HARTFORD, Conn. – Government critic Okey Ndibe, an author, columnist and the Allan K. Smith Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Trinity, was prepared for trouble when he traveled to his native country of Nigeria last month to visit family and conduct research for a memoir that he’s planning to write.
Ndibe had taken pains to notify friends and his brother of his whereabouts and had prepared a statement in advance to be released to the press in the event he was detained or arrested upon his January 8 arrival at Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos.
It was fortuitous that he did so because Ndibe, who has written weekly columns in the Nigerian media since 1999 excoriating that country’s dictatorial regimes, was detained and had his U.S. and Nigerian passports confiscated by the State Security Service (SSS), the Nigerian internal intelligence agency. He was ordered to return for questioning the next day.
But Ndibe’s contingency plan was carried out and within a few hours the news of his detention and interrogation had been disseminated worldwide. Members of the media almost immediately contacted Ndibe for additional details and issued statements condemning the actions of the secret police. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists in New York City drew attention to his plight, as did web sites and newspapers on three continents.
“The government was shaken up. They had never seen anything like it,” said Ndibe in a recent interview in his office on the Trinity campus.
The next morning, when Ndibe arrived with his attorney to meet with the SSS, his passports were returned and he was told by the agency’s director, “Please regard this as one of those things that happen in life.” He was not given a reason for the seizure of his passports or apprised of any crime that he had committed.
The author of My Biafran Eyes and the upcoming foreign gods, inc., Ndibe said he was “surprised but not shocked” by the inhospitable treatment he received upon returning to Nigeria. His weekly columns, he admitted, have been “unsparing in tone in their condemnation of corruption and an indictment of the country’s leaders for wrecking a country with the potential to be a really prosperous nation.”
Ndibe was told by the SSS on the morning of January 9 that his name had been expunged from a public enemies list that had been compiled by the government of President Goodluck Jonathan. As it turned out, he was misled. Regardless, Ndibe says he is “honored” to be on an enemies list along with fellow “patriots” who oppose the despotic Jonathan regime.
On January 21, as Ndibe arrived at the airport to catch his Turkish Air flight to the United States, he was again detained by an immigration official and told to go to the SSS office. He notified Sahara Reporters, the “Wikipedia of Nigeria,” and when word got out, he was subsequently released, although he just barely made it onto the plane before it departed.
Ndibe is convinced that he is still on the enemies list and will almost certainly be detained when he returns to Nigeria. His 85-year-old mother, Elizabeth Ndibe, lives in Amawbia, a town in the southeastern part of the country, and he is determined to write a memoir about growing up during the 1967-70 Biafran War when two million people perished. At the time, he was a young boy.
A West Hartford resident who arrived in this country in 1988 and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, Ndibe, 50, is something of a celebrity in Nigeria, where his writings have been a media staple for 12 years and widely read by the citizenry.
Ndibe’s weekly columns, in which he has been unrelenting in his criticism of the Nigerian government, have appeared in three different newspapers, most recently The Sun. He insists that he is not frightened or intimidated by the actions of the secret police and has no intention of softening his opinions. “I’m going to continue to write as fervently as I’ve ever written,” he said.
He has particularly angered the government by focusing attention on what he calls the “egregiously rigged elections of 2007,” in which Umaru Yar’Adua was elected president. Ndibe has refused to acknowledge Yar’Adua’s election.
“I wasn’t going to call this man president,” said Ndibe. “It was my way of registering moral outrage 50 years after Nigerian independence, 50 years after Nigeria threw off the yoke of British imperialism.” Ndibe views Jonathan as the “continuation of an illegitimate government.” A general election is scheduled for April.
Ndibe is planning to return to Nigeria this summer. The father of three children, he acknowledged that it is “a dangerous avocation to be a well known critic of Nigerian officials who profit from massively looting the resources of the country and have a great capacity for evil.”
But, he asserted, “I have decided that fear is a choice and I have chosen not to be afraid.”