The State Security Service (SSS) on Thursday night released Omoyele Sowore, publisher of Sahara Reporters, 124 days after he was first arrested in Lagos.
Olawale Bakare, an activist who was arrested and charged alongside Mr Sowore, was also freed by the SSS on bail Thursday night.
Mr Sowore’s lawyer, Femi Falana, while confirming the development to PREMIUM TIMES, said the SSS also paid N100,000 fine to Mr Sowore as ordered by the judge. The judge, Ijeoma Ojukwu of the Federal High Court, Abuja, had on Wednesday imposed the fine on the lawyer representing the SSS in the matter for refusing to furnish Mr Sowore’s lawyers with statements of SSS’ witnesses.
Ms Ojukwu also gave the SSS 24 hours to comply with her release warrant issued for Messrs Sowore and Bakare on November 6. The SSS had stalled the release for a month, despite nationwide outrage and warning from the judge that its director-general, Yusuf Bichi, might be held in criminal contempt of court.
Mr Sowore was arrested on August 3 for planning #RevolutionNow, a series of protests to demand an end to corruption and demand better living conditions for all citizens.
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 and masked SSS officers broke into an apartment Mr Sowore was occupying with some of his associates in Lagos. He and Mr Bakare were taken away in the midnight raid that was captured by security cameras.
The arrest elicited instant outrage from Nigerians, with many slamming the SSS’ tactics as yet another state-sponsored violence against unarmed citizens.
Mr Sowore’s supporters also said that his detention — which they deemed illegal and unwarranted — would bolster rather than dampen their stance against bad governance.
On August 5, after two days of leaving the country confused as to the agency responsible for the break-in at Mr Sowore’s apartment, the SSS convened a press briefing at its headquarters in Abuja.
The secret police’s spokesperson, Peter Afunanya, confirmed Mr Sowore was arrested for engaging in purported acts of subversion.
Mr Afunanya said Mr Sowore called for the overthrow of Mr Buhari’s government during campaigns ahead of the protests, an action the agency say is treasonable.
Yet, when asked whether the SSS had independently collected any intelligence that corroborated its suspicion of Mr Sowore’s alleged plots, Mr Afunanya said the activist’s public comments were enough to charge him for treason — an allegation that carries death penalty if proven in court.
The SSS subsequently obtained a court warrant to hold Mr Sowore in custody pending trial. Two weeks later, charges were filed at the Federal High Court that included terrorism, money laundering and defamation of character.
Mr Sowore’s associates and supporters again derided the charges as empty, saying it was poorly filed and had no compelling evidence to be upheld in court.
In particular, the claim that Mr Sowore committed money laundering was ridiculed by Inibehe Effiong, a rights activist and ally of Mr Sowore, who said Mr Sowore’s transfer of funds between two Sahara Reporters’ accounts through the formal banking channels cannot be interpreted as money laundering.
Mr Effiong also said Mr Sowore’s call for revolution was within his rights to speech, saying that at no time did he specifically demand an overthrow of Mr Buhari.
He also faulted the defamation charges against Mr Sowore for his comments against Mr Buhari. The charges said Mr Sowore made the comments on a television programme, but he was charged under the Cybercrime Act 2015 (PDF) which did not capture slander on television or radio.
Mr Effiong joined other legal representatives of Mr Sowore, led by Femi Falana, to advance the arguments in court.
After disregarding the bail accorded to Mr Sowore by Taiwo Taiwo of the Federal High Court, Abuja Division, the SSS filed duplicated charges against Messrs Sowore and Bakare before Ms Ojukwu, another judge of the same division.
After several days of trial before the new court, Ms Ojukwu granted bail to both men on October 4, but the terms proved too stringent for them to meet. Their lawyers then returned to court to seek a variation of the conditions, which was approved by Justice Ojukwu.
On November 6, the lawyers announced that the varied bail conditions had been met and that the SSS had been served.
On November 8, the SSS confirmed being served the court order, but said it would not comply because no one had turned up to collect the activists from custody. The statement sparked nationwide uproar, igniting protests from rights activists.
On November 12, a protest was held outside the SSS headquarters in Abuja and its field offices in Lagos, during which activists and journalists were brutalised by operatives.
On November 13, as calls intensified for the SSS to comply with a court order, the agency released yet another statement, saying it will continue to ignore the court order until a surety can come for Messrs Sowore and Bakare in custody.
The SSS action has continued to anger the public, with Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, weighing in. Lawyers argued that the SSS has no business with the sureties because they had been verified by the court and found competent to secure Mr Sowore’s release.
The judge also did not include a clause that required the SSS to demand to see the sureties as a precondition for releasing the accused.
The action was largely seen as a display of arrogance because the SSS has no powers to review the decision of a federal court.
On November 30, PREMIUM TIMES reported that Mr Buhari’s emissaries had met with Mr Sowore in detention to dialogue with him about his continued detention. Sources familiar with the matter told PREMIUM TIMES the president’s emissaries, which included Isa Funtua, Nduka Obaigbena, Sam Amuka, Garba Shehu and Femi Adesina, had tried to get Mr Sowore to back down on his agitation in order to regain freedom.
Mr Sowore, however, rejected the offer, saying it was a selfish and extrajudicial plot to scuttle his people-oriented campaign.
When Mr Sowore’s case came up for hearing on December 5, a furious Ms Ojukwu lampooned the SSS for disregarding her order for Messrs Sowore and Bakare to be released on bail. She then gave the SSS 24 hours to release the activists and imposed a penalty of N100,000 on the secret’s police lawyer for hiding statements of witnesses.
The SSS complied with the order hours later, and Mr Sowore first checked in at a famous hotel in Abuja. It was unclear how the activist would engage the public in the coming days, his bail terms prohibited him from traveling out of Abuja or engaging in public activities.