Attacks on the Press 2002: Nigeria

With presidential elections scheduled for April 12, 2003, Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who survived another impeachment vote in September, must boost his own popularity while maintaining peace in this restive nation, where ethnic and religious violence has left thousands dead in recent years. A retired army general, Obasanjo was elected in May 1999 elections that ended decades of military rule. Three years later, despite its remarkable expansion, the Nigerian press remains vulnerable to censorship and repression.

In November, Islamic leaders in the northern state of Zamfara called on Muslims to kill Isioma Daniel, a reporter with the private Lagos daily ThisDay. The edict, or fatwa, stemmed from a November 16 article by Daniel about the Miss World contest, scheduled to be held in Nigeria in December, in which she wrote that the Prophet Mohammed, were he alive, would not oppose Nigeria’s hosting of the beauty pageant and might even choose a bride from among the contestants. The article sparked religious riots, during which more than 200 were killed. On November 20, hundreds of protesters set fire to ThisDay‘s office in Kaduna State while chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) and accusing Daniel of blasphemy. Although the paper retracted the story in several front-page apologies, Zamfara State deputy governor Mamuda Aliyu Shinkafi declared that the fatwa required “all Muslims, wherever they are, to consider the killing of the writer as a religious duty.”

Daniel fled abroad soon after the rioting began, despite assurances from Nigeria’s federal government that the fatwa would not be carried out. Speaking on behalf of federal authorities, Information Minister Jerry Gana said that Nigerian laws “do not provide for anyone who has done something like what ThisDay has done to be killed.” But anxious to soothe Muslim ire, other state officials did threaten to punish ThisDay, although with less drastic actions. The Miss World contest, meanwhile, was moved to London.

A week after the incident, a Muslim vigilante group hired by the federal State Security Service to keep public order in Maiduguri, Borno State, in northeastern Nigeria, where Sharia (Islamic law) is in force, rounded up a dozen news vendors for selling tabloids considered offensive to Islamic tenets. The vendors were freed without charges. A Sharia court in Gusau, the capital of Zamfara State, imposed financial penalties on a group of newspaper vendors in August for selling magazines and calendars featuring nude women.

In January 2000, less than a year after the advent of democracy, Zamfara became one of the first Nigerian states to adopt Islamic law. Eleven more of Nigeria’s 36 states have since followed suit, effectively dividing Nigeria into two bitterly antagonistic regions, a Muslim north and a mostly Christian south. Although northern regions have proven somewhat tolerant of diverse opinions in the press, journalists throughout the nation have been targeted for taking critical stances. In many cases, however, judicial authorities have defended members of the media. In early 2002, a magistrate court in Abakaliki, a town in the southeastern Ebonyi State, voided sedition charges against Emma Okeki-Ogo and Ogbonna Okorie, of Ebonyi Times, who were sued by the state governor, Sam Egwu, for a November 1999 article accusing him of reckless spending and of not being “a true Christian.”

A dozen media lawsuits were still making their way through state and federal courts by late December, but Nigerian journalists said it was unlikely that authorities would jail reporters for work-related offenses, even though some prominent politicians spoke out in favor of such actions. In fact, according to local journalists, federal authorities now seem more willing to investigate cases of press attacks.

Despite these positive decisions, journalists and media activists remain critical of the federal and state legal systems, which are susceptible to corruption and influence peddling. In December, authorities in the west-central Kwara State became embroiled in a public tussle with Bukola Saraki, publisher of the weekly National Pilot, whose main office in Ilorin, the state’s capital, was gutted by a terrorist bomb on November 15. Saraki has steadfastly objected to the regional commission created to investigate the blast, because he suspects that the commission is comprised of biased representatives of the state judicial system.

It remained unclear at year’s end whether authorities would pursue the prosecution of a group of retired soldiers who had stormed the newsroom of the daily Nigerian Tribune in the federal capital, Abuja, and held some of the staff hostage for several hours. The soldiers claimed that a November 30 story describing them as “fake ex-service men” had compromised their pension payments. During their occupation of the paper’s offices, the attackers demanded that the story’s author identify himself, to no avail. In the end, an elite police squad had to rein in the angry veterans. No one was harmed in the incident.

In the face of such threats, Nigerian press freedom activists have intensified lobbying of lawmakers in both houses of Parliament. But partisan politicking in the upper house delayed the adoption of a bill that would improve work conditions and offer more protection for journalists. The measure, known as the Journalism Practice Enhancement Bill 2002, would also create a Media Practitioners Complaints Commission to deal with complaints against journalists and to take noncriminal disciplinary actions.

November 15

National Pilot

An explosion destroyed the offices of the independent weekly National Pilot in Ilorin, the capital of Nigeria’s west central Kwara State. Five people were seriously injured in the blast, which local sources suspect was politically motivated, including the paper’s deputy editor-in-chief, Mudasiru Adewuyi.

The explosion occurred at approximately 12:30 p.m. on Friday, while the paper’s staff was preparing its Monday edition. The blast caused the roof of the building to collapse, injuring five workers and destroying a substantial amount of equipment. The injured workers were taken to a local hospital. With printing assistance from the private daily ThisDay, which is based in the southwestern city of Lagos, National Pilot published that week’s edition on Monday, November 18.

Dr. Bukola Saraki, a prominent local businessman and son of Nigeria’s former senate leader, launched National Pilot in July. Known for its critical coverage of the local government, the newspaper has become one of the most popular in Kwara Sate.

Saraki called the attack “state terrorism against the press.” He told CPJ that the attack followed a visit to the newspaper’s offices earlier that week from local government officials who asked about sources for a front-page story in National Pilot‘s previous edition that had mentioned a petition calling for an anti-corruption probe of Kwara State governor Muhammed Lawal, who is suspected of misappropriating funds. When the newspaper’s staff refused to cooperate, the officials threatened their lives, Saraki said.

Lawal denied state government involvement in the explosion, reported local newspapers, and instead accused National Pilot of mounting a “self-inflicted attack” to discredit his administration. Nigerian sources said that tension between Lawal and Saraki is mounting ahead of national elections, scheduled for spring 2003, in which Saraki is considering challenging Governor Lawal for his position.

Nigerian president Olesegun Obasanjo promised a federal police investigation into the attack, saying that the national government would deal with those responsible. Lawal, meanwhile, ordered state authorities to conduct an inquiry rather than leaving the investigation to federal police.

On November 18, Lawal inaugurated a seven-member panel of inquiry, composed of individuals from state security forces, a High Court judge, and a representative from the Nigerian Union of Journalists, to investigate the attack on National Pilot. Sources in Nigeria later said that Lawal told reporters that police had apprehended several suspects, who were taken to the capital, Abuja, for further questioning.

Political violence in Kwara State has been rising ahead of national elections. In August, a senior politician in the state from President Obasanjo’s ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was murdered. Two months earlier, at least two people died in street fighting between supporters of the PDP and Lawal’s All Nigeria Peoples Party.

November 20


The Kaduna offices of the private daily ThisDay were burned down by Muslim protesters who were angered by a news report the paper published about the Miss World pageant, which was scheduled to be held in Nigeria early in December. The protesters were reacting to a recent article in the paper that appeared to belittle Muslim concerns about the country’s decision to host the beauty contest. The article said that the Prophet Mohammed probably would have chosen a wife from among the women competing. ThisDay later retracted the story and printed several front-page apologies for the comment.

News reports said that about 500 protesters, chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great), marched to the paper’s offices in the early morning and set the building ablaze. Reuters quoted witnesses who said that the paper’s staff was not in the office at the time. Local sources said that ThisDay‘s staff went into hiding after the attack, while vendors in the area stopped selling the paper.

The last two years have seen violent clashes between Muslims and Christians across a dozen northern Nigerian states, all of which have recently adopted Sharia, or Islamic, law. Kaduna, in Kaduna State, is considered one of the most volatile cities in the region. Two years ago, more than 2,000 people died in violent interreligious clashes in the northern city.

November 26

Isioma Daniel, ThisDay

Simon Kolawole, ThisDay

Islamic authorities in the northern Nigerian state of Zamfara issued a fatwa urging Muslims to kill Daniel, a writer for the private daily ThisDay, whose November 16 article about the Miss World pageant sparked deadly riots across the country. According to sources in the southern city of Lagos, the order to kill Daniel was passed early in the morning after a meeting between members of the Zamfara State government and representatives of at least 20 Islamic organizations.

Although the newspaper had retracted the story and issued several front-page apologies, Zamfara State deputy governor Mamuda Aliyu Shinkafi insisted that, “It is binding on all Muslims, wherever they are, to consider the killing of the writer as a religious duty.”

Daniel, the style editor for the Lagos-based ThisDay, resigned from the paper and fled the country after repeatedly apologizing for the article, which Muslim leaders said belittled Muslim concerns about the country’s decision to host the beauty contest. The journalist wrote that the Prophet Mohammed probably would have chosen a wife from among the women competing.

More than 200 people were killed in Kaduna State and in the federal capital, Abuja, where the pageant, later moved to London, was to take place. Violence erupted after Nigeria’s Supreme Islamic Council declared in a statement that ThisDay‘s article was a declaration of “total war against Islam” and called all Muslims to attack the paper.

On November 20, about 500 protesters, chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great), marched to the paper’s Kaduna offices in the early morning and set the building ablaze. The next day, federal government spokesman Ufot Ekaette said that the publication had clearly exceeded the bounds of responsible journalism and would be punished “as provided by the law.” So far, federal authorities have taken no action against the paper. The federal government also promised the fatwa against Daniel would not be enforced.

On November 23, secret police arrested and questioned Kolawole, editor of ThisDay‘s Saturday edition, about the offending article. Kolawole was released a few days later.

Zamfara was one of the first Nigerian states to adopt Islamic law, or Sharia, in January 2000. At least 11 more of Nigeria’s 36 states followed suit, heightening tensions in the nominally secular federal republic, which is divided between a predominantly Muslim north and a mostly Christian south.

December 18

Uche Maduemesi, The Republican

Maduemesi, publisher of the private weekly The Republican, was arrested by police in Enugu, a town in south-central Nigeria. In the paper’s latest edition, an article had posed questions about the recent death of Enugu police commissioner Daniel Anyogo, suggesting that Anyogo might have been poisoned.

After a spate of recent apparent assassinations of prominent political and social figures in south and southeastern Nigeria, speculation has been rife that Anyogo’s death was related to an investigation he was working on, local sources said.

Maduemesi was detained without charge for more than a week. Sources in Nigeria said he was released shortly before the end of the year, following protests from local human rights and civil-society groups.