Haworth residents gather to demand that local resident and Nigerian journalist Omoyele Sowore be released from a Nigerian prison where he has been held since August, photographed on 10/28/19.
Omoyele “Yele” Sowore of Haworth, a journalist and social activist, has become the forgotten man of the coronavirus pandemic.
He’s not sick. Since his arrest in Nigeria a year ago, he has been trapped in a bizarre diplomatic quarantine — confined to house arrest, facing what he calls bogus criminal charges, with little prospect of returning to his wife and children anytime soon.
Back home in America, the campaign for Sowore’s release, which has included residents attaching yellow ribbons to many trees in Haworth, has fallen into a bureaucratic hole in the Trump administration. With so much of the nation’s attention focused on stopping the alarming spread of COVID-19 amid an increasingly tense and bitter election season, many of Sowore’s followers feel they are crying for help into an irrepressible void.
“Limbo. That’s exactly the word I use,” said his wife, Opeyemi Oluwole-Sowore, 46, describing her yearlong search for answers — and help — from U.S. and Nigerian authorities.
In Nigeria, her husband describes his plight as closer to legal and emotional hell.
In an exclusive interview from Nigeria — his first with an American news agency since his arrest Aug. 3, 2019 — Sowore, 49, said he fears his life could be in danger if he tries to rally international attention to his case.
Answering questions through WhatsApp, the cross-platform messaging service, Sowore told NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY Network that he believes Nigerian authorities are trying to “silence me permanently.”
“My ability to write has been emasculated by several efforts to gag me,” Sowore said.
The story of Sowore’s dispute with Nigerian officials began with the kind of passionate free expression that is meant to bring about government reforms — and which many Americans take for granted back home.
Sowore, who was born in Nigeria but holds legal residency status in the U.S. — a so-called “green card” — returned to his homeland last summer to campaign for changes in his government.
He was not exactly welcomed with a ticker-tape parade by Nigerian officials. As a crusading journalist who was not shy about openly calling for political reforms, Sowore had become a persistent thorn in the political hide of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari.
A former army general, Buhari is viewed by U.S. authorities as a key anti-terror ally in Africa. But Sowore, through his website, Sahara Reporters, which he founded in 2006 in a New York City apartment and funded with grants from the Ford and Omidyar foundations, offered a far different portrait of the Nigerian leader.
To Sowore, Buhari was little more than a tinhorn autocrat intent on padding his personal bank accounts and cracking down on critics. From his Haworth home, Sowore even ran for president against Buhari in the February 2019 election.
Sowore’s presidential campaign was, for sure, a quixotic, losing quest. But it gave him a stage to raise questions about what he believed to be widespread corruption in the Buhari administration and its often-brutal efforts to trample on democratic reforms among the nation’s 150 million people. As the election ended, Sowore also accused Buhari’s allies of voter fraud.
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He was taken to Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, and thrown in prison -— but not formally charged with any crimes.
Two months passed. Eventually Nigerian authorities slapped Sowore with a variety of questionable accusations, including treason, fomenting revolution, money laundering and cyberstalking of Buhari.
In early December, a judge ordered Sowore released on bail. But Nigerian police rearrested him, touching off a wide international outcry.
Sowore, who faces years in a Nigerian prison if convicted, has denied all the charges. Meanwhile, a variety of advocacy groups, including Amnesty International and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation, describe the accusations against Sowore as bogus. And the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention is expected to release a report soon, claiming that Nigeria had no right to arrest Sowore.
But the Trump administration has not called for his release.
One reason is that Sowore falls into a delicate diplomatic fissure. As a Nigerian, he has legal residency in the U.S. with his “green card” status. But he is not a U.S. citizen. His wife, who grew up in Old Tappan, and children — a 13-year-old daughter, Ayo, and 10-year-old son, Komi, — are American citizens, however.
On Christmas Eve, Sowore was released on bail again but ordered to remain confined to a home in Abuja where his family says he is forced to pay more than $2,000 a month for rent and round-the-clock security guards to protect him from possible reprisals from the Buhari regime.
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In the WhatsApp interview, Sowore said he is unable to write freely or speak out and that his homeland’s efforts to expand democratic reforms “continues to slide downwards.” He also said his personal bank accounts and funding for the Sahara Reporters website had been frozen and that his website was targeted for a suspicious cyber attack that he blames on Buhari’s agents.
Meanwhile, money for his rent has been raised by his wife through grants or dipping into the family’s finances here in America. “It’s cost us thousands and thousands of dollars to maintain two households,” Opeyemi Oluwole-Sowore said from her Haworth home.
In Nigeria, Sowore said he can leave his rented home. But he rarely ventures out. He fears he might be harmed by Buhari’s supporters or rearrested.
“I am being constantly monitored and followed by the state security services,” Sowore said.
“It is extremely dangerous considering fresh efforts to get me arrested by Nigerian security agents,” he added. “And all these are tailored toward silencing me permanently.”
Nigerian authorities could not be reached for comment. A call to the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, D.C., went to voicemail. An email went unanswered. Calls to the Nigerian Consulate in New York City also were not answered.
In response to a request for comment from the USA TODAY Network, the U.S. State Department said it was monitoring Sowore’s case in Nigeria but declined to say whether it would formally request his release.
“We continue to follow Mr. Sowore’s case closely,” a State Department spokeswoman wrote in an email. She added that U.S. officials “engage with the government on the importance of rule of law and respect for the right to freedom of expression for all individuals, and particularly for dissidents and members of the press and civil society.” But she offered no details.
Such is the void that the Sowore family now faces. It has little leverage with the Nigerian government. And U.S. authorities, while issuing high-minded statements, are hardly beating a diplomatic drum to force the Nigerians to release Sowore.
Last year, Rep. Josh Gottheimer, the Wyckoff Democrat whose district includes Haworth, and Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from Paramus, signed a letter calling for Sowore’s release. Sen. Cory Booker, the Newark Democrat, also raised concerns about his detention.
Marking the first anniversary of Sowore’s arrest last week, Gottheimer said he is currently writing another letter to Nigerian authorities.
“I want to keep the pressure on until he comes home,” Gottheimer said.
In a statement released Friday by his office, Menendez said the refusal by Nigeria to release Sowore “smacks of politicization of the judicial process.”
What’s notable in the continued pressure by Gottheimer and Menendez, however, is the virtual silence in other corners of the U.S. government.
“There has been a lack of sustained leadership by the U.S. State Department,” said Adotei Akwei, the Washington-based deputy director for advocacy and government relations for Amnesty International. “Sowore’s case has been lost in the shuffle with the COVID pandemic and with whatever latest thing Trump is doing.”
Akwei said that in private conversation some State Department officials told him they view Sowore as a “political actor” and do not consider his plight a high priority.
“This is not a Nelson Mandela that deserves full-bore attention,” Akwei said, in describing the attitude he has faced when advocating for Sowore’s release with U.S. authorities.
Wade McMullen, is an attorney with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation who brought Sowore’s case before the United Nations, accusing Nigerian authorities of trampling Sowore’s rights in an attempt to silence him.
“Their ongoing prosecution amounts to nothing more than a campaign of persecution against him,” McMullen said.
Soon after Sowore’s arrest in August 2019, McMullen sent a 33-page petition to the United Nations calling for his release, claiming that Nigerian authorities were “arbitrarily depriving” him of his “liberty and continues to arbitrarily detain him.”
Nigerian officials did not respond.
Sowore’s trial has been postponed three times. Nigerian prosecutors have still not given a list of potential witnesses or other court documents to his attorney — a procedure that is common in local, state and federal courts in the United States.
So he waits.
So does his family back home in Haworth.
“They have him where they want him,” said Sowore’s wife, Opeyemi. “They’re limiting his freedom. He’s technically still in prison.”
It’s now been more than a year.
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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