Electoral campaign posters are at a crossroads ahead of Nigeria's presidential election, in Lagos, on January 31, 2023. CPJ spoke to Nigerian journalists about their security concerns ahead of the national and state elections. (Reuters/Temilade Adelaja)

‘Like going to the war front’: Nigerian journalists offer tips for covering 2023 elections

In the early hours of February 1, unknown gunmen set fire to an office of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission and a police station in the country’s southeastern Anambra state. Days earlier, gunmen had attacked and killed soldiers and policemen at checkpoints along a road that connects nearby Enugu and Ebonyi states. The incidents underscored broad security concerns for Nigerian citizens⁠—and journalists⁠—leading up to elections for a new president and federal lawmakers on February 25 and for state governments on March 11.

In light of such incidents, “journalists have to be a lot more careful going into this election,” Janefrances Onyinye Nweze, a reporter who covered the 2015 and 2019 national elections in Enugu, told CPJ, emphasizing that the situation there had become “guerilla warfare.” She advised journalists to “disguise as much as possible” by reducing the visibility of press tags and branding on vehicles. “Somebody has to cover the election at the end of the day, but do your best not to put yourself in harm’s way.”

Janefrances Onyinye Nweze, a reporter currently with TVC News, covered the 2015 and 2019 elections in Enugu state for Solid 100.9 FM. (Photo: Thierry Nyann)

Safety concerns were paramount when CPJ recently spoke to over 50 other journalists and civil society members about the upcoming elections. Interviewees noted that local knowledge was essential for planning how to cover a wide range of potential security threats. Some editors said they would rely on local freelancers to cover difficult areas. Others raised concerns that authorities might disrupt access to communication services or online platforms, as they did previously with Twitter. In recent years, CPJ has documented how security forces, political supporters, and unidentified armed men have attacked, harassed, and denied access to journalists covering Nigerian elections.

As of early February, an election violence tracker compiled by the U.S.-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project and Nigeria-based Centre for Democracy and Development had identified over 4,000 violent incidents and over 11,000 fatalities across the country since January 2022. Alleged perpetrators included supporters of major political parties, local militias, separatist organizations, and militant extremist groups.

CPJ sent questions to Nigeria’s Ministry of Defence and national police about their plans to ensure journalists’ safety during the elections but received no response. At an event last month, Peter Afunanya, a spokesperson for Nigeria’s Department of State Services, a federal security agency, said that their efforts during the elections were geared toward protecting citizens and that journalists should inform security forces of their needs. He also called for journalism that promoted “national unity.”

Here are the views of nine journalists in Nigeria, reflecting some of their security concerns and how reporters can try to address them. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Yusuf Anka, a freelance journalist who has reported extensively on pervasive banditry in Nigeria’s northwestern Zamfara state, emphasized the distinct security dynamics in different northern areas.

Nigerian freelance journalist Yusuf Anka. Anka choses to not show his full face in photos for security reasons related to his reporting. (Photo: Anka)

We have this serious infiltration of armed groups. We have smaller groups, ideological, Islamic, not under the umbrella of Boko Haram [an Islamic militant group based in the northeast]. Some think the problems in [a northeastern city like] Maiduguri and Zamfara are the same. Some think [other northern states like] Sokoto state and Yobe state are the same. In case you’re deploying, you need to understand the differences.

The best way to get proper reportage is the use of stringers or community members because in some areas, although elections will be held, non-indigenous members may not be able to [get] access. There is no airport in Zamfara. The best way to get there is from [neighboring Sokoto state].

Journalists trying to understand the situation could [listen to] private radio [broadcasters] in these hostile areas. Areas close to Zamfara’s south with [a] military presence would be safer. But we’ve seen attacks very close to the police and military. Make careful choices of hotels and drivers. Have one person who is only a call away if you have an emergency. There are more abductions at night than day.

Bunmi Yekini, a producer with Radio Now 95.3 FM in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city. (Photo: Jonathan Rozen)

Bunmi Yekini, a producer with the privately owned Radio Now 95.3 FM in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, in the southwest, has covered five elections, including the 2015 and 2019 presidential polls. For this year’s elections, Radio Now will have correspondents in nearly every state.

For the presidency, it will be a bit dicey [in Lagos] because it’s going to be shared [in terms of voter support] basically between the Labour Party, People’s Democratic Party (PDP), and APC [the ruling All Progressives Congress party]. There is a possibility of violence between supporters.

Radio Now management has already started providing safety kits. We have pepper spray and the press jacket. There is no news that is greater than your life. Do not be the news. Get emergency numbers of security agencies in the vicinity. Make sure your phone is constantly charged, have a power bank and enough [mobile phone] airtime. A designated car is very important; there will be no commercial vehicles. Get to know the area boys [people who live in the area and know the streets intimately]. They can save the day for you.

Abuja-based Daily Trust deputy editor-in-chief Suleiman Suleiman (left) and general editor Hamza Idris (right). (Photos: Suleiman; Idris)

Hamza Idris and Suleiman Suleiman, respectively general editor and deputy editor-in-chief of the privately owned Daily Trust newspaper based in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, as well as Abdulaziz Abdulaziz, who previously worked as the paper’s deputy general editor and left to join the APC campaign, said Daily Trust will have over 100 journalists working to cover the elections across the country.

Idris: The company is holding a series of training [sessions] both online and offline for our reporters on how to cover.

Abdulaziz: Local knowledge helps in terms of safety, but it does not mean that everyone deployed will work in [familiar] places. That is why the training is very important, [as is] collaboration with local partners. Do not be ostentatious, dress in a flashy way, or wear something that is easily identifiable with a group of people, or would mark you as being a stranger.

Suleiman: We have people on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube who are going to be engaging with audiences. Digital safety will be very relevant.

Nuruddeen Abdallah, editor of the 21st Century Chronicle newspaper based in Abuja. (Photo: Abdallah)

Nuruddeen Abdallah, editor of the privately owned 21st Century Chronicle newspaper based in Abuja, said they will have reporters covering almost all the northern states, as well as major cities in the south. But there are places that he thinks are too dangerous.

I will not be telling [a reporter] to go to Isa town, in [northwestern] Sokoto state; it’s the operational headquarters of [bandit leader] Turji. In [northwestern] Kebbi state, I will not ask [a reporter] to go to the Birnin Yauri area where girls were abducted. Take [north-central] Kaduna state, for example, I will not be sending my reporter to Birnin Gwari town area. In [north-central] Niger state, I will not be sending [them] to Kagara, Mashegu, or Shiroro areas; but they can operate in Minna, Suleja, Lavun, Bida. Another bad place is Maru in Zamfara state. That is where [bandit leader] Ali Kachala [operates].

Agba Jalingo, publisher of the CrossRiverWatch news website in Nigeria’s southern Cross River state. (Photo: CrossRiverWatch)

Agba Jalingo is the publisher of the privately owned CrossRiverWatch news website based in Calabar, the capital of Nigeria’s southern Cross River state.

It’s risky to carry a visible camera. Rely on small gadgets that you can put on your body.

[Remember] there is no public transport on election day.

The level of violence in Calabar South is very high. Don’t identify yourself as a journalist [there]. If you’re [slightly more north] in Calabar Municipality, you can brandish yourself as a journalist and still be safe.

Rukaiya Ahmed is deputy head of news with the privately owned Radio Ndarason Internationale broadcaster, which in Nigeria covers the eastern states of Adamawa, Yobe, Taraba, and Borno. She is based in the northeastern city of Maiduguri.

We have contact with the INEC [electoral commission] office, with the hope of them giving us kits [including press identification] that will help us conduct [reporting] without hindrance from security operatives. The top officials should make them [officers] know that journalists are part of the society and have to report the happenings. Military and security operatives should not stop journalists.

Musikilu Mojeed, editor-in-chief and chief operating officer with the Abuja-based privately owned Premium Times news site, which covers elections across the country. In addition to armed groups and criminals in various areas, he expressed concern about the conduct of the authorities toward the press.

We hope that the police and military will be fair and neutral, and will allow journalists to move around and do their job as necessary.

We make use of [security] analysis done by CLEEN Foundation, [a Nigeria-based NGO promoting public safety and accessible justice]. Covering an election in this country can be like going to the war front.