By Jon Gambrell
LAGOS, Nigeria – A newspaper columnist critical of Nigeria’s late and current president said Sunday that the oil-rich nation’s secret police seized his passports when he entered the country.
Okey Ndibe, who writes a weekly column on politics for The Sun newspaper, told The Associated Press he believed his brief detention and the passport seizures came from the government’s displeasure over his articles.
The incident also comes as Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan prepares for what could be a tumultuous and violent April election in a nation long familiar to strong-arm tactics to muzzle the press.
Ndibe, a U.S. citizen who teaches at Trinity College in Connecticut, said an immigration officer stopped him Saturday night after he arrived at Lagos’ Murtala Muhammed International Airport. The columnist said the immigration official introduced him to an officer with the secretive State Security Service, who detained him for about two hours as he made telephones calls.
The secret policeman ultimately took Ndibe’s U.S. and Nigerian passports and ordered him to appear for questioning Monday morning at the agency’s Lagos headquarters. Ndibe said the officer offered no explanation for his actions.
“I was surprised, but I was not all together shocked,” Ndibe said.
Marilyn Ogar, a spokeswoman for the State Security Service, did not respond to a request for comment.
Sahara Reporters, a news website focused on Nigeria, first reported on Ndibe’s passports being seized.
Ndibe’s columns criticized the 2007 election that brought late President Umaru Yar’Adua to power. Stolen ballot boxes, thuggery and voter fraud marred the election. International observers called the poll rigged, even though it represented the first civilian-to-civilian transfer of power in the nation’s history.
From then on, Ndibe never referred to Yar’Adua as the president. He said someone in government warned him Yar’Adua’s administration took the slight personally and put an order out for his arrest in 2008. His trip home Saturday was the first time he’d returned since.
Attacks against journalists are common in Nigeria, a country of 150 million where corruption pervades government and business. A political reporter and editor for a Nigerian newspaper was killed by gunmen at his home in September 2009. In April, gunmen shot and killed a Nigerian journalist at his home the same day two others died while attempting to cover fighting between Christians and Muslims in the nation’s restive central highlands. Beatings also happen during elections and police actions.
However, many reporters accept cash payments from interview subjects or “brown envelope” bribes slipped into briefing materials at news conferences.
There remains a strong tradition of columnists calling out the government, even during the times of military dictators and coups that plagued Nigeria for decades after its independence from Britain in 1960. In a recent column, Ndibe warned the country “has grown into a perfect kingdom for terrorists and criminals” ahead of the April presidential election.
“I think the Jonathan administration has been less than inspiring,” Ndibe said Sunday. “I think that … Jonathan might have made himself a more compelling historical figure had he made a commitment to supervising free and fair elections.”
Instead, the columnist said “the government has resorted to the old-time politics of buying up affection.”