The West African giant rejoices in a privately-owned, plentiful and irreverent press, eager to expose the intrigues of an often corrupt political class. But the authorities have a number of means of slapping down journalists who are too curious or too annoying, among them the dreaded internal intelligence services which pose a constant threat.
A complex jigsaw on the scale of a continent, the federal state of Nigeria is often a violent place for the press. They suffer frequent beatings, unfair arrests, police raids and seizures both in the provinces and in Abuja. But, paradoxically, the 36 states and its federal district are also a boom area for scores of privately-owned newspapers, radio and television stations, which take delight in revealing the immorality of a corrupt and capricious political class. And as a result run the risks of Nigerians the government considers to be too disrespectful.
The armed wing of government
During this electoral year in which Nigeria was due to choose a new head of state, the federal government again relied on the feared internal intelligence, the State Security Service (SSS). Provider of the government’s brutal shock tactics, the SSS was once again this year condemned by Reporters Without Borders as a “press freedom predator”, a designation which it has held since 2005.
Police raids resumed from the start of 2007. Around a dozen SSS agents burst into the offices of the private daily, Leadership, in Abuja on the morning of 9 January leaving again a few minutes later having arrested the managing director, Abraham Nda-Isaiah, the editor, Bashir Bello Akko, and a journalist, Abdulazeez Sanni. The SSS had been looking for journalist Danladi Ndayebo, as well as a copy of an article which appeared on 6 January condemning political machinations within the ruling party that led to the choice of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua as candidate for the forthcoming presidential elections. The SSS agents returned in the afternoon to seal the premises, seize the mobile phones of everyone present and to search the offices. After finding what they were looking for, they left the ransacked premises along with the managing director. The three journalists were finally released in the middle of the night, but they were forced to reveal the whereabouts of Danladi Ndayebo. He was arrested the following day and held for ten hours, during which he apparently revealed the source of his information.
On the same day, around 15 SSS agents carried out a similar operation against the privately-owned weekly The Abuja Inquirer after it carried an article headlined, “Obasanjo-Atiku Face-Off : Coup Fear Grips Nigeria”. They spent three hours searching the offices and arrested the editor, Dan Akpovwa, as well as the publication director, Sonde Abbah. They left with 81 CDs, a computer, a list of the entire staff of the newspaper and copies of its latest edition.
The privately-owned African Independent Television (AIT) was brutally treated by the SSS for a second successive year when on 17 April a commando stormed its Abuja offices days before the presidential poll and 48 hours after a suspicious fire damaged its Lagos offices. In the Abuja raid, the armed SSS agents ordered all the staff to lie on the ground. Before leaving, they took several tapes which were about to be broadcast, along with one which was currently being shown, about the eight-year history of civilian government under the outgoing president, Olusegun Obasanjo. The same SSS on 11 April forcibly closed the studios of private radio Link FM and the television station GTV, in Lagos, saying that it was acting on “an order from above”.
When not carrying out this kind of operation, the SSS is also the force used by the authorities to make brutal arrests of journalists. This was the case for Jerome Imeime, editor of the privately-owned weekly Events, circulating in Uyo, state capital of Akwa Ibom in the south-east, whom the SSS arrested while he was at a religious ceremony on 10 October. An eye witness reported that he was beaten up before being taken to an unknown location. He was charged, tried and imprisoned for “sedition” in connection with an article which asserted that the governor, Godswill Akpadio, used public funds to pay personal debts contracted during the election campaign.
The SSS which preys on the media is not the only group perpetrating almost daily brutality against Nigerian journalists. Over-excited groups of political militants, the many uniformed corps in the country and governors’ private militias also represent a threat to the world of the press, from publication directors down to news vendors, particularly in the provinces.
In one example of this, on 23 May, around 100 supporters of a local politician, some of them armed with machetes, stormed and ransacked the premises of Broadcasting Corporation of Oyo State (BCOS) in Ibaban in the south-west. Many of the staff fled the brutal onslaught but others found themselves trapped in the offices and at least a dozen employees suffered machete injuries. Most of them were also robbed of their money and mobile phones. Several vehicles in the radio car park were vandalised and the radio had to stop broadcasting. The attack came after BCOS put out an announcement that the state electoral commission had decided to maintain the provincial election date as 24 May, although the date had been contested by the former deputy governor Christopher Alao Akala, a candidate of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which had been engaged for several years in a fratricidal struggle against the outgoing governor, Rasheed Ladoja. In the same town on 11 September, Tope Abiola, editor of the privately-owned daily Nigeria Tribune was beaten unconscious by prison guards and police after he arrived to investigate the putting down of a prison uprising at Agadi jail which left nearly 40 inmates dead. These incidents are just a few illustrations of 23 cases of physical assault and 13 arrests of journalists recorded by Reporters Without Borders during 2007.
The record of the outgoing president Olusegun Obansajo is a poor one for press freedom with countless beatings of journalists or news vendors at the slightest pretext, newspapers seized from printers, and media bosses regularly imprisoned and charged with “sedition”. The year 2007 was no exception and the clumsily rigged election of his designated successor, does not augur any improvement.