By ‘Fisayo Soyombo
On July 28, 2016, Facebook user Ndoboke Doris posed a question, followed by a prayer, on the wall of journalist Jones Abiri. “Where are you my brother?” Doris wondered. “I pray the Good God shall perform a miracle for you.”
Well, the “good God” hasn’t, just yet, but there is evidence he indeed heard Doris’ prayer. In June, the month four days into which Abiri should have celebrated another birthday, his sudden disappearance has now become a media item. Until Thursday at the opening session of the International Press Institute (IPI) World Congress in Abuja, very few people knew, despite the best efforts of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), that Abiri had been in detention by the Department of State Services (DSS) since July 2016.
On that day, Barbara Traori, Executive Director of the IPI, had urged Buhari to ensure Abiri’s release from detention. Strangely, even journalists covering the congress didn’t consider this a headline item. Later that night, Lai Mohammed’s media team self-imploded. They must have patted themselves on the back seeing that their press statement of denial on Abiri was generously reported. Unfortunately, it raises more dirt than tens of follow-up press statements could ever clean up.
“Let me state here, without equivocating, that contrary to the report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), no journalist is in detention in Nigeria,” Lai said in the opening paragraph of the statement, issued by Segun Adeyemi, his Special Adviser on Media. “Clement Abiri, who is being referred to as a journalist, is not one. He does not belong to any chapel of the Nigerian Union of Journalists. He was arrested for pipeline vandalism and crude theft, including militant activities in the Niger Delta.”
There are at least three inconsistencies in that brief paragraph: that no Nigerian journalist is currently in detention, that Jones Abiri is not a journalist because he doesn’t belong to NUJ, that the man in detention is Clement Abiri by name.
Of course there is a Nigerian journalist in detention! Since 2016, he has been on the annual prison census of jailed journalists of the CPJ, the American independent non-profit, non-governmental organization that promotes press freedom and defends the rights of journalists. His arrest was reported in 2016, so if he had been freed, it would have been reported as well.
That Abiri is not a journalist because he doesn’t belong to NUJ is an argument that fails on two fronts. One, the Nigerian Constitution guarantees citizens freedom of association/unionism — the freedom not just to belong to an association but also the freedom to choose not to. Apparently, Abiri chose to exercise this freedom in the negative, but this doesn’t disqualify him from journalism. More importantly, the NUJ itself hasn’t disowned him; Comrade Abdulwaheed Odusile, President of NUJ, who also doubles as the President of the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ), has been involved in the advocacy for Abiri’s release since at least October 2017, same as Shu’aibu Usman Leman, the National Secretary of NUJ. As of the time of his arrest, Abiri was the Publisher of local newspaper Weekly Source.
The man in detention is not Clement Abiri? Regardless of his source of information, the Information Minister cannot know more, on this matter, than the agency that picked up Abiri in Bayelsa on July 21, 2016. On July 23, the DSS itself said “one Jones ABIRI… was arrested by this Service in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State”.
One possibility could have been that Clement is one of Jones Abiri’s other names. But his family has been contacted and they have confirmed that their son was never named, and has never been called, Clement. Therefore, if Lai insists that the man in prison is Clement rather than Jones Abiri, then he is indirectly validating the concerns of newspaper publishers in Bayelsa that Abiri may have been extra-judicially murdered in detention. Writing under the aegis of the Pen Pushers Association of Nigeria (PPAN), in January, they said they were “privileged to have an unconfirmed information that Abiri is long dead in DSS custody and that is the reason why they had refused to bring him to court”.
Abiri’s family believes he is being held because of a July 10, 2016 story by Weekly Source, published by the detained journalist, on how “top army officers” plotting to unseat President Mohammadu Buhari had approached Niger Delta militants under the aegis of the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force (NDLF) to intensify the bombing of oil pipelines, which would be used as a justification to overthrow the Buhari administration.
Interestingly, the DSS has some weighty allegations against him. Two days after picking Abiri up, it issued a press statement thus: “On 21st July, 2016, one Jones ABIRI aka General Akotebe DARIKORO was arrested by this Service in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State. DARIKORO is the leader of the Joint Revolutionary Council of the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force (JNDLF), which has been furthering separatist tendencies in connivance with other criminal gangs in the Niger Delta region. DARIKORO, who operates under the nom-de-guerre “General-Kill and Bury”, has confessed and owned up to some criminal activities committed by the JNDLF, which include:
“The vandalism of Nigeria Agip Oil Company (NAOC) trunk line in Ogboinbiri, Southern Ijaw LGA and bombing of oil pipeline belonging to Shell Development Company (SPDC) at Brass creek on 8th July, 2016, all in Bayelsa State;
“Threat messages to managements of NAOC and SPDC demanding for the payment of the sum of Five Hundred Million Naira (N500m), and Two Hundred and Fifty Million Naira (N250m) respectively;
“Threat to launch missile attacks against selected targets in Abuja including the Presidential Villa, Aso Rock;
“DARIKORO is also the mastermind of the recently circulated hoax of planned overthrow of President Muhammadu BUHARI, GCFR, by the military.”
These allegations are a shock to friends and family of Abiri; they claim repeatedly that he has no connections to militancy in the Niger Delta. They or the DSS are wrong, and it is a simple matter for the courts to decide. Even if Jones Dabiri had committed murder, which he hasn’t yet been accused of, anyway, he has a right to fair hearing and trial. He has a right, too, to occasional visits, no matter how brief, from his family. At this moment, no member of his family knows his whereabouts; no one, not even his lawyers, knows where he is being detained; no one even knows if he is dead or alive.
Next month, it will be two straight years that Abiri was arrested. His continued detention without trial will not only aggravate concerns that he is dead, it is the antithesis of all the DSS represents. The DSS is a creation of the law, and cannot become the law itself. If Jones Abiri is guilty as alleged, the DSS should press charges against him in accordance with the law. If he is truly guilty, he should be allowed to have his day in court. In a democracy, no human being — forget that Abiri is a journalist — deserves to be imprisoned without trial. Until that day when the DSS presents its two-year-long captive in court, the question will be asked from time to time: “Is Jones Abiri, the Bayelsa journalist arrested by DSS in 2016, dead or alive?”
Soyombo, former Editor of the TheCable and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), tweets @fisayosoyombo