Nigeria’s President Buhari under pressure to free prisoners of conscience

Omoyele Sowore in court

BY MODUPE ABIOLA

Abuja, Nigeria—The pressure is coming from multiple sources: human rights organizations including Amnesty International; an African umbrella-civil society group; U.S. lawmakers including New Jersey senator Cory Boker, and others demanding that Nigerian authorities free several prisoners of conscience.

Omoyele Sowore, a New Jersey resident and publisher of the news site Sahara Reporters was re-arrested in a dramatic fashion on Friday, 6 December, by gun-wielding members of the Nigerian Department of Security (DSS) who stormed the Abuja court, creating a chaos that caused the judge, court personnel and others in attendance to run for their lives. This happened just 24 hours after the DSS, under court order, had released Sowore pending his trial, weeks after he was granted a bail. Sowore was arrested on 3 August and charged with treason, money-laundering and cyberstalking President Buhari—against whom he ran last February. Sowore has denied all the charges, in a clear case of the suppression of freedom of speech, given that all he did was to call a nationwide demonstration against President Muhammadu Buhari’s government.

The case has received a lot of attention both domestically and internationally.

Yesterday, a large coalition of groups comprising the Center for Democracy and Development, Transition Monitoring Group, Enough Is Enough, Concerned Nigerians, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre and others unveiled a 14-day ultimatum to the Nigerian government for the unconditional release of Sowore.

He then added: “If these five demands are not honoured within 14 days, we call on patriots across Nigeria to join us as we occupy the National Human Rights Commission offices across the country as it is legally mandated to protect Nigerians and also report to the Presidency.”

For its part, the Nigerian Bar Association called Sowore’s re-arrest a “disgraceful and crass violation” of the court.

Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka joined in the growing criticism, not only by slamming the agents of the Department for State Security, but also by calling for the unity of Nigerian civil society organizations against the violation of the human rights of the citizens by Muhammadu Buhari’s government.

According to news reports, officials in New Jersey where Sowore resides have for weeks applied “behind the scene pressure” on Nigerian officials to free Sowore, but that discrete approach burst into the public eye following Sowore’s brutal re-arrest on Friday. New Jersey senator Bob Menendez and Sowore’s spouse, Opeyemi Sowore, publicly criticized the government yesterday. “That is unacceptable in a country that calls itself a democracy. The world is watching,” the senator said, and warned that there would be consequences if anything happens to Sowore. Using a harsher tone, the other senator in Sowore’s second home state, Cory Boker, said: “This is a shocking affront to the country’s rule of law and Nigeria must cease its dangerous attacks on freedom of expression.”

In the same vein, the US Department of State: Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, & Labor denounced Sowore’s re-arrest, reminding Buhari’s government that “respect for rule of law, judicial independence, political and media freedom, and due process are key tenets of democracy.”

It has become increasingly clear that the Buhari government has grown more authoritative since the president started his second term earlier this year. Sowore is just one victim among others that include Dadiyata Abubakar Idris, Stephen Kefas, Agba Jalingo and Jones Abiri.

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