Nigerian government hits Sowore, and a US town is fighting back
When the Nigerian government went after a prominent detractor in the midst of a broad crackdown on free speech, it didn’t expect to stir resistance 5,000 miles away.
Opeyemi Sowore watched the videos on her phone in bed in her New Jersey home, the children still asleep, the Christmas tree twinkling downstairs.
The videos showed her husband — a former presidential candidate and the publisher of a website known as Africa’s WikiLeaks — being wrestled to the floor in a Nigerian courtroom by a man in a black suit, as lawyers in wigs and gowns crowded around shouting.
The court had ruled that her husband, Omoyele Sowore, should be free on bail while awaiting trial on charges of treason, money laundering and, for criticizing President Muhammadu Buhari on television, cyberstalking. But on Dec. 6, while his wife slept more than 5,000 miles away, Mr. Sowore was taken from the courtroom back into detention, where he has been held for nearly all of the past five months.
Before Mr. Sowore was led away by Nigeria’s equivalent of the Secret Service, he was videotaped saying that these “might be my only words on record before they kill me.” His wife has had no contact with him since.
When Mr. Buhari was elected in 2015 as president of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and largest economy, it was hailed as a triumph for democracy. Since then, however, his government has turned toward harsh authoritarianism, putting the country’s thriving civic organizations and news media to the test.
Protests have been met with deadly force. The country’s chief justice was summarily sacked. Humanitarian organizations that criticize the state were threatened with closure, and newspaper offices were raided. One journalist, Jones Abiri, has been in detention so long that for a time, he was thought to be dead.
One bill now making its way through Nigeria’s Senate proposes the death penalty for some instances of “hate speech.” A second, the Anti-Social Media Bill, modeled on a new Singaporean law, calls for government critics to spend as much as three years in prison.
Nigeria is not alone in clamping down on freedom of expression. A punitive new security law in traditionally media-friendly Burkina Faso, a proposed hate speech measure in Ethiopia, a harsh crackdown in Tanzania and routine internet and social media shutdowns across Africa point to a wider trend toward censorship.
“The people in power just don’t want to have to tolerate the voices of the people,” said Ayisha Osori, head of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa.
African leaders feel emboldened to strangle the news media because of a perceived global rollback in democracy, she said.
Mr. Sowore founded a website in 2006, Sahara Reporters, that specializes in exposing corruption and government malfeasance. With funding from American foundations and about 50 staff members working in Nigeria and the United States, the site’s publication of leaked, often unfiltered information disrupted Nigeria’s traditional media scene.
By basing his operation in New York, Mr. Sowore for years had a degree of protection from the consequences of publishing often scandalous information about Nigeria’s most powerful people. He shuttled between his family home in New Jersey and Nigeria, where he is a citizen, without much interference.
Mr. Sowore’s supporters demonstrating in front of the Nigerian Consulate in New York this month.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times
Then, on Aug. 3, in the middle of the night, he was arrested by Nigeria’s Department of State Services, or D.S.S., in his Lagos hotel room.
At first, Opeyemi Sowore told no one in Haworth, a well-off 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 they were concerned, he was just a dad and a keen runner.
One day, though, texting with another mother with children at the local school, Ms. Sowore explained why her husband had been away so long.
Word traveled fast in Haworth, a town of 3,500 people.
“One mom told another mom, told another mom, told another mom, and next thing we knew we had assembled what really is functioning as a crisis management team,” said Alanna Zahn Davis, one of the mothers in that chain.
If Mr. Buhari’s government had gotten tough, so would Haworth.
A core group of 10 women raised the alarm at the State Department. Then they reached Amal Clooney, the human rights lawyer, who demanded Mr. Sowore’s release. They worked with Amnesty International, which declared him a prisoner of conscience.
Sometimes they prepared meals for Ms. Sowore, a marketing executive, or looked after the couple’s two children. Inspired by an American tradition of using yellow ribbons to remember hostages, they held “Yele ribbon” ceremonies in Haworth’s tree-lined town center, attended by hundreds of people.
After the courtroom melee, they called members of Congress, engaging New Jersey Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker. Six members of Congress sent a letter on Friday to Nigeria’s attorney general condemning the treatment of Mr. Sowore.
His detention “will only serve to tarnish Nigeria’s international reputation and its standing as a leading African democracy,” they wrote.
Before his arrest, Mr. Sowore was often accused of favoring Mr. Buhari, even helping him get elected. Sahara Reporters’ relentless exposés of graft under the previous government meant Mr. Buhari’s vow to sweep the country clean of corruption resonated with voters. One of Mr. Buhari’s earliest interviews as president was with Sahara TV.
However, Mr. Buhari’s administration turned out to have a corrupt bent, too, along with authoritarian tendencies, said Chidi Odinkalu, the former chairman of Nigeria’s Human Rights Commission.
“Yele ribbon” ceremonies in Haworth’s tree-lined town center were attended by hundreds of people.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times
“The Buhari administration has proved to be at least as bad, if not much worse” than the prior administration that Mr. Buhari had promised not to emulate, said Mr. Odinkalu, who is facing prosecution himself after he criticized one of the president’s close allies.
This was not a great surprise to those who remember how Mr. Buhari, now 77, first came to power in 1983 as a major general in the wake of a military coup. Before being overthrown in another coup, he jailed hundreds of people, made tardy civil servants do frog jumps and had three men executed.
By the time he was democratically elected three decades later, in 2015, it was on promises to tackle corruption and insecurity. Nigeria was battling 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 being treated for a mysterious illness in London.
Sahara Reporters wrote about the absences and allegations of his allies’ corruption, and Mr. Sowore openly condemned the government for failing to meet its promises. He ran unsuccessfully for president against Mr. Buhari in February, and was preparing to lead a protest calling for revolution when he was arrested on August 3.
At the time, La Keisha Landrum Pierre, Sahara Reporters’ chief operating officer back in New York, was heavily pregnant. When she gave birth five days later, she was managing the company’s biggest crisis ever. It keeps getting bigger.
She said that the Nigerian government had frozen the site’s financial account.
“There have been armed D.S.S. men standing outside our offices” in Nigeria, said Ms. Landrum Pierre, in between calls and meetings in Manhattan. She had to cut the staff by 70 percent, and said that most of the remaining employees, feeling intimidated, were staying at home.
On Dec. 6, the court scheduled Mr. Sowore’s trial for February, but he did not remain free on bail as previously ordered. Instead, Mr. Sowore’s lawyers and family maintain, D.S.S. agents attacked Mr. Sowore while still in the courtroom and ultimately took him back into custody.
The D.S.S. said in a statement that it had rearrested Mr. Sowore because of public comments it claims he made the prior night promising to pursue his cause. A D.S.S. spokesman also claimed that Mr. Sowore’s supporters had staged the courtroom attack and were trying to frame its agents.
Ms. Sowore said that watching the videos made her afraid for his life.
“The hardest part about it for me was — how do I tell my kids?” she said.
They have tried to help. For the Haworth school fair in early December, their 12-year-old daughter Ayo made and sold slime and stress balls, planning to put her profits toward her father’s bail. Her mother had to explain that he had already posted bail, but still wasn’t allowed out. Ayo gave her $80 to Amnesty International instead.
A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 23, 2019, Section A, Page 4 of the New York edition with the headline: Nigeria Cracks Down on Critic, and a New Jersey Town Hits Back. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe