Professor Okey Ndibe, journalist, internationally acclaimed novelist and political columnist, has been targeted for harassment multiple times by security agents because his name is on a 12-year-old list of ‘enemies of the state’ for criticising several Nigerian government administrations. He spoke to the Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ) on the list that triggered his arrest, detention and hours of interrogation by the Department of State Security Service (DSS). He also discussed #EndSARS and social justice.
Movement surveillance, telephone conversation monitoring and arbitrary arrest and detention are the realities of individuals who are placed on the ‘list of enemies of the state’. It is a list kept and regularly updated by despotic governments that cannot withstand the heat of criticism.
Consistently criticising a government will precipitate being placed on the list. Portraying a government in a manner it considers embarrassing comes with a price, one which Professor Okey Ndibe pays every time he visits Nigeria – like last week when he was briefly stoppped by the DSS from boarding his flight to the US.
Criticise the Government, Avoid Closed Door Meetings, Become an Enemy
Ndibe became privy to the ‘enemies of the state list’ in 2008 during the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s government when a journalist who had been arrested by the Department of State Security (DSS) warned him that his name came up during interrogation. He ended up cancelling his trip to Nigeria that year.
The writer and author of internationally acclaimed novels – one of them, Foreign Gods Inc, was named one of the best books of the year 2014 by leading publications – believes his criticism of the flawed election that brought the late Yar’Adua to power and his call for the president to renounce his “illicit mandate” angered the government and prompted his name to be included on the list of enemies of the state.
“I wrote a column where I stated that I was never going to address him as president. That he was an imposition on Nigeria and as such I would call him in my columns a resident of Aso rock,” Ndibe told the FIJ.
He objected when an aide to the president who described the professor as a ‘critical stakeholder’ asked him to meet with President Yaradua who was in New York for the UN General Assembly. “Every Nigerian has an equal stake; there is no Nigerian who has a critical stake over somebody else in their country.”
Few years later, he became certain of the existence of an ‘enemy of the state’ list when Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, who succeeded President Yaradua after he died in office, visited the United States and Prof. Ndibe was asked to meet with the president. But he declined.
“I made it clear that as a principle, I would not meet privately with any political office holder and that he was part of the government that had put my name on the list of enemies of the state,” Ndibe said. He knew the antics of government and objecting to meeting people in political office was a way to safeguard himself from being blackmailed. Afterwards, he was informed that President Jonathan had given instructions that the list should be expunged.
The president’s directive, however, did not prevent him from being arrested and detained for three hours by the DSS when he travelled to Nigeria in January 2011. With his Nigerian and American passports confiscated, he was ordered to report to their office two days later. On that day, flanked by his lawyer, news of Ndibe’s arrest had gone viral and the US State Department mounted pressure on the Nigerian government to release him. The DSS director at the time later apologized and blamed the government of Yar’Adua for placing the professor on the list.
‘Converted Democrat’ Who Keeps ‘Enemies of Government’ List
In the lead-up to the 2015 presidential election, Muhammadu Buhari, a retired general and military head of state, said he was a “converted democrat. “…Whatever law is on the ground, I will make sure it is respected,” the New York Times quoted Buhari to have said.
But having spent six years in power, Buhari now presides over a country where critics, dissidents and activists are hounded by security agents. Recently, protesters who demanded an end to police brutality were shot, injured and killed by the security agents in many parts of the country.
Like it happened with past governments, Ndibe has been harassed by the Buhari administration no less than two times. The first was in August 2017 after he criticised the president for his handling of issues that adversely affect Nigerians. Other times were December 2020 and January 2021.
“…He was lacking in vision. That he was a confused leader,” Ndibe said, repeating what he had said about President Buhari in 2017 on Arise Television morning show with host Reuben Abati. “I don’t know whether that was a trigger.”
When he was leaving the country, he was questioned at the airport for about 30 minutes.
Three years later, in 2020, he was harassed when he arrived the country on December 18. His passport, which had been collected, was returned after he threatened security officials that he had informed the media, and that news of his harassment would soon break the internet. He went through the same ordeal at the airport while returning to US in January 2021.
Principles Worth Fighting For
In 2011, Ndibe was told by the editor of a newspaper that the Director of the DSS had said the only way the novelist could get his name off the list of ‘enemies of the state’ was to write a petition. But he rejected the idea with the reason that he did not need to write a petition since he never wrote one for his name to be placed on the list.
“Certain principles are worth fighting for. Nigeria has an array of criminals: governors, ministers, ex-presidents, current president who have committed grave crimes against the Nigerian constitution and people. Most of those people walk around free without harassment and a violation of their right,” Ndibe said.
“So the whole idea that somebody like myself who has committed no crime, who has merely insisted that those who are criminals be held to account, that I should be declared an enemy of the state and put on a list and marked for harassment whenever I came in, that is absolutely objectionable.
“So for me to go and beg for me to be removed from a list that I should not be on since I am not a criminal by any definition of that term, would be to dignify what some craving idiots have done and I refuse to participate in that. For me, it is a matter of principle.”
#EndSARS: Young People Listened to the Call to Rescue Themselves from Those Wrecking Their Lives
The #EndSARS protest across the country led to the disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a notorious police unit known to brutalise members of the public. The two-week protest soon transformed to an unprecedented demand by young people for better governance. Government security forces violently ended the protest, killing and maiming many protesters in the process.
Ndibe, through a column he began writing in 1999, had urged young Nigerians to “reclaim their country from the hands of those who are wrecking their present and their future”. He described the #EndSARS period as “the most buoyant moment in Nigeria’s history over the last 20 years”.
“It was a beautiful moment. I was ecstatic with joy just to watch this young people rise to the occasion and call out the injustices that have been perpetrated by their misrulers over decades.”
The clampdown by the government on “that beautiful movement” was tragic and the killing of protesters was “one of the darkest days in Nigeria’s recent history”. He wants young people to remember the #EndSARS protest in the next election and rid themselves of leaders who brought them misery while they support candidates who would make life meaningful.
Wondering why a government that has nothing to hide would order protesters to be shot, Ndibe said that “hidden agenda and criminality” including violation of human rights, theft of commonwealth and disregard for the constitution had been a part of successive Nigerian governments from 1960.
“The crimes are manifold and so any attempts to bring those crimes to light would merit vicious reprisal from the government. That’s what we saw in the way the #EndSARS protest was put down.”
Desire for Freedom while Choosing to not Fear
As a young journalist, before leaving for the US, Ndibe courgeously stood up to military rulers. Knowing that he could be jailed for an offence as flimsy as insulting the head of state, he wrote an article in the 80s, calling General Ibrahim Babdamasi Babangida, the then head of state, a “Maradona who dribbles to stay in power”. He was not arrested.
Having lived his first 28 years as a Nigerian and now in his sixties, he demands freedom to come in and leave Nigeria without harassment and without needing to rely on America – his second country – to step in whenever the government of his country of birth beleaguers him.
“It is a shame that Nigeria continues to violate the rights of its citizens and that it takes another country to lend me some shield of safety or security. It should not be so,” he argued.
“When I speak about Nigeria, I don’t speak because I believe that America will come to my aid, I speak as a Nigerian and I speak because I want a country that is worthy of its citizens. A country that serves the best interest of all.”
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