Our Voices

Fighting to Free Imprisoned Nigerian Journalist Omoyele Sowore

On Oct. 31, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights petitioned the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to press Nigeria for the release of Omoyele Sowore from a detention facility. Journalist Sowore is a prominent defender of human rights in his native Nigeria and the founder of the citizen journalism site Sahara Reporters. Since early August, Nigerian authorities have detained Sowore and levied baseless charges against him: He is a key organizer of the #RevolutionNow protest movement, which seeks to curb the country’s rampant government corruption.

Sowore has long been a social and political activist who has bravely spoken out against Nigeria’s corruption, wealth inequality, and broken health care system. In 2006 he founded Sahara Reporters, a citizen journalism platform he has leveraged to expose not only Nigerian corruption but also the country’s human rights abuses and other political misconduct. Sowore proudly welcomes the dubbing of his pioneering advocacy journalism site as the “WikiLeaks of Africa.”

Following years of political leaders’ failing to fulfill their promises to root out corruption, Sowore initiated a call for nationwide peaceful pro-democracy protests. On Aug. 3, two days prior to his planned #RevolutionNow protests, domestic intelligence operatives raided Sowore’s hotel room without a warrant and arbitrarily arrested him early in the morning. After detaining him for days without a charge, the Nigerian Department of State Services then requested a judicial order so the government could keep him for 90 more days while investigating him for “terrorist activity.” In doing so, these officials invoked a vague provision of Nigeria’s anti-terrorism statute in a manner that is incompatible with international human rights law. A court authorized 45 days of further detention, then ordered Sowore’s release on bail at the end of that stretch. The Department of State Services summarily ignored the order and then charged Sowore with several severe (and unwarranted) crimes, including treason, money laundering, and cyberstalking (claiming his actions directly “insulted the president”).

On Oct. 4 another judge, Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu, imposed burdensome bail conditions on Sowore’s release, which ensured his continued detention. (Lawyers who have been advocating on Sowore’s behalf have called for the judge’s recusal from the case.) In addition to requiring Sowore to furnish a bail of 100 million naira (about $280,000 dollars), the judge ordered him to identify two sureties whose properties in Abuja, Nigeria, are together worth that amount. If Sowore meets these financial conditions, he will be released pending a trial but restricted from speaking with the press, engaging in protests, and leaving Abuja, even though he has no home there. On Oct. 21 the court reduced the bail amount, but the impossibility of Sowore’s meeting all of these conditions adds up to a de facto refusal to release him.

Sowore’s arbitrary arrest and continued detention violate multiple provisions of Nigeria’s constitution as well as its international human rights obligations. As the U.N. petition explains, Nigerian intelligence officials detained and charged Sowore without proper legal justification. The timing of his arrest and detention make them appear to be retaliation for exercising his rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The Nigerian government seems to have illegally targeted Sowore—because of his strong political opinions and status as a critical journalist and activist.

For these reasons, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights stands with other organizations in vigorously condemning Nigeria’s denial of due process for Sowore and its violation of his right to a fair trial. Sowore, who in recent years has made his home in New Jersey, traveled to Nigeria to advance the cause of justice. It is unacceptable that Nigerian authorities have unlawfully cut off his phone contact with his two young children and his wife who reside in the United States—after she called for his release in a Sept. 4 DemocracyNow! interview. If Sowore remains in Nigerian confinement, the cause of justice across the world is ever so much diminished.