Journalist and author of ‘We are all Biafrans,’ Chido Onumah, who was recently arrested and detained by the Department of State Services in Abuja, relives the encounter in this interview with ADELANI ADEPEGBA
How did you feel when you were accosted by the DSS at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja?
Although I visited Spain, I had come in from Gothenburg in Sweden. I flew from Gothenburg to Frankfurt and from there to Abuja. It was a long trip and I was really tired. I simply wanted to get home and have some rest. A few friends of mine were visiting Nigeria from Accra, Ghana and I needed to be with them. We had scheduled a dinner for that Sunday. So it was quite shocking that I couldn’t make it.
After such a long flight, I was accosted by DSS operatives and made to wait for two hours in their office at the airport and another four hours at their headquarters in Abuja for something I think it was not worth the trouble they put me to. At the end of the day, it turned out to be about the inscription on the T-shirt that I was wearing, which was the title of my book, ‘We are all Biafrans.’
I still don’t know exactly what they wanted to achieve by arresting me.
Initially, they took me to their office and the first question the officer there asked me was: “You are a Biafran, why do you have a Nigerian passport?” I replied, “I beg your pardon, I’m a Nigerian and that is why I have a Nigerian passport. There is no country like Biafra. So I can’t possibly hold a Biafran passport.”
The man said, “But that’s not what is written on your shirt.” And I told him that ‘We are all Biafrans’ is the title of my book.
Do you find this troubling?
Yes, it was quite troubling. After the encounter, what bothered me was the restriction of press freedom and the rights of Nigerians to move around and to associate with other people. So we moved from worrying about who you meet with, what kind of people you associate with, whether you are able to go to a park to congregate and have a conversation or not, as well as what you write, to security agencies accosting you for what you are carrying, what kind of phone you are using and what you are wearing. In the end, he took the shirt from me and insisted that I can’t wear it ever again.
How do you see the DSS’s action?
I see it as an infringement on my fundamental rights. It’s not about me really; it could be any other person and the way forward. Anyone could be arrested if they think that what you are wearing is offensive. They said something to the effect that they got a tip-off from some fellow passengers on the same plane that brought me to Nigeria, who feared that there was a plan to disturb the peace and that I was going to be part of it. Based on their press release, they said they were trying to protect me because some people had planned to attack me. Mentally I checked their claims, wondering why anybody would plan to attack me. I told them that I had worn the T-shirt for three years and they were shocked.
What does this say about the DSS’ intelligence-gathering capability?
The incident called to question the so-called intelligence of the intelligence agency. This book has been out for three years and the T-shirt was first worn on the day the book was launched, which was on May 30, 2016.
I wear this T-shirt regularly. In fact, it has become like a national dress to me. I wear it whenever I am travelling out of the country and whenever I am coming back. Most weekends, that’s what I wear, over a pair of jeans trousers, to my office. When they heard this, my interrogators feigned surprise, as if they didn’t know in the first place.
What I found quite strange was the fact that they couldn’t link the book to the T-shirt. I told them several times that the inscription on the shirt was the title of my book, but it didn’t resonate with them. This got me wondering. When the book was launched in 2016, some prominent Nigerians, including former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who was the special guest of honour, attended the event. Almost all the major national newspapers had the story on their front pages. I was surprised that an organisation like the DSS didn’t have any information on the event.
If the DSS operatives had any knowledge of the book, perhaps, they wouldn’t have asked me some of the questions they were asking. What I learnt from their reactions is that they had concluded that I was an ‘anarchist’ who had arrived in the country to foment trouble by wearing the T-shirt. As a result, they had already decided to stop me by any means necessary.
Do you think they saw you as a member of IPOB or MASSOB?
That is the impression because one of them said to me, “Why we are trying to protect you is because if you wear the shirt into town, somebody would attack you and there would be reprisal from the Biafran people and the whole city would go up in flames.” I told him that I was neither a Biafran nor a sympathiser of Biafra and I didn’t belong to MASSOB.
In fact, both MASSOB and IPOB people see me as their sworn enemy because they think my book doesn’t propagate their ideals and ideas. So for me, mixing with them was really uncalled for. There is a sense in which I think that by seeing me in that T-shirt, they believed I was a supporter of IPOB. I spent a long time trying to convince them that they were wrong.
Did DSS operatives try to intimidate or wear you down psychologically?
No, they didn’t. I am a veteran of this process. I am used to the DSS. I have been a guest of the DSS, even as a student of the University of Calabar. As a journalist, I have had a run-in with the operatives of the agency. So I know the drill. I know how they operate.
When they asked me to follow them at the airport, I didn’t resist or create a scene. I simply went with them and when I got into the room, I started reading a book and waited for them to ask their questions. Because of the way I conducted myself, perhaps, they didn’t intimidate me. They didn’t raise their voice or shout at me. We only disagreed. They would raise a point and I would say no, I don’t think that is right.
Do you suspect that your detention and interrogation might be part of a larger plan to silence critics of the present government?
There is no doubt about that, but the other dangerous aspect of this, which I think people need to pay attention to, is that the serious disconnect between the so-called security agencies and the public they were supposed to serve almost borders on paranoia.
You pride yourself as the foremost security agency in the country, but you need to have intelligence, you need to do your research, have background information. You can’t just go around picking up people randomly and denying them their fundamental rights in the name of maintaining law and order. You simply invoked your constitutional responsibility to maintain law and order when there is no basis for such arrest. So we have to worry not just about what we write or say, but also what we wear.
In this case, there was really no basis for arresting me. I am not guilty of what they were trying to accuse me of. I don’t support IPOB, I don’t support the agitation for Biafra and I don’t belong to any of those fringe groups seeking dismemberment of the country. So there was no basis for taking me in for questioning.
What is the wider implication of your encounter with the DSS for the larger civil society?
Well again, it just calls for vigilance. Part of it was displayed on Sunday. I really commend Nigerians, especially young Nigerians on social media. The fact that people rallied round and sent out lot of tweets contributed to my release. They (DSS) were willing to keep me till Monday, but they were under severe pressure. They buckled and started talking to me until we reached an agreement and understanding.
Did you feel a sense of protection when the officials claimed they brought you to their office because some people were planning to attack you for wearing the T-shirt?
No, I didn’t believe their claim and I let them know it. I told them that I had been putting on the T-shirt for three years and nobody had ever questioned me. They kept trying to what they w explain what they were doing, but I didn’t think it had anything to do with the fact that the present Federal Government cares about its citizens.
Could there be a nexus between your arrest and #RevolutionNow coordinator, Omoyele Sowore’s ordeal?
Maybe not directly, but in the broader picture of things, it is not just about me or Sowore; it is the larger problem of wanting to control the thought process of people so as to stop them from expressing themselves.
I was responding to their questions and I queried why, in this era, journalists are being detained and asked them to show pictures on their phones and other flimsy reasons for the detention of journalists.
Did they at any time search your phone and other personal effects?
I don’t know. They had the phone in their possession. I can’t say what they did with it. I have not really had time to check it. They had my passport and went through it.
Do you think they bugged your phone?
Well, that’s possible. I am a public person and there is really nothing I can say to someone in private that I can’t repeat in public. That (bugging of my phone) is a possibility, but it is not something I’m particularly worried about.
Do you agree with Amnesty International’s position that civil liberty is at risk in the country?
I think it is. I mentioned my own case, Sowore’s trial and the detention of James Ebiri for two years. Other people have been being detained by security officials for posting things against state governors on social media. And if the space, in terms of civil liberty, is really shrinking, then citizens need to rise and do something about it. Those who try to limit other people’s liberty will continue to do so unless the people say ‘enough is enough, we can’t take this anymore.’ If they don’t do that, those who seek to oppress them and limit their rights will have a field day.
Will your experience discourage you from further championing the cause of civil liberty in the country?
No, it will not. I have a new book that will put in proper perspective the crises we have been facing in the last five years or so, including the issue of revolution. Nothing is going to stop me.
So, you believe we need a revolution in the country?
I think it is important, but the nature of the revolution is what we have to sit down and discuss. We do need a revolution. We need to have a radical transformation of the Nigerian society. That is the only way we can move forward as a nation.