The campaign against impunity and intolerance by the media, civil society, the general populace and the international community recorded a modest, but significant victory on Tuesday as the Federal Government bowed to sustained public pressure to release detainees in wrongful custody.
The Federal Government, which had rejected entreaties to release the publisher of Sahara Reporters, Omoyele Sowore, and an ex-National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki (retd.) after both men were granted bail by the courts, made a U-turn on Tuesday and ordered the release of the two men.
The decision of the government, which was made public late evening on Tuesday came 13 days after PUNCH published a hard-hitting editorial criticising the human rights record of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) and his government’s penchant for ignoring court orders. The editorial had also informed the public of PUNCH’s decision to prefix the president’s name with his army rank as a military dictator in the 80s and to refer to his administration as a regime pending the time that the President and the regime would purge themselves of their contempt for the rule of law.
The Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), in a statement in Abuja, disclosed that he had directed the Department of State Services to release Sowore and Dasuki.
Sowore was released at about 7.20pm on Tuesday. The activist, who wore a pink shirt, was received by some of his supporters outside the DSS headquarters. He stopped briefly to speak to reporters.
He, however, had a change of heart based on the advice by one of his associates, who told him not to grant an interview.
The activist briefly stepped out of a red Toyota Camry car as if he wanted to grant an interview, but later said, “I wish Nigerians Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.”
When he got into the vehicle, he raised a clenched fist and shouted #RevolutionNow, before the vehicle departed the DSS headquarters.
Confirming the ex-NSA’s release, his lead counsel, Mr Ahmed Raji (SAN), told The PUNCH at 8.11pm on Tuesday that “he (Dasuki) was released some moments ago.”
A close associate of Dasuki confirmed to The PUNCH that the former NSA arrived in his Abuja home to the embrace of friends and family members at 9:30pm. “He has arrived home. He came in a black Range Rover,” he said.
The associate said although Dasuki was released about 8:11pm, he was busy with “some documentations.”
While Dasuki had been in the custody of the DSS since December 2015, Sowore was rearrested on December 6, barely 24 hours after he was released from custody that lasted over four months. Both men were kept in detention despite court orders ordering their release.
The PUNCH editorial ignited a massive storm of a controversy that lasted several days. The editorial titled, ‘Buhari’s lawlessness: Our stand,’ published on December 11, berated the regime for ignoring court orders on the release of detainees, including Sowore, Dasuki, the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, Ibrahim el-Zakzakky, and his wife, Zeenah.
The newspaper said Buhari, who ruled the country as a military head of state from 1983 to 1985, had failed to “wean himself off his military antecedents.” It stated that the “regime’s actions and assaults on the courts, disobedience of court orders and arbitrary detention of citizens reflect its true character of the martial culture.”
Rather than admitting its shortcomings, the Presidency in two conflicting statements, a few hours after the editorial was published, expressed reservations about it.
While the President’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr Femi Adesina, said PUNCH decision was an indication that the country did not lack freedom of speech, Buhari’s Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Mr Garba Shehu, accused the newspaper of “personal hatred and animus” towards the President.
But many Nigerians at home and abroad commended the newspaper for the editorial and lauded its symbolic protest against the regime. Lawyers who spoke to our correspondents also pooh-poohed claims in some quarters that the newspaper’s position was unconstitutional.
Nigerian Bar Association and lawyers, including Femi Falana, SAN; Mr Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN, and Abubakar Sani, backed PUNCH, saying the newspaper had not violated any law by referring to Buhari as a retired major general.
Adegboruwa had said, “The organisation (PUNCH) has had that track record of always standing up to illegality, impunity and lawlessness and today, Nigerians have been celebrating the courage of PUNCH newspapers.”
But the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Prof Itse Sagay, and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Dr Alex Izinyon, had disagreed with PUNCH. While Sagay said PUNCH’s decision was disgraceful, Izinyon stated that the editorial was unconstitutional.