Chido Onumah, journalist, author, rights activist and coordinator, African Centre for Media and Information Literacy was arrested and detained recently by the Department of State Security Service, DSS, at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja on his arrival from Spain for wearing a T-shirt with the inscription “We Are All Biafrans”. In this interview with NEHRU ODEH, he speaks about the arrest and the state of things in the country.
Could you tell me why you were arrested by the DSS?
They gave different reasons both at the airport and when they took me to their facility. I arrived at Abuja airport at about 4: 15 pm. I went straight, pass through immigration to pick up my bag. I was on the phone talking to friends because I had scheduled some events later that evening around eight o’clock. So I was trying to tidy that up with somebody after I had picked up my bag. I was about to head out and exit the airport and somebody just approached me, flashed his card and said he was with the Department of State Security, that I should join him to their office at the airport. So we walked down about 20 metres to their office. They took my bags, put them in a corner of the room, took my passport and my phone and we were pacing up and down the place. After a while one of the officers turned to me and said, “You’re a Biafran. How come you have a Nigerian passport?” And I said, “Really? I am a Nigerian. That’s why I have a Nigerian passport. There is no country called Biafra. So I couldn’t possibly have a Biafran passport.” And he turned again and said, “But that’s not what is written on your T-shirt.” So I looked at my T- shirt to be sure it was the same We Are All Biafrans I had, that that hasn’t changed. So they kept reassuring me “Oh, this is routine, It’s normal, it won’t take 15-20 minutes.” They were arguing back and forth among themselves. And through it all I picked up a book from my bag. I was reading. We stayed there for about two hours. Then they said they were going to take me to their head office in downtown Abuja.
So at about 6.30pm, we headed out and they took me inside a pick up van, took my luggage, huddled me and drove to their head office. We got there around seven or 7:30. I just sat there, and they were going back and forth, to go to this office here, look for some person there. The person wasn’t there. They said I was supposed to see the Director-General. Later they said the deputy. Nothing happened for about two hours. I really didn’t know what they were about. And I didn’t bother to ask them. I just wanted them to take their time and let me know what it was they wanted to do. So later the PRO came in and started talking to me. Initially he didn’t introduce himself. He just said, “I am sorry this has happened. We just had to pick you. We received information from some people in the plane that somebody was wearing this T-shirt, that they were worried this person was coming into town to be part of a plan to cause disaffection in the country.” I said what does this mean? I have been wearing this T-shirt for more than three years now. They were taken aback. They said, “Really, you were wearing to town?” I said I wear it everyday. I wear it to work. That’s what I wear. I travel light. Everywhere I go I wear the T-shirt. So it’s nothing strange. And it’s the title of my book, which came out almost three and half years ago. They couldn’t make the connection. I kept telling them. Their interest wasn’t in the book. They just said they wanted this T=shirt. Later they started another thing, “You know because of the tension in the country you can’t wear this to town.” I said why? They said because of Biafra. Is Biafra a banned word? Biafra is part of our history, People fought war, people died and so on. So what is the problem with the T-shirt? I have taken pictures with prominent Nigerians with the T- shirt. The guy now said, “Ok we also had intelligence that some people are planning to attack you. So we don’t want you to wear this thing to town, that if you go to town now, and they attack you, they could be reprisals and there would be ethnic violence and tension in the country.” It didn’t really make sense. I didn’t understand. Maybe somebody, somewhere, thought they could stop me or prevent me from wearing that shirt. Anyway, the bottom line was that they couldn’t release me unless they took the shirt from me. So we started arguing back and forth. I kept explaining my situation. They said, “No you can’t leave until I give them the T-shirt‘’’. I said, Ok, I that’s what you guys want. I have many of the T-shirts. I have even extra two in my bag and I have friends who have he T-shirts. So at about 10: 30 they said, “Ok it’s the T- shirt you have worn. I gave them the T-shirt. And they said, “Ok, that you have to agree that you won’t wear it again.” I said, Ok. That was it. I gave them the T-shirt and they let me go.
Did you wear the T-shirt when you arrived at the airport?
Yes, I wore the T-shirt. When I was leaving the country that was what I traveled with. I wore the T-shirt when I left Nigeria three weeks ago. When I was coming back I wore the T-shirt too. So when they arrested me, I had the T-shirt on. I wore it.
It’s obvious they haven’t read your book. If they had, they would have understood what you mean by We Are All Biafrans …
Yeah exactly, I mean they could even make attempts to know the person. So if somebody gives you an intelligent report about somebody, you go and read up. Even if it is an ordinary person they would have come up with something. But they didn’t do any of that. And they couldn’t make the connection. I kept insisting that, look it is not about the T- shirt. The book is available on Amazon etc. They said, “Oh we are not interested in the book.” They are interested in the T-shirt. What’s the situation with the T-shirt? So they took the T –shirt from me. So I said, “Ok. If that’s what you want, you can take the T-shirt.
How do you feel about the arrest, considering our history and what is going on in the country now?
Yeah it’s quite sad. I felt really bad. I felt it was a denial and infringement of my basic human rights: my right to movement, my right to wear what I want to wear. I don’t know even If some people are arguing on social media, those who support their viewpoint. I’m not linked to IPOB. I have no link to any underground movement that wants to cause disaffection and destabilize the country. So if you say you banned IPOB, Biafra is a word. It’s like when somebody is saying I love Oduduwa and you find fault with that. I mean that’s laughable, the arrest and the seizure of my T-shirt. I’m contemplating what legal options I have to enforce my right.
So I feel really bad. There is no basis for that. But even more importantly I see it as part of a larger plan to restrict people’s ability to express themselves. So in the last few weeks and months it’s been the case of what you write in the media or social media, what you say, whether you can congregate or not. Femi Falana and co were planning a programme in Lagos few months ago. The DSS went there and turned the place upside down. The police would arrest you for carrying any kind of phone. And it has moved from all of that to what you can wear and not wear. Who know what they’re going to charge people with. So that for me is the dangerous part of it. But again it also opens an opportunity for the nation, for people who are interested in creating a better country to have a conversation on broader national issues that face the country: where the country is headed, what the whole question about citizens’ rights viz a viz the sustenance of our democracy. I am happy the conversation is going on.
Let’s now situate the book in the context of the state of things in Nigeria. They say they are not interested in the book. What does that tell about our country?
I couldn’t understand that, that you detain somebody and the person is trying to explain and you say you are not interested in that. You are interested in the T=shirt. In fact, when I kept pushing, they said no the book is different from the T-shirt. It was so depressing.
Considering what you’ve just gone through and the suppression of dissent in Nigeria, especially now that the nation is celebrating her 59th independence anniversary. Is there hope in Nigeria?
There is hope in this country. I believe in this country. I have lived and work in different countries around the world. There is no place like Nigeria. I was away for three weeks and I just couldn’t do without the country: the food, the environment, the people. It’s just that we reused to get our acts together to build a nation and then develop a nation out of what was in the beginning at independence. That notwithstanding, I have great hope in this country. What we are going through is not peculiar to our nation. If you look through the history of Europe, for example – that many of our people are rushing to and dying in the process – it is literally written in blood. When you are looking at France or Great Britain or modern states like Serbia, Yugoslavia and so on – or the history of Europe – they led us to the first world war, second world war and millions o people died. But it’s just we’ve refused to learn from history and we don’t need to go through what Europe went through before it developed. We have the experience of hindsight and so we need to take a lesson, grab it and run quickly with it. Everything has been done for us: technology, electricity, solar power, thermal power, environmental progress, everything. We don’t have to live in the past. We have access to them. Unfortunately for us, 59 years after independence, we can’t guarantee two, three hours of steady power. And without power you can’t even begin to think of anything development. We don’t have our roads. Everything is in complete mess, not to talk of medical services, universities, schools that should be the foundation for our growth as a nation, and so on. Look at Abuja – Kaduna road. Abuja is the federal capita territory. Kaduna is like the capital of Northern Nigeria. In most other countries people would live in Abuja and work in Kaduna or vice versa. But it is not that. I remember when I was working in the United States many years ago. My office was in Washington Dc. I used to live with my boss in Maryland. The wife would drop me off when she was dropping off a kid at the bus station. I would take a bus to the train station. Or sometimes she would drop me off at the train station and I would take the train for about an hour or 30 minutes or so to Washington, go to my office, finish, come back the same way. Kaduna is just two hours. In a speed train it can take less than one hour. But you can’t do that. Going from Abuja to Kaduna now is like going from here to Ghana. You have to consider many things. So that’s the challenge we face. Part of it is leadership, part of it is the way the country was constructed, particularly what the military handed over to us. It’s like the nation was raised to fail and we’ve been building on that from a faulty foundation. I pray that we want to be a nation of equity, equality, social justice, togetherness and peace. We can turn things around quickly in ten years
Let’s come back to the book again. They have made so much ado about the T-shirt. What’s the book about?
Basically, in the book I am trying to draw attention to the socio-political crisis in the country and offer solutions. The idea basically is that we don’t need to run from these problems. We need to confront our problems. We need to face them frontally, whether it is Biafra we are talking about, whether it is the problems in the Niger Delta, middle Belt etc. And the idea of the book came from an article I wrote close to four years now, that was in the early days of the Buhari administration, when the whole Biafra and Nnamdi Kanu saga was gaining momentum. I think it was around the time he was first arrested. And there was a conversation in the media. It actually started with an article written by Professor JIbrin Ibrahim, who used to be with the Centre for Democracy and Development. And he had written an article entitled How Do We Deal with The Ibo Question? So in response to the Nnamdi Kanu saga, a lot of intellectuals particularly of Igbo extraction – I think Prof. Chidi Odinkalu, Prof. Okey Ibeanu and Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri – responded to Prof. Ibrahim. They were critical of him and so on. In their own intervention, he was a bit trying to be critical and push forward the Ibo question and raise awareness about it. I intervened with an article, saying as far as I am concerned there is no Ibo question What we have is a Nigerian question , that if we deal with the Nigerian question, it will answer or solve all these things, whether Ibo question, whether Hausa question, whether Niger Delta question. Then I said, as far as I am concerned, it is not just those who are calling for Biafra or those who see themselves as Biafrans from the South Eastern part of the country, that everywhere you turn to there is problem, violence, agitations, poverty etc. So these people pushing for Biafra should realize that there is Biafra everywhere, maybe those people are as ocal as they are doing. So to that extent we are all Biafrans.
I have read the book. What you’re saying is that the same systemic distortion that led to the agitations for Biafra is everywhere
Yeah, that we shouldn’t be afraid of Biafra, or the word, Biafra. We should interrogate it and question and relate with those who are calling for Biafra, knowing that we all face the same problems everywhere. So to that extent we are all Biafrans. The idea is that I use Biafra as a metaphor to discuss the crisis we are going through. So that was the article I wrote. Then subsequently as the crisis continued I now thought I could actually expand it, bring all my other articles. Because then subsequently I wrote other articles addressing the same issue. And there was an interview Chimamanda Adichie had with the BBC Hard Talk. She raised issues about Biafra again. So I did an analysis of that. I put everything into that book. The book came out I think on 30 May, which marked the 50th anniversary of the start of the civil war. We launched it in Abuja and the former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar was the keynote speaker. The book has received a lot of attention. Even those who are part of IPOB or so are critical of me. Their expectation was that the book was supposed to be some kind of manifesto for Biafra. So that in a nutshell is what the book is about
How were you treated by the DSS? Were you rough handled?
No, no. I mean. I give that to them. I don’t know. Maybe it was also the way I carried myself. I am used to their interrogations both as a student and a journalist I had to interface with them. So I know them very well. So when they asked me, I didn’t create a scene because the guy walked up to me gently and just like whispered. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself. So he just came, showed his card and said something. And I was on the phone. So I tried to tell the person I was talking with on the phone I would call him back. The DSS said they wanted to speak to me. So I cut off the phone and followed. I didn’t even ask questions, why they wanted me. I just sat down. They took my passport and my phone. I took out a book and started reading. I didn’t panic, I didn’t worry, I didn’t create a scene. I had done nothing wrong politically so there was no basis for them to rough handle me. It was just question and answer and disagreements. If they say this I would disagree with them and state my own position. Of course it was distressing for me, having had a long trip. I had been travelling for almost 24 hours. In fact the night before I spent six hours at the airport so I could catch my flight and, coming back, I spent three extra hours at the airport in Frankfurt. First of all it was a long trip. I had let the country three weeks earlier and I travelled to four different countries. I was in Scotland, went to Glasgow, Edinburgh and back to London. I later moved to Barcelona. And from Barcelona to Sweden. As I talk to you now I feel pain all over. So it was really distressing to have to now go through all of that. And my plan was to just come home. I had a dinner arrangement at eight in the evening with some colleagues from Ghana who had come for a conference; I had begged them to wait for me so that I can see them. So immediately I alighted from the aircraft I picked up my phone, called them and said, “Let’s meet at eight, that I just want to get home, have a haircut, freshen up and meet up with you guys.” And that was it. Only to be stopped by these people. They tried to be friendly because as I said also throughout the period, I didn’t raise my voice. I didn’t ask them any question. I only responded or disagree with them with whatever questions they asked. So there was really no physical interaction.
Since they said they are not interested in the book, are they trying to say that the shirt is more important than the book?
That’s what I don’t know. Somebody has said I should autograph copies of the book and sent to them. I am not keen on doing that because it cost me money to print the nook. If I give them they might just dump it somewhere. So If they want to read the book they can go and buy copies themselves or download them. I am even considering the option to get my T-shirt that was taken away. I really don’t understand the basis for that.