Nigeria Cracks Down on a Critic, and a New Jersey City Pushes Again


HAWORTH, NJ – Opeyemi Sowore watched the videos on her cell phone in bed in her New Jersey home, the kids were still sleeping Christmas tree sparkled down the stairs.

The videos showed her husband – a former presidential candidate and publisher of a website known as Africa's WikiLeaks – being shouted to the ground in a Nigerian courtroom by a man in a black suit as a lawyer in wigs and robes.

The court ruled that her husband, Omoyele Sowore, should be released on bail pending trial for treason, money laundering, and criticism of President Muhammadu Buhari on television for cyberstalking. But on December 6, when his wife slept more than 5,000 miles away, Mr. Sowore was returned from the courtroom to where he has been detained for almost the past five months.

Before Mr. Sowore was abducted by Nigeria's equivalent to the Secret Service, it was videotaped that "these could be my only recorded words before they kill me". His wife has had no contact with him since.

When Mr. Buhari was elected President of Nigeria, the most populous country and Africa's largest economy, in 2015, it was celebrated as a triumph of democracy. Since then, however, his government has turned to tough authoritarianism and put the country's thriving civil society organizations and news media to the test.

Protests were launched with lethal violence. The country's top judiciary was dismissed without further ado. Humanitarian organizations that criticized the state were threatened with closure, and newspaper offices were searched. A journalist, Jones Abiri, was detained for so long that he was believed to be dead.

A draft law now passed by the Nigerian Senate proposes the death penalty for some cases of "hate speech". A second, the law against social media, which is based on a new Singaporean law, calls on government critics to spend up to three years in prison.

Nigeria is not the only one to restrict freedom of expression. A new criminal security law in traditionally media-friendly Burkina Faso, a planned hate speech in Ethiopia, tough action in Tanzania and routine shutdowns of the Internet and social media across Africa indicate a broader trend towards censorship.

"The rulers simply don't want to endure people's voices," said Ayisha Osori, director of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa.

African leaders feel encouraged to strangle the news media because of a perceived global setback in democracy, she said.

Mr. 2006, Sowore launched Sahara Reporters, a website that specializes in uncovering government corruption and grievances. With funding from American foundations and around 50 employees in Nigeria and the United States, the publication of leaked, often unfiltered information disrupted the traditional Nigerian media scene.

With his work in New York, Mr. Sowore had for years had some protection against the consequences of the publication of often scandalous information about Nigeria's most powerful people. He commuted between his family home in New Jersey and Nigeria, where he is a trouble-free citizen.

On August 3, he was arrested in the middle of the night by the Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Services, or DSS, in his hotel room in Lagos.

First, Opeyemi Sowore did not tell anyone in Haworth, a wealthy suburb about 20 miles from Midtown Manhattan, about her husband's arrest. None of them knew much about Nigeria or what Mr. Sowore, known as Yele, did for a living. As far as she was concerned, he was just a father and an avid runner.

One day Ms. Sowore wrote with another mother with children in the local school why her husband had been away for a long time. Word got around quickly in Haworth, a town with 3,500 inhabitants.

"One mother told another mother, told another mother, told another mother, and next we knew that we had put together what really worked as a crisis management team," said Alanna Zahn Davis, one of the Mothers in this chain.

If Mr. Buhari's government had become tough, it would have been Haworth too.

A Core A group of 10 women warned the State Department. Then they reached Amal Clooney, the human rights lawyer who asked for Mr. Sowore's release. They worked with Amnesty International, who declared him a prisoner of conscience.

Sometimes they would prepare meals for Ms. Sowore, a marketing manager, or take care of the couple's two children. Inspired by American tradition of using yellow ribbons to remember hostages, they held "Yele Ribbon" ceremonies in the tree-lined town center of Haworth, in which hundreds of people attended.

After hand-to-hand combat in the courtroom, they called members of Congress and hired New Jersey senators, Robert Menendez and Cory Booker. Six members of Congress sent a letter to the Attorney General of Nigeria on Friday condemning Mr. Sowore's treatment.

His detention "will only serve to compromise Nigeria's international reputation and reputation as a leading African democracy," they wrote.

Before his arrest, Mr. Sowore was often accused of favoring Mr. Buhari and even helping him with the election. The relentless revelations of the Sahara reporters under the previous government meant that Buhari's vows to rid the country of corruption were well received by voters. One of Mr. Buhari's earliest interviews as president was with Sahara TV.

However, it turned out that the Buhari government had a corrupt attitude in addition to authoritarian tendencies, said Chidi Odinkalu, former chair of Nigeria's Human Rights Commission.

"The government of Buhari has proven to be at least as bad, if not worse," than the previous government, which Mr Buhari promised not to imitate, said Odinkalu, who is facing charges after himself he had criticized one of the President's close allies.

This was not a big surprise for those who remember how the now 77-year-old Buhari came to power in 1983 as a major general in a military coup. Before he was rushed to another coup, he put hundreds of people in jail, had late officials do frog jumps, and executed three men.

When he was democratically elected three decades later in 2015, it was a promise to fight corruption and insecurity. Nigeria fought Boko Haram, oil theft and violent clashes across the country. He often appeared frail, said little in public, and spent many months of his first term in treatment for a mysterious illness in London.

Sahara Reporters wrote about the absence and allegations of corruption by his allies and the government openly condemned Mr. Sowore for failing to deliver on its promises. He unsuccessfully ran for President Buhari's presidency in February, preparing for a protest calling for revolution when he was arrested on August 3.

At that time, La Keisha Landrum Pierre, the chief of the Sahara reporter, on duty in New York, was heavily pregnant. When she was born five days later, she created the biggest crisis the company has ever had. It is getting bigger.

She said the Nigerian government has frozen the site's financial account.

“Armed D.S.S. Men are in front of our offices in Nigeria, ”Ms. Landrum Pierre said between calls and meetings in Manhattan. She had to cut the workforce by 70 percent, saying that most of the remaining employees who felt intimidated stayed at home.

On December 6, the court scheduled the Sowore trial for February, but he was not released on bail as previously ordered. Instead, the lawyers and family of Mr. Sowore, D.S.S. Agents attacked Mr. Sowore in the courtroom and finally took him back into custody.

The D.S.S. said in a statement that Mr. Sowore had been re-arrested for public comment, alleging that he had promised to prosecute the previous night. A D.S.S. Spokesman also claimed that Mr. Sowore's supporters had staged the attack in the courtroom and were trying to identify his agents.

woman. Sowore said watching the videos made her fear for his life.

"The hardest thing for me was – how do I tell my children?" She said.

You tried help. For the Haworth school fair in early December, her 12-year-old daughter Ayo produced and sold slime and stress balls and planned to use her profits on her father's bail. Her mother had to explain that he had already made a deposit but was still not allowed to do so. Ayo instead gave her $ 80 to Amnesty International.

The wishes of the ten-year-old Komi emerge from his Christmas list. He wants:

1. A remote-controlled racing car that can climb walls.

2. An Apple Watch.

3. His father is safely at home.

4. A turtle.

Eromo Egbejule contributed to the reporting from Lagos.


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