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Nigerian Journalist & Activist Omoyele Sowore Remains Jailed for Calling for Peaceful Protests

StorySeptember 04, 2019
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Image Credit: SaharaTV

Journalist and pro-democracy activist Omoyele Sowore is entering his second month in jail for calling for peaceful nationwide protests against the government. Sowore called his movement “Revolution Now” and mobilized activists to take to the streets August 5. But just two days before the protests were set to begin, Sowore was arrested by the state and accused of attempting to take over the government. He’s been imprisoned for more than a month now as human rights groups continue to call for his immediate release. We speak with his wife Opeyemi Sowore and Nani Jansen Reventlow, one of the attorneys representing Omoyele Sowore.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Nigeria, where journalist and pro-democracy activist Omoyele Sowore is entering his second month in jail for calling for peaceful nationwide protests against the government. Sowore called his movement “Revolution Now” and mobilized activists to take to the streets on August 5th. But just two days before the protests were set to begin, he was arrested by the state and accused of attempting to take over the government. He’s been in prison for more than a month now, as human rights groups continue to call for his immediate release. He’s a human rights activist and the publisher of the online news site Sahara Reporters based in New York City and has lived in the United States for many years. He ran against President Muhammadu Buhari earlier this year in an election he said lacked a level playing field. His party, Africa Action Congress, declared August 5th the start of the “Days of Rage,” inspired by the recent popular uprising in Sudan that toppled the authoritarian ruler Omar al-Bashir. The protests went ahead despite his arrest days earlier.

AMY GOODMAN: Shortly before Sowore was arrested, he tweeted, “All that is needed for a #Revolution is for the oppressed to choose a date they desire for liberty, not subjected to the approval of the oppressor. #RevolutionNow #DaysofRage #August5.” This is Omoyele Sowore speaking about Revolution Now at a rally in Nigeria in July.

OMOYELE SOWORE: Are you not tired of this government?

CROWD: We are tired!

OMOYELE SOWORE: Are you not tired of hunger?

CROWD: We are tired!

OMOYELE SOWORE: Are you not tired of nonemployment?

CROWD: We are tired!

AMY GOODMAN: A coalition of press freedom organizations and human rights groups recently petitioned the United Nations and the African Union, while a group called the African Renaissance Organization sent a petition to the U.S. State Department asking the U.S. government to apply pressure on President Muhammadu Buhari for Sowore’s release.

For more, we’re joined by Omoyele Sowore’s wife, Opeyemi Sowore, and one of his attorneys, Nani Jansen Reventlow, the founding director of the Digital Freedom Fund. She’s at Columbia Law School.

Opeyemi Sowore and Nani Jansen Reventlow, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.

OPEYEMI SOWORE: Thanks for having us.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you were here when Sowore was arrested in Nigeria.


AMY GOODMAN: And I have to say, I personally know Sowore very well. I traveled with him in Nigeria when we went to cover the U.S. oil companies’ involvement in the Niger Delta and what they were doing there. He has been deeply involved with human rights and in covering his country of Nigeria, though a green card holder here. So, when did you learn what happened? And what are you demanding now?

OPEYEMI SOWORE: Sure. On — it was Friday night here, Saturday in Nigeria, I got a text from him saying, “I love you.” And I’m like, “OK, great. I love you, too.” But his cousin started calling me over and over about an hour after that and told me that he had been detained. And for four days — or, three days, we did not have any contact with him. We didn’t know where he was. He was taken by force at his hotel in Lagos and transported to Abuja and —

AMY GOODMAN: The capital.

OPEYEMI SOWORE: The capital of Nigeria. And, of course, he didn’t eat their food, didn’t drink their water for all those days. He was basically in isolation with no food, no water. But then, on the Tuesday after, he was able to get in touch with his lawyer, as well as they allowed people to come in to provide him with food. But since then, he’s basically been in isolation for over a month, being held in Abuja with basically no outlets. He’s basically locked in a room, for the most part.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the formal charges against him are based on?

OPEYEMI SOWORE: There are no formal charges per se. He’s being investigated, so the courts gave the Nigerian government or the DSS the ability to hold him for 45 days to investigate — treason, possible treason and terrorism. They based it upon a meeting that he had with Nnamdi Kanu, who has an organization around Biafra. He met with him. Yele made it public. In fact, he disagrees with some of Nnamdi’s rhetoric, but he met with him. And Yele’s whole thing is bringing in everybody’s voices so that Nigeria can be a country for pretty much all of its citizens. So, that’s one of the things that they mentioned against them.

They also mentioned he may have taken money from international countries, and he met them in Dubai. He has never been to Dubai before, which was an interesting statement on the Nigerian government’s part. And no money, basically, has been found with him. So, those were some of the things that they’ve mentioned and associated with him, but they basically have no grounds for holding him and haven’t found any evidence.

AMY GOODMAN: Nani Jansen Reventlow, you are part of an international team of attorneys representing Sowore. Can you talk about how you got involved and the significance of his case here in the United States, as well? Well known for founding Sahara Reporters, reading his reports all the time on Nigeria.

NANI JANSEN REVENTLOW: Well, I met Sowore for the first time when I still worked for the Media Legal Defense Initiative. We were supporting him in his defense of a number of cases that were brought against Sahara Reporters here in the U.S. for their critical investigative reporting. And I was alerted to his case shortly after his arrest and detention. And at the time, Sowore has a really good legal team in Nigeria that represents him, led by Mr. Femi Falana. And they’re trying —

AMY GOODMAN: Very famous human rights lawyer.

NANI JANSEN REVENTLOW: Very famous human rights lawyer. And they’re trying their best to challenge his detention. So far, unfortunately, that has been unsuccessful. So, on behalf of a number of press freedom and human rights organizations, we filed the petition that you just mentioned, calling for the U.N. and AU special rapporteurs to intervene, basically, because we consider his arrest and detention to be arbitrary and a violation of his right to freedom of expression, freedom of association. And yeah, we want them to take action, basically.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what’s the general situation in Nigeria for journalists or other critics of the government? What kind of obstacles do they face?

NANI JANSEN REVENTLOW: It’s generally a very challenging environment, where both Intimidation and also legal repercussions for critical reporting and generally voicing opposition or challenging the regime is met with consequences. Sowore’s arrest doesn’t stand alone. There have been numerous arrests, also in the context of the 5 August demonstration, that actually did take place, where numerous people were arrested, including a number of reporters that work for Sahara Reporters. But various other human rights defenders in the country have been arrested over the past months.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the Nigerian court justified Sowore’s detention through the Terrorism Act. If you could expand on that? In a ruling on August 8th, the Federal High Court in Nigeria’s capital city Abuja permitted the holding of Sowore without pressing any charges, and that can be extended. Is that right?

NANI JANSEN REVENTLOW: This is correct. So, the Security Service filed an ex parte request for 90 days of detention under the Terrorism Act to conduct investigations. And an order was issued for 45 days of detention. This has been challenged. And last week, finally, this came to a hearing in court. But, unfortunately, the judge that heard the petition from Mr. Falana and his team decided that he basically couldn’t rule on the matter, and referred the matter back to the original court that issued the order.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Opeyemi, I’m wondering if you had an opportunity to talk to your husband at all. And what are his spirits like? What has he told you, if you have?

OPEYEMI SOWORE: Sure. They’ve allowed him to call twice. So, he got to speak to myself and also the children. He is —

AMY GOODMAN: How old are your kids?

OPEYEMI SOWORE: Nine and 12. He’s definitely putting up a brave front, but it’s hard staying in isolation for that long. And having monitored calls with your family limits what he’s able to say or how freely he’s able to express himself.

AMY GOODMAN: And his use of the word “revolution” for his organization, Revolution Now, Nani, if you could talk about the significance of this? They’re saying that this amounts to treason. However, they themselves have used that word, talking about the need for revolution in Nigeria. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.

NANI JANSEN REVENTLOW: Yeah. Sowore used the word “revolution” as an emotive term, and he’s used this in the context of wanting to achieve transformative change throughout his career. When he founded Sahara Reporters, he said that he wanted to revolutionize news reporting by founding an organization that would rely on investigative citizen reporting. And interestingly, after his arrest, there was a large outcry within Nigeria, and many people indeed pointed to the fact that many of the officials that are currently in government have used the word “revolution” in the past, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And has the Trump administration intervened in any way to help Sowore?

NANI JANSEN REVENTLOW: Not that I’m aware.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll continue to follow Sowore’s case, and people should read Sahara Reporters. He is the publisher and founder of that. I want to thank you both for being with us. Opeyemi Sowore is the wife of Omoyele Sowore, who was arrested August 3rd in Lagos, Nigeria. Nani Jansen Reventlow is a part of an international team of attorneys representing Sowore here.

That does it for our broadcast. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our website is democracynow.org. Thanks so much for joining us.

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