By Dionne Searcey and Emmanuel Akinwotu
Jan. 7, 2019
DAKAR, Senegal — The Nigerian military stormed the headquarters and three satellite offices of one of the nation’s largest newspapers on Sunday, detaining at least two journalists and seizing computers, phones and other equipment.
The military released a statement calling its actions an “invitation” to talk to staff about a lead article on Sunday in the newspaper, Daily Trust, about a planned military operation in the town of Baga, that it said had divulged classified information, “thus undermining national security.”
The Sunday edition also included an editorial criticizing the military for its lack of progress fighting Boko Haram, the Islamist terrorist group that has unleashed violence in the northeast of the country for nearly a decade.
The military raid came less than two months before scheduled presidential elections in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, and after a series of stinging losses in the war with Boko Haram.
Soldiers arrived Sunday afternoon at the Daily Trust office in Maiduguri, where Boko Haram was founded, and rounded up two journalists working there, Uthman Abubakar, a regional editor, and Ibrahim Sawab, a reporter who has worked in the past for The New York Times. The men were detained in a military barracks.
Mr. Sawab was released several hours later, but Mr. Abubakar remained in custody on Monday, colleagues said.
Later Sunday afternoon, armed soldiers in five vehicles stormed the paper’s main office in the capital, Abuja, and ordered journalists working inside to evacuate. They occupied the building for four hours, according to Mannir Dan-Ali, the paper’s editor in chief, ransacking the newsroom and carting away dozens of computers. Soldiers also entered the newspaper’s offices in Lagos and Kaduna.
Their actions “strangulated the production of the Monday edition of the paper,” Mr. Dan-Ali said.
President Muhammadu Buhari, who is running for re-election next month, made big gains against Boko Haram when he first took office in 2015, but some of that success has slipped away in recent months, as the group has carried out a series of successful attacks against the military. Boko Haram fighters have killed dozens of soldiers, even posting online a gruesome video of one attack, and rumors have circulated that they once again control some territory in the country’s northeas
Soldiers have complained about long tours of duty that have left them with no days off for months, worn-out equipment and low rations, according to local news reports. The military has disputed all such claims.
Late Sunday, Mr. Buhari ordered soldiers out of Daily Trust offices, saying issues between the military and newspaper “will be resolved through dialogue.”
In its statement, the military said, “The Nigerian Army has no intention of muzzling the press or jeopardizing press freedom.” It added that the military would “not tolerate a situation where a publication would consistently side with terrorists and undermine our national institutions.”
The action was criticized by the Committee to Protect Journalists and by Amnesty International, which has also faced criticism by the military after releasing reports of human rights abuses by soldiers.
Soldiers shot and killed dozens of unarmed protesters from a minority Muslim religious group, and the military lashed out at Unicef, briefly ordering the group out of the country before relenting. Soldiers were angry about a training program by the aid group that aimed to teach people to spot and report military abuses.
The raids on Sunday seemed to be an escalation of the military’s lashing out at critics.
Abubakar Ibrahim, features editor at the Daily Trust, was on the third floor of the newsroom in Abuja on Sunday when soldiers wearing bulletproof vests and carrying guns rushed inside and ordered everyone to shut down their computers and place them on a table.
“They collected the computers and our laptops then ordered everyone to the reception under escort,” he said. “Soldiers were pointing guns at journalists.”
Mr. Ibrahim said soldiers also raided a printing press building, effectively shutting it down.
“We’ve seen the military’s attitude to the population and how they can behave. That was playing in my mind,” he said. “Amongst us there was bafflement that something like this could happen in this age, supposedly in democratic society.”
Emmanuel Akinwotu reported from Lagos, Nigeria.