The newspaper and its affiliated media including all of its print newspapers and digital platforms especially Punchng.com will henceforth “prefix Buhari’s name with his rank as a military dictator in the 80s, Major General, and refer to his administration as a regime, until they purge themselves of their insufferable contempt for the rule of law.”
The paper made its campaign known in an editorial published on Wednesday, a day after rights groups including Amnesty International gave the government a 14-day ultimatum to unconditionally release Sowore per his bail terms and launch an investigation into his re-arrest or face protests at the National Human Rights Commission’s offices nationwide.
“The entire country and a global audience are rightly scandalised by the unfolding saga over Omoyele Sowore and the unruliness of the SSS and the government; but it is only a pattern, a reflection of the serial disregard of the Buhari regime for human rights and its battering of other arms of government and our democratic institutions,” said Punch in its editorial.
“PUNCH will not adopt the self-defeating attitude of many Nigerians looking the other way after each violation of rights and attacks on the citizens, the courts, the press and civic society, including self-determination groups lawfully exercising their inalienable rights to peaceful dissent,” it declared.
The newspaper mentioned other instances of the disregard of the rule of law sanctioned by the Buhari government including the detention of the Islamic leader Ibrahim el-Zakzakky and his wife who have spent over three years in detention in violation of court orders granting them bail and ordering their release.
Other violations cited are the detention of the former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, who has been held since 2015 in defiance of several court orders, including one by the ECOWAS appellate court that declared his continued incarceration illegal.
The illegal activities of the Department of State Security Services (DSS) is a recurring phenomenon from the military regimes of the past including during the reign of Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd) which featured arbitrary arrests and torture in cells “described by inmates as chambers of horror”.
“Under the infamous Decree 2, agents had pre-signed detention papers, court orders were ignored and ouster clauses were inserted in decrees, while the press was specifically targeted with the infamous Decree 4 under which Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor were jailed,” Punch recalls.
The same modus operandi of the Lawal Rafindadi era is being used currently by Lawal Daura, the Director-General of the DSS which raided the homes of judges and twice deployed armed DSS officials to foil the arrest of two former security chiefs by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.
“Nigerian Navy authorities similarly ignored court orders to release Navy Captain Dada Labinjo, who they detained for over a year until his recent release on bail; Nigerian Army too detains suspects interminably on the grounds of being terrorism suspects,” Punch adds.
It also cited illegal actions by the Cross River State, Bayelsa State and Delta State governments who have deployed security agents and perverted the law to punish critics and journalists including Dadiyata Idris and Stephen Kefas who have been arrested and arraigned.
“Agba Jalingo is facing a treason charge for offending the Cross River State Government. Jones Abiri, a local publisher in Bayelsa State, has been charged with terrorism while, in Delta State, two journalists are facing criminal defamation charges,” the editorial highlighted.
Punch also bemoaned the call for anti-hate speech laws which will restrict social media and stifle dissent. “Their sole purpose is to insulate officials from criticism and compel unquestioned acceptance of Buhari’s draconian misrule.”
The decision by the Punch newspaper was downplayed by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, who said the newspaper’s decision to call Buhari ‘Major General’ is not out of order.
“All over the world, just as in our country, a large number of retired military officers are now democrats. It does not make those who did not pass through military service better than them.
“Rather than being pejorative, addressing President Buhari by his military rank is another testimony to free speech and freedom of the press, which this administration (or regime, if anyone prefers: it is a matter of semantics) has pledged to uphold and preserve,” Adesina said in a statement without reacting to the accusation of the disregard for human rights and for the rule of law.
Omoyele Sowore, the founder of Sahara Reporters, an anti-corruption news outlet based in New York, was first arrested in August and pleaded not guilty to charges of treason, money laundering and harassing the president.
He was granted bail in October but remained in detention until last week because security agents said he had not met the bail conditions. Despite Sowore’s release on Thursday following a court order, he was re-arrested by state security officials hours after he was freed on Friday amid protest.