For much of the world, last November's execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian writer and minority-rights activist, was a jarring wake-up call. With the exception of Nigerians and a handful of people abroad who had bothered to follow events in Africa's most populous country, few saw it coming.
The hanging of Saro-Wiwa and eight others, which followed an unfair murder trial, drew universal condemnation. It also managed to attract international attention to the excesses of Nigeria's current bunch of military rulers -- the very attention Saro-Wiwa and many other human rights campaigners had been striving to attract for almost 10 years.
But for now, much less is being said about the military regime's determined attempt to destroy Nigeria's feisty independent press. It would be a tragedy if the outside world were to wait to hear of hangings of editors and reporters before taking a resolute stand in support of journalists in Nigeria.
The Nigerian press once had a well-deserved reputation as Africa's freest and boldest. Some of the boldness is still there, but the freedom is all but gone. Too bad, because in a proud history that has spanned 137 years, the press in Nigeria has been at the center of the nation's life, through war and peace, joy and sorrow.
The Nigerian press has survived harrowing economic downturns, closures, arrests, and state-sponsored murder. It has also survived harsh military decrees in a nation that has been ruled by soldiers for 26 of its 36 years since independence. But now it is fighting for its life. For the independent press in Nigeria, the period since Gen. Sani Abacha seized power in November 1993 has been the worst since the nation's first newspaper was published in 1859. (Nigeria's military strongmen have no problems with the many government-owned media; these say only what the government wants to hear.)
Unfettered press? Not true
Looking at the newsstands, a visitor to Nigeria might assume the press is unfettered. That's because newspapers and magazines that refuse to trumpet the official line are available. But what's not seen are the daily risks Nigerian journalists take to produce such stories and the sacrifices they make.
Nigeria's military rulers point to the very existence of some independent publications as "evidence" that the Nigerian press is free. What they never tell the world is that many of the journalists working for these publications are under constant surveillance by government security agents. They never talk about the editors they have jailed, nor the reporters and photographers that police have beaten up on the job.
They never mention their list of "troublesome journalists," who are not allowed to travel abroad because when they do, these journalists tend to give their foreign colleagues firsthand accounts of their plight. It would make no sense, of course, for Nigeria's military leaders to tell the truth about why they fight the independent press. At a time when most sectors of civil society have been bought by - or surrendered to - the military, the press is often the only institution maintaining an articulate stand for the rule of law and freedom of expression.
Support for struggling journalists
The press stands as a barrier to the military's total control over what should be an exemplary nation. Dictators hate such barriers. That was why General Abacha hanged Saro-Wiwa, in spite of strong international opposition. And it is why the Nigerian press needs all the support it can get in its struggle to survive the meanest dictatorship the country has ever known.
Closing down newspapers and magazines and detaining journalists are commonplace in Nigeria. But a new threshold was crossed in October 1986, when Dele Giwa, editor in chief of Newswatch, an independent newsmagazine, was killed by a letter bomb apparently delivered by members of the Nigerian intelligence services. Though such a blatant example of murder hasn't occurred in a journalist's home since, government harassment of Nigerian journalists has grown steadily worse.
Many news organizations have been closed repeatedly, sometimes for more than a year. Such closures have caused some publications to go under. Between June and August 1994, three different media companies were banned by decree. This put more than 15 publications out of circulation for more than a year. Some have still not reopened.
Currently, four Nigerian journalists are serving 15-year sentences, allegedly for complicity in a March 1995 coup plot against the Abacha regime. The journalists are George Mbah of Tell magazine, Christine Anyanwu of The Sunday Magazine, Ben-Charles Obi of Weekend Classique, and Kunle Ajibade of The News. None of the four has ever been involved with the Nigerian armed forces. But the Abacha regime, claiming that they played a role in the coup, railroaded them through a special military tribunal last July and put them in some of Nigeria's harshest prisons.
Since then, the antipress campaign has escalated. In December, more than 100,000 copies of Tell were seized, and Nosa Igiebor, the magazine's editor in chief, was arrested. (He remains in jail.) There were arson attacks on the offices of two independent news organizations, and in February, gunmen nearly killed a newspaper publisher. These attacks are believed to be the work of government security agents.
If the Abacha regime wins its war against the press, the march of jackboot despotism in Nigeria might never end.