Two U.S. lawmakers have written to the Nigerian ambassador in the U.S., Sylvanus Nsofor, over the continuous detention of Sahara Reporters publisher, Omoyele Sowore, and his co-accused, Olawale Bakare.
The congressmen also raised concerns about the continuous harassment of journalists, activists and protesters in Nigeria.
In the letter dated November 25 and made available to PREMIUM TIMES on Wednesday, the congressmen said there have been a number of troubling reports about Nigeria’s security agencies assaulting and detaining journalists.
“We write to express strong concern about closing media and civic space in Nigeria. There have been a number of troubling reports about Nigerian security services assaulting and detaining journalists, using excessive force on non-violent protesters and taking other actions that inhibit freedom of expression, and otherwise prevent Nigerians from fully exercising their fundamental constitutional rights,” the lawmakers wrote.
“Restrictions and deadly crackdowns on non-violent protests since 2015 have similarly reflected a lack of apparent commitment to civic freedoms which is beginning to negatively impact the image of Nigeria’s government, both at home and abroad,” they wrote.
The letter was signed by a ranking enator, Robert Menendez, and a member of the House of Representatives, Josh Gottheimer.
Mr Menendez serves as the Ranking Member (most senior Democrat) of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee that helps shape foreign policy of broad significance, in matters of war and peace and international relations.
He was Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 113th Congress, where he led the effort to sanction Russia after they invaded Ukraine. In the 115th Congress, he served as the Ranking Member on the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues.
Mr Menendez is the first Latino to serve as Chairman of the Committee.
The other signatory, Mr Gottheimer, is an American lawyer, writer, and public policy adviser serving as the U.S. Representative for New Jersey’s 5th congressional district.
The lawmakers in the letter said the attacks on journalists was an attempt to close media and civic space in the country through the use of security operatives.
Mr Sowore, a former presidential candidate, was arrested in August in connection with his #RevolutionNow campaign — a series of nationwide protests he had planned with other activists to demand a better Nigeria.
The protests were planned to commence on August 5 across 21 towns and cities, with public awareness escalating as the day drew closer.
But on August 3, armed SSS officers broke into an apartment Mr Sowore was occupying with some of his closest associates in Lagos. He and Mr Bakare were taken away in the raid that was captured by security cameras.
The arrest elicited outrage from Nigerians, with many slamming the SSS’ brutal tactics as yet another state-sponsored violence against unarmed citizens.
There have been growing calls for the release of the accused persons, with many condemning the government of President Buhari for their arrests and charges.
Messrs Sowore and Bakare are being detained by the SSS despite at least two court orders for their release.
On Monday, Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu of the Federal High Court in Abuja threatened to jail the Director-General of the State Security Service (SSS), Yusuf Bichi for failing to release Messrs Sowore and Bakare despite her order and declaration that they had met their bail conditions.
Apart from Messrs Sowore and Bakare, other Nigerian activists, journalists and social media commentators are being detailed by state agents across the country.
In Cross River State, Agba Jalingo, a journalist, is being detained and tried for writing an article critical of the state governor, Ben Ayade.
In their letter, the U.S. lawmakers also made reference to the massacre of hundreds of Shiites in December 2015 by Nigerian security operatives. The Shiites were accused of blocking a public road. Their leader, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, and his wife, Zeenah, has since been detained by the government and accused of complicity in the murder of a soldier.
Subsequent protests by Shiites to demand the release of Mr El-Zakzaky and his wife have since been met with fatal force with the government even declaring the Shiite IMN a terror group.
Read the letter by the U.S. lawmakers below.
Ambassador Sylvanus Adiewere Nsofor
Head of Mission Embassy of the Federal Republic of Nigeria
3519 International Court, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008
Dear Ambassador Nsofor,
“We write to express strong concern about closing media and civic space in Nigeria. There have been a number of troubling reports about Nigerian security services assaulting and detaining journalists, using excessive force on non-violent protesters and taking other actions that inhibit freedom of expression, and
otherwise prevent Nigerians from fully exercising their fundamental constitutional rights.
Journalists and activists such as Omoyele Sowore, Jones Abiri, Kofi Bartels, Samuel Ogundipe, and others investigating and speaking-out about politically sensitive problems like corruption or insecurity have been harassed and detained; with reports that some have even been tortured. In at least one instance,
the Department of Security Services has ignored a court order to release a detained activist.
Restrictions and deadly crackdowns on non-violent protests since 2015 have similarly reflected a lack of apparent commitment to civic freedoms which is beginning to negatively impact the image of Nigeria’s government, both at home and abroad. Security forces used live ammunition on Shiite protestors in Zaria, Kaduna State in 2015; on protestors in Onitsha, Anambra State in 2016; again on a Shiite procession in Abuja in 2018: raided the offices of the Daily Trust, and arrested the editor in January 2019; and shot and
killed Precious Owolabi, a journalist covering a July 2019 protest in Abuja.
These crackdowns have collectively killed hundreds of Nigerian citizens, and serve as troubling demonstrations of the excessive force used by the military. The alleged perpetrators of these abuses have yet to be brought to justice.
Mr. Ambassador, Nigeria has a critical role to play in preserving peace and stability in West Africa, and as the most populous democracy on the continent it could serve as a shining example of how countries can best observe the rights enshrined in the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. However, failure to respect the rights in the Charter and those in Nigeria’s own constitution undermine your nation’s ability to lead in this arca. We urge you to ensure that the rights and liberties contained in the constitution are observed for all citizens, and to take strong action against further closing space for journalists, political opposition, and those in civil society. The rights of all citizens must be respected without the threat of government reprisal. We look forward to seeing progress on this critically important issue.
Thank you for your attention on this urgent matter.
Robert Menendez. Josh Gotthemer
United States Senator Member of Congress