Publisher under arrest after “Greedy Stella” Obasanjo story

A Nigerian newspaper publisher has spent one week in detention without charge after his newspaper linked the country’s first lady Stella Obasanjo to a real estate scam, his lawyer said this weekend.

Omo-Ojo Orobosa was arrested in Lagos last Monday after his weekly newspaper Midwest Herald printed a story alleging that the wife of President Olusegun Obasanjo was involved in under-valuing government-owned property that was to be sold to her relatives.

Obasanjo last month cancelled the sale of 207 government houses at knockdown prices after discovering that close relatives of his wife and several cabinet ministers were to have been among the beneficiaries of the deal.

The publisher’s lawyer, Festus Keyamo, said on Sunday that the policemen who arrested Orobosa in his office in Lagos, took him to the capital Abuja, where he has been subjected to daily interrogation to reveal the sources of the information his newspaper published.

“They have not made any attempt to charge him. They have just kept him in illegal detention,” Keyamo told IRIN. Under Nigerian law, crime suspects must be charged within 48 hours of arrest.

The lawyer said he has filed a request in an Abuja court to either release or charge Orobosa.

According to Keyamo, the publisher was barred access to his lawyer and family for the first three days of his detention by police, who accuse him of sedition against the government.

The president said last month that he had been alerted to the real estate scam by an anonymous letter informing him that 207 people were being “allocated or offered property for sale surreptitiously…some without payment”.

Obasanjo said that “I also feel personally embarrassed that almost all members of my wife’s family are on that list.”

The president subsequently sacked the housing minister, Mobolaji Osomo, the second minister fired in two weeks for corruption. The drive to stamp out corruption in Nigeria, regularly ranked one of the world’s most corrupt countries, is one of Obasanjo's major planks. He was re-elected for a second four-year term in 2003.

Obasanjo ordered that the houses on well-to-do estates in Lagos, the commercial hub of Nigeria, be sold by public auction.

“I must express my displeasure, in very clear terms, about the way you seem to be handling the sale of federal government property in Lagos,” Obasanjo told minister Osomo in a letter dated 31 March, a copy of which was made available to IRIN.

In its story captioned “Greedy Stella”, the Midwest Herald alleged the president’s wife was involved in the irregular sale of other government-owned houses in other parts of the country. It said her relatives benefited from those sales.

The arrest of the weekly’s publisher has incensed press freedom campaigners.

“We’re outraged at the arrest of Mr. Orobosa, who was reporting on a matter of public interest,” Ann Cooper, executive director of New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists, said in a statement. “We call for his immediate and unconditional release.”

Though personal freedoms have improved since Obasanjo’s election in 1999 ended more than 15 years of repressive military rule, there are frquent tiffs between journalists and the security forces over reports considered offensive by the government.

Last year state security police invaded and occupied for several weeks the premises of the Insider Weekly in Lagos after the newspaper linked top officials in the presidency to criminal gangs stealing crude oil from pipelines in the southern, oil-rich Niger Delta for sale on the international oil market.