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Human Rights Day - the perspective from Nigeria

Thursday 23 January 2020 - 8:12am

Women in Abuja | Photo credit: Muhammadtaha Ibrahim

To commemorate Human Rights Day, PEN International and PEN Centres are launching an essay series and holding events on human rights issues across the globe.

The sword's struggle to weaken the pen in Nigeria

Nigeria has, in recent months, been making headlines worldwide for its government’s crass disregard for democratic principles. The government professes alliance to democratic ideals; but since coming to power in 2015, it has consistently displayed a lack of respect for the rule of law and has held the judiciary in disdain.

This attitude is distinctly correlated to the government’s human rights violations reflected in frequent disobedience of court orders and constant attacks on freedom of expression. This situation has startling similarities with the brutal era of military dictatorship in the country, in which freedom of expression was under attack and human rights abuses rampant, and which, in 1995, saw the hanging of nine prominent leaders of the Ogoni ethnic community, including the renowned writer and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Nigeria gloats over its twenty straight years of unbroken civilian rule. However, not since its return to civil rule in 1999 has the country witnessed such a flagrant demonstration of outright insensitivity by the government to alternative views and intolerance of dissenting voices. This is corroborated by Amnesty International, which, in a report published in October 2019, states that at least 19 journalists and media practitioners have been attacked in Nigeria between January and September 2019, the highest number since 2015.

The report chronicles the attacks on journalists in Nigeria carried out by state agencies, including the police, the State Security Service (SSS) – popularly called the Department of State Service (DSS) – the military and the dreaded arm of the Nigerian Police called Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), and states the following points:

  • Six journalists, including bloggers, were arrested in 2018; four were arrested in 2017; sixteen journalists/bloggers were arrested in 2016; five were arrested in 2015;
  • Eight media outlets, including Premium Times, have been raided or harassed since 2015, while three journalists have gone into hiding;
  • Reasons for the journalists’ arrests include exposing corruption, election coverage, and social media posts critical of a governor or a senator;
  • The charges proffered against the journalists range from terrorism, sedition, and treason to unlawful assembly, defamation of character, and criminal conspiracy

One recent example of the increasing crackdown on dissent, is the case of Omoyele Sowore, publisher of Sahara Reporters and opposition activist, who was abducted on 3 August 2019, and eventually charged with treason, money laundering, and cyber-stalking the President of Nigeria. The charges are apparently in relation to his organisation of a peaceful protest movement, dubbed #RevolutionNow, which called for good governance.

Despite the global outcry trailing his detention and several court orders calling for his release, Sowore was kept in detention by the DSS until 5 December. He was, however, re-arrested barely 24 hours later in the vicinity of a court by DSS agents; Sowore’s lawyer Femi Falana advised the agents to ‘obey the rule of law and not resort to gangsterism’, stating to the media that the invasion of a courtroom by the DSS to make an arrest has never happened before in Nigeria.

After much local and, particularly, international pressure, the government decided to release Sowore on 24 December ‘on compassionate grounds’, according to reports quoting the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami. Sowore’s prolonged detention despite court orders for his release points to the government’s disrespectful and contemptuous attitude towards the rule of law.

Sowore and activist Olawale Bakare, also known as Mandate, who is standing trial alongside the journalist and pro-democracy campaigner, are by no means the sole victims of the government’s intolerance of criticism and disregard for the rule of law and freedom of expression. One such example is journalist Jones Abiri, who was held incommunicado for two years on terrorism allegations before his release in 2018, and who has recently been charged with terrorism, sabotage and cybercrimes.

Legislation is another instrument employed by the authorities to undermine the pen in Nigeria. For example, the Criminal Code provisions on slander, libel and defamation are criminal offences punishable by imprisonment, and have been used against journalists in retaliation for critical reporting.

The government is currently striving to facilitate the passing of two bills into law: the Social Media Bill, under the guise of curbing fake news, which has since gone through a second reading at the National Assembly, and the Hate Speech Bill, which, if passed into law, prescribes the death penalty for offenders. (The Hate Speech Bill has been modified to remove the death penalty, but it has not been passed). While the right to freedom of expression goes hand in hand with a responsibility to stay within the ambit of the law, these bills have clear implications for writers and journalists, whom the government holds in disdain for carrying out their social responsibilities and obligations.

In response to this situation, PEN Nigeria has been active in the defence of the rights of citizens, particularly freedom of expression. PEN Nigeria has also raised its voice in defence of several other people who have been persecuted for exercising their freedom of expression. We write and circulate open letters, as in the case of Jones Abiri, we organise public rallies and special readings to draw attention to such cases.

Members of our Centre write, feature articles and creative works on issues pertaining to freedom of speech. We also collaborate with associations and organisations associated with the promotion of free speech, which highlights the freedom of every individual and community to express their opinions, thoughts and ideas without restraint, censorship, fear of retaliation or legal penalty. In highlighting the voices of those who have been silenced, PEN Nigeria hopes to hold the government accountable for its actions and strives to support freedom of expression in Nigeria.


FOLU AGOI: poet and President, Nigerian Centre of PEN International (aka PEN Nigeria).

NIRAN OKEWOLE, poet and Vice President II of PEN Nigeria, is a medical doctor – a trained psychiatrist.

DAGGA TOLAR, poet and Secretary of PEN Nigeria, is founder of the Aj. House of Poetry, a platform focused on nurturing and mentoring new minds into the poetic field.