Darker days are ahead for Nigeria as the Buhari-led federal government perfects plans to repress free speech and citizen freedoms using security agencies and strong arm tactics.
The past seven months of Buhari’s regime has witnessed an increased citizen displeasure with his government. One of the tools used by citizens to express their displeasure towards the Nigerian government is social media and comments sections on online newspapers and blogs.
Information available to The Trent reveal a perverse plot by security forces loyal to President Muhammadu Buhari’s party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) to deploy a range of strategies to “take out” critics and leading opposition voices in the country.
In September 2015, The Trent became the first newspaper to warn Nigerians and the international community on the despotism of the Buhari regime after our Executive Editor, Ms. Aziza Uko received an open threat from the Presidency. “The episode was just one more, in a series of bullying, and threats of arrest targeted at our journalists and Ms. Uko from minions of the government and Nigeria’s Secret Police,” our Editorial Board published in an editorial.
The Social Media Headache
According to a security source, who spoke with The Trent on condition of anonymity, Buhari’s inner circle is extremely uncomfortable with the many scandals that blow up against the government on social media. A recent case is the matter of the “withdrawn” 2016 budget which was first revealed on Twitter by Mr. Deji Adeyanju, a top opposition voice on social media.
Adeyanju, a People’s Democratic Party youth leader and former presidential aide during the Jonathan administration had revealed that the Buhari Presidency had withdrawn the 2016 Budget from the National Assembly through the backdoor on January 4, 2016, more than a week before the news of a “missing budget” hit news headlines.
This expose came days after Nigerians had taken to Twitter and Facebook to express their disapproval of outlandish expenses detailed in the budget including the President’s feeding bill, plans to buy brand new BMW cars, and several other budgetary allocations. Citizen-driven hashtags like #BudgetOfYams – yams being a slang for corruption trended for days on social media.
“These youngsters on Twitter and other social media are giving this government a hard time controlling the narrative,” our source disclosed. “There is widespread concern that if this trend is not checked, social media will take Buhari down the same way it took Goodluck out of office.”
Another source close to the Presidency tells our reporter that some of the tactics to be deployed on a wider scale included arresting opposition leaders with strong presence on social media; character assassination attempts targeted at online critics of Buhari; intimidation attempts by striking fear into opposition leaders forcing them to go underground; and bringing spurious charges of sedition against social media activists.
The DSS: A Willing Partner In Oppression
Our investigations confirm that the Department of State Security Services (DSS) is central in this sinister plot to unleash a new scale of dictatorship on Nigerian citizens by suppressing free speech and the press. A Port Harcourt based lawyer, Best Ogbowu Jnr (Esq.) who uses the Facebook name, Best Bonn, recounts being accosted gestapo style by armed operatives of the DSS as he came out of a fast-food restaurant on October 25, 2015.
According to Ogbowu, he initially resisted arrest, because he thought they were kidnappers, attracting the attention of a crowd and an air force officer who was nearby. In the ensuing confrontation, he was able to call his father and his lawyer colleagues who came to the scene and intervened on his behalf. “That is how I found myself in the DSS defending my Facebook posts for four days,” Best Bonn told our reporter.
“One of them had DSS boldly written on both sides of his vest and held a gun pointing towards my direction threatened to shoot me if I attempt to run away.
“Luckily, from amongst the crowd a middle aged man of about 55 who identified himself as a personnel of the Nigerian Air Force stepped into the situation and an argument followed.
“I insisted that I’ve not committed any felony to warrant the DSD picking me up like a bandit when their services were highly needed in the North to curb Boko Haram.
“My father arrived, shortly, with two of my uncles and my principal at work too. After an intense argument, the DSS operatives said they were not arresting me but it was an invitation to their office.” The full story on Best Bonn’s encounter with the DSS will be published next week.
Transfer of Fear
The Trent has interviewed dozens of social media activists and almost all of them have received a threat delivered to a close friend, a family member, a clergy, a colleague, or a workplace superior.
“It is not surprising. It is a common scare tactic of despotic regimes. The opposition figure is often a fearless person who would not succumb to threats and intimidation so the government directs its intimation at those close to the activist,” Edward Oparaoji, a NADECO activist and university professor based in the United States told our reporter. “The Abacha government used the method to cause some critics of the government to back-peddle and go underground. We lost some of our comrades to this tactic. The object is to emotionally blackmail the activist to give up on criticizing the government publicly. It is a manifestation of an insecure government.”
A popular newspaper columnist recounts how in January 2016, a soldier went to his pastor in uniform and told his pastor to tell him (the columnist) to stop bashing Buhari in the media or he (the soldier) would personally ensure that he is “dealt with”.
“My pastor told me that the soldier looked fierce and extremely upset by my comments on the Buhari’s handling of the war against Boko Haram and the Zaria massacre,” the writer said. He didn’t want to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
A popular commentator who is often critical of Buhari’s government has removed an article from his Facebook page after receiving “admonishing from his pastor” that it was “too harsh on the government in power”. The article, which had also been published on The Trent, was also pulled from our website on the writer’s request.
Our findings are that some vocal high profile PDP members and opposition figures have been marked by the Buhari government. According to our source, the list has over thirty names of Buhari’s fiercest online critics.
“PDP leaders are easy to take out of action with the use of the EFCC (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission) because any party leader would have had financial dealings they [the government] can easily present as the reason for its actions,” a top security expert told The Trent. “But younger critics of the government tend to have clean records, so the plot is to set them up.”
Our source, who works with some government agencies in the country, disclosed that vocal youth leaders in the main opposition party, the PDP, have been marked by the government. Included in “the list”, is Deji Adeyanju, the Social Media Director of the PDP, who is said to be “volatile and throws caution to the wind in his attacks on Buhari’s government”. Justin Kingland, is also reportedly on “the list”. Kingland says he relocated from Nigeria because of the constant threats and harassment over his Facebook commentary on Buhari’s government.
“I will not relent. My Facebook page has been hacked several times. I have been threatened with death. Quite often I get messages that contain all my details, my village, my parents’ names, my residential address, phone numbers and a warning to stop attacking Buhari or I will be ‘found’,” Kingland, who owns a blog and runs a Facebook group, Face of Agulu-Anambra told The Trent.
Another individual on “the list” is Sola Kuti, whose Facebook comments are said to be giving “unease to the APC”. Some other persons on “the list” are Emeka Okoroji who uses the Twitter handle, @iamtenseven; Euphemia Udanoh, a scriptwriter and Facebook activist; Portia Emilia Anthony, a lawyer who has been arrested by the DSS over her political commentary on Facebook; Malik Shabbazz Abdulmalik, a medical doctor who is one of the arrowheads of PDP’s social media strategy; Emmanuel Udoh, an engineer whose memes often go viral on social media; and Lere Olayinka, the special assistant on New Media to Ekiti’s Governor Ayo Fayose.
Our sources report that there will be attempts by security operatives to orchestrate a set up of key opposition figures on “the list”. One of the strategies revealed include using a close friend to begin a conversation on “Buhari’s health given his age”, so that the target would innocently flow along with the conversation and “suggest that the president, given his age and attendant state of health could pass away while in office”.
The conversation would be recorded and doctored to appear as if the target was plotting the death of the President and he or she would then be arrested and charged for sedition.
Another trap would be to also use a friend or a member of the PDP to engage the target in a conversation that suggests that a coup to topple the Buhari government was being plotted. The conversation would then be doctored to appear as if the target was discussing a plot to overthrow the government.
According to our source, “The government knows that arresting people for harsh commentary on Buhari would lead to an international outcry against the Nigerian government, so they are trying to stage situations where it would appear as if the opposition figure is guilty of a serious crime.
“Also, something incriminating could be planted on these persons – in their house or their car or their office – following which, a sting operation would be staged and the person arrested.”
What do opposition voices need to do to stay safe, given that the very institutions sworn to protect them are now hunting them?
“Keep doing what you are doing, for sure,” Emeka Umeagbalasi, a leading human rights advocate submits. “The best defense against tyranny is to speak up against it.”
Umeagbalasi, who is the board chairman of a leading rights organisation in Nigeria, Intersociety (International Society for Civil Liberties & the Rule of Law), also adds, “Study the law, know the law, be armed with the power of knowledge.
“Activists have to be careful to operate within the law of the land, though it is no guarantee that this despotic government would not arrest them. They should bear in mind that the rule of law always prevails over despotism.”