The Dangers of Dissent

Speech may be free, but the punishment for it could be death

#revolutionnow graffiti. Lagos. 2019. Photograph by Kira Brunner Don.


In the early hours of November 12, 2019, a noisy deployment of uniformed security men disturbed the serenity of Calabar, the usually quiet port city on Nigeria’s southeastern coast and the capital of Cross River state. Armed with assault rifles, more than 50 members of the anti-bomb, anti-robbery and anti-cult squads of the Nigeria Police Force—supported by agents of the dreaded State Security Service—stationed themselves on the roads surrounding the Federal High Court. They stopped and searched all vehicles. Anyone headed to the court was frisked. 

Inside the courtroom, the witness box was equipped with a black hood to conceal the identity of those who were to testify in the trial before Justice Simon Akpah Amobeda. At the end of October, the Federal High Court had granted police permission to mask the witnesses. In a country fighting a deadly insurgency in the north and an armed militancy in the south, this extra measure could have been mistaken for the arraignment of a deadly insurgent or terrorist. The accused person on trial in this case, however, was journalist Agba Jalingo. His crime? Facebook and other social media posts that a state governor found offensive. 

Jalingo is one of the recent victims of a rise in attacks on journalists and free speech in Nigeria. He’s not alone. 

In early August, in Lagos, the government arrested Omoyele Sowore, publisher of Sahara Reporters and a New Jersey resident who broke the story on the identity of the so-called underwear bomber of 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Sowore’s crime was calling for a protest movement—“Revolution Now”—against perceptions of rising authoritarianism in the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. Nigeria has a history of instability, and the administration cynically associates the word “revolution” with bad memories of the overthrow of past governments. So, after Sowore’s arrest, on September 30, the government arraigned him on charges of treason. The courts granted him bail twice, and on both occasions, the government refused to obey the court orders. He was finally released on bail on December 6, only to be violently re-arrested just hours later.

Sowore is considered lucky because his whereabouts are known. On August 2, armed gunmen suspected by many Nigerians to be state security agents abducted Abubakar Idris (better known by his pseudonym, Dadiyata,) a digital activist, from his home in Barnawa, Kaduna in northwest Nigeria. He has not been seen since. 

It was not supposed to be like this. When he ran as a candidate of the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) party in Nigeria’s 2015 elections, Nigeria’s current president, Muhammadu Buhari promised that he was a converted democrat. This was an essential piece of electoral inoculation. In 1983, Buhari, then a 41-year-old major general in the Nigerian Army, fired the country’s elected civilian administration and installed himself as the nation’s fifth military ruler. His rule was brutal. He shut down media outlets, locked up journalists under back-dated laws and ruled by military decrees that made the courts redundant. In August 1985, Buhari’s peers in the army had had enough. They overthrew him and sent him into early retirement. 

In 1999, the country installed Olusegun Obasanjo as only its second elected president, the first in 16 years. During his previous tenure as a military ruler in the late 1970s, Obasanjo had the distinction of having successfully transitioned Nigeria to elected civilian rule in 1979. Buhari worked under him in the late 1970s, first as a military governor and then as the minister responsible for Nigeria’s lucrative petroleum industry. Buhari ran three unsuccessful campaigns for president in 2003, 2007 and 2011. 

By 2015, Nigeria was a country with a median age of 18 and an average life expectancy of barely 55; nearly two-thirds of the population had no memories of Buhari’s years as a brutal military ruler. Many of the violations committed by his government sounded too unreal for some who left school without the benefit of learning Nigerian history, which was banned from the curriculum in 2007. The ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had grown sclerotic and arrogant after 16 years in power. So, when Buhari said he had converted to democracy, a generation of young people with no political memory were willing to believe him. When he took office in 2015 at age 72, Buhari was easily the oldest man to be elected president in Nigeria. 

It quickly became clear that Buhari’s authoritarian instincts had not deserted him. In December 2015, the Nigerian army massacred hundreds of protesting members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) in Zaria in Kaduna state. Shi’ites, a religious minority in northern Nigeria, where Sunni Islam is overwhelmingly dominant, called for greater protection and recognition of their rights. Their leader, Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, was critically injured in a protest and remains in custody to this day. Three of his sons were killed in the protest, a year after three of his other sons were killed in another rally. All this signaled the regime’s intolerance of free speech. 

Attacks on journalists and media outlets have increased dramatically since Buhari’s return to power. Of the 384 recorded attacks that have occurred since 1985, when Buhari was toppled as a military ruler, 188 have taken place in the four years since he came back to power. Eight incidents were recorded in 2015 by the independent Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism; the figure grew to 34 in 2017 and 59 in 2018.

The attacks have taken different forms. In 2017, Luka Binniyat, a correspondent of the Vanguard, one of Nigeria’s leading newspapers, was arrested for a report alleging that five students of the Kaduna State College of Education were killed in an attack by armed herders. The government claimed the report was false. Binniyat was detained for over three months before he was granted bail. Nigeria’s constitution mandates a maximum of 48 hours in pre-trial detention. During this time, he lost his job. Steven Kefason, a digital activist, was also let go after being detained for over five months for a Facebook post he wrote in April 2019. 

In 2018, Samuel Ogundipe, a Premium Times reporter, was detained for three days after refusing to disclose his source on a story about an investigation report submitted to the president’s office by Nigerian police. Suspecting a leak, police required Ogundipe to disclose his source. After refusing to do so, he was taken into custody, without access to a lawyer or visitors. Two days into his detention, he was charged with stealing the report. 

In January 2019, soldiers and police officers raided the offices of another leading newspaper, the Daily Trust, over a report on operations against the militant Islamic group Boko Haram. 

• • •

A major focus of the attacks against free speech in Nigeria has been digital platforms and social media. Audu Maikori, a lawyer and entrepreneur, was arrested in Lagos in 2017 for a series of tweets on the story of the killings published by Binniyat. His trial is still pending. 

In July 2019, Agba Jalingo, a journalist and proprietor of the news site, wrote on Facebook that Benedict Ayade, the governor of Cross River state, had diverted about $1.4 million from the accounts of the state-owned microfinance bank. In late August, Jalingo was abducted from his residence in Lagos. On September 25, he was arraigned on charges of treason, terrorism and an “attempt to topple the Cross River State Government” based on his Facebook post and articles on In what could be the first of its kind in the world for social media posts, Jalingo’s trial will take place behind closed doors and the witnesses will be masked. 

In October, in an escalation of these attacks, Nigerian Information Minister Lai Mohammed lashed out against the growing influence of social media and announced that the government would move to tighten regulation of both broadcasting and social media platforms and content. A month later, Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, a leading member of the ruling APC party, introduced a bill in parliament to create a National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech. If passed, the legislation would have prescribed the death sentence for the ill-defined crime of hate speech that resulted in the death of another person. With an authoritarian government escalating attacks on free speech and weakening all institutions of accountable government, few bet against this bill becoming law. In a rare turn of events, Abdullahi declared that he would remove the death-penalty provision of the bill, in hopes of getting it passed. 

• • •

One institution that the government has focused on rendering ineffectual is the judiciary. The attacks on free speech have become more common because the Buhari administration has deliberately weakened the courts and undermined their independence.

In 2016, the State Security Service (SSS) raided the houses of senior judges in Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital, arresting at least eight of them on what it said were allegations of judicial corruption. None of the charges were successfully prosecuted. The SSS is controlled by and reports exclusively to the president. It so happens that most of the judges in question had issued orders against the government that it considered intolerable or embarrassing. 

In January 2019, the government asked the Code of Conduct Tribunal, an administrative body under the control of the Cabinet Secretary, to issue an order removing Walter Onnoghen, the chief justice of Nigeria. Without a hearing, the tribunal granted the government what it asked for, allowing it to suspend the chief justice and immediately appoint someone else in his place. All efforts at judicial redress were unsuccessful. The dismissal of the chief justice in this summary manner left most judges feeling exposed and unwilling to issue orders against the administration, no matter how well-founded. 

In the few cases where judges have been naïve or courageous enough to issue orders in favor of journalists or other victims of violations, the administration does its best to frustrate or disobey them. In 2016, the High Court declared the arrest and detention of Maikori unconstitutional. It also awarded damages to Maikori, which the government promptly chose to disregard. In November 2019, supporters of Sowore staged a peaceful protest against the refusal of the SSS to honor the court orders granting him bail. The SSS rammed the protesters with trucks and attacked them with pepper spray. Despite video evidence tending to contradict the agency, the SSS continues to deny accusations that its agents shot the protesters with live ammunition.

Amid this escalation in attacks on journalists and independent voices, there are rumors of a plan to amend Nigeria’s constitution in order to extend the tenure of President Buhari, who would be term-limited after his second four-year term ends in 2023. Bills seeking to amend the constitution are said to be quietly working their way through parliament. In October, a spokesperson for the president denied any such intentions, but the rumors have persisted. In 2006, an attempt by then-President Olusegun Obasanjo to extend his tenure was killed by vocal opposition. 

Silencing vocal opposition and making the judiciary redundant could spur another attempt at democratic recession, but it could also prove to be a step too far for Nigeria’s fragile balance. A vast array of 389 ethnic and national groups, speaking over 4,000 languages and dialects, Nigeria has always had a raucous civic and media space that is not so easily cowed. To enable a clampdown, the administration has orchestrated a capture of all major institutions of accountable government. This ongoing persecution of free speech is straight out of a familiar script about a return to authoritarian rule. In Nigeria, that story has never ended happily.


Chidi Anselm Odinkalu

Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is a lawyer working with the Open Society Foundations. He received his PhD in law from the London School of Economics & Political Science. He is the former chairperson of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission.

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