerian news outlet, and of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), as well as a former managing editor of SaharaReporters. He has won multiple awards, including the Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Reporting (three times). He has written for Al Jazeera, TAZ, Journal Du Dimanche, the Daily Mail UK, among other publications. His reporting has been translated into German, French and Arabic.

Rewriting the rule book

Omoyele Sowore Photo: ‘Fisayo Soyombo

With every new election cycle, Nigeria is inching closer to producing its own Emmanuel Macron or Justin Trudeau. That hope is fuelled by the confidence with which the younger generation are aspiring to the highest Nigerian office.

A quick run through of the names and ages of candidates currently campaigning to take President Muhammadu Buhari’s job in 2019 is illustrative: Omoyele Sowore (47), Fela Durotoye (46), Thomas-Wilson Ikubese (47), Enyinnaya Nnaemeka Nwosu (40), Ahmed Buhari (40), Charles Udeogaranya (46), Mathias Tsado (41), Eniola Ojajuni (39), Olu James Omosule (48) and Tope Fasua (47).

Although there are some individuals in their fifties or sixties in the mix, the lineup of youth in the presidential race is heartwarming. Nigeria is a country where age — rather than such values as competence, moral presence or strength of character — often forms the main basis of respect. But youth are no longer the leaders of tomorrow; in Nigeria, young people want to be the leaders of today. And it appears they’re well on course.

Taiwo George, the 34-year-old editor of TheCable, Nigeria’s third most-followed online newspaper, puts this down to a “rising youth consciousness to quit the blame game”. Now, young people want to influence political events from the centre. “Nigerian youth are becoming conscious of their role in politics,” He told Africa in Fact. “Unlike before, when they screamed from the sidelines, now they’re actively involved … They’re entering the political arena to contest, and they’re involved in advocacy as well.”

The call for change is gaining momentum. Next year, 30-year-olds will be eligible to contest the presidential election. Similarly, 30-year-olds will be eligible to contest some of the 36 state governorship seats on offer; 30-year-olds can now be senators, while 25-year-olds can win seats in the Federal House of Representatives and the state houses of assembly.

The age limits for these positions, in the order in which they have been listed, used to be 40, 35, 30, 25, 25. But in 2016, a coalition of youth groups united together to launch the “Not Too Young To Run” campaign — based on the principle that anyone who, at 18, isn’t too young to vote shouldn’t be too young to be voted for. An ambitious, if not audacious, target indeed. Yet considerable progress has been made. With 25-year-olds now eligible to seek legislative office, it is only a matter of time before the 18-year-old target is met as well.

After initial opposition from the upper and lower chambers, the “Not Too Young To Run” Bill was passed in July 2017. Two thirds of the 36 state assemblies followed suit in February this year to satisfy the legal requirements for turning the Bill into law. All that’s left is for Buhari to put pen to paper, and the deal is sealed.

In fact, Nigerian youth have always been involved in politics and elections, says ‘Sola Fagorusi, the programmes and media manager of Onelife Initiative, a non-profit organisation aimed at bringing sustainable social change to young people, but now their methods of involvement and the demography involved are changing.

Until recently, it was uneducated youth, largely living in villages or the outskirts of cities, who featured as party agents or aides to politicians, Fagorusi says. “Today, we are seeing youth engage in peer-to-peer mobilisation for voter registration and collection of the permanent voter card.”

An important part of this has been the capacity offered by the Internet, particularly as regards communication. Fagorusi, 35, attributes the success of recent youth campaigns to “the online amphitheatre, where unending conversations (both deep and shallow) about electoral issues are happening”.

The development has even influenced young people’s participation in primary elections, which were previously little more than “intra-party affairs”, he says. “Young people are also now starting political parties. There is the ANRP, for example – a political party by young people embracing both the elite and deprived. Young people in Nigeria today are doing more than just acting as the electoral umpire’s ad-hoc staff; they are claiming a stake simply by seeking positions within the party structure.”

But some young people are urging caution. The expectations created by the Not Too Young To Run excitement must be tempered with patience, says Rotimi Olawale, executive director of Youthhubafrica, a youth-led, non-profit organisation based in Nigeria that advocates education for girls and engaging in policy debates that impacts young people in Africa. Only when presidential assent is secure, he says, can youth truly start dreaming big politically.

“The most defining agenda for young people in Nigeria today is to crash the party,” Olawale says. “The success of this constitution amendment will see a lot of young people take up the challenge to run for office.” Meanwhile, he says the national, youth-led campaign to encourage young people to register to vote” has been “impressive”, and he is also excited by the rise in the number of “unconventional” political parties, which are providing a platform for youth political expression.

Sowore, one of the youngest 2019 presidential aspirants, recently launched an appeal to raise $2 million “via a clean, transparent and open manner to advance our movement and fund our election into the presidency without the interference of godfathers and godmothers”, as he puts it on his page on the site.

Although he started out as a rank outsider in the race to Aso Rock (Nigeria’s presidential villa), Sowore’s ambition to take on the country’s old guard sits well with the youth. Young people are either promoting his gofundme campaign or contributing to it, and by the time of writing in late May this year, some 575 people had contributed over $49,000. The old guard, meanwhile, sometimes lets its guard slip, and this does not go unnoticed. When Communications Minister Adebayo Shittu recently branded the 47-year-old “inconsequential” on live radio, young people leapt to his defence, saying the minister’s comment was “a slight” on the youth population.

A Sowore victory would have huge implications for the federal ruling class. His campaign machinery is manned entirely by young people, and his election would surely usher in a reign of Nigeria’s youngest-ever ruling elite. But even if he does lose, just the fact of his well-supported campaign will give momentum to efforts by young people to take the central political stage.

Nigerian youth no longer want to be the stooges of politicians or to be cannon fodder for them — useful during election time, but expendable once in power. They do not object to being the governed, but their condition for that is that they too can aspire to, and achieve a role in government. In short, Nigerian youth are discontented with their role as political spectators. Now, they aim to be direct players in the political space.

degree in animal science from the University of Ibadan. He was pioneer editor of TheCable (www.thecable.ng), Nigeria’s third most-followed online newspaper, between April 2014 and January 2017. He is editor of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR). An opinion contributor to Al Jazeera, his writings have been translated into German, French and Arabic. Soyombo has won numerous journalism honours, the latest being the Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Reporting (online category) in December 2017.