Nigeria 2023: Citing insecurity, Zamfara government bars partisan politics, shuts media houses

By Eniola Akinkuotu
Posted on Monday, 17 October 2022 02:43, updated on Wednesday, 23 November 2022 12:26

Bello Matawalle, Zamfara's Governor (photo: @Bellomatawalle1 )

Rights groups have condemned the Zamfara State Government in Northwest Nigeria for shutting down media houses that covered a political gathering in the state.

In a statement, Amnesty International describes the governor’s “infamous” order as an “assault on freedom of expression and of the press”.

Ossai Ojigho, the head of Amnesty in Nigeria, says the closure is “unprecedented and unacceptable”.

“The governor must apologise and allow the media and journalists in Zamfara State to work without fear or intimidation directly or indirectly,” says the statement, which was posted on Twitter.

Similarly, Lanre Suraj, the chairman of the non-profit Human and Environmental Development Agenda (HEDA), says there was no justification for the closure of media houses.

INEC is in charge of campaigns, not the state government [and] you cannot shut down a broadcast station without a court order.

“The government should with immediate effect re-open these media houses and compensate them,” he tells The Africa Report.

Zamfara, which has witnessed an unprecedented rise in insecurity in recent years, recently barred political activities in the state, citing security concerns. The main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), however, argues that it is all a ruse.

Last week, Governor Bello Matawalle announced a complete ban on political activities despite the country’s electoral umpire, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), giving all parties across the country the permission to commence campaigns – in line with the country’s constitution.

The PDP, however, defied this directive of the governor and subsequently held a political gathering, which was covered by several media houses, including the federal-government-owned Nigerian Television Authority (NTA). Some hoodlums stormed the venue, attacking party faithful. In the ensuing melee, some 18 people were injured while one death was recorded.

The state government immediately sealed off the five broadcast stations that covered the event, including Pride FM, Radio Gusau, NTA Gusau, Gamji TV Gusau and Alumma TV Gusau.

By law, only the federal government, through the National Broadcasting Commission, has the power to regulate the activities of a broadcast station or shut it down.

Troubled state 

In the last couple of years, Zamfara has become a safe haven for bandits following the migration of Boko Haram insurgents from the northeast to the northwest. Governor Matawalle had, in 2019, introduced an amnesty programme for armed men: Huge sums of money would be given to insurgents who laid down their arms, but this approach failed.

Early last year, the federal government shut the state’s airspace amid reports that weapons were being conveyed to terrorists in exchange for gold, illegally mined by bandits.

The government also announced a suspension of all mining activities in the state, but things only got worse as hundreds of schoolchildren were abducted, leading to the closure of schools while nearly 1,000 people were killed last year.

The state government also got the federal government to shut down base stations for over a month, disconnecting the state from Internet and telecommunications services in order to curb the activities of armed gangs.

Occasionally, Governor Matawalle would impose curfews in the state and bar the use of motorcycles.

Weaponising insecurity 

Although insecurity in the state has remained a genuine source of concern, there have been allegations that the state government has been weaponising it for political gain.

A leaked memo dated 8 September 2020, purportedly signed by the deputy chief of staff to the governor of Zamfara State, Bashir Maru, revealed a plan to rig the Bakura State Assembly by-election under the cover of insecurity.

 

In the memo that was addressed to Governor Matawalle, who was still a member of the PDP at the time, it was stated that efforts should be made to compromise INEC while the state government could, under the pretext of preventing the spread of Covid-19 and violent attacks, cordon off all exits and entrances to the local government where the election was expected to hold.

The document further said: “All honourable commissioners, special advisers and local government sole administrators are to be deployed as agents in all polling units; and total restrictions of movement of non-Bakura indigenes from accessing the entire local government before, during and after the election using the security situations and Covid-19 protocols as a reason while efforts will be intensified to get INEC collaboration or some of the ad hoc staff that will be engaged by INEC to be from the state government or the party.”

The leaked memo sparked nationwide outrage even though the state government tried to deny its authenticity. The governor later defected to the All Progressives Congress (APC), making the PDP the opposition in the state. The deputy governor, Mahdi Aliyu Gusau, who refused to defect to the PDP, became the first casualty as he was impeached for gross insubordination.

Efforts by the PDP to regain its foothold in the state have become next to impossible. Last December, political thugs vandalised the venue of the congress organised by the PDP in Zamfara. They damaged several cars, chairs, canopies, election materials and set other properties on fire.

The PDP claims the state government has continued to use insecurity to stifle the opposition and has even prevented the party from placing adverts on billboards.

“We were coerced and told we could not campaign. Even our governorship candidate was asked not to come into Zamfara. We saw that as an affront to our constitutional right and INEC’s rules. I don’t know where the government got its powers to stop free association,” says Mouktar Lugga, the deputy chairman of the PDP in the state.

However, Yusuf Idris, the APC spokesman in the state, has dismissed the PDP’s claims, insisting that the suspension of political activities is legal and in the interest of the overriding security concern. He, however, says the move is temporary.

“It affects all political parties, but unfortunately […] the PDP, out of all the other 18 political parties, refused to comply with the governor’s executive order,” Idris says.

2023 challenge 

Worse still, a security report says at least 200 communities in Zamfara may be inaccessible to electoral officials in February due to the insecurity, which diminishes the possibility of holding free and fair elections in the state despite President Muhammadu Buhari’s promise.

In August, Premium Times also reported that Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna – a state which shares boundaries with Zamfara – had written a memo to President Buhari, informing him that the insurgents “enacted a law in the district, banning all forms of political activity or campaign ahead of the 2023 elections, especially in Madobiya and Kazage villages”.

In recent weeks, the military has intensified its offensive against insurgents, but it remains to be seen if the efforts will be enough to guarantee safe polls.

In a telephone interview with The Africa Report, Femi Falana, a rights activist and senior advocate, says: “INEC is in charge of campaigns, not the state government; [and] you cannot shut down a broadcast station without a court order. It is illegal to stop political activities. Only a court can do this. This is because only a court can be neutral on political issues.”

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