The violence across northern Nigeria during the last several years has highlighted the deep frustrations over broken promises for development, the potential for homegrown militancy to spread, and the role of impunity in cultivating widespread cynicism toward the security forces. With all the attention the radical Islamist group Boko Haram has received recently, it has become hard to keep the spotlight on the Niger Delta, where activists have been agitating on those same three issues for many years. Thus the suspicious and arbitrary detention of Rev. David Ugolor, a prominent civil society leader in the Niger Delta, deserves more attention as it has already sent chills throughout grassroots organizations in Nigeria’s oil producing region.
Last month, Olaitan Oyerinde, a top official for Edo State Governor Adams Oshiomhole (the former labor leader), was murdered during a robbery of his home. When the police then arrested several men, one of them described his sponsor and said his name was “David.” Six suspects who confessed to the crime have since been paraded on national television. But this has done little to establish some semblance of due process for Rev. David Ugolor, who was arrested on July 27 in the offices of the African Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ).
According to an August 4 statement from ANEEJ, at least ten police officers ransacked Ugolor’s home and the organization’s offices, preventing staff from making any phone calls while officials seized materials over the course of three hours. His mistreatment and ongoing arbitrary detention has precipitated an outcry from civil society organizations, and demands from Governor Oshiomhole for a federal probe into police mishandling of the case. As the governor explained to The Nation newspaper on August 18, confessions to the same crime by other suspects, and conflicting information by the security services, cast doubt on the entire process. He further described Ugolor as “unarguably the most prominent civil society activist in Edo State and a well-known friend of Comrade Olaitan Oyerinde.” In other words, Ugolor had no motive.
Ugolor founded ANEEJ in 1995 and went on to campaign for debt cancellation, helping to set up the Jubilee South Forum that included members from 35 poor countries around the world. According to a biography prepared by Benin City journalist Michael Odigbe, he received funding from the Heinrich Boell Foundation, the British High Commission, and the Norwegian government for his work on monitoring oil revenue transfers and spending in the Niger Delta, which in part led to the creation of the Niger Delta Budget Monitoring and Transparency Network. With ANEEJ, he has also been at the forefront of the debate over the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) – which I have analyzed previously on the Development4Security blog – arguing for institutionalizing a role for civil society participation. Most recently, and perhaps most sensitively, he also led civil society calls for implementation of the recommendations of Lawan probe into s fuel subsidy corruption.
It is worth recalling that the head of that House of Representatives sanctioned investigation, Hon. Farouk Lawan from Kano State, faced allegations that his committee had accepted bribes (after disclosing that he had inappropriately been offered bribes) in exchange for watering down their report. Will other proponents of oil revenue transparency and accountability suffer similar fates? An excellent editorial in yesterday’s issue of Leadership asked why neither the House Ethics Committee nor the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has made progress on answering whether bribes were offered, solicited, or received.
Either Charge Rev. Ugolor — or Release Him
Publish What You Pay Nigeria called for Ugolor’s “immediate and unconditional release,” arguing in a recent press release that he “is being framed for his activism in revenue transparency and brining reforms to bear on the Nigerian Oil and Gas Industry.” On August 9, 23 civil society organizations, including the Ijaw Youth Council, the Women Environmental Programme, and numerous Edo-state based youth organizations praised Ugolor’s leadership on the PIB, election monitoring in the recent gubernatorial elections. From 1999 to 2005 Ugolor was also a tireless advocate for the Recovery of Stolen Assets legislation (from 1999-2005), which helped the Nigerian government retrieve millions of dollars stolen by the family of the late dictator Sani Abacha – but which earned Ugolor numerous enemies. The groups are now calling on President Goodluck Jonathan to create a commission to investigate the mishandling of the case, and to determine who Oyerinde’s killers really are.
An even longer list of 150 civil society organizations and leaders, from all six of the country’s geopolitical zones, signed an open letter on August 15, asking the police to either formally charge Ugolor – or release him in accordance with his constitutional rights. (Editor’s Note: some organizations are accidentally listed twice in the original letter.) Expressing concern about the chilling effect his detention is having on political rights, the signatories call “on governments at all levels in Nigeria to protect the space for those advancing progressive, liberal ideas by strengthening the civil society space.”
So far, the international community unfortunately hasn’t taken much notice. ANEEJ wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just a few days before her August 10 meeting with President Jonathan. But Boko Haram, cooperation on the US-Nigeria Bilateral Commission, and other issues appear to have dominated the discussion. Ugolor’s colleagues at
ANEEJ are waiting to hear back from the American diplomats. The story has been all over the Nigerian press, with reports in Vanguard and other outlets covering the activists’ frustration with the police. In contravention of constitutional guarantees to a speedy trial, Ugolor has yet to formally be charged with a crime. This led High Court Judge Esther A. Edigin on August 16 to order his release on medical grounds, rather than on bail. Another hearing will take place later this week.
I will post updates on the case here, and you can also follow the issues by joining the new Facebook group. Oyerinde’s family deserves justice, and Nigerians deserve to know the truth about this murky murder, which offers yet another clear test for how committed the Jonathan administration really is to the rule of law.