In the heat of the last election campaigns, Muhammadu Buhari, the candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) met with Nigerian media owners. He gave them “full assurances that the Nigerian media would be free” under his government. One key takeaway from that meeting was that when prompted, Buhari refused to apologize to the two journalists – Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson – who were jailed by his military junta.
There has never been a presidential candidate as embraced and coddled by the press as Buhari was in 2015. Running against the disappointing leadership of Goodluck Jonathan, the APC candidate was egged on by broad sections of the media which helped peddle his revisionist narrative as gospel. The media provided the spring to Buhari’s old, weary bones. He was the reformed democrat and that was enough. No hard questions asked of him, none of his impossible positions interrogated. Heck, the man even refused to debate his opponents and had excuses manufactured for him.
Now here we are. Buhari is in Aso Rock and it feels like 1984 all over again. His government has not hidden its disdain for the press. Evidence: Nigeria is in the red zone for press freedom according to the International Press Index. Since the assumption of the Buhari administration, Nigeria has consistently declined in this ranking – down by 11 places from 2015. This decline was occasioned by the constant attacks and haranguing of the media under several guises ranging from national embarrassment to national security, with journalists being called militants and terrorists and purveyors of fake news for simply doing their jobs.
Jones Abiri is the poster child of this administration’s war on the press. The journalist who hails from the creeks of the Niger Delta was recently released on bail by the courts, following intense local and international pressure after about two years of detention by the secret police. The government accused him of being the leader of a militant, separatist group. Several other journalists have been haunted by the agents of this administration including US based journalist Jackson Ude who is scared to return to Nigeria, and Ahmad Salkida who was threatened by the Nigerian military and labelled a Boko Haram operative.
Last week, Samuel Ogundipe of Premium Times was detained by the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), one day after a hastily cheered “reorganization” directive sent to the Police Inspector General by Acting President Yemi Osinbajo. In a grim throwback to 1984, the police wanted Ogundipe to disclose his source for a leaked memo from the IGP to the Acting President which he reported on. He was later secretly arraigned and charged with stealing classified information. Before this, the offices of Premium Times had been raided in 2017 for publishing reports that supposedly embarrassed the Chief of Army Staff. The publisher of that platform, Dapo Olorunyomi alongside his colleague, Evelyn Okakwu were whisked to the police station and detained.
UK based journalists, Daniel and Timothy Elombah, the publisher and editor of an online newspaper, alongside four other male members of their family were raided and manhandled at around 5a.m. on New Year’s Day 2018 in the presence of their aged mother, wives and little children. The editor was held for about a month, all because the Police IGP was offended by a report published on the platform. The Sun Newspaper was threatened with a lawsuit and subsequently raided by the EFCC over a negative report on the acting chairman of the anti-corruption agency, Ibrahim Magu.
Another journalist, Tony Ezimakor who covers politics for The Daily Independent newspaper was arrested and detained by the DSS. The agency pressured the journalist to disclose his source for a report he did concerning the negotiations that led to the release of the Chibok girls. Ezimakor suffered from high blood pressure and almost died in custody before he was released.
This list is not exhaustive.
The Buhari government’s gestapo tactics against the Nigerian media today is not surprising. But not a few people are shocked by the antics of the pretty face of the regime – Yemi Osinbajo, the vice president priest and professor of constitutional law under whose watch some of these heinous attacks on the press – including the most recent – have been perpetuated. Osinbajo talks a good game; he charms with his smooth rhetoric. He would frequently be heard espousing the ideals of press freedom and then looking the other way as this freedom is subverted by his administration. “Is it right to help the wicked?” Prophet Jehu asked King Jehoshaphat in the Bible’s Old Testament Book of 2 Chronicles. That same question may be asked of Pastor Osinbajo in the face of his loud silence.
As for the press, now is not the time to be slack. Armed with Section 22 of the constitution which gives it the freedom to “uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people”, the press must resist every attempt to cut off its tongue. It must selfishly guard its freedom as “one of the great bulwarks of liberty.” Democracy rots in darkness and the media has a duty to shine the light and be the disinfectant, no matter the devious determination of those hell-bent on suppressing it. We shall overcome!