Nigeria: State cracks down on independent press

April 13, 2000

President Olusegun Obasanjo
State House, Abuja
Federal Capital Territory, Nigeria
VIA FAX: 011-234-9-523-2136

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is gravely concerned about the recent attack on the independent daily newspaper ThisDay, and about the overall deterioration of press freedom standards in Nigeria.

On April 4, nine armed members of the State Security Service (SSS) invaded the offices of ThisDay in the federal capital, Abuja, and sealed its gate, denying entry to all visitors. During the three-hour raid, the SSS agents severely roughed up several ThisDay employees. They justified their illegal actions by claiming that the newspaper’s offices contained “subversive and incriminating documents,” according to CPJ’s Nigerian sources.

Following a public outcry, SSS authorities announced the next day that the agents had been ordered to arrest ThisDay editor-in-chief Nduka Obaigbena, who was out of the office during the raid. The SSS, which was explaining its actions publicly for the first time ever, said that they wanted to question Obaigbena in connection with a U.S. news report alleging that he had left unsettled hotel bills of about US$24,000 after an IMF-World Bank meeting that he attended last year in Washington, D.C. ThisDay denies the charges, saying that the Nigeria National Council on Privatization was responsible for the hotel bills because it was hosting the meeting.

Obaigbena later told reporters that he had received several threatening phone calls prior to the raid, complaining about published articles that alleged the involvement of Your Excellency’s security advisor, Aliyu Mohamed Gusau, in massive graft under the late dictator Gen. Sani Abacha.

The attack on ThisDay is the latest in a spate of recent attacks on the independent press in Nigeria. On January 19, more than 50 police, some heavily armed, stormed the International Press Center (IPC) in Lagos with their guns drawn, threatening to shoot on sight Led by Commissioner Sobodu of the Rapid Response Squad, they arrested several people, including four journalists: Wale Adeoye and Tunde Aremu of the independent newspaper Punch, Nicholas Nwafor of The News, and Lekan Otufodunrin of the private paper Journalists for Christ. Police also ransacked offices and demanded to see computer files.

Sources in Lagos told CPJ that the police raid was intended to capture suspected terrorists whom the police believed were attending a press conference in the IPC’s hall, which is regularly hired out on a commercial basis. The press conference was being given by the Oodua Liberation Movement, which is similar in name but quite distinct from the Oodua People’s Congress, an outlawed political organization. The four journalists and others arrested at the scene were released without charge several hours later.

On March 9, Bayelsa State security forces swooped down on newspaper stands in Yenogoa, the state’s capital, and seized copies of two newspapers, The Independent Monitor and the daily Banner News. The officers also arrested publisher Union Oyadongha of Banner News, which circulates only in Bayelsa State.

This raid apparently came in response to a report run by the two papers under the headline “134 Bayelsa, Rivers Natives Killed in Kaduna Sharia Riots.” Police officials in Yenegoa announced that they wanted Oyadongha to explain how he knew that those killed in the riots were natives of Bayelsa and Rivers states. It remains unclear whether any specific charges were filed against the journalist, who was reportedly released on March 16 after a week-long illegal detention (CPJ has so far been unable to confirm this report).

Nigerian journalists have traveled a hard road since the country’s first newspaper, Iwe Irohin, appeared in 1859. But Your Excellency’s democratic assumption of power last May raised hopes that after nineteen years of consecutive military dictatorships, journalists might finally be able to do their jobs without official harassment.

However, the recent series of attacks on the press by government security forces cast serious doubts over Your Excellency’s respect for press freedom. CPJ therefore urges Your Excellency to ensure that journalists in Nigeria are treated in accordance with section 22 of Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution, which clearly states that “the press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold (…) the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.”

We await your comments on these important matters.


Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director