Omoyele Sowore: How SaharaReporter Was Born

This article was original published in 2002

Credit Premium Times

It was Christmas eve in 1980, and festivity was in the air in Mr. Sowore’s riverine Kiribo community in Ondo State. Then, suddenly, tragedy struck. An unruly gang of police officers invaded the community after clashing with some youths who challenged them for extorting money from market women. Mr. Sowore watched from the comfort of his mother’s shop as officers shoved, beat and handcuffed men, and raped women of the community. Among those raped that day was Mr. Sowore’s cousin. Although he was barely nine at the time, that unsavoury incidence stoked the fire of activism in him. “As I grew up and realized the implication of what I witnessed, I decided to dedicate my life to the fight for human rights,” he recalls.

It was however in 1989 that he started off fully as an activist at the University of Lagos where he studied geography and planning, and became president of the student union. He had brushes with the university authorities while fighting for student rights, and was expelled twice and then recalled. Even when he was eventually allowed to graduate, the university withheld his degree for a while on the orders of the government of the day. His one-year compulsory national service was not trouble-free either. He was dismissed from the Adamawa State Broadcasting Corporation for criticizing the controversial hanging of a foremost environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, on Kaleidoscope, a program he anchored for the station. He went to work for a graphic artist named Sammy for the remainder of his service. On the day he completed his service and was about to head home, Mr. Sowore was arrested and detained for two weeks by operatives of the State Security Service, who accused him of mobilizing his colleagues against the government. He said the National Youth Service Corps, was still holding on to his discharge certificate today.

After his release from detention, Mr. Sowore returned to Lagos, and became involved in the titanic pro-democracy struggle to end military dictatorship in the country.
In 1999, shortly before flawed elections returned the country to a shaky democracy, Sowore travelled to New York to seek medical treatment, and later enrolled at Columbia University for a Masters in Public Administration

After his study, he took up a job with a Catholic charity in New Jersey. While there, the activism in Mr. Sowore, a feisty, quick-witted man, continued to boil, as the political and economic situation in his home country continued to erode. Soon, he began to travel around the U.S. speaking about human rights on behalf of Amnesty International, while also contributing articles to Nigerian publications. Two of his articles became especially controversial at the time. One day in 2005, he interviewed Orji Kalu, a Nigerian governor who was then opposed to President Olusegun Obasanjo. In the interview, the governor described Mr. Obasanjo as corrupt and murderous. But when Nigeria’s The Guardian published the interview, Mr. Kalu, presumably wary of angering Mr. Obasanjo, denied ever speaking to Mr. Sowore.

It was this controversy that brought the SaharaReporters’ publisher in contact with Jonathan Elendu, then a Nigerian U.S-based blogger and owner of Elendureports. Elendu interviewed both parties in the dispute and established that the governor had indeed spoken with Sowore.

Impressed by Mr. Sowore’s dedication to country and quest for equity and justice, Mr. Elendu invited the activist to team up with him. On June 4, 2005, Sowore wrote his first article for Elendureports accusing Ibrahim Gambari, a respected United Nation’s diplomat and Nigeria’s former Permanent Representative to the UN of being among anti-democratic elements who backed military dictators in his country to annul Nigeria’s most credible election to date. From then on, Mr. Elendu and Mr. Sowore worked together, exposing the corrupt deals and ill-gotten assets owned by Nigerian officials abroad.

The duo confronted Nigerians with largely incontestable documentary evidence of their leaders’ graft. Among the assets uncovered by the duo were those of ex-Governors: Lucky Igbinedion’s 3.3 million pounds London mansion; Bukola Saraki’s 4.3 million pound London palatial home; Attahiru Bafarawa’s 795,000 pounds London property; Diepreye Alamieyeseigha’s $900,000 apartment in Potomac, Maryland; and Orji Kalu’s $1.7 million residence, also in Potomac, Maryland. The reporters also revealed how, Olumuyiwa, a son of then President Obasanjo bought a $520,000 New York home, in cash, shortly after he graduated from St John’s University.

However, things soon fell apart between the two friends. On January 4, 2006, exactly six months after they began working together, Mr. Sowore suddenly quit. Some readers of the site were heartbroken after Mr. Elendu announced Mr. Sowore’s voluntary departure from the site that day. “Naturally, having followed their work, their separation was very disturbing,” Dayo Aiyetan, a former senior associate editor with Nigeria’s TELL magazine and now a fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington said. “But I got information later that things were going terribly wrong and that a lot happened that Sowore couldn’t stomach.”

Neither Mr. Sowore nor Mr. Elendu are willing to divulge the specific reason for their break-up. Mr. Sowore merely said he left Mr. Elendu when he began to veer towards political consultancy. Mr. Elendu didn’t respond to email and telephone calls requesting his comments on Mr. Sowore’s claim.

Shortly before officially leaving Elendureports, Mr. Sowore had traveled to Nigeria in December to visit his family. As had been his practice for a long while, he flew into Ghana and then surreptitiously entered Nigeria through the Seme border, where, in a chance encounter, he met President Obasanjo’s eldest son, Gbenga. The president’s son gave him a ride to Lagos in his SUV and during the trip, Mr. Sowore interviewed Gbenga on the way his father was running the country. Gbenga was brutally frank in his responses. At a point, he blasted his father’s deputy, Atiku Abubakar, describing him and another government minister, Nasir el-Rufai, as corrupt and greedy. Mr. Sowore then submitted the interview to THE NEWS, one of Nigeria’s largest weeklies, and that was the first sign that the activist had turned his back on Elendureports.

Expectedly, the article sparked outrage in the then Vice President’s camp and after both his father and the opposition pilloried him, Gbenga tried hard – but unsuccessfully – to deny some of the comments Mr. Sowore attributed to him.

After he returned to the U.S., Mr. Sowore decided to launch his own website. Thus on January 15, 2006, he bought a domain name from godaddy for, as he remembers, less than $10. A friend helped him with a website template and he paid the hosting fee of $29 for the month. After a test run, the site, named after the world’s largest hot desert north of Nigeria, was launched as “an alternative news media” at a subtle ceremony at the Empire State Building in New York on February 18, 2006.

In the years that he has run the blog, Sowore has troubled corrupt officials. And, for a country that has no freedom of information law and where government-run businesses are shrouded in secrecy, the blogger has contributed to holding officials accountable. Before he and his website arrived on the scene, it was far easier for some media organizations to kill important stories, after reporters and top editors had been compromised. Also, as a result of SaharaReporters’ success, several other blogs have sprouted in the country, enhancing the citizens’ right to know.

Mr. Sowore attributes a large chunk of his blog’s success to crowdsourcing, a practice of using citizens and communities for newsgathering. “We told people ‘look, you don’t have to be a journalist to report for us. Just send us all the information you have and we will do the filtering,” he said over a dinner of snail and palmwine one recent Friday night. The result, he said, has been amazing. “At the moment, it is as if everybody in Nigeria is reporting for us. Everyday, we receive tons of information and documents from officials and ordinary citizens who believe in our mission and trust us.”

The world has not failed to notice Mr. Sowore’s SaharaReporters, especially following its coverage of the 2009 Christmas day attempted bombing when Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdumuttallab, tried to blow up a plane in Detroit. The site was the first to publish Abdulmuttallab’s photograph and details of who he was. Today, the U.S. State Department, think tanks, and experts on Africa and Nigeria pay close attention to the site. “My experience has been that it’s reporting has a very high level of accuracy,” John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, recently told The Daily Beast. Lisa Vives, executive director, Global Information Network, who shares an office with Sowore, said she admired SaharaReporters for its courageous reporting of complex stories from Nigeria.

Of course, the site has drawn considerable attention to Mr. Sowore, who has spoken about it at meetings and conferences in Ghana, the United States, Austria, the United Kingdom and Canada. The Ford Foundation has also rewarded SaharaReporters with a $175,000 grant over the last two years to expand its operations, while Nigerian banks and hotels are now beginning to advertise on it

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