Founder, Sahara Reporters, activist and ex-President, University of Lagos Students’ Union, Mr. Omoyele Sowore, talks about his role in the enthronement of democracy and political struggles with GBENGA ADENIJI
What led you into activism?
I found activism because of the grave injustices in Nigeria that I experienced early in life. In 1980, when I was about 10 years old, the police invaded our village following a Christmas Eve altercation in the local market. The sheer brutality visited upon members of my community, some of them direct relatives or loved ones, shook me profoundly. It changed my life and forever shaped the person I have become.
Your days as a student activist between 1992 and 1994 marked part of the era when presidents of students’ unions doggedly pursued noble goals for the common good. What has changed within the current student unions in Nigeria?
I’d say we are witnessing the commercialisation of activism and the commodification of human conscience and convictions. Members of Nigeria’s political and business elite have infiltrated every sector of the society, and hijacked those who in the past mounted sustained resistance to their misrule, greed and oppressive policies. In a rather well scripted plot, the elite sought to crush every soul that fought the system. They have redesigned the moral standards governing society. The result is what you see today. Some have argued that hunger, growing poverty, is responsible, but I disagree. Today’s students are not looking for food; they are looking to get rich quick. It is as though they envy their oppressors more than they value their freedom.
Considering the fact that the student leaders of that era vehemently kicked against graft, impunity, rights abuses and military rule, what is your view about the brand of democracy that eventually replaced the years of military incursion into politics?
I left Nigeria in 1999, on the eve of the birth of the new democratic process. I knew that what was coming was not democracy. I suspected that the system was going to be hijacked by morons. Instead of having democratic rule, we ended up with a “morontocracy.”
How true were the reports that some people injected you with lead during your time as the student leader at the University of Lagos?
My experiences as a student leader were well documented between 1992 and 1994. I was kidnapped by cult gangs that were sponsored by the university administration, the police commissioner in Lagos, James Danbaba, and Mike Okiro, a Deputy Commissioner of Police (Administration) at the time. I was taken into one of the alleys of the new halls at the University of Lagos known as “Eni Njoku,” stripped, and injected with an unknown substance. I was stabbed in the head. I was lucky to escape because thousands of students mobilised to rescue me.
I was hospitalised at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital. While receiving treatment, other student leaders who tried to visit me were ambushed by police, arrested and hauled to jail, where they were falsely accused of being armed robbers. They spent weeks in jail before a Lagos court dismissed the frivolous charges. Mr. Femi Falana defended the students. On my part, I was declared wanted by the police. They stormed the hospital, but I succeeded in escaping arrest with the help of the LUTH doctors and security officers who covered me to create the impression I was dead. That enabled me to escape.
There was a bedlam at UNILAG, and the school was closed down because of the crisis. I was expelled alongside others for daring the government. It would be my second expulsion as a student activist.
When school reopened, the students continued with the protest, and the authorities were forced to reabsorb us. That was my UNILAG story. When I completed my studies, UNILAG authorities seized my results for months so that I could not join my original batch for the National Youth Service Corps. Finally, in 1995, I was mobilised for the youth service. I was posted to Adamawa State. I served in the state capital of Yola, beginning at their TV station known as Adamawa Television (ATV). One day, officers of the Department of State Services came and detained me over a TV report I did that said Ken Saro-Wiwa was unjustly murdered. I was kicked out of the TV station. I went underground and re-applied as a corps member to serve with an artist in downtown Jimeta-Yola. On the final day of passing out parade, I took part in the process, but as I approached the podium to pick up my NYSC certificate, I was again arrested by the DSS. They sent me to the guardroom of the Airfare base in Yola where I was chained to the floor for six days. It was a report by The PUNCH newspaper that saved me. The correspondent had seen how I was arrested and reported it. I returned to Lagos after service without a letter and just returned to work with pro-democracy groups to force out the military.
Would you say your dreams and those of your co-student leaders and civil rights groups at the time have been realised with the advent of democracy?
It is an extremely difficult claim to say. We had an aspiration for a vibrant democratic process that has so far failed to materialise. But it is important to state that we realised the objective of kicking out the military from power.
Many people have identified leadership as the bane of Nigeria’s problems. Do you agree with this?
Of course! I completely agree. Good leadership would have made all the difference in our lives and in Nigeria. We just have not had disciplined, focused, selfless and passionate leaders in Nigeria. You see that it has cost us everything!
What has the struggle for democracy and good governance cost you?
It is impossible to quantify. However, I try not to focus on my own suffering. Many people, especially those in the struggle, fared worse than I did. Some were assassinated, many lives ruined, limbs maimed. So I hate to make it seem like I was the only one that suffered. In fact, part of my burden is to acknowledge all the others, known and unknown, who also lost a lot, sometimes more, because of their participation in the struggle. Even so, the fact is that the powers-that-be beat, battered and bruised me as well as many others in order to crush our spirits.
How best can you describe Nigeria’s democracy from 1999 till date?
It has been, sad to say, one expensive, tragic joke!
What is your view about the state of activism in the country?
I have not seen much activism in recent years. I stated earlier the reasons I thought activism has gone cold. There was the general illusion that democracy would change everything, but that has not happened because we have not had genuine democracy. Think of it; 16 or 17 years into our ostensible democracy, we still aren’t able to organise free and fair elections.
In what ways do you think the Nigerian student population can contribute robustly to deepening the country’s democracy and strengthening its institutions?
First, today’s students have to realise that they have enormous powers to change society. The population of young people in Nigeria is relatively high—and I believe it’s at its highest percentage ever. Students have to become bold in taking the initiative to fight for change. So, they have to overthrow the profiteers in their midst who have hijacked student unionism and go around hawking meaningless awards to criminals. It is also important that members of a society who are clamouring for a vibrant and robust student activism be prepared to lend firm support to these students. Student activists need lawyers, doctors, journalists and sometimes financiers to withstand the tyranny of school authorities and the police. The campus-street alliance that has broken down must be rebuilt. Imagine if Femi Falana had not been there for someone like me, or if Gani Fawehinmi, Olisa Agbakoba and several other off-campus personalities had not been there to support us during the June 12 era, the system could have easily crushed the student movement.
There had been protests by Nigerians, like the #OccupyNigeria movement, to reject unpopular policies of governments since 1999. Do you think more of such protests are needed to hold government accountable to the people?
I have lived in the US for 17 years. There is hardly a week that I do not see people protesting and agitating for something, from reform of labour practices to huge protests like #Occupy WallStreet, anti-police protests, anti-war protests etc. And the democracy in the US is over 200 years old. We have no excuse at all. In fact, we should be organising for revolutions, not little protests at this level. We should have built a no-nonsense protest movement that can mobilise and organise within a short time.
I can tell you something from my experiences around the world: governments are very scared of mass protests.
What is your assessment of the Buhari administration in one year and your view about the ruling All Progressives Congress?
I was at President Muhammadu Buhari’s inauguration in May 2015. As we left the parade ground I was shocked at the level of unpreparedness of his government. I could tell you for sure that they all went back to bed hoping that someone else was in charge of Nigeria. The All Progressives Congress political party that is power is the number 4th faction of the highly fragment People’s Democratic Party. In a nutshell the regime is highly disorganised and reeks of incompetence. Unfortunately, they still enjoy some goodwill from Nigerians.
What would you say has been the contributions of your popular online news platform, Sahara Reporters, to the Nigerian project and do you in any way have sacred cows in your news judgment and reportage?
Sahara Reporters has been around for 10 years. My attitude is to let the public be the judge. However, there is a sense I get that we have completely revolutionised the media landscape through innovative people-centred reporting of news. We have brought the “mass” into “communication.” We do not have sacred cows. All the would-be sacred cows know this for a fact!