SPECIAL REPORT: How Buhari’s govt detained Nigerian journalist for two years without trial

Abiri's children

In tears, 80-year-old Mama Abiri undressed. Before strangers, family, and friends alike, Mama clasped her frail breasts, and cried inconsolably, naked. With emotions only a mother could express, Mama cried in the native Ijaw language of the Niger Delta creeks. Mama was calling on Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, to feel her pain and hear her plea.

“Please, I am begging. Please, pity me. Anyone that is holding my son, please release him for me,” Mama cried. “I gave birth to him. I breastfed him. I know my son. He is not a militant. He is not a criminal. He is a journalist.”

For almost two years, Jones Abiri has not been seen nor heard from. Married with a wife and five children, Jones would have celebrated his 50th birthday on June 4 this year. Jones was a 300-Level student aspiring for his first degree in Law from the National Open University of Nigeria. All that is in the past.

Now, Mr Abiri remains in a state of forced disappearance as the State Security Service (SSS), Nigeria’s secret police, has detained him for over 700 days without trial, and without access to his family, lawyers, and doctors. Under international human rights law, a person is a victim of (en)forced disappearance if detained by state authorities or a third party with the authorisation of the state, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the person’s whereabouts and condition in a bid to deny the victim the protection of the law.

The Arrest

On July 21, 2016, a dozen heavily-armed agents of the self-styled Department of State Services arrested Mr Abiri, the publisher of Weekly Source newspaper, outside his office at 288 Chief Melford Okilo Expressway, Yenagoa, Bayelsa State. Eyewitnesses said the SSS agents, who came in three cars, did not read him his rights and did not produce a warrant before handcuffing him, raiding his office, and taking him into custody.

“Some men wearing black came to where we were and asked if he was Jones,” Garba Suleiman, a local provision store vendor who witnessed the arrest said in pidgin English.

“He said yes, and they grabbed him, handcuffed him, and took him. Nobody knew why.”

John Angese, the chairman of the Nigeria Union of Journalists in Bayelsa State, in an interview in March recalled how at gunpoint the SSS threatened everyone, including journalists, not to cross a parameter line. The SSS spent hours searching Mr Abiri’s office before carting away his computer and documents, sealing his office, and taking him handcuffed into custody.

“I was personally there when he was taken away. I tried to ask what was the problem but I was rebuffed with their guns. I was threatened to be shot if I went any closer. Everybody was scared,” Mr Angese recalled.

Two days after his arrest, the SSS on July 23, 2016 released a statement alleging Mr Abiri is a militant named General Akotebe Darikoro, operating under the nom-de-guerre, General Kill and Bury, the leader of the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force, “which has been furthering separatist tendencies in connivance with other criminal gangs in the Niger Delta region”.

The SSS said the detainee “confessed and owned up” to vandalising and bombing oil pipelines belonging to international oil companies Agip and Shell in early July 2016, sending threat messages to management of both oil companies demanding a total of N750 million payment, threatening to launch missile attacks against the Presidential Villa and selected targets in Abuja, and masterminding the rumour in 2016 that the military was planning a coup against President Muhammadu Buhari.

Weekly Source, a local tabloid which operated by mostly sourcing and publishing critical stories of the government culled from online and national newspapers, had in its last edition dated July 10, 2016 published as its lead a story originally published by the online pointblanknews.com titled “Rumble In The Military: Inside The Coup Plot Story… Militants’ Warning Alters Plot.”

The story elaborated an alleged conspiracy that top military officers working with politicians had approached the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force (JNDLF) militant group to intensify bombing pipelines as a justification to overthrow President Buhari. The military denied the allegations.

Weekly Source in the same edition published another story sourced from pointblanknews.com on how President Buhari’s loyalists, including the Director-General of the SSS, were blocking investigations into an oil and gas company implicated by the anti-graft Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in siphoning billions of dollars in fraudulent oil deals. The story claimed that the company donated heavily towards President Buhari’s 2015 presidential campaign through the loyalists.

Jackson Ude, the publisher of pointblanknews.com based in the U.S., in an interview in 2016 said he had received threats, from proxies of the SSS, asking him to pull down stories from his website which local based journalists like Mr Abiri were re-publishing in their newspapers and tabloids. He said he had been warned of possible arrest whenever he came to Nigeria.

The ‘Confession’

In August 2016, Mr Abiri’s family filed a fundamental rights enforcement lawsuit against the SSS, asking the Bayelsa State High Court to declare his arrest and continued detention without trial unconstitutional, unlawful, illegal, null and void, and order the SSS to release him on bail, and direct the SSS to open Weekly Source newspaper’s office.

The SSS in response tendered as its only evidence in court a confessional statement allegedly written and signed by Mr Abiri on the same day of his arrest, admitting to “being the founder, co-ordinator and spokesperson” of the militant group and “directing his foot soldiers (still at large) to carry out bombings of oil pipelines” and blackmailing oil companies for money with threats of further bombings.

On September 7, 2016, a Bayelsa State high court judge, Nayai Aganaba, ordered the SSS to reopen Weekly Source newspaper’s office but ruled that the SSS arrest and continued detention of Mr Abiri, then almost two months, was lawful. The ruling effectively gave legal backing for the SSS to continue detaining him without charge for almost two years and without access to his family, lawyers and doctors.

“The offence of terrorism and related offences for which [Mr Abiri] was arrested and detained is a capital offence by virtue of Section 1 (2) under paragraph (h) of the Terrorism Prevention Amendment Act 2013 and by virtue of Section 35 (7) of the 1999 Constitution, the arrest and detention of [Mr Abiri] by the [SSS] is therefore not unlawful,” Mr Aganaba ruled.

The SSS also swore on oath that the “seeming delay in charging [him] to court” was due to “ongoing efforts to arrest other members of the militant group” as well as results of “scientific analysis of evidence” still been awaited. The SSS promised “to ensure an expedited conclusion of investigation on the case and to charge [him] and his accomplices to court without undue delay”.

It is almost two years and Mr Abiri, a husband, father of five children, and breadwinner for his family including an 80-year-old mother and several siblings, has not been charged to court.

In the past two years, the SSS has rebuffed all efforts by Mr Abiri’s family, lawyers, journalists and civil society actors to get any information on him.

In June, during the International Press Institute World Congress held in Abuja, Garba Shehu, spokesperson to President Buhari, sold to the world that Mr Abiri is not a journalist but a militant who remains a “guest of [the SSS] because of his alleged criminal activities.” The Information minister, Lai Mohammed, also echoed a similar claim.

Nigerian authorities also declined to allow Mr Abiri’s wife and son who travelled from Bayelsa State to Abuja access to see him in SSS captivity.

In the past two years, the family relocated from Yenagoa, Bayelsa State capital, to the village in the Southern Ijaw local government creeks where they barely survive on petty farming and handouts. In the past two years, his children also dropped out and have not gone back to school due to the family’s inability to pay school fees.

In the past two years, his younger brother, Ebikesayi Abiri, died from fire burns he sustained in 2017 after he involved himself for the first time in illegal oil bunkering which his family said was in a bid to raise money to pay among other things legal costs and other bills associated with getting Mr Abiri released. Ebikesayi left behind a widow and two children, one of whom was born the same day he died.

Curiously, in the past two years, the SSS and Nigerian authorities have also kept hidden from the public and refused to act on vital information relating to members and financiers of the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force militant group, according to Mr Abiri’s alleged confessional statement dated July 21, 2016 in court records.

“The only person that has funded the group to the best of my knowledge is the former commissioner of Ijaw National Affairs, Dr Felix Tuodolo, who gave us the sum of N500, 000 through Sele Dise sometime between 1st and 15th June 2016,” Mr Abiri allegedly wrote in his confessional statement. “Sele told me that the commissioner called him on phone and gave him the money to support the group.”

Mr Tuodolo is at present the Special Adviser on Ijaw national affairs to Seriake Dickson, the governor of the oil-rich Bayelsa State. The former state commissioner is well known as a human rights activist and the founding president of the influential Ijaw Youth Council which was set up at the twilight of Nigerian military dictatorship to coordinate the Ijaw people’s struggle for self-determination and greater control of vast oil and gas resources in the Niger Delta region.

Mr Tuodolo was influential in stemming the tide of militancy in the 2000s by advocating for the government to grant amnesty to known militant warlords and their camps in a Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration programme in exchange for assurances of a stop to the destruction of oil installations. The militants who ostensibly repented and surrendered their arms were given huge government contracts, placed on regular stipend running into billions of naira yearly, and sponsored around the world for training in diverse skills acquisition and education programmes.

Mr Abiri in his alleged confessional statement mentioned Sele Dise, Ebi John, Justice Tare and Ebi-Ladei as other members of the JNDLF militant group. Independent findings during this investigation, including obtaining communication exchanges between Mr Abiri and an individual believed to be Sele Dise, revealed both had been friends prior to Mr Abiri’s arrest in July 2016.

“Sometime February this year 2016, Mr Sele Dise came to my office with the idea that let us form the organisation. I don’t know what they [other members] do for a living but I know Sele is a 200-Level student of Public Administration in Niger Delta University [Bayelsa State],” the statement read.

When contacted, Mr Tuodolo said he was only aware from media reports that Mr Abiri is a journalist but that he does not know him personally nor the details of his arrest. He said as a prominent Ijaw leader, he often renders financial assistance to his kinsmen who regularly solicit his help to pay school fees, house rent, and other financial support, but not to fund militant activities.

Mr Tuodolo expressed shock over Mr Abiri’s alleged confessional statement linking him as a financier of the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force militant group.

“I don’t even know Jones Abiri. This is the first time I am hearing about this that Jones Abiri made a statement involving my name. That sounds strange to me,” he said in a telephone call in June this year. “And if indeed he made such statement, why hasn’t the SSS come to question me about it? I have never been invited.”

Mr Tuodolo’s claim has not been independently verified as efforts to get the SSS to react to Mr Abiri’s case and other instances of human rights violations, including indefinite detentions, torture, and extra-judicial killings, have repeatedly been ignored over the years.

Since 2015, the agency has been operating without a physically identifiable spokesperson or official contact to interface and respond to information requests from the public and the media. Press statements distributed by the SSS cite as its spokesperson one Tony Opuiyo, a fictitious character whom no one has met, several journalists who cover the defence and security beat have said. The journalists complained that during parades of crime suspects, the SSS does not permit them to ask questions and many times hinder their reporting factually through intimidation and threat of arrests.

“The way the SSS operates now is we can’t ask for information and get it. There is no spokesperson, no one to make enquiries on behalf of the public who we are reporting for. No one to hold accountable. It is serious. Even in court, many of the cases, they disturb us from covering,” said one journalist during an informal chat during this investigation.

Ayebaitari Easterday, the chairman of newspaper publishers in the state, in March said Mr Abiri whom he had known for over 20 years as a law-abiding citizen was on medication for an undisclosed ailment at the time of his arrest. He said the liability of responsibility lies on the SSS to disprove rumours of his death.

“I don’t want to believe Jones is dead because you can only believe what you’ve seen and what you know is true,” said Mr Easterday. “The SSS should declare the condition of Jones Abiri, where he is right now, what is the state of his health, and why they have refused to prosecute him over the years. Something should be told to the public. We are curious. We want to know. And we have a right to know.”

Ex-SSS Detainee Narrates Experience

Comrade (name withheld), a Niger Delta Ijaw activist whose identity is being protected for his safety, said he met Mr Abiri in SSS custody while detained for nearly two years on allegations of being a militant. Comrade said that before his release in 2017, he was detained with over 50 Ijaw and Niger Delta youth, numerous Boko Haram suspects and members of the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) secessionist group, who were all routinely tortured at the SSS Headquarters in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.

“We were all together for over one year so we knew ourselves. I was in New Depot detention facility while Jones was in Old Depot. I remember one particular day Jones was shouting: “They wan go beat me again. They wan go beat me again.” It pained me so much I cried,” Comrade said.

Early 2016, the government declared an influential ex-Niger Delta militant commander, Government Ekpemupolo, popularly called Tompolo, wanted. The anti-graft agency, EFCC, froze his bank accounts, and began an unsuccessful manhunt for the former warlord after he refused to appear before a court to answer corruption charges over contracts obtained from the previous government of President Goodluck Jonathan.

His supporters alleged a ploy by the government to arrest and indefinitely detain the former warlord seen by many as a very influential folk hero in the Niger Delta. They cited with examples several ongoing cases where the SSS continues to refuse to obey Nigerian and international court orders granting the release on bail to several high-profile suspects in SSS custody.

Militant groups responded to the government’s clamp down with renewed bombings of oil installations. Security agencies, in an unsuccessful bid to flush him out, arrested scores of Niger Delta activists and youth perceived as sympathetic to the former militant leader.

Comrade said Mr Abiri told him he was set up by powerful people who capitalised on the government’s clampdown in the Niger Delta to punish him for publishing a story that exposed how their company, which was a local contractor to Agip [international oil company], failed to fulfil its corporate social responsibility to oil-producing host communities.

“His article led Agip to find out that their company was shortchanging the communities and this caused problems for them. They were angry and then petitioned the security agencies that Jones is the media handler to militant groups and that was how he was picked up,” Comrade said Mr Abiri told him.

SSS ‘Above The Law’

Comrade said suspects in SSS custody were habitually tortured. In tears, he narrated how the SSS at different times used beating, electrocution, and exposure of radiation to his testicles to force him to confess being a militant. Comrade quoted his case officer as once telling him “the DSS is above the laws of the land. DSS only listens to the instruction of Mr President. Anything short of that, including court orders, you are just wasting your time.”

Femi Falana, a foremost human rights lawyer, wrote an open letter to President Buhari in December 2017 asking him to end the illegal arrest and detention without legal justification of Nigerians and foreigners by security agencies, especially the SSS, which he described an embarrassment to the country by its continued violation of the Nigerian constitution, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights Act, and the Nigerian Administration of Criminal Justice Act.

“From the information at our disposal, the DSS has detained several Nigerians and foreigners to settle personal scores,” Mr Falana said to President Buhari. “Others have been arrested and detained by the DSS on the suspicion that they have committed criminal offences, a matter that is within the purview of the Police and the anti-graft agencies. To compound the illegality of such arrest and detention, the orders made by competent courts of law directing the DSS to either release or produce detainees in court have been treated with contempt.”

In the past three years since President Buhari appointed Lawal Daura, his kinsman from Katsina State, as SSS director general, the agency’s mode of operations has been reminiscent of past Nigerian military dictatorships, which created the organisation and deployed it with impunity to intimidate, indefinitely detain without charge, and habitually torture individuals, including journalists, activists, and political figures, deemed critical of the military government.

Under Mr Buhari’s rule as military Head of State in the 80s, the SSS, then known as the National Security Organisation, became an agency of repression and a crack violator of human rights. Mr Buhari promulgated and implemented several laws, including Decree 2 which granted the SSS arbitrary powers to indefinitely detain any person without charges, and Decree 4 which provided imprisonment to any person who published any information deemed false or ridiculed his government.

Leading to the 2015 general elections, the SSS under former President Jonathan had become politically partisan, targeting journalists, activists and political opponents, including Mr Buhari and his political party. Mr Buhari while campaigning said he had become a reformed democrat and, if elected, promised to uphold the rule of law, respect fundamental rights, and ensure access to justice for all Nigerians.

Yet, in the past three years, the SSS has been heavily criticised for operating with utmost secrecy, crass impunity, and total disregard for the rule of law, including serially disobeying court orders and violating federal laws in lopsided recruitment to favour people from President Buhari’s part of Nigeria.

Mr Abiri’s ordeal as a persecuted journalist represents possibly hundreds of people detained and tortured across all the offices of the SSS in Nigeria’s 36 States and the federal capital Abuja. Mr Falana, in an interview in June 2018, said Nigeria’s terrorism law is being abused by the SSS to violate Mr Abiri’s and other citizens’ rights to personal liberty and fair hearing in a competent court within a reasonable time.

“Subject to obtaining a court order, section 27 of the Terrorism Act permits a detention for 90 days which, subject to review, can be renewed once for another period of 90 days. Afterwards you have to release the suspect. Either conditionally or unconditionally, you grant the suspect bail,” Mr Falana said.

A global advocacy effort from the media, Nigerian and international human rights defenders, civil society, and social impact groups calling for Mr Abiri’s release is mounting. The Ondewari Health, Education and Environmental Project, a civil society group working in the Niger Delta creeks, took the lead in March by gathering signatures from several Ijaw communities which was sent to local and international human rights organisations as an appeal calling on the international community to intervene on the detainee’s plight.

On a visit into Bayelsa State’s creeks, several youth and elders from different Ijaw communities refuted the government’s allegation that the detainee is a militant. In a show of solidarity with the Abiri family, community members gathered to sign OHEEP’s petition as a single voice echoing their growing frustration and anger with the government. Resonating loudest among the pleas directed at President Buhari were those of Mr Abiri’s children calling for the release of their father.

“My father is a journalist. All the allegations against my father that he is a militant are lies,” said 16-year-old Abadeifa Abiri Jones, with eyes red and swollen from flowing tears. “He did not do anything and he does not know anything. The government should release my father unconditionally.”


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