Attacks on the Press 1999: Nigeria

Following national and presidential elections in February, decades of military rule ended with the installation of a new civilian government on May 29, headed by President Olusegun Obasanjo. Both in Nigeria and abroad, expectations ran high that the dark days of repression under former dictator Gen. Sani Abacha were finally over. However, the transition to civilian rule was hardly built on a strong foundation of democracy and human rights.

Although a new constitution was promulgated on May 5, it was modeled largely after the 1979 constitution and offered the media no specific protection. A great number of repressive military decrees remained in force– including about 20 antimedia decrees–in spite of widespread calls for their immediate repeal. The transitional government apparently repealed at least one such decree (No. 43 of 1993), only to reintroduce it surreptitiously as the Nigerian Press Council (Amendment) Decree No. 60 of 1999. Under this decree, journalists as well as newspapers and magazines must register annually with the new government press council. The decree also provides for heavy sanctions on the proprietors and publishers of newspapers and magazines that fail to register.

Although the number of human-rights abuses in general decreased significantly during the transition to civilian rule, attacks on the press continued, albeit on a smaller scale. In February, police raided the editorial offices of the independent Lagos paper The News and the premises of its printing press, arresting several employees. They also seized copies of an edition that carried a headline describing corruption under the Abacha regime.

That same month, police arrested Lanre Arogundade, chairman of the Lagos Council of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), apparently in connection with his trade-union activities. In May, Arogundade was charged with the murder of a former NUJ member, Bolade Fasasi. The charges seemed politically motivated; they were dropped in August owing to lack of evidence.

Nor did journalists working for state media escape harassment. In February, two reporters with the state-owned paper The Observer were suspended for publishing critical statements made by international observers of the parliamentary elections.

On a positive note, however, journalist Niran Malaolu was released on March 4 after 14 months in jail on treason charges. Malaolu was included in a general pardon that interim head of state General Abdulsalami Abubakar issued to 95 prisoners sentenced for their participation in an alleged coup attempt in 1997.

Once President Obasanjo took office in late May, he drew widespread praise by promptly clearing out corrupt senior army officers, ordering a review of all contracts signed by his predecessors in 1999, and setting up a commission to investigate human rights abuses (the mandate of which was later extended back to Nigeria’s first military coup in 1966, covering President Obasanjo’s previous term as military ruler from 1976 to 1979). The return to democracy prompted the Commonwealth to reinstate Nigeria, which had been suspended in 1995 following the execution of dissident playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa.

In November, former army chief General Isahya Bamaiyi, one of the officers forced into retirement by President Obasanjo, was one of five people charged with the 1996 attempted murder of Alex Ibru, publisher of the Guardian newspaper.

But many problems remained–not least, widespread communal fighting, including ethnic clashes, village feuds, and mysterious “cult killings” on university campuses, which claimed hundreds of lives. Two journalists were killed while reporting on communal conflicts–one in April during fighting between the Aguleri and Umuleri communities in Anambra State and one in May during riots between the Hausa Fulani and Zangon-Kataf groups in Kaduna State. In July, a journalist was arrested and allegedly tortured by police while covering brutal fighting between members of the Yoruba and Hausa ethnic groups in the town of Shagamu, in Ogun State, when more than 60 people were killed in just two days.

One of President Obasanjo’s most immediate problems was the Niger Delta, the source of nearly all Nigeria’s oil wealth and the scene of a bloody struggle over resources between various rival local communities, on the one hand, and the author- ities and multinational oil companies, on the other. The dominance of overtly pro-government, state-owned newspapers and broadcast media in the Delta region has deterred constructive debate on how to end the crisis. The October arrest of local journalist Jerry Needam in Port Harcourt was just one example of how Delta authorities have continued to answer peaceful protests with brutal repression.

February 6
Kayode Sofuyi, The News IMPRISONED

Police arrested Sofuyi, a production assistant for the independent The News magazine and publisher of the Lagos-based afternoon newspaper Prime Sunset, at the Satellite Press in the Ogba district of Lagos. Satellite Press’ chief accountant, Kinglsey Uwannah, was also arrested.

During the raid on the printing press, police also seized 80,000 copies of The News that were being prepared for circulation. The police then closed down the company’s operations, preventing workers and customers from entering the facilities. The confiscated edition of The News carried the headline “Abacha’s Co-Looters, Aluko Reveals All,” referring to Nigeria’s former head of state Sani Abacha.

The police actions were reportedly carried out on the orders of Assistant Inspector General Alhaji Ali Jos, of Zone 2 in Lagos.

Both Sofuyi and Uwannah were released one week later. CPJ protested the incident in a Febuary 8 letter to the Nigerian head of state, General Abdulsalami Abubakar.

February 8
Tajudeen Suleiman, The News HARASSED
Idowu Obasa, 24 Hours Press HARASSED
Wole Odofin, 24 Hours Press HARASSED

Suleiman, chairman of The News chapter of the Nigerian Union of Journalists; Obasa, general manager for the 24 Hours Press; and Odofin, its press manager, were arrested during police raids on the editorial offices of The News and on 24 Hours Press, a commercial printing houses used by the independent newspaper. They were not charged, and all three were released that evening without explanation.

April 18
Fidelis Ikwuebe, free-lancer KILLED

Free-lance journalist Ikwuebe was abducted and murdered. According to local journalists, Ikwuebe was on assignment, covering violent clashes between the Aguleri and Umuleri communities in Anambra state.

April 25
Lanre Arogundade, Nigerian Union of Journalists IMPRISONED

Police arrested Arogundade, chairman of the Lagos Council of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), for alleged involve-ment in the March 31 murder of Bolade Fasasi, a former official of the Lagos chapter of the NUJ who was killed by three unidentified gunmen.

On three previous occasions police had detained Arogundade, questioned him, and then released him without charge. But on May 4, the chief magistrate in Ibadan charged him with murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Although Arogundade was released on bail on May 17, he remained on a “holden charge,” which allows authorities to detain suspects for undetermined periods when there is insufficient evidence to go to trial. One condition of bail was that Arogundade report every two weeks to the police station in Ibadan.

Arogundade’s arrest came at a time when he was receiving death threats for his NUJ activities. These threats are widely thought to have been motivated by his work for press freedom in Nigeria.

CPJ protested the arrest and charges in a May 13 letter to Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar. On August 25, the chief magistrate’s court in Ibadan dismissed all charges against Arogun- dade on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

May 27
Sam Nimfa-Jan, Details KILLED

Local journalists reported the killing of Nimfa-Jan, of Details magazine, in Kafanchan, Kaduna state. Nimfa-Jan was on assignment, covering riots between the Hausa Fulani and the Zangon-Kataf groups.

July 21
Toyin Coker, African Independent Television HARASSED

Police arrested Coker, a news reporter for African Independent Television, while he was on assignment in the town of Shagamu in Ogun State. The town had been the scene of serious clashes between members of the Yoruba and Hausa ethnic groups.

The unrest had spread throughout Nigeria’s southwestern region, claiming hundreds of lives. Coker was arrested along with a large group of people suspected of instigating the violence. Although Coker apparently showed his journalist’s identity card, it was ignored, and he was taken to a local police station along with other detainees.

Coker was held there overnight and allegedly tortured. He was released the following day.

October 11
Jerry Needam, Ogoni Star IMPRISONED

Needam, acting editor of the biweekly Ogoni Star newspaper (established in July by MOSOP, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People), was arrested at his Port Harcourt home by Rivers State police and detained at the local State Intelligence and Investigation Bureau office. The arrest was in connection with MOSOP’s September 16 release of a leaked police operational order that outlined police plans to deal with expected activism by ethnic Ijaw political groups in the Niger Delta.

CPJ’s sources provided a copy of the police document, which describes MOSOP as an enemy force, along with “human rights groups and criminals of all descriptions.” The report further quotes Nigerian state intelligence sources to the effect that Ijaw activists intended “to close down all oil installations and force all expatriate staff to leave and stop work at all flow stations.” (Ijaw groups denied this allegation.)

The report recommends that an army brigade be put on red alert and calls for the mobilization of 2,500 police to join guards employed by the oil companies.

Needam was held without charge and questioned about how he gained access to this report.

CPJ protested the journalist’s detention in an October 28 letter to President Obasanjo. On November 2, Needam was arraigned, charged with possession of classified documents, and released on bail. According to MOSOP, Needam was in “reasonable health” at the time of his release. The organization was “very confident” that Needam could mount a strong defense should the case go to trial.

November 5
Samson Boyi, The Scope KILLED
Umar Mustaphar, Nigeria Television Authority ATTACKED

Photojournalist Boyi was killed when armed men attacked the convoy of Adamawa State governor Haruna Bonnie. Boyi was on assignment to cover Bonnie on a trip to the town of Bauchi.

His colleague Umar Mustaphar, a Yola-based reporter with the Nigeria Television Authority, sustained bullet wounds.