Sowore speaks from custody, says Buhari out to destroy civic space

Omoyele Sowore
Omoyele Sowore

Detained social activist, publisher and politician, Omoyele Sowore, has spoken out from the custody of the State Security Service, telling PREMIUM TIMES he is being held as part of a grand scheme by the Buhari administration to shut down Nigeria’s civic space.

Mr Sowore called a PREMIUM TIMES’ reporter on Thursday afternoon, in a rare move to directly send out a message to the public.

It was a message of courage, defiance and hope for both his teeming supporters and the Nigerian downtrodden people.

The Sahara Reporters’ publisher said he would remain undeterred by the controversial tactics of the current government, which have seen him held in perpetual custody against the order of a federal judge.

Mr Sowore, a former student union activist who confronted military regimes and went to jail for it, 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 suddenly on August 3, armed SSS officers broke into an apartment Mr Sowore was occupying with some of his closest associates in Lagos. He was taken away in the midnight 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.

Members of the movement also warned that Mr Sowore’s detention — which they deemed illegal and unwarranted — would bolster rather than dampen a wave of resistance to decades of bad governance that many believed had worsened under President Muhammadu Buhari.

Grand plot thwarted

Speaking with PREMIUM TIMES from custody, Mr Sowore said the demand for his sureties was an attempt to intimidate them into pulling out.

“Their aim is to intimidate my sureties by subjecting them to undue maltreatment,” Mr Sowore said. “It is part of a grand plot to hold me hostage because they have failed to find anything illegal to pin on me.”

“But we know what they want to do and we will not allow it to happen,” he added.

Although the SSS has repeatedly asserted its respect for the Nigerian judicial and the rule of law in general, the agency has a history of repression, violation of citizens’ rights and disobedience of court decisions.

SSS was the agency at the heart of most allegations of attacks on Nigerians during the brutal military eras of Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha. Several Nigerians were jailed, physically attacked or killed as Mr Abacha moved to clear all obstacles to his authoritarian regime.

Despite attempts to reform the agency as Nigeria attained democracy in 1999, critics say the SSS, founded in 1986, has remained wedded to its brutal and anti-democratic past.

Hale, hearty

Mr Sowore lamented that he had “not seen sunshine since he was detained except when taken to court.” Only three people have been allowed to see him since August 3, which includes his lawyers and the person responsible for his feeding.

Even though Mr Sowore said he cannot wait to reunite with his associates and loved ones, he said he had come to a fresh realisation that the SSS would continue to disregard court pronouncements and would not release him anytime soon.

“Last night, they gave us phones and cable TV,” Mr Sowore said. “This indicates that they have no intention of complying with court orders to release me anytime soon.’’

Mr Sowore said he will continue to fight for the downtrodden, and wanted the world to know that the Buhari administration has been stifling civil liberties in Nigeria.

“The world should know that I remain unbroken and in high spirits,” Mr Sowore said. “I will continue to fight for the Nigerian people, ensure that the people are not shortchanged and corruption is driven underground.”

“I will continue to stand up for the downtrodden,” he said.

Mr Sowore said all those who support him should not be discouraged because the masses will prevail in the battle against anti-democratic forces.

“The ultimate mission is to intimidate all critical voices and shut down the nation’s civic space,” Mr Sowore said. “But this will not happen and we shall overcome.”

Timeline of events

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 said was treasonable.

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 derided the charges as empty because they not only poorly filed but also 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 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.

Mr Sowore was initially granted bail on September 24, but he was denied freedom by the SSS despite meeting conditions two days later.

After disregarding the bail accorded to Mr Sowore by Taiwo Taiwo of the Federal High Court, Abuja Division, the SSS filed duplicated charges against Mr Sowore before Ijeoma Ojukwu, another judge of the same division.

After several days of trial before the new court, Ms Ojukwu granted bail to Mr Sowore on October 4 on stringent terms. His lawyers returned to court to seek a variation of the conditions, which was approved by Justice Ojukwu.

On November 6, Mr Sowore’s 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 Mr Sowore from custody. The statement sparked 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 the court order, the agency released yet another statement, saying it will continue to ignore the court order until a surety can come for Mr Sowore 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 Mr Sowore’s sureties as a precondition for releasing him. The action has largely been seen as a brazen display of arrogance because the SSS has no powers to review the decision of a federal court.

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