The UN Should Speak Up About the Unlawful Detention of Journalists in Nigeria

Despite Court Order, Activist Still Held Free Omoleye Sowore; Allow Peaceful Protests
November 9, 2019
Femi Falana: Getting the Record Straight and Putting the DSS’s Outrageous Actions into Context
November 16, 2019
Ademola Bello is a Nigerian journalist and playwright. He received his master’s from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

On September 24, President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria delivered a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. In it, he assured the world that his government believes in freedom, tolerance and the rule of law. He said, “The rule of law remains the permanent, the unchanging foundation of the world order.”

But on the same day that President Buhari spoke, his government ignored a court ruling ordering the release on bail of Mr. Omoyele Sowore, the founder of Sahara Reporters, a New York-based online news website that has reportedly extensively on government corruption in Nigeria. In fact, several Nigerian journalists and activists are unlawfully held in detention by the Nigerian government for reporting on widespread corruption and human rights violations. 

Justice Taiwo Taiwo, who initially ruled that Nigeria’s Department of State Services (DSS) could detain Mr. Sowore for forty-five days, granted him bail on the condition that he surrender his passport. Mr. Sowore did so on September 25, but DSS did not release him, arguing that, among other things, he was not entitled to bail. 

On October 4, a second judge, Ijeoma Ojukwu, presented new bail conditions that were much more stringent, including a demand to find two private landowners in Abuja who controlled land worth roughly $500,000 and who would stand for him as guarantors to meet his bail conditions. The judge also banned him from speaking with the press, not to participate in any rally, and not to leave Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. He has not yet met these new conditions. 

Sowore was detained on August 3 by the DSS. He had called for a peaceful protest, tagged “Revolution Now,” to demand, among other things, that the Nigerian government end wholesale corruption, fight poverty, and provide universal education. He was charged with treasonable felony and insulting and harassing the Nigerian president based on comments made in a press interview.

Usually based in New York, his trip to Nigeria was his first since revealing Nigeria’s Central Bank lost 500 billion naira (about $1.4 billion) in a failed private investment scheme. Sahara Reporters obtained and published audio recordings made by a whistleblower at the Central Bank of Nigeria. The recordings included Godwin Emefiele, the bank's governor, and other officials discussing how to cover up the loss.

The detention of Sowore comes as press freedoms and free speech continue to be curtailed by President Buhari. The nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists has documented widespread harassment of journalists in the country, including unlawful detention and assaults.  Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees "freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” It is time for the UN and UNESCO to speak up about the Nigerian government’s unlawful imprisonment of journalists and activists like Omoyele Sowore.