The Unfair Arrest of The Nation’s editors in Abuja

Oct 17, 2011 – THE recent arrest and detention of editors of The Nation Newspapers by operatives of the Nigeria Police over an alleged petition by former President Olusegun Obasanjo has, expectedly, created a great furore across the land.

The arrest came after the October 4, 2011 edition of the newspaper, in which it reported that the former president wrote a letter to President Goodluck Jonathan, urging him to sack some top officials of federal agencies from the North, including the Executive Secretary of the Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF), Muttaqa Darma, and replace them with his own nominees.

The former president, on reading the story, had vehemently denied it to airport newsmen. The editors picked up included the Managing Editor in Charge of Northern Operations, Yusuf Alli, the Abuja Bureau Chief, Yomi Odunuga and Lawal Ogienagbon, the Deputy Editor. Others were the Dapo Olufade, an editor of the Weekend editions, Dupe Olaoye-Oshinkolu, the Labour Correspondent and the Chief Security Officer of the organisation, Jide Adegbenjo.

Most of them have already been set free. We understand President Jonathan put in a word to bring this about.

In a public statement published in the media last Friday, the spokesman of the Police, DCP Olusola Amore, insisted that the arrests were ordered by the Inspector General of Police, Hafiz Ringim, in reaction to a petition by the former president, who accused the newspaper of publishing a forged document to malign him, which is a criminal offence. According to the IG, Obasanjo, as a citizen, had the right to complain to the police when he feels wronged and the latter had a duty to “respond.”

The widespread condemnation trailing this ugly event had to do with the irregular way the law enforcement agents went about it. Instead of applying and obtaining a search warrant and arrest warrants before swooping, the Police acted in what the House of Representatives members correctly described as “Gestapo style,” reminiscent of the mode of operation of the security services during the military era, when media operators were regularly harassed due to their stance against continuation of military dictatorship.

The way they went about it made many observers to read meanings into it. It tended to reiterate the widely-held view by critics of the Jonathan regime that the president is somewhat tied to the apron-strings of the former president, who played the crucial role in pairing him with the late ailing President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. After all, the laws are specific about steps that any citizen can take if he feels his rights have been infringed upon by the media. The courts are there to take up such complaints and address them accordingly.

If the over-reaction of the Police and security agents in invading the media house, arresting and detaining the editors was meant to dispel the impression that the former president was extending his perceived anti-North manoeuvres, the action of the Police somehow further emboldened those who held this view.

Happily, the House of Representatives has already set up a committee to, within two weeks, investigate the circumstances surrounding these arrests and invasion. We hope that, like all other issues surrounding former President Obasanjo, this inquest would not be abandoned half-way. We are living witnesses to how the sudden death of the National Integrated Power Projects (NIPP) spending died in the House and the recent abandonment of the privatisation scam by the Senate, when the former president’s name featured prominently.

It is a pity that Obasanjo, who is a major beneficiary of the media’s struggle for civic freedoms, the end of military rule and his own release from life-threatening jail under the late General Sani Abacha, has always been eager to get into odds with the media, both while in office and since he left.

We condemn the arrest of The Nation’s editors, the invasion of the company’s premises and the harassment of its personnel in no uncertain terms. We wish to draw the attention of the authorities to the fact that each time they embark on this ignoble adventure it is the government that loses in the end. These arrests usually yield nothing positive for the authorities. There has never been a positive alternative to pursuit of grievances through the due process of the law.

The media must be allowed to continue to pursue its duties under the constitution to hold government and the leadership accountable subject to the laws of the land. Anything short of this is not acceptable to us.