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My 6-hour ordeal with DSS –Onumah

Chido Onumah, a journalist, author and rights activist, spoke to Akani Alaka on his recent arrest by operatives of the Department of State Services, DSS, on arrival at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, from Sweden, for wearing a t-shirt with the inscription; ‘We Are All Biafrans’, and other issues. 

To start from the beginning, what really happened at the Abuja airport on Sunday on your return from Spain?

I was actually returning from Sweden. I had been in Spain. I left the country (Nigeria) about three weeks ago. I went to conferences in Glasgow, Scotland. Then, I was in London, went to Barcelona to do my doctoral defence and then ended up in Sweden for a conference. So, I was actually coming in from Sweden when they arrested me.


Did you have any inkling that you would be arrested by the DSS at the airport?

No, no. Some of my friends have been in the country for about a week. So, I was eager to be with them. Immediately my plane touched down, I turned on my phone to tell them that I had arrived and I just needed little time to refresh and come to the meeting. So, I had no inkling. When I got there (airport), I waited by the baggage claims area to pick up my luggage. It was immediately I picked up my luggage that somebody just approached me and said ‘I am from the DSS and we will like to see you’. I followed them. I didn’t try to create any scene. And one of the things that one of them said was ‘you’re a Biafran, why are you carrying a Nigerian passport?’ I answered that I am a Nigerian, that’s why I am carrying a Nigerian passport. They now said okay, ‘but that is not what is written on your t-shirt’. I said that’s the title of my book. But that obviously didn’t make any meaning to them. I spent two hours there and they now took me to their office in Abuja and all kinds of things kept coming up, including the fact that some people were worried about me, that I was wearing that t-shirt, that I was part of some people, who want to cause problems in the country, that they got information that I was part of some groups, who want to cause disaffection and breakdown of law and order.

Later, they said they wanted to protect me from people, who wanted to attack me because they feared that if they attacked me, there could be reprisal from IPOB and so on. But I said I don’t belong to IPOB; why should they want to defend me? The IPOB people don’t even like me; they think I am against them. Later, they said I couldn’t wear the t-shirt to town, that the t-shirt was capable of causing trouble and so on, that they had to seize it. So, I had to take off the t-shirt and put on something else. That was it.

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But you’ve been wearing the t-shirt for a long time. Have you ever had any encounter with security agencies or even, the kind of persons they say may attack you?

I have been wearing the t-shirt since May of 2016, which is over three and a half years now. I travelled with it. When I travelled three weeks ago, I wore the t-shirt. I wore it when I was coming back. Nobody has accosted me. People actually beg me that they like the t-shirt and want a copy of it. They (DSS operatives) were surprised when I told them that I had been wearing the t-shirt for three years and they didn’t believe me. They asked me, ‘where did you normally wear it to?’ I said I wear it everywhere; I wear it to events, in the city, to work most Fridays because I have so many of them. And I told them it was the title of my book, but they couldn’t make that connection. They said, ‘we are not interested in the book. It is the t-shirt that we are interested in’.


But did they tell you where they got the information that you might be attacked because of the t-shirt from?

No, they kept talking about ‘intelligence.’ But they hinted initially at the airport that the people in the plane were concerned that there was a guy, who was wearing this t-shirt and they thought I was coming to the country, as part of some groups who were planning something. I told them that I live in Nigeria, so I could not be coming from outside to be part of anything, even though I also live in Canada. But I was coming in from Sweden where I attended a conference. They were just saying a lot of things, which they couldn’t substantiate.


The DSS also said in their statement that you agreed that you would never wear the t-shirt again, is that true?

They said they wouldn’t leave me unless I signed an undertaking that I will leave that t-shirt. They said they wouldn’t let me go if I didn’t surrender the t-shirt. I wasn’t in the mood to stay there any longer. I had been travelling for hours. I slept in the airport in Sweden for six hours, so that I will be able to catch my flight because where I was staying was very far. And after six hours, nobody seems to understand what I was saying to them. I said ‘okay, if that’s the condition you are willing to release me,’ because they are ready to keep me there till the following day. But I believe that they were also under a lot of pressure, as calls were coming from everywhere, asking them why they were holding me. So, the guys said ‘yes, we will let you go under two conditions – we will take this t-shirt from you and you will agree not to wear it again.’ I said, ‘fine, if that’s what you want before freeing me, let me just get out so that I can get my life going again.’ I am considering initiating legal action against them now, particularly to retrieve my t-shirt because I don’t see any reason they should hold it. But I will let the judiciary decide.


But are you surprised that the word Biafra still rankles some people, including the security agencies, nearly over 50 years after the civil war?

That’s the big question. I’m surprised and at the same time, not surprised. I’m surprised that within the intelligence community and the people, who should know, there is so much ignorance. When I was having the conversation with them, I said ‘look, the word ‘Biafra’ is not banned. Biafra is part of our history, there is Bight of Biafra. Biafra is what happened to us; the civil war. So, Biafra is like any other word -it could be Oduduwa, Arewa and so on. If you are talking of a political organisation and you say you proscribed them, it is a different thing. But the word ‘Biafra’ has not been banned. Also seriously speaking, that the word still rankles should also tell you how fragile and divided this nation is. Americans fought the civil war and they still live together as a prosperous nation. It is something that we have to understand and deal with. But unfortunately, that is not the case.


But why do you choose that title ‘We Are All Biafrans’ for the book, because it is attracting attention?

It is good the book is attracting some attention and discussion. People who don’t have the book before are calling to see how they can get copies. And it’s good that it is bring out some renewed conversations about our country and where it is headed. Why I chose the title is a bit of a long story. It started about four years ago during the whole Nnamdi Kanu saga-when he was first arrested, when Buhari came to power and Biafra was gaining momentum and people were having conversations on the pages of the newspaper-why is Biafra still a sore issue and so on. Then, Prof. Jibrin Ibrahim of the Centre For Democracy and Development wrote an article, titled, ‘How Do We Deal With The Igbo Question’ linking it to the Biafra agitation and so on. So, some public intellectuals, among them, Prof. Chidi Odinkalu and Okey Ibeanu, now in INEC wrote articles criticising Prof. Ibrahim and raising concerns about the whole Igbo, Biafra thing in the context of the Nigerian society. I read the different articles and I put in my own interventions that it is not about just the Igbo anymore. Just like the Igbo or some people  within their community are clamouring for attention or change, the same thing is happening in Niger Delta, the same thing is happening in the Middle Belt, the Southwest, everywhere . So, the bottom line was that we have poor people all over the country. So, the Biafra agitation could actually be the metaphor for addressing the problems. So, we are all Biafrans. We are all suffering and complaining. It is not just the Biafran people or that part of the country. Essentially, that was the conclusion. I now said we are all Biafrans to the extent that we live in this country. That’s how the title came about. I used it basically as a metaphor to call attention to the problems that people across the country are facing. That was the article I wrote and consequently, things started emerging. I had other articles I wrote and I put them together in a book, and I gave it the title, We Are All Biafrans.


How relevant are the ideas canvassed for in that book to Nigeria, especially with the country set to become 60 years old as an independent country next year?

Many of the issues in the book speak to some of the challenges we face as a nation-whether it is a question of how to strengthen our federation, empower our local governments, the citizens and son on. Essentially, it is all about how to create a united, peaceful and egalitarian society. Those are the ideas that I tried to push forward in the book and they are ideas that we now, as a people, almost 60 years after our independence should be ashamed of where we are. Considering the material and human resources that we have, considering that in this century, practically, everything have been done for us-whether it is electricity, there is great expansion in technology – drones- we lived in a word where everything have been done for us. But we can’t take advantage of any of these things. Nigeria is one the few countries in the world where open defecation is still an issue. We have millions of out of school children. Our universities are just glorified secondary schools and so on.

You try to manage two or three hours of constant electricity in a day in a world where people are thinking of clean energy, weaning themselves from fossil fuels and all that. So, you should ask yourself, what have we been doing in the past 50 years? We build a modern capital city just some years ago; there is no rail line within the city, no tram. But it is not too late to pull ourselves back and begin to refocus the country. But this cannot be done until we address the question of nation unity, nation building. I have always said that until we are able to address the question of who is a Nigerian, what does it mean to be a Nigerian, what holds us together, what binds us together – because many people still feel that they are second class citizen in this country and so on and until we are able to deal with that, we will continue to wander in the wilderness of hopelessness.


In view of your arrest, and what is happening to Sowore and other people, do you share the fear of some people that the current government may be sliding down the path of tyranny?

It is a lot of concern for me and that’s why I said earlier that I am considering legal action. It is worrisome that some journalists, social media activists are detained left, right and centre over comments, postings on social media, even by state governors just the way the federal government is also doing. And the question you should ask yourself now is where is this going to end? In 48 hours, we moved from what you write, what you say or where you gather to express your frustrations or opinions to some of the terrible things like what you are carrying in your luggage if you are accosted by a policeman, especially if they see you with an expensive phone, to what you can wear or not wear. That is a very dangerous arena that we don’t even know what is next. So, to that extent, there is need to pay attention to the attempt to abridge the fundamental human rights or limit the civic space for discussion because if that happens, our democracy will  just collapse. Democracy is about the rights of people to move around, to be able to air their views and come to some kind of agreement.

The President also said in his Independence Day broadcast that he will tackle the problems of the use of social media to spread fake news and hate speech. Don’t you think this is necessary given the way people are peddling false information on the social media?

I have not really had the opportunity of studying the President’s speech. I had the opportunity of reading briefly that aspect. But I think there are fundamental problems facing the country for the President to be worried about. The problems of fake news are not the things I think the president should be talking about in a national day address. There are things that can be dealt with by an agency of government, whether NITDA, the technology people or ministry of information or the National Orientation Agency. You just need to critically look at what the issues are. But it also raises a fundamental point that why are the people turning to hate news? Is it that the government itself is not forthcoming with information? Or is it a reflection of limitation of access to information by the citizens? The Freedom of Information Act was passed, but we still have the challenge of putting it to good use. There is no place you go for information-government agencies, ministries, departments – that you will get what you want. So, I think that you should be the least of our worries in the country. The social media will regulate itself; fake news will be dealt with. But when the government begins to intervene with a nationwide broadcast on fake news, there is reason to be concerned. And that’s because from the government point of view, that will mean a clampdown; seize newspapers like the way they did to Daily Trust. Detain people and so on. That’s way I feel.

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You are one of those who championed the use of whistle blowers as a means of fighting corruption. But it appears nobody is blowing any whistle again, after the initial enthusiasm we saw when the policy was first introduced. What’s happening?

The Whistle blower Policy is a very creative attempt to deal with the problem of corruption in Nigeria. It started with a lot of enthusiasm three years ago or almost. But like with everything Nigerian, we just launch policies or programmes and there is no attempt to follow through to ensure that things work properly. People were enthusiastic when it started; they were willing to come forward. But there are many whistle blowers now who are suffering all kinds of reprisals, retaliation. As I speak to you this evening, I spoke to one of the whistle blowers; he told me that he has been sacked from his place of work. So, you can imagine what people go through. It’s going to be difficult for individuals to be part of this process when they had to go through this. So, we are hoping that part of the attempt to deal with this problem is the passage of the Whistle blowers’ Protection Act so that that it becomes a law, not a case of just something happening under this government. Whatever we have to do, it must be under the confines of the law. So, if a whistle blower provides information, we now know what to do. We are working on that and hopefully, in the next few months, there will be a bill that will be presented to the National Assembly to ensure that this ultimately happens.