Ahead of the general election on Saturday, February 25, my team of a small newsroom, WikkiTimes held multiple editorial and management meetings, including in-house training.
Since I had relocated from Bauchi to another state due to constant harassment by powerful politicians and their cronies, I could only participate in most of the meetings virtually.
Despite our limited resources, our newsroom decided to effectively cover the election in Bauchi State. Therefore, I made the decision to return to Bauchi State on the eve of the election. Upon my return, I conducted a physical training session for a group of journalists and civil society organizations on how to effectively monitor and report the election.
On election day, the WikkiTimes Editor, Yakubu Mohammed, was to join a team of journalists at Albarka Radio, a local radio station partnering with WikkiTimes in Bauchi, to coordinate field reporting, while I planned to cover the election in Bauchi North.
But for ease of movement, I later joined the Bauchi correspondents’ chapel of journalists to cover Bauchi South, including Alkaleri local government, which is the hometown of the incumbent Governor Bala Mohammed.
Though I have covered several elections in Nigeria, and I was aware of the dangers that came with covering political events, especially with the limited freedom of the press in the country, nothing could have prepared me for the incident of the last Saturday.
On arriving Alkaleri, I joined other journalists to interview Governor Mohammed at his hometown in Duguri where he cast his vote. Then as we moved around to observe and interview voters, we came across a group of women who were murmuring and complaining. I became curious and approached them to find out the cause of their agitation. Seeing my press badge, one of the women called out, “Muna da korafi” which roughly translates to “We have a complain to make.” Then, I asked them what their complaint was, and they crowded around me as they took turns to express their grievances.
Many of the younger women among the protesters complained that despite graduating from colleges for years and submitting their resumes to individuals close to the governor who hailed from their community, they had been unable to secure employment. Others said the governor never kept his promise of better lives for them after four years of being in office, and as a result, they had decided not to vote.
As soon as the interview ended, a group of the governor’s supporters attacked me and tried to grab my phone which I used for the video recording. They accused me of attempting to embarrass the governor by filming protesters in his hometown. I managed to convince them that I had no intention of undermining the governor. And I believed that the matter had been resolved, but unknown to me, the governor’s security personnel had already been alerted about my interviews with the protesters.
One of the security officers with the governor came up to me and forcefully took my phone, ordering me to unlock it so he could view the footage. He then dragged me towards the governor and warned me that I would have to explain why I was attempting to shame the governor in his own hometown.
Despite my explanation that I was merely trying to understand what the anger of the women was, the officer refused to listen. He took my phone into the room where the governor was, and I was questioned by other security personnel. As the interrogation continued, the governor’s thugs returned and began to assault me. Then the police whisked me away.
While all this was happening, I couldn’t help but question my offence. I had committed no crime but simply carried out my duty as a journalist by documenting the events of the day and giving a voice to citizens with the right to complaints. But Governor Bala Mohammed instead saw me as a threat to his power and government.
The governor, I was informed, believed that I was hired by the opposition party to undermine him, the same opposition that has accused WikkiTimes, my media organization, of being used by Governor Bala Mohammed’s government to attack them. Despite these accusations from both sides, neither the opposition nor the government has been able to provide any evidence to support their claims.
The police eventually escorted me to a nearby station where I was held for several hours before being transferred to Bauchi Police Command. He used the Police Commissioner to detain me for three days in their custody and ensure I was remanded in the Bauchi prison for another two days.
My experience in detention serves as a stark reminder of how vulnerable journalists are in Nigeria. I was traumatised; separated from my loved ones. My mother cried for days. She fell ill, weeps endlessly. She was too powerless to challenge the powerful Governor Bala Mohammed – but she was comforted by the conviction that her son was motivated by a just cause.
Sitting in my cell with mixed emotions of anger and sadness, I pondered on the devastating effect of political power on critical journalism in Nigeria, and by extension democracy. Nigeria is a democracy, or it is believed to be so, but politicians will do everything to crush the people who challenge their power or the press that seeks to give power to the people.
Governor Bala Mohammed is a representation of anti-democratic forces in government. He has repeatedly demonstrated an unparalleled level of intolerance for opposing voices. Over the last three years, he has ordered the arrest of his critics, who talk about his poor performance in office. He has ordered the detention of people who criticise him on social media and threatened to “ex-communicate” a Daily Trust reporter who asked a critical question during a public event.
Many of those who have been arrested and detained by the governor’s orders have been denied their right to a fair trial. Some have been held in custody for extended periods without being charged.
Such actions are gross violations of the Nigerian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and expression.
When citizens are afraid to express their opinions freely due to the threat of arrest and detention, democracy suffers. It is disheartening to see a former journalist like Governor Mohammed serially gag the press.
Since the Saturday episode, Governor Bala Mohammed has launched a smear campaign against WikkiTimes and its journalism. Relying on the falsehood sold to him by his footlings, he claimed that I sponsored the women that protested against him.
Meanwhile, the police investigation into the matter found no evidence to support the governor’s claims that I had sponsored the protests. The video footage I took did not show any evidence of me paying the women to protest the governor, nor was any of his aides able to produce any video of me hiring women to protest.
To borrow a popular cliche, Governor Bala Mohammed simply lied to give a dog a bad name.
I thank friends, colleagues and mentors who campaigned vigorously for my release from prison. I am also grateful to organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists, (CPJ); Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID); Centre for Collaborative Investigative Journalism, CCIJ and its West Africa Hub, Media Rights Agenda (MRA), International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR); International Press Centre, Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism, Premium Times, Civic Media Lab, Forbidden Stories, the European Union, Coalition of Whistle Blowers, the Bauchi State Council of the NUJ and many others too numerous to mention.
Be rest assured that WikkiTimes will continue to hold authoritarian leaders like Governor Bala Mohammed to account at all times in the service of the public interest.
Haruna Mohammed Salisu is the publisher of WikkiTimes, a Bauchi-based investigative news organization.