INTERVIEW: Legal action against DSS is a possibility – Onumah
Says not much has changed to struggle for Press Freedom since military days
Chido Onumah, Journalist, Author and Executive Director of African Centre for Media and Information Literacy (AFRICMIL) in this interview with Olugbenga ADANIKIN, condemned actions of the DSS for his arrest Sunday night for wearing a branded T-shirt with inscription ‘We are all Biafrans’. According to him, We are all Biafrans, a title of his s book is a metaphorical statement of challenges confronting Nigerians as a people which ordinarily should not cause his undue detention. Excerpts:
Why were you detained by the DSS?
FROM the DSS point of view, again, from the statement, they issued this morning that I was detained to save me from possible mob action. They mentioned this briefly while I was with them and I tried to ask, who and which people were trying to attack me? They didn’t say. They kept saying oh, we have an intelligent report that some people who were opposed to the T-shirt I was wearing and I kept asking, why would anybody be opposed to the T-shirt I was wearing. This T-Shirt is not a call to arms. It’s not calling for a Biafran Republic; it’s just saying that we are all Biafrans which is the title of my book. So that was the explanation they gave. I can’t go into their hands to understand the reasons but my feeling is that I’m sure some people who felt troubled, either by the book or by extension, the T-shirt may have alerted the DSS at the airport. It is possible. Maybe people in the plane hinted something to that effect that people may be planning something and this guy was coming into the country to be part of it. But I told them I don’t belong to any violent movement or any movement pushing for insurrection in the country – IPOB, or any other variant of those fighting for the actualisation of the Biafran republic and so on.
I was a bit surprised that they really didn’t do any much background check on me, even if people tipped them off about what I was wearing because I kept referencing the fact that this T-shirt is the title of my book which came out three years ago and I have been wearing the T-shirts ever since. Most times, when I travel…I have been out of the country about five times in the last two months, so each time I go out because it’s convenient for me. I just put on my jeans and T-shirt and I travel. So, it was a bit shocking and really worrying when it happened because it was a long trip for me. I have been traveling through five cities in four different countries, so, for them to have stopped me when I was looking forward to coming home to rest. More importantly, I have some friends who came in from Accra, Ghana for the Cuban-African conference that took place last week. I begged them to wait for me. We had fixed dinner for 8 pm yesterday and that dinner couldn’t hold because of the arrests.
Once they started interrogating me both at the airport, where I spent close to 2-hours, then at their main office where I spent maybe four hours, the questions that kept coming up were questions I found really unnerving. The guy takes my passport, my phone and he says you are a Biafran, how come you have a Nigerian passport.
I said I beg your pardon, I am a Nigerian and that’s why I have a Nigerian passport, that there is no country like Biafra, so I can’t possibly have a Biafran passport. He then said but that is not what is written on your T-shirt. I said what is written on my T-shirt is we are all Biafrans and it’s the title of my book.
They were making phone calls, going back and forth for almost two hours; they then took me on Hilux vehicle to their office and kept me there. It was still very late, at about 9 pm, then somebody came and told me about mob action, people were planning something and they didn’t want me to get entangled, and if I wore the T-shirt to town, some persons were planning to attack me.
Did you believe their claim?
Of course not, because I asked them who are these people? They refused to say and I told them I have been wearing the T-shirt for three years since the book came within Nigeria and abroad. I have taken pictures with prominent Nigerians. When the book first came out in 2016, it was the former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, who was the keynote speaker at that event. When we re-launched the book two years ago, it was Seriake Dickson, the Governor of Bayelsa State. If you go to my social media page and all of that, you will see the picture of both the book and myself and everything.
So what was your experience like while in DSS custody?
For me, it’s not new. I have had experience of being detained by the DSS when I was a journalist during the Abacha era. I was detained by the DSS when I was a student at the University of Calabar, so I know the drill. I know their routine. When they picked me up, I didn’t shout or cause any commotion. The only thing was to alert one or two of my colleagues that I was in their custody. Once I was able to do that, I just sat there and was reading my book while they were doing their thing. I had this book I bought at the airport. It’s Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. I was so engrossed. I started reading it in the flight. It was such a good read that I didn’t even worry about them until they came to ask questions, and I will respond and return to my book. So, we went from there to their office. Once we got there, it was the same thing. I didn’t give them the impression that I was scared or worried because there was really nothing to be worried about. I have not committed any crime anyway. They will come ask me one question and go back, another person will come but they were quite friendly, I will give it to them. Nobody tortured or harassed me, even when they were discussing with me, it was calm but we disagreed seriously on a number of issues. I had to be firm that this thing you guys are doing is an attempt to curb free speech, freedom of association and movements. You can’t just pick somebody because of what you say. My T-shirts say we are all Biafrans. It hasn’t said anything in an awkward statement. It didn’t say we want to achieve Biafra. Even if it says that it is not something to detain anyone in my estimation. I was trying to push that point. When they now said we have to take the T-shirt from you, I said I don’t mind but I’ll inform you that I have many of these T-shirts, which is true. In fact, I have two extra of the T-shirts I wore while outside the country in my bag. I told them I had more, I had given these shirts to friends who requested for it. Obviously, they weren’t interested in that, it’s this one that I have, so I had to take off the T-shirt and I pulled out another shirt from my bag. I told them again this is the title of a book and I’m not just wearing this, I’m not being flippant about it. But they said the book and the T-shirts are different.
What was the rationale for that inscription and title of the book?
I have been asked this question several times…the whole thing started three years ago. There was a public conversation or debate by academicians, journalists and public intellectuals in Nigeria about the whole Biafra and that was when the whole Nnamdi Kanu thing caught fire in the early days of Buhari administration. So, I wrote this essay titled we are all Biafrans and the gist of the essay basically was that, whether we like it or not, the Biafran thing is an issue that needs to be addressed frontally. But beyond being addressed, we can use Biafra as a metaphor for the many problems that beset us as a nation, whether we are talking about people who are pushing for Oduduwa, Arewa Republic or Niger Delta militancy. We are all suffering. Wherever we found ourselves in the country, everybody has one issue or complaint against the country, so to that extent, we are all Biafrans. So it is a metaphorical explanation of the problems we found ourselves. That was just the basic idea behind the title.
Do you see your fundamental human rights being infringed upon in the wake of the incident?
Of course, no doubt about that, if I’m the kind of person that is overtly agitated and maybe had caused a commotion at the airport, or office, and started screaming, they might begin to manhandle me or try to arrest me but because I was very calm. In fact, whatever they asked me…they said give me your phone, I gave them though calls were coming. They said give me your passport, give me your T-shirt and I gave them. I didn’t want to create any scene or commotion but clearly to answer your question, of course. To imagine I have been on a long trip…almost left the airport at 10 pm on Saturday to go to the airport because my flight was early morning at 6 am. And where I was staying was a bit far away from the airport. I slept at the airport 10 pm, arrived Frankfurt 8:30, three hours layover in Frankfurt till 11:30 when I caught the flight from Frankfurt to Abuja, almost six hours flight, so I was really exhausted and tired to be accosted and arrested for no just reason. It was really crazy for me. More fundamentally, I raised this question with them, I see this as an attempt to curtail…..because you can’t just say because you are DSS, you are doing your job, I am doing my own as a journalist and you stopped me from moving around or wearing a particular shirt from going around. This shirt is not calling for the death or destruction of anybody or violence against any group or interest and so on. I think I see it as part of a larger plot to cow people, to limit the frontiers of press freedom and rights of people in the country which is something I don’t think they can achieve whether they like it or not.
People are calling me across the globe to request for copies of the book and the T-shirt, and I’m sure people will cash-in on that and start printing and selling it to make money.
But the point I want to make fundamentally is that, inadvertently, they have opened up the space for discussion about Nigeria. What you can say and what you can’t say. What you can wear and what you can’t wear. And I’m happy the way Nigerians responded to all of these, hopefully, it can become the basis for a bigger discussion about our country, our democracy, our right as a people. I mean, Yele Sowore has been in detention now for almost two months. We don’t know how this will pan out. It’s really not about me but that bigger picture about us starting to ask questions why Sowore remains in detention, particularly after the court had granted him bail and they had kept him for 45 days trying to get evidence against him and so on. It is something that is troubling, not just the media, civil society activists but Nigerians as a whole need to be concerned about.
Do you plan to take legal action?
I don’t think so. I have spoken to a number of my friends who are lawyers and we have to have some conversations. We have to have conversations around that maybe when I have time to rest and think through but I can’t rule that out. They really have to, for whatever it worth to…so people will know to what extent they can go as Nigerians. What you can say or do. Legal action is a possibility, definitely but we will see how it goes.
Will you say the Nigerian press currently enjoys more freedom compared to the military era?
I think to a great extent, but it’s not just about the nature of the government as a military versus civilian but more importantly, the nature of media itself, the expansion of media and information and communication technology which has created the opportunity. See what happened yesterday, I think the DSS buckled under social media pressure. People were calling and pushing this thing from around the world. I think to that extent, one can say the Press has ample space for robustness to push materials but in terms of the concrete, whether journalists are being detained, it appears not much has changed. There is a whole list, Sowore is a journalist, Jones Abiri. In fact, we had a conversation about his case while at the DSS facility yesterday. Increasingly, it’s a worrying trend that is taking prominence. In terms of infrastructure, the press has more space to function, even within that small space we have, how much can we say?
Now, it’s not just newspapers or television alone, if you say something on Facebook or Twitter, somebody can pick you up, somebody can detain you. We had read of Governors asking people to delete pictures from their phones – very ridiculous thing. So, if you look at that, you will say not much has changed, even with the privilege that journalists enjoy in terms of the ability to use different platforms and medium to express themselves in the concrete sense of how much materials or contents they can do without getting into trouble – not much has changed. In fact, it appeared to be worse now because those days, we have only a newspaper, radio and television. So for you to be arrested, there must have been a clear case of, say you have this picture or article in a newspaper. But these days, it could just be a picture, tweet, Instagram or Facebook post and you could just be picked. Sometimes, it could even be a private conversation between you and a friend via WhatsApp group and somebody picks you up. These are really dangerous trends that we need to be concerned about.
Do you think the NUJ has a role to play in this regard?
Of course, now is the time for the Nigerian Union of Journalist (NUJ) to engage journalists and more importantly, engage the government and say, look, this is not the kind of democracy we fought for. Democracy is hinged on the rule of law, freedom of the press, freedom of association. So, for our democracy to thrive, as you mentioned, 59 years of independence we are no longer a young nation no matter how you want to think about it. For democracy to thrive, the first rule has to be freedom of the press, freedom of the citizens within that democratic space.