Sowore and the stripes of a restless iconoclast
As an Ijaw man, Mr. Omoyele Sowore is easily a fisherman. And being accustomed to fishing, he has progressed in fishing for trouble. Being a member of a large, polygamous family, Sowore must have come face to face with the vagaries of rural life.
Forced very early in life to grapple with the challenges of daily struggles for survival, it is possible that such boyish aspiration and resolve that ‘I must become somebody someday’ became his driving spirit. He must have also heard bible stories of David and Goliath and the fate that befell Gulliver in his travels.
Apart from lakeside scuffles during his fishing sallies in Ese-Odo village, Sowore started courting trouble with the establishment shortly after he gained admission into the University of Lagos. He earned his stripes in 1992 during a mass protest against stringent conditionalities set by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), when the Nigerian military government sought an infrastructure loan of $120 million to construct a national oil pipeline.
But it was during the agitation for the revalidation of the annulled June 12 popular mandate of Chief Moshood Abiola that the young Sowore captured national attention for leading the ‘aluta armada’ as leader of the Students Union Government. For his activism and constant brush with the authorities, Sowore had to spend six years pursuing a degree in Geography and Planning as against the four years stipulated for the course.
Having eaten the food reserved for adults early in life, Sowore withdrew to the United States of America and from there he started throwing stones at the home front. Assisted by the facility of a blogging site, SaharaReporters, which he founded, became a potent weapon of social insurrection in his hands.
From his safe abode in the U.S., he continued bemoaning the unjust homeland he left behind, attacking the lack of equitable distribution of national wealth accentuated as well as targeting government officials engaged in sleaze.
Firing darts, inspiring doubts
WHILE the former students’ union leader continued venting his frustrations against the Nigeria society through the instrumentality of his news portal, words began making the rounds that he was exploiting his closeness to certain high profile opposition politicians to unfurl classified information on the cyberspace.
Not being a journalist in the traditional sense of the word, Sowore’s brand of citizen reportage was said to be propelled by his activist bent, especially his association with the protagonists of June 12 election revalidation. It was perhaps against this background that some of his peers claimed that the pervasive influence that Sowore’s online news site attained was due to the gigantic lift occasioned by a top opposition politician from Lagos State, whose aspiration to displace the ruling party was beyond negotiation.
Having assisted the young, former students’ union leader to secure a $2 million mansion in Boston, some choice cars and a monthly stipend of N5 million, the online publisher was assured of a regular supply of insider information with which he rattled the national government of his home country.
Between the years 2010 and 2015, the old boy of UNILAG succeeded in disrupting the face of media practice in Nigeria by popularizing his SaharaReporters virtual platform through mindboggling exposes of the insider wheeling-dealing in governments and agencies in Nigeria.
Although the popularity of the site began to shrink shortly after the 2015 presidential election, it was also said that Sowore’s decision to contest the 2019 presidential election was not out of conviction to win but to eat deep into the opposition for a consideration.
It is against the background of his close association with politically exposed persons, despite the fact that his online news portal does not, as a policy, accept advertisement or patronage from governments, Sowore’s recent attempt to disrupt the national political space is being reduced to personal frustrations over unmet promises by his friends in government.
But before his crossover from rights activism to partisan political competition, the little fisherboy from Ese-Odo had stated that his mission in founding Sahara Reporters online news platform “is to speak truth to power. And to damn the consequences for as long as the people who need to benefit from it get it.”
But in damning the consequences, the online publisher takes great care to avoid the sharks. For instance, when in 2014 he granted an interview to a sister online platform, Sowore spoke derogatively about the then incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan.
He had stated: “In an order of successive administrations in my lifetime, I think this would be the worst in terms of delivery of services, in terms of organisation, in terms of even the style of governance, in terms of transparency, in terms of economic management and, of course, in terms of security.”
It was obvious from his romance with partisan concerns that the purveyor of information had shifted slightly from his vision of providing the people “the kind of information (they needed) as their only way of fighting back the myriad of problems they are confronted with by the government.”
Did his participation in the 2019 election help to put a halo of doubt on his recent call for revolution against bad governance and declining social welfare and fundamental freedoms? He had five years ago dismissed suggestions that he was paving his way for an eventual contest for elective office, saying: “If I want to run, I will go to my people and say ‘look! We have to fight to free this place from these buccaneers and you can imagine what will happen. They don’t invite you to that kind of war.”
Leadership by simulation
Sowore is not new to arrests and detentions. A lot of pictures must have crossed his mind when he said, “they would come after me.” He must have recalled what happened in 1992 when he led the students to protest and the police opened fire on the protesters, killing seven and arresting him.
One year after, Yele’s involvement in the demand for the restitution of Abiola’s mandate also occasioned arrest and detention by the oppressive military regime. When therefore he planned his #RevolutionNow, Sowore must have been inspired and encouraged by reminiscences of former Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and glory as President of the Republic of South Africa.
As an activist, he must also have reasoned that the veritable credentials for leadership in black Africa are scars from social battles. Could it be then that he was interested in gathering the necessary qualifications for leadership or genuinely interested in turning back the hand of mediocrity and self-serving leadership that has remained the lot of Nigeria?
Was it a coincidence that shortly after his loss of the presidential election and internal frictions within his political party, African Action Congress (AC), that the activist resorted to social crusading, adorning attires similar to those worn by Julius Sello Malema-led Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) of South Africa?
Nonetheless, when the former students’ union leader appeared in a picture with the leader of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, most people believed that the erstwhile good boy of the opposition must be up to something against the establishment. If Sowore went to London to receive inspiration and support from the IPOB leader, he must have resolved within himself that the path he has chosen is strewn with dangers of long incarceration and torture, especially with a man like Buhari in power.
Kanu’s position on Sowore’s arrest and detention seem to capture the irony of the activist’s newfound agitation. The IPOB leader in a statement said: “This same set of people now in Aso Rock and their media friends that came out on the street to march, protest and call for #RevolutionNow against President Jonathan in 2014 are today the same bunch of despicable reprobates against any form of lawful dissent, protest or revolution against their regime.
“#RevolutionNow is a laudable initiative and must be commended by all lovers of freedom. What Sowore did in calling for a revolution in Nigeria is the highest form of bravery. Protests should continue and if need be intensified, especially in Yorubaland, until Omoleye Sowore is set free.”
As the court has granted the Department of State Services’ (DSS) request to keep the young revolutionaire in its custody for 45 days, Sowore would have time to reflect on his journey to stardom or even martyrdom. And while he is in the dungeon, he would also reckon who his friends and foes are.
He may not have started a revolution, but Sowore has succeeded in underscoring the fact that the 2019 election was not just a referendum on the Buhari administration, but that it also brought a tag of incompetence on the current administration. Surely he would be made to pay the price for his temerity.