Note: This article was written in 2010 by Musikilu Mojeed
Omoyele Sowore, a fair-complexioned man with a round face, was having lunch – pounded yam and okra soup – at a packed and noisy African restaurant in the Bronx, New york, that Monday afternoon when one of his three mobile telephones rang. As Mr. Sowore, a New-York-based blogger, journalist and activist, munched his meal, he spoke in low tones to the caller at the other end.
Mr. Sowore is the founder and chief reporter of one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most popular and feared websites. A major story was unfolding in his native Nigeria that day and the caller – a “top confidential source within the ruling establishment ” (he said at the time) had called to offer him a scoop. “Are you saying he is being flown abroad tonight? Who are those accompanying him?” Mr. Sowore asked, raising his voice a little above the din.
Then he went quiet for a while, as he listened attentively to the informant’s response, his left hand pressing the phone to his left ear and his right hand making a rhythmic journey between his plate and his mouth. The call over, after about ten minutes, a smile sprouted from the edges of Sowore’s lips.
He then cut short his lunch, (leaving behind a remnant of food) paid his bill and hurried to his car, a green Toyota Highlander, parked four blocks away. He flung open the trunk of the car and pulled out a backpack containing a white, internet-ready Mackintosh computer.
Standing by the front door of the car, his laptop placed on the driver’s seat, Mr. Sowore placed more calls to two other sources in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. He then frenetically pounded out a news report announcing to the world that the Nigerian president, Musa Yar’Adua, had fallen terribly ill and was being rushed to a Saudi hospital.
The report went live on SaharaReporters.com at exactly 1p.m. – a full five hours before an official statement from the presidential villa announced the trip. Mr. Sowore thus became the first to report the beginning of a journey from which Mr. Yar’Adua never returned. The president died on May 5, 2010.
Mr. Sowore’s distinctions are legion. In the six years he has run his site, he has become Nigeria’s version of Julian Assange, the controversial Australian internet activist. His blog, SaharaReporters.com, is also as audacious as Assange’s WikiLeaks, a secret-spilling organization that publishes sensitive and classified documents that would have been otherwise unavailable to the public.
In fact, Philip Shenon, a former investigative reporter for The New York Times, and author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation, in an article for the Daily Beast, referred to SaharaReporters as Africa’s WikiLeaks. But while Assange scouts the entire world for sensitive and confidential documents, sharing them with his media partners such as The New York Times and The Guardian of London (with which e has since fallen out), and uploading them raw on his website, Mr. Sowore has made Nigeria his forte.
Operating from a cubicle in an expansive office he shares with another media organization in mid-Manhattan, New York, Mr. Sowore documents sordid details of corruption, misgovernance, scams, dishonesty and ineptitude by Nigerian government officials, institutions, corporations and individuals, fearlessly posting them on his website. He holds nothing back.
“Our mission is to do as much evidence-based reporting as possible. We want to make sure that we consistently shame and make life difficult for the thieves plundering Nigeria and holding down the country’s progress,” Mr. Sowore, who also teaches Modern African History at the City University of New York and Post Colonial African History at the School of Visual Arts, New York, said with a snort of disgust one recent Wednesday afternoon, as he worked on an article accusing Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan of profligacy.
Mr. Jonathan was, at the time, on a three-day visit to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly and Mr. Sowore was in possession of a four-page classified document containing the names of the 120-member delegation – which he described as obscene and wasteful – that accompanied the president from Nigeria.
The document clearly originated from the innermost circle of the president’s office and Mr. Sowore only stopped short of publishing it raw on his site out of concern for his sources who, he said, might be in danger.
Although, Mr. Sowore is based in New York, 5, 269 miles from Nigeria, he has become the nemesis of many a corrupt and inept official in his country. He has amassed a long list of trusted sources within Nigeria’s ruling establishment and its corporate world. And his website, in recent years, has become one of the most visited and trusted sources of news in the oil-rich West African nation.
Mr. Sowore moves around New York with a roller case containing an I-Pad, two Mackintosh laptops permanently hooked to the internet, three mobile phones, a T-Mobile line devoted to text messaging, a Verizon line for voice calls and another T-Mobile line exclusively for international calls. “I’m like a doctor. I get a lot of emergency calls, and an average of 30 calls a day from my sources in Nigeria and other parts of the world,” he said one recent Friday evening as he drove out of a parking lot in Manhattan.
He also has a backpack containing a canon rebel camera for still photography, a Panasonic Lumix camcorder, an extra pair of clothing and some toiletries, in case he is not able to make it back to his New Jersey home as the result of a breaking story.
With these simple tools, the blogger has broken a large number of major stories that have made a huge impact on his country of 150 million people, including bringing down some highly placed government officials. “The fear of SaharaReporters is the beginning of wisdom for corrupt officials in Nigeria and the joke in the country is that politicians, public office holders, security officials, corporate giants and other well placed individuals do not go to bed without checking SaharaReporters,” Bukola Oreofe, a New York-based pro-democracy activist, who has followed the site from its inception, said. “And when they wake up in the morning, they also rush to check whether SaharaReporters has published their indiscretions or exposed their hidden skeletons.”
From presidents to state governors, senators to ministers, and businessmen to anti-corruption operatives, Sowore’s website has exposed and disgraced more than a few public officials. He has also consistently criticized successive administrations in the country.
It was SaharaReporters, which consistently published the accounts of the corrupt acts of a former Nigerian Justice Minister, Mike Aondoakaa, until the Barack Obama administration could tolerate the official no more. His U.S. visa was cancelled and he and his family were barred from entering the United States.
For years, Sowore beamed his searchlight on James Ibori, a powerful state Governor of the oil-rich Delta State and steadily assailed the Nigerian government with embarrassing information of his alleged plunder of state resources, including allegedly stealing of $100 million from the coffers of a state he had ruled for eight years.
The former governor escaped to Dubai when the government moved to prosecute him, after it could no longer ignore the continuing, and disturbing reports on him. He was later arrested in Dubai and extradited to London where he is facing charges for corruption.
SaharaReporters forced an associate of Mr. Ibori, Emmanuel Enaboifo, out of his exalted position as finance director of a bi-national commission that oversees the oil-rich zone owned by Nigeria and Sao Tome & Principe. No sooner had the Nigerian president appointed Mr. Enaboifo to the post than Sowore unmasked him as a fugitive who fled the United States, after a U.S. District Court convicted him of bank fraud.
Two weeks after the publication, Mr. Enaboifo stepped down. Earlier in January 2008, the site exposed Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello, a former senator and daughter of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, as a hunted fugitive wanted in the U.S. over a child custody case. Even former Nigeria’s anti-corruption chief, Farida Waziri, did not escape Mr. Sowore’s scrutiny.
In several articles, mostly backed by documentation, he accused her of pilfering her agency’s funds and receiving bribes from governors and ministers, in exchange for ignoring their own looting of public funds.
Nigeria, OPEC’s sixth largest producer of crude and one of America’s top suppliers of oil, is Africa’s most populous country and the world’s most populous black nation. Although it has enormous oil resources, earning about $25 billion a year, according to the Revenue Watch Institute, it remains among the poorest countries in the world, ranking 158th out of the 182 countries rated in the United Nation’s most recent Human Development Index.
Corruption is rife, with a huge chunk of the country’s revenue routinely stolen by corrupt administration officials and their collaborators in the corporate world. Unemployment is skyrocketing. Basic infrastructures have broken down. And the country’s elections are perpetually flawed, its leaders often lacking legitimacy.
“Sowore is angry at a Nigerian nation that has huge potential for success but has remained largely underdeveloped even after its golden jubilee anniversary as a sovereign state,” Shola Oshunkeye, an editor with Nigeria’s Sun newspapers, said during a recent visit to New York. “As a result of his anger, Sowore is usually restless and applies no breaks in pushing to the public domain any information that could expose the ineptitude, insincerity, corruption and wheeling-dealing tendencies of the country’s public officials.”
Part 2: How SaharaReporters was born
It was Christmas eve in 1980, and festivity was in the air in Mr. Sowore’s riverine Kiribo community in Ondo State. Then, suddenly, tragedy struck. An unruly gang of police officers invaded the community after clashing with some youths who challenged them for extorting money from market women. Mr. Sowore watched from the comfort of his mother’s shop as officers shoved, beat and handcuffed men, and raped women of the community.
Among those raped that day was Mr. Sowore’s cousin. Although he was barely nine at the time, that unsavoury incidence stoked the fire of activism in him. “As I grew up and realized the implication of what I witnessed, I decided to dedicate my life to the fight for human rights,” he recalls.
It was however in 1989 that he started off fully as an activist at the University of Lagos where he studied geography and planning, and became president of the student union. He had brushes with the university authorities while fighting for student rights, and was expelled twice and then recalled.
Even when he was eventually allowed to graduate, the university withheld his degree for a while on the orders of the government of the day. His one-year compulsory national service was not trouble-free either. He was dismissed from the Adamawa State Broadcasting Corporation for criticizing the controversial hanging of a foremost environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, on Kaleidoscope, a program he anchored for the station.
He went to work for a graphic artist named Sammy for the remainder of his service. On the day he completed his service and was about to head home, Mr. Sowore was arrested and detained for two weeks by operatives of the State Security Service, who accused him of mobilizing his colleagues against the government. He said the National Youth Service Corps, was still holding on to his discharge certificate today.
After his release from detention, Mr. Sowore returned to Lagos, and became involved in the titanic pro-democracy struggle to end military dictatorship in the country.
In 1999, shortly before flawed elections returned the country to a shaky democracy, Sowore travelled to New York to seek medical treatment, and later enrolled at Columbia University for a Masters in Public Administration
After his study, he took up a job with a Catholic charity in New Jersey. While there, the activism in Mr. Sowore, a feisty, quick-witted man, continued to boil, as the political and economic situation in his home country continued to erode. Soon, he began to travel around the U.S. speaking about human rights on behalf of Amnesty International, while also contributing articles to Nigerian publications.
Two of his articles became especially controversial at the time. One day in 2005, he interviewed Orji Kalu, a Nigerian governor who was then opposed to President Olusegun Obasanjo. In the interview, the governor described Mr. Obasanjo as corrupt and murderous. But when Nigeria’s The Guardian published the interview, Mr. Kalu, presumably wary of angering Mr. Obasanjo, denied ever speaking to Mr. Sowore.
It was this controversy that brought the SaharaReporters’ publisher in contact with Jonathan Elendu, then a Nigerian U.S-based blogger and owner of Elendureports.com. Elendu interviewed both parties in the dispute and established that the governor had indeed spoken with Sowore.
Impressed by Mr. Sowore’s dedication to country and quest for equity and justice, Mr. Elendu invited the activist to team up with him. On June 4, 2005, Sowore wrote his first article for Elendureports.com accusing Ibrahim Gambari, a respected United Nation’s diplomat and Nigeria’s former Permanent Representative to the UN of being among anti-democratic elements who backed military dictators in his country to annul Nigeria’s most credible election to date. From then on, Mr. Elendu and Mr. Sowore worked together, exposing the corrupt deals and ill-gotten assets owned by Nigerian officials abroad.
The duo confronted Nigerians with largely incontestable documentary evidence of their leaders’ graft. Among the assets uncovered by the duo were those of ex-Governors: Lucky Igbinedion’s 3.3 million pounds London mansion; Bukola Saraki’s 4.3 million pound London palatial home; Attahiru Bafarawa’s 795,000 pounds London property; Diepreye Alamieyeseigha’s $900,000 apartment in Potomac, Maryland; and Orji Kalu’s $1.7 million residence, also in Potomac, Maryland. The reporters also revealed how, Olumuyiwa, a son of then President Obasanjo bought a $520,000 New York home, in cash, shortly after he graduated from St John’s University.
However, things soon fell apart between the two friends. On January 4, 2006, exactly six months after they began working together, Mr. Sowore suddenly quit. Some readers of the site were heartbroken after Mr. Elendu announced Mr. Sowore’s voluntary departure from the site that day. “Naturally, having followed their work, their separation was very disturbing,” Dayo Aiyetan, a former senior associate editor with Nigeria’s TELL magazine and now a fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington said. “But I got information later that things were going terribly wrong and that a lot happened that Sowore couldn’t stomach.”
Neither Mr. Sowore nor Mr. Elendu are willing to divulge the specific reason for their break-up. Mr. Sowore merely said he left Mr. Elendu when he began to veer towards political consultancy. Mr. Elendu didn’t respond to email and telephone calls requesting his comments on Mr. Sowore’s claim.
Shortly before officially leaving Elendureports, Mr. Sowore had traveled to Nigeria in December to visit his family. As had been his practice for a long while, he flew into Ghana and then surreptitiously entered Nigeria through the Seme border, where, in a chance encounter, he met President Obasanjo’s eldest son, Gbenga.
The president’s son gave him a ride to Lagos in his SUV and during the trip, Mr. Sowore interviewed Gbenga on the way his father was running the country. Gbenga was brutally frank in his responses. At a point, he blasted his father’s deputy, Atiku Abubakar, describing him and another government minister, Nasir el-Rufai, as corrupt and greedy. Mr. Sowore then submitted the interview to THE NEWS, one of Nigeria’s largest weeklies, and that was the first sign that the activist had turned his back on Elendureports.
Expectedly, the article sparked outrage in the then Vice President’s camp and after both his father and the opposition pilloried him, Gbenga tried hard – but unsuccessfully – to deny some of the comments Mr. Sowore attributed to him.
After he returned to the U.S., Mr. Sowore decided to launch his own website. Thus on January 15, 2006, he bought a domain name from godaddy for, as he remembers, less than $10. A friend helped him with a website template and he paid the hosting fee of $29 for the month. After a test run, the site, named after the world’s largest hot desert north of Nigeria, was launched as “an alternative news media” at a subtle ceremony at the Empire State Building in New York on February 18, 2006.
In the years that he has run the blog, Sowore has troubled corrupt officials. And, for a country that has no freedom of information law and where government-run businesses are shrouded in secrecy, the blogger has contributed to holding officials accountable. Before he and his website arrived on the scene, it was far easier for some media organizations to kill important stories, after reporters and top editors had been compromised. Also, as a result of SaharaReporters’ success, several other blogs have sprouted in the country, enhancing the citizens’ right to know.
Mr. Sowore attributes a large chunk of his blog’s success to crowdsourcing, a practice of using citizens and communities for newsgathering. “We told people ‘look, you don’t have to be a journalist to report for us. Just send us all the information you have and we will do the filtering,” he said over a dinner of snail and palmwine one recent Friday night. The result, he said, has been amazing. “At the moment, it is as if everybody in Nigeria is reporting for us. Everyday, we receive tons of information and documents from officials and ordinary citizens who believe in our mission and trust us.”
The world has not failed to notice Mr. Sowore’s SaharaReporters, especially following its coverage of the 2009 Christmas day attempted bombing when Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdumuttallab, tried to blow up a plane in Detroit. The site was the first to publish Abdulmuttallab’s photograph and details of who he was.
Today, the U.S. State Department, think tanks, and experts on Africa and Nigeria pay close attention to the site. “My experience has been that it’s reporting has a very high level of accuracy,” John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, recently told The Daily Beast. Lisa Vives, executive director, Global Information Network, who shares an office with Sowore, said she admired SaharaReporters for its courageous reporting of complex stories from Nigeria.
Of course, the site has drawn considerable attention to Mr. Sowore, who has spoken about it at meetings and conferences in Ghana, the United States, Austria, the United Kingdom and Canada. The Ford Foundation has also rewarded SaharaReporters with a $175,000 grant over the last two years to expand its operations, while Nigerian banks and hotels are now beginning to advertise on it.
Part Three: The verbal combats of SaharaReporters
Mr. Sowore carries his dislike of the largely corrupt Nigerian establishment around like a portable chessboard. At times, he openly engages officials in fierce verbal combat. One day this spring, Ojo Maduekwe, then Nigeria’s Foreign Minister, visited the United States to downplay the intense political crisis in his West African nation.
President Yar’Adua had already been hospitalized in Saudi Arabia, without having designated his deputy as acting President, leaving Nigeria without a head of state for months. The nation was at a standstill and the international community feared that democracy might again collapse in a country, which has a long history of military coups.
So, Maduekwe was in town to assure U.S. officials that all was well with his country. After visiting Washington, the then minister made a stop in New York for a press conference with United Nations correspondents at UN headquarters. Maduekwe’s preliminary remarks over, it was time for the traditional question and answer session and things went on smoothly until Mr. Sowore hammered the minister with what he considered an “insulting” question.
“You were on the BBC yesterday and you said you have not spoken to President Yar’Adua for the 60 days he’s been gone,” Mr. Sowore said. “Yet, you are moving around the world claiming that you are representing the President and his interest whereas you haven’t had any mandate from that president in the last 60 days.
How can we trust that … you being somebody who had acted on behalf of every government, both legitimate and illegitimate – I know you supported Abacha very strongly – that you are not just going around doing what suits you because Nigeria has no leadership at this point? …”
Rage rose under the minister’s skin as Sowore spoke. The mention of Sani Abacha reminded Mr. Maduekwe of his inglorious past, when he and other sycophantic Nigerians encouraged Nigeria’s most brutal military dictator to date to hang onto power rather than return the country to constitutional governance.
As he adjusted his sitting position repeatedly, Mr. Maduekwe’s bloodshot eyes twinkled under his glasses, and he looked at the journalist in subdued anger. After Mr. Sowore finished, the minister adjusted his sitting position again, rested his arms on his table and thundered a response.
“Your question is so insulting and so abusive and so disgraceful and does not even convey an educated mind,” Mr. Maduekwe replied.
Mr. Sowore cuts in: That’s not the question I’m asking. I asked you a question that I expect you to answer not to insult me.”
“You don’t deserve an answer,” Mr. Maduekwe fired back.
“You have to answer me because you are the one who has called us here and then insulted us with this rigmarole,” Sowore shot back.
Mr. Maduekwe was stunned by the journalist’s effrontery, and at a point could take it no more. By Nigerian standards, he was a “big man” and was not used to being talked to like that. He looked around the room, sweat blooming on his forehead, and growled, “Is there anyone in charge of this place?” He apparently wanted Sowore bundled out of the room, perhaps forgetting that he was in New York where harassing journalists is unpopular.
“What do you mean by is anyone in charge of this place,” Mr. Sowore charged in return. “What are you trying to do? This is not Nigeria. Answer the question and forget about harassing me.”
There was tension in the room as Mr. Maduekwe lapsed into a prolonged silence and another journalist tried to mitigate the situation.
Investigative reporter Matthew Lee of the Inner City Press then paraphrased Sowore’s question. Maduekwe responded, “Go ahead and ask. I will answer it but I will not answer his (Sowore’s). He is a very miserable fellow.”
Mr. Sowore charged back, “Don’t insult me. Why will you say I’m miserable because I’m exercising my rights as a Nigerian to ask you a question? You’ve been doing this for too long… I think it is you that is miserable.”
“Come to Nigeria and help order the place. Why are you running away?” Mr. Maduekwe replied.
“Why not? And it’s going to be a matter of time,” Mr. Sowore responded.
Mr. Maduekwe looked intense but he allowed Mr. Lee to rephrase the controversial question all the same. After the minister gave what Sowore later described in an interview as an incoherent answer, the press conference ended abruptly. Mr. Sowore rushed back to his office in midtown Manhattan. About an hour later, a clip of his altercation with the minister was up on his website, where it drew 256 comments, and on YouTube where the clip was viewed 26,868 times as of 5.28pm on October 8, 2010. Many of the comments on the two platforms lauded Mr. Sowore for humiliating the minister, while some others criticized him for acting unprofessionally and disrespecting an important public figure in his country.
Speaking about that incident recently, Mr. Sowore accused Mr. Maduekwe of being among those holding back his country’s progress. “A lot of them are just too corrupt and dishonest for my liking,” he said. “They are causing a great deal of suffering for Nigerians and I enjoy making them uncomfortable in return. I wanted to humiliate him and I am glad I did.”
A few weeks after the Maduekwe altercation, Mr. Sowore again shamed another Nigerian official who was in New York for this year’s Africa Economic Forum at Columbia University. Ted Ikuru, Deputy Governor of Nigeria’s oil-rich Rivers State was on a panel at the conference speaking about the effort his state was making to provide electricity for its residents. Mr. Sowore was not invited to the event, but he rushed there nonetheless. He had reported extensively about the weighty allegations of graft and money laundering against top officials of the state, and was just too pleased for an opportunity to put Mr. Ikuru on the spot.
Then, the question and answer session came, and Mr. Sowore shot Mr. Ikuru an uneasy question.
“You talked about electricity,” he began. “But we documented how the former governor stole money meant for the provision of electricity in the last regime. So, the 250 MW you are talking about, did it come from the one in which he diverted all the funds for his failed presidential run or was this one your own. Secondly, in the beginning of your own regime, one of the governor’s aide, Nelson Wike, was found to have stashed away N3 billion.”
There were giggles by some aides of the deputy governor seated in the hall.
Mr. Sowore paused, looked in the direction of the men and said, “It is not a laughing matter.” The men immediately went quiet and he continued. “Wike was later arrested and the judiciary was bribed to let him go which we documented. But he is still working with the governor. How do you justify retaining such an individual in your government?”
As Mr. Sowore spoke, the chubby Ikuru eyed him disdainfully, and tapped his feet on the floor and his ballpoint pen on his table, drawing noise to the microphone. In response, the deputy governor, gesturing with his two palms, said the allegations of corruption against officials of his state were unfounded.
The journalist tried to push the argument further but another official on the deputy governor’s entourage intervened to ease the tension. “I have tremendous respect for SaharaReporters,” he said. “I am one of those who believe you are doing a good job but we must check our facts correctly so we don’t inform people in a way that is not right.
There was applause in the hall. Mr. Sowore smiled. “These guys waste public funds to come to America to lie and deceive people here. It is just necessary to help people see through their scams,” he said shortly afterwards as he walked out of the hall with a spring in his step. About two hours later, a report and video clip of the encounter appeared on SaharaReporters and YouTube.
Some Nigerians, especially public officials who bear the brunt of his reporting, have often accused Mr. Sowore of destroying his country’s image and of being contemptuous and disrespectful of authorities. Mr. Sowore dismisses the charges with a wave of the hand. “I am more patriotic than most of the rogues in power.
In spite of what they say about me, I love my country,” Mr. Sowore said one night last July at Lincoln Center, a premier entertainment venue in New York, where he had gone to watch one of Nigeria’s biggest musical exports, Femi Kuti, perform.
“I like to support everything that is good about Nigeria and viciously oppose everything that is bad. People at times mistake my anti-establishment stance for anti-Nigeria. That is not correct.”
But Mr. Sowore has, at times, failed to adhere strictly to the rules of contemporary journalism – objectivity, fairness and respect for people’s privacy and for subjects of stories. While asking questions at press conferences and other events involving Nigerian officials, he blasts functionaries, calls them names, and pointedly accuses them of mismanaging his country. He calls it journalistic activism or advocacy journalism.
At times, he publishes what many professionals consider offensive photographs on his site. The publication of the bullet-ridden body of slain Guardian journalist, Bayo Ohu, who was assassinated on September 21, 2009 in Lagos, riled not a few readers and professionals. “The picture is too graphic and it intruded into people’s privacy in a way that is not necessary,” James Estrin, editor of the Lens Blog, the photojournalism blog of The New York Times said, explaining that his newspaper would never run such a horrific photograph. Mr. Sowore, however, said his publication decided to publish the photograph because doing so was in line with its philosophy of “evidence-based news reporting”.
The SUN’s Oshunkeye also faults SaharaReporters for swallowing, in his words, “information from aggrieved sources hook, line and sinker” and speedily pushing them onto the public space without conducting necessary checks to ascertain authenticity. “This is dangerous because he may not avail himself of ample time and space to test and retest the quality of the information he is being fed, therefore making him prone to being used by manipulative sources,” Mr. Oshunkeye said. “When this happens, fairness goes to Golgotha.” Mr. Sowore shrugs off the criticism, saying his site has an “elaborate process” of verifying all information.
Part Four: The plots to silence SaharaReporters
The years since Mr. Sowore began to write about his country from New York have become particularly difficult for him. As a result of his work, the journalist has become persona non grata in his home country. He cannot visit Nigeria as regularly as he desires. Whenever it becomes absolutely necessary to visit his family, he surreptitiously enters the country through its land borders but when there, he cannot move freely for fear of arrest, attack or assassination.
His family fears for his safety and his widowed mother, Kehinde, a 58-year-old petty trader in Kiribo, Mr. Sowore’s native home in Ondo State, is particularly apprehensive that harm might come to her son. “At every level, people are concerned about my safety given the kind of people we write about,” Mr. Sowore said in a Skype interview one Saturday morning in October. “But I am a trained activist and have been detained by the Nigerian authorities eight times. So, I don’t listen to people’s concern anymore because I have no fear.”
Mr. Sowore mother’s unease about her son reached its climax in October 2008 when Jonathan Elendu, Mr. Sowore’s former partner at Elendureports was arrested at the Abuja airport by security operatives on returning to Nigeria from the United States. Mr. Elendu, who the operatives wrongly believed worked for SaharaReporters, was detained and tortured for 12 days before his eventual release. He said the agents kept pressing him for information about Mr. Sowore during his interrogation.
Even in New York, Mr. Sowore moves around like a hunted man, looking over his shoulder everywhere he goes. While driving, he looks into the mirror from time to time to ascertain that he is not being followed by anyone. He has also thrown a seemingly impenetrable cloak of secrecy around his family of three. Some of his close friends said they do not know where he lives and have never met his wife or his two children.
For this story, Mr. Sowore flatly refused to be interviewed in his New Jersey home. He also wouldn’t allow his wife to be interviewed or her identity, and that of his children, mentioned in the piece. “I have decided to keep them completely out of the picture,” he said. “Once they know the soft targets around me, these guys can strike. I receive threatening SMS and telephone calls and angry emails often. So, I have to do my best to keep my family safe.”
In an emailed response to Nduka Otiono, a professor at the department of English and film studies at the University of Alberta, who had inquired about SaharaReporters, Mr. Sowore reiterated that the “powerful interests” his site writes about were plotting consistently to knock him, and his staff, down. “Everyone reading or working for SaharaReporters knows that we are a target each and every day.
We simply don’t care enough to count how many times we get threatened with death or bodily harm,” he said. “We answer to legal threats/actions. We answer to cyber threats that come in the form of bot attacks because we must remain in operation at all times. The rest we document for history, but we don’t let them bother us.”
Some Nigerian officials, Mr. Sowore said, have tried to compromise him or get him to at least be less critical. Some government agencies, such as the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, have offered him advertisements. He saw the gesture as a way of courting him, so he rejected it and announced on his site that SaharaReporters won’t accept advertisements from government officials and agencies.
Administration officials visiting New York often seek meetings with him. Some have sent emissaries. But he has remained elusive and unmoved. “As a rule, I avoid private meetings with government officials,” he explained. “I just tell them that there is no discussion we can’t have by telephone or email. Physical meetings are unnecessary.”
But presidency officials, apparently distressed by SaharaReporters’ hard-hitting reporting, badly want to meet Mr. Sowore. So, one day this summer, President Jonathan’s spokesman, Ima Niboro, flew into New York to meet him. After checking into the Marriot Hotel in the Brooklyn district of the city, Mr. Niboro rang Sowore to request a meeting. “He said oga (his boss the president) sent him to thank me for my support of his government – whatever that means – and that he had met with other bloggers – Jackson Ude of pointblank.com and Emmanuel Asiwe of huhuonline.com – and that I was the only one left.”
Mr. Sowore said he suspected the “thank you” from Mr. Jonathan to be a euphemism for bribery so he told the president’s emissary he was not available for a meeting. “But he kept pressing, saying a certain Jerry Omano would drive him to wherever I was. At that point, I made it clear I had no plan to receive any thanks from oga.” Mr. Niboro did not return calls nor reply email requesting his comment for this story.
SaharaReporters has also had to contend with legal challenges from those, who Mr. Sowore described as agents of the Nigerian government. In 2007, Paul Orhii, head of the National Agency for Drug Administration and Control, NAFDAC, sued SaharaReporters and its publisher for $25 million concerning a report that he had colluded with former Attorney General Michael Aondoakaa to collect huge fees from the government to act as an expert witness in a case involving Pfizer even when he had no expertise in the subject matter. Mr. Orhii, who was based in the U.S., was appointed NAFDAC’s DG shortly after he instituted the libel suit.
Also hanging around Sowore’s neck is a case against him by a U.S-based Nigerian lawyer, Emeka Ugwuonye, who sued over a series of articles alleging fraudulent sales of Nigeria embassy properties in the U.S. And there is yet another suit by Eric Abakporo, an attorney to Nigeria’s Permanent Mission to the UN, who is contesting SaharaReporter’s reports of improper contract awards by the Nigerian mission.
“Whatever they do, we will remain true to our mission and ideal,” Mr. Sowore said over dinner one Friday in October. “Our mission is more important than we are ourselves. We wish Nigerian leaders would understand this.”
His meal over, Sowore left the New York restaurant and zoomed off into the darkness. Two hours later, he posted a confidential security report naming top Nigerian administration officials and politicians in the massive diversion and sale of Nigerian army weaponry to insurgents in the country’s restive Niger Delta region.
“They ain’t seen anything yet,” he said later that night on the telephone.