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Dead or Alive: The enforced disappearance of Jones Abiri

In tears, 80-year-old Mama Abiri undressed. Before strangers, family, and friends alike, Mama clasped her frail breasts, and cried inconsolably, naked. With emotions only a mother could express, Mama cried in the native Ijaw language of the Niger Delta creeks. Mama was calling on Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, to feel her pain and hear her plea. 

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“Please, I am begging. Please, pity me. Anyone that is holding my son, please release him for me,” Mama cried. “I gave birth to him. I breastfed him. I know my son. He is not a militant. He is not a criminal. He is a journalist.” 

For almost two years, Jones Abiri has not been seen nor heard from. Married with a wife and five children, Jones would have celebrated his 50th birthday on June 4 this year. Jones was a 300 Level student aspiring for his first degree in Law from the National Open University of Nigeria. All that is in the past. 

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Now, Jones remains in a state of forced disappearance as the State Security Service, Nigeria’s secret police, has detained Jones for over 700 days without trial, and without access to his family, lawyers, and doctors. Under international human rights law, a person is a victim of (en)forced disappearance if detained by state authorities or a third party with the authorisation of the state, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the person’s whereabouts and condition in a bid to deny the victim the protection of the law. 

On 21 July 2016, a dozen heavily-armed agents of the self-styled Department of State Services arrested Jones, the publisher of Weekly Source newspaper, outside his office at 288 Chief Melford Okilo Expressway, Yenagoa, Bayelsa State. Eyewitnesses said the SSS agents, who came in three cars, did not read Jones his rights and did not produce a warrant before handcuffing him, raiding his office, and taking him into custody. 

“Some men wearing black came to where we were and asked if he was Jones,” Garba Suleiman, a local provision store vendor who witnessed Jones arrest said in pidgin English. “He said yes, and they grabbed him, handcuffed him, and took him. Nobody knew why.” 

John Angese, the chairman of the Nigeria Union of Journalists in Bayelsa State, in an interview March 2018 recalled how at gunpoint the SSS threatened everyone, including journalists, not to cross a parameter line. The SSS spent hours searching Jones office before carting away his computer and documents, sealing his office, and taking him handcuffed into custody.

“I was personally there when he was taken away. I tried to ask what was the problem and I was rebuffed with their guns. I was threatened to be shot if I come any closer. Everybody was scared,” Angese recalled. 

Two days after his arrest, the SSS on 23 July 2016 released a statement alleging Jones is a militant named General Akotebe Darikoro, operating under the nom-de-guerre ‘General Kill and Bury’, the leader of the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force, “which has been furthering separatist tendencies in connivance with other criminal gangs in the Niger Delta region”. 

The SSS said Jones “confessed and owned up” to vandalising and bombing oil pipelines belonging to international oil companies Agip and Shell in early July 2016, sending threat messages to management of both oil companies demanding a total of N750m payment, threatening to launch missile attacks against the Presidential Villa and selected targets in Abuja, and masterminding the rumour in 2016 that the military was planning a coup against President Muhammadu Buhari. 

Weekly Source, a local tabloid which operated by mostly sourcing and publishing critical stories of the government culled from online and national newspapers, had in its last edition dated 10 July 2016 published as its lead a story originally published by the online pointblanknews.com titled ‘Rumble In The Military: Inside The Coup Plot Story… Militants’ Warning Alters Plot’. The story elaborated an alleged conspiracy that top military officers working with politicians had approached the JNDLF militant group to intensify bombing pipelines as a justification to overthrow President Buhari. The military denied the allegations. 

In August 2016, Jones family filed a fundamental rights enforcement lawsuit against the SSS asking the Bayelsa State High Court to declare Jones arrest and continued detention without trial unconstitutional, unlawful, illegal, null and void, and order the SSS to release Jones on bail, and direct the SSS to open Weekly Source newspaper’s office. 

The SSS in response tendered as its evidence in court a confessional statement allegedly written and signed by Jones on the same day of his arrest, admitting to “being the founder, co-ordinator and spokesperson” of the militant group and “directing his foot soldiers (still at large) to carry out bombings of oil pipelines” and blackmailing oil companies for money with threats of further bombings. 

On 7 September 2016, Bayelsa State high court judge Nayai Aganaba ordered the SSS to reopen Weekly Source newspaper’s office but ruled that the SSS arrest and continued detention of Jones, then almost two months, was lawful. The ruling effectively gave legal backing for the SSS to continue detaining Jones without charge for almost two years and without access to his family, lawyers and doctors. 

“The offence of terrorism and related offences for which [Jones] was arrested and detained is a capital offence by virtue of Section 1 (2) under paragraph (h) of the Terrorism Prevention Amendment Act 2013 and by virtue of Section 35 (7) of the 1999 Constitution, the arrest and detention of [Jones] by the [SSS] is therefore not unlawful,” Judge Aganaba ruled.

The SSS also swore on oath that the “seeming delay in charging [Jones] to court” was due to “ongoing efforts to arrest other members of the militant group” as well as results of “scientific analysis of evidence” still been awaited. The SSS promised “to ensure an expedited conclusion of investigation on the case and to charge [Jones] and his accomplices to court without undue delay”. 

It is almost two years and Jones, a husband, father of five children, and breadwinner for his family including an 80-year-old mother and several siblings, has not been charged to court. In the past two years, the SSS has rebuffed all efforts by Jones’ family, lawyers, journalists and civil society actors to get any information on Jones. 

In June 2018, during the International Press Institute World Congress held in Abuja, Garba Shehu, spokesperson to President Buhari, sold to the world that Jones is not a journalist but a militant who remains a “guest of [the SSS] because of his alleged criminal activities”. 

In the past two years, Jones’ family relocated from Yenagoa, Bayelsa State capital, to the village in the Southern Ijaw local government creeks where they barely survive on petty farming and handouts. In the past two years, Jones’ children also dropped out and have not gone back to school due to the family’s inability to pay school fees. In the past two years, Jones’ younger brother, Ebikesayi Abiri, died from fire burns he sustained in 2017 after he involved himself for the first time in illegal oil bunkering which his family said was in a bid to raise money to pay among other things legal costs and other bills associated with getting Jones released. Ebikesayi left behind a widow and two children, one of whom was born the same day he died. 

The only financial support the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force militant group received, according to Jones’ alleged confessional statement dated 21 July 2016 in court records, was from only one person. Jones claimed in the statement that,  “The only person that has funded the group to the best of my knowledge is the former commissioner of Ijaw National Affairs, Dr Felix Tuodolo, who gave us the sum of N500,000 through Sele Dise some time between 1st and 15th June 2016…” 

Felix Tuodolo is presently the Special Adviser on Ijaw national affairs to Henry Seriake Dickson, the governor of the oil-rich Bayelsa State. Tuodolo, a former state commissioner, is well known as a human rights activist and the founding president of the influential Ijaw Youth Council which was set up at the twilight of Nigeria military dictatorship to coordinate the Ijaw people struggle for self-determination and greater control of vast oil and gas resources in the Niger Delta region. 

Tuodolo was influential in stemming the tide of militancy in the 2000s by advocating for the government to grant amnesty to known militant warlords and their camps in a Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration program in exchange for assurances of a stop to the destruction of oil installations.

Jones in his alleged confessional statement mentioned Mr Sele Dise, Mr Ebi John, Justice Tare and Ebi-Ladei as other members of the JNDLF militant group. Independent findings during this investigation, including obtaining communication exchanges between Jones and an individual believed to be Sele Dise, reveal both had been friends prior to Jones’ arrest in July 2016. . 

When contacted, Tuodolo said he was only aware from media reports that Jones Abiri is a journalist but that he did not know him personally nor the details of his arrest. He said as a prominent Ijaw leader he often rendered financial assistance to his kinsmen who regularly solicited his help to pay school fees, house rent, and other financial support, but not to fund militant activities. Tuodolo expressed shock over Jones alleged confessional statement linking him as a financier of the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force militant group. 

“I don’t even know Jones Abiri. This is the first time I am hearing about this that Jones Abiri made a statement involving my name. That sounds strange to me,” Tuodolo said in a telephone call June 2018. “And if indeed he made such statement, why hasn’t the SSS come to question me about it? I have never been invited.”  

Tuodolo’s claim has not been independently verified as efforts to get the SSS to react to Jones Abiri’s case and other instances of human rights violations, including indefinite detentions, torture, and extra-judicial killings, have repeatedly been ignored over the years.

Since 2015, the agency has been operating without a physically identifiable spokesperson or official contact to interface and respond to information requests from the public and the media. Press statements distributed by the SSS cite as its spokesperson one Tony Opuiyo, whom many journalists who cover defence and security beat said they had never met. 

Ayebaitari Easterday, the chairman of newspaper publishers in the State, in March 2018 said there was a rumour that Jones may have died in custody, but that has not been confirmed. He said, “I don’t want to believe Jones is dead because you can only believe what you’ve seen and what you know is true. The SSS should declare the condition of Jones Abiri, where he is right now, what is the state of his health, and why they have refused to prosecute him over the years? Something should be told to the public. We are curious. We want to know. And we have a right to know.” 

Comrade (name withheld), a Niger Delta Ijaw activist whose identity is being protected for his safety, said he met Jones in SSS custody while detained for nearly two years on allegations of being a militant. Comrade said that before his release in 2017 he was detained with over 50 Ijaw and Niger Delta youth, numerous Boko Haram suspects and members of the IPOB secessionist group, who were all routinely tortured at the SSS Headquarters in Nigeria’s capital Abuja. 

“We were all together for over one year so we knew ourselves. I was in New Depot detention facility while Jones was in Old Depot. I remember one particular day Jones was shouting ‘They wan go beat me again. They wan go beat me again’. It pained me so much I cried,” Comrade said. 

Early 2016, the newly sworn-in government of President Buhari declared an influential ex-Niger Delta militant commander wanted, froze his bank accounts, and began an unsuccessful manhunt for the former warlord after he refused to appear before a court to answer corruption charges over contracts obtained from the previous government of President Goodluck Jonathan. His supporters alleged a ploy by the government to arrest and indefinitely detain the former warlord seen by many as a very influential folk hero in the Niger Delta. Comrade said Jones told him he was set up by powerful people who capitalised on the government’s clamp down in the Niger Delta to punish him for publishing a story that exposed the failure of some  local contractors  to execute agreed corporate social responsibility projects to oil-producing host communities. 

“His article led an international oil company to discover that the local company was shortchanging the communities and this caused problems for them. They were angry and then petitioned the security agencies that Jones is the media handler for militant groups and that was how he was picked up,” Comrade said Jones told him. 

Comrade said suspects in SSS custody were habitually tortured. In tears, he narrated how the SSS at different times used beating and other inhuman treatments to force him to confess being a militant. 

Femi Falana, a foremost human rights lawyer, wrote an open letter to President Buhari in December 2017 asking him to end the illegal arrest and detention without legal justification of Nigerians and foreigners by security agencies, especially the SSS, which he described an embarrassment to the country by its continued violation of the Nigerian constitution, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights Act, and the Nigerian Administration of Criminal Justice Act. 

“From the information at our disposal, the DSS has detained several Nigerians and foreigners to settle personal scores,” Falana said to President Buhari. “Others have been arrested and detained by the DSS on the suspicion that they have committed criminal offenses, a matter that is within the purview of the Police and the anti-graft agencies. To compound the illegality of such arrest and detention, the orders made by competent courts of law directing the DSS to either release or produce detainees in court have been treated with contempt.”

Leading to the 2015 general elections, the SSS under former President Jonathan had become politically partisan, targeting journalists, activists and political opponents including Buhari and his political party. Buhari while campaigning said he had become a reformed democrat and, if elected, promised to uphold the rule of law, respect fundamental rights, and ensure access to justice for all Nigerians.  Yet, in the past three years, the SSS has been discredited for operating with utmost secrecy and crass impunity. 

Jones ordeal as a persecuted journalist represents possibly hundreds of people detained and tortured across all the offices of the SSS in Nigeria’s 36 States and the federal capital Abuja. Falana, in an interview June 2018, said Nigeria’s terrorism law is been abused by the SSS to violate Jones and other citizens’ rights to personal liberty and fair hearing in a competent court within a reasonable time. 

“Subject to obtaining a court order, section 27 of the Terrorism Act permits a detention for 90 days which, subject to review, can be renewed once for another period of 90 days. Afterwards you have to release the suspect. Either conditionally or unconditionally, you grant the suspect bail,” Falana said.  

A global advocacy effort from the media, Nigerian and international human rights defenders, civil society, and social impact groups calling for Jones’ release is mounting. The Ondewari Health, Education and Environmental Project, a civil society group working in the Niger Delta creeks, took the lead in March 2018 by gathering signatures from several Ijaw communities which was sent to local and international human rights organisations as an appeal calling on the international community to intervene in Jones plight.  

On a visit into Bayelsa State’s creeks, several youth and elders from different Ijaw communities refuted the government’s allegation that Jones is a militant. In a show of solidarity with the Abiri family, community members gathered to sign OHEEP’s petition as a single voice echoing their growing frustration and anger with the government. Resonating loudest among the pleas directed at President Muhammadu Buhari were those of Jones children calling for the release of their father. 

“My father is a journalist. All the allegations against my father that he is a militant are lies,” said 16-year-old Abadeifa Abiri Jones with eyes red and swollen from flowing tears. “He did not do anything and he does not know anything. The government should release my father unconditionally.” 

Peter Nkanga carried out this investigation under the umbrella of ‘Nigeria Investigates Project’ of Accra-based Tiger Eye Foundation.

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