Popular Investigative Nigeria Website Sued For $25 Billion

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[Global: Africa Commentary]

I am a student of good journalism. Good journalism empowers. Good journalism builds. Good journalism is the only foundation on which the democratic state can flourish.

But good journalism is difficult journalism. Good journalism must hunt down the facts, as inconvenient as they might be. The more important the facts, the more difficult they are to hunt down. Still, the difficulty of obtaining information or ensuring the accuracy information does not diminish the burden of responsibility on the journalist.

That, of course, is the ideal. The dwindling quality of Nigerian journalism in recent times is stark proof of how difficult this standard is to meet. Our journalism thrives—sadly— on commentary, not reporting. Nigeria has 130 million columnists; our only limitation is editorial space.

In recent times, the Internet has permitted the arrival of Citizen Journalism as an important genre in this trade. One of the most important organizations in the Nigerian environment is SaharaReporters (SR), about which I wrote here on 10 August 2008.

Since 2006, SR has profiled what corruption and bad governance actually mean in Nigeria. It authoritatively chronicles how government officials spend or steal official funds, or abuse power. Few are the men or women in power whose hands have been found to be clean. Nigerians not exposed by SR ought to consider placing the title, "NSR" (NotSaharaReported) after their names.

How does SR do it? Looking at it from the outside, it obviously employs good, old-fashioned digging techniques: investigation, records, interviews, etc. Recently, it proved—proved, I repeat— that the homes being attributed to the former EFCC Chairman Nuhu Ribadu in England by the new EFCC Chairman, Mrs. Farida Wiziri, were completely false. How? SR checked public records in England, something the EFCC itself obviously failed to do, and something the mainstream media ought to have done.

But— sadly but not surprisingly—SR and its uncompromising young publisher, Omoyele Sowore, are now under severe attack. In the past few months, hackers have made several efforts to hijack the site, but SR survived owing to the foresight of its managers.

Furthermore, sponsored stories and advertisements have appeared in newspapers in Nigeria accusing Mr. Sowore of owning four or five properties in the United States, thus suggesting he is not clean. Their authors seemed so desperate to tarnish the young man’s reputation they neglected to check their facts: the properties in reference, which obviously came from a casual Internet name-search by a "consultant," are his previous addresses in the US. One of them is a student’s hostel he lived in.

An interesting lawsuit has also been filed in Houston, Texas, by Dr. Paul Botwev Orhii, whom SR had alleged to be a cousin of Attorney-General Michael Aondoakaa and to be involved in a suspicious deal with the Attorney-General in the government’s legal action against Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. In the suit against SR and Mr. Sowore, seen on the Internet, Dr. Orhii is asking for 25 billion dollars ($25,000,000,000.00). That claim is ridiculous, of course, but on the Western side of the Atlantic he is playing by the book; in Nigeria, in contrast, journalists are being thrown into detention and their lives threatened.

Dr. Orhii, it would be remembered, is the Texas doctor who, last December, wrote to President Yar’Adua volunteering to be an expert witness against Pfizer. On January 21, in what must rank as the federal government’s quickest hiring in 48 years, Mr. Aondoakaa announced his engagement in a lavish letter which was curiously published in the press. Everyone knows that in the real world, the Nigerian government does not work that quickly, if it works at all, as is evidenced by the President’s effort to cobble a new cabinet together, and his power sector emergency.

The fourth attack on SR is, in effect, an attempt to pull it out by the roots. Someone is searching the Internet looking for whoever registered or is hosting SR, and trying to compel it so shut down the site. Someone, who calls himself "REARDENILSON & ASSOCIATES", is threatening legal action because, according to him, SR is being used to disseminate "subversive" information against the President of Nigeria.

Really? "REARDENISON & ASSOCIATES" cites a story on SR in which a psychiatrist who claimed to have treated Yar’Adua years ago describes him as "mentally sick." But the material is not even an SR story; it was originally published in Kaduna by the "Desert Herald." I wonder if they set fire to the desert.

So that is the line-up: technological warfare designed to make SR unpublishable; a scorched-earth campaign to discredit Mr. Sowore personally; a gigantic lawsuit by an interested party; and a political appeal to Internet hosts to take the site off the air.

I think that the government of President Yar’Adua is behind most of these efforts on account of his recent harassment of journalists, and because he and his friends have the most to gain should SR be taken out of play. I do not mean to give the impression that SR is perfect: some of its stories could be improved. But what about the malfeasance it has so painfully chronicled for two years?

And we must remind ourselves this is Citizen Journalism: Nigerians going out of their way to explore the use and abuse of power and privilege in our country. The only people that can have something against this are those who wield some of this power and those who benefit from corruption. Otherwise, I encourage all of those who feel offended to challenge SR’s stories. When the site says that EFCC’s Mrs. Waziri has been bribed with a $500,000.00 Mercedes car, for instance, and publishes the technical identification of the car, where it was bought, by whom and where it is parked, this is either true or false. You either sue SR or arrest Mrs. Waziri.

It is left to Nigerians to decide whether they want to be ruled by ignorance or knowledge. For many years, we knew corruption was ruining us; now, SR and similar sources are showing us how, by whom, and to what extent.

Recently, Jonathan Elendu of Elendureports who visited his own country and was detained for two weeks on the suspicion he does not like Yar’Adua. That was followed by the detention of another blogger, Emeka Asiwe, who edits the HuhuOnline website for issues relating to "national security." It is obvious that Mr. Sowore is the grand prize; SR has done more for the anti-corruption cause in Nigeria in the past two years than the EFCC and other "anti-corruption" bodies bundled together.

Nigerians ought to be outraged that citizens reporting the depth of our decay and reflecting the frustration of the common man are being hunted and detained while the billion-dollar criminals enjoy ministerial appointments, ridiculous plea deals and lavish parties in between preparing lists of who should be appointed to office, or made to disappear.

This is why I feel we have reached the crossroads. Nigerians must determine whether to serve as slaves to their own cowardice, or speak as citizens. Many grumble privately, but their cowardice emboldens the criminals and perpetuates their slavery.

As SR comes under this life-or-death assault, I say to those who feel that it is making an important contribution: shout it out, don’t whisper it. Similarly, if you feel that SR is wrong, shout it out, don’t whisper it. However, you are a hypocrite if you say you support the tenacious sacrifices being made by nationals for you and me, yet stand by while they are ripped apart.

As one who believes that SaharaReporters and Mr. Sowore are fighting for me, I say: Speak up! Speak up; those who loot and abuse should not prevail over those who merely report their crimes against the people! Speak up; go to the SR site and put your support where your mouth is! Speak up for your children and your country!


Contact writer at [email protected]

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