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February 21, 2020 - 09:02
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Nigeria Cracks Down On A Critic, And A New Jersey Town Pushes Back

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Kevin Mwanza

New Jersey

Omoyele Sowore had just been freed on bail by a Nigerian court on charges of treason, money laundering and criticizing the president, but his five-month detention was not the end of his ordeal as the Nigerian equivalent of the secret service whisked him away.

Sowore’s arrest and detention underscore the deteriorating freedom of expression in one of Africa’s largest economies since President Muhammadu Buhari, a former military leader, came to power in 2015 and was re-elected in 2019.

Sowore’s family lives in Haworth, New Jersey, a well-off suburb about 20 miles from Midtown Manhattan. There, his wife Opeyemi Sowore works alongside 10 other mothers to raise awareness of her husband’s plight and protest against his unfair detention.

The group of protestors in Haworth contacted Amal Clooney, the human rights lawyer, who demanded Sowore’s release. They also worked with Amnesty International, which declared him a prisoner of conscience.

Buhari’s election was hailed as a triumph for democracy but his government has since turned toward harsh authoritarianism, putting the country’s thriving civic organizations and news media to the test.

Protests in Nigeria have been met with deadly force. The country’s chief justice was summarily sacked.

Humanitarian organizations that criticized the state were threatened with closure, and newspaper offices were raided. One journalist, Jones Abiri, has been in detention for more than three years, so long that for a time he was thought to be dead.

“The people in power just don’t want to have to tolerate the voices of the people,” Ayisha Osori, head of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, told the New York Times.

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Sowore is the founder of Sahara Reporters, a news website that specializes in exposing corruption and government malfeasance. The website has been receiving funding from American foundations, enabling him to run the news site with around 50 employees.

The site’s publication of leaked, often unfiltered information disrupted Nigeria’s traditional media scene and touched a raw nerve in Buhari’s government, which ironically had promised to fight endemic corruption in Nigeria.

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