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Nigerian Journalist Deemed “Terrorist”
Omoyele Sowore’s Arbitrary Detention Highlights Nigerian Government’s Efforts to Silence Dissent
When human rights defenders, journalists, or political activists are deemed terrorists by a regime, the ability to hold power to account erodes in dangerous fashion—and the freedoms of an entire nation are threatened. The Nigerian government declared journalist and human rights activist Omoyele “Yele” Sowore exactly that. Now he could face a life sentence.
Omoyele advocates against political corruption in Nigeria, the growing wealth gap, income inequality, a broken health care system, and the inability of college graduates to find gainful employment. He first drew the ire of the Nigerian state and President Muhammadu Buhari in 2006 by founding Sahara Reporters, a citizen journalism news site focused on exposing corruption, human rights abuses, and other political misconduct in Nigeria. He continued with his creation of #RevolutionNow, which called for a nationwide peaceful protest to fight corrupt governance.
Two days before the movement’s first protest in 2019, the Nigerian Department of State Services arrested Sowore for “threatening public safety, peaceful co-existence, and social harmony in the country.” He was charged with treason, cyberstalking, and money laundering and was unlawfully detained for 143 days. After RFK Human Rights took Sowore’s case to the United Nations, Sowore was finally released—with a disproportionate bail set at 100 million naira (roughly $273,000), which was subsequently lowered to 50 million naira—and it was mandated that Sowore abstain from engaging with protests and not leave the Nigerian capital of Abuja despite his family and home being based in New Jersey.
The government's targeting of Sowore continued. On December 31, 2020, the Nigerian authorities rearrested Sowore, along with four other activists, during a peaceful protest in Abuja, which he was covering in his capacity as a journalist. Sowore was detained without access to a judge for four days, denied bail for seven days, and singled out for stringent bail conditions. Despite these challenges, Sowore continues to advocate for better governance in Nigeria and looks forward to reuniting with his family.
Why is This a Key Case?
In President Buhari’s Nigeria, journalists and protestors are under constant and severe threat, as is the state of free speech more generally in the country. Journalists have seen their offices raided and their licenses suspended for speaking out against the government. Protestors and those who dare to dissent on social media have been deemed terrorists and arbitrarily detained for the trumped-up charge of threatening the country’s peace and stability. The fundamental human right of freedom of expression in Nigeria is at severe risk.
How is RFK Human Rights Supporting Omoyele?
The organization filed a petition before the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in October 2019. Since then, the team has sent two updates to the Working Group and continues to vigorously support advocacy for Sowore’s release and welfare.
What is the Status of the Case?
The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention published its opinion on the case in October 2020. It found that Sowore’s detention was arbitrary and called on the Nigerian government to cease its unlawful prosecution of Sowore for his attempts to organize a peaceful protest in August 2019.
Name of the case (as it appears in the respective legal mechanism)
Omoyele Sowore, Citizens of the Federal Republic of Nigeria v. Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria
Legal mechanism in which the case is being litigated
United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention
Rights and legal instruments alleged violated
The detention of these 19 individuals was alleged to constitute an arbitrary deprivation of their liberty under Category I, Category II, Category III, and Category V as set forth by the Working Group.
The detention was alleged to be arbitrary under Category I for the violation of Articles 9(1), 15, 19(2), and 19(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); Articles 9 and 19 of the UDHR; principles 2 and 36(2) of the Body of Principles; and Chapter 4 Section 35(3), 35(4), and 39(1) of the Nigerian Constitution.
The detention was alleged to be arbitrary under Category II for the violation of Articles 19(2) and 21 of the ICCPR; Articles 19 and 20 of the UDHR; and Chapter 4 Section 39(1) and Section 40 of the Nigerian Constitution.
The detention was alleged to be arbitrary under Category III for the violation of Articles 9(1), 9(2), 9(3), 9(4), 14(3)(a), and 17 of the ICCPR; Principles 2, 4, 10, 11(1), 13, 15, 19, 32, 37, 38, and 39 of the Body of Principles; and Sections 35(1), 35(3), and 35(4) of the Nigerian Constitution.
The detention was alleged to be arbitrary under Category V for the violation of Article 7 of the UDHR; Article 26 of the ICCPR; and Chapter 4 Section 42(1) of the Nigerian Constitution.
Procedural stageSowore was released on bail on December 24, 2019. RFKHR participated in a roundtable discussion with the State Department on human rights in Nigeria in January 2019, during which we raised his case. Sowore’s trial is currently pending and has been subject to several delays. He faces life in prison if convicted.
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