LAGOS, Nigeria — The documentary on a massive strike that paralyzed life in Nigeria features newspaper headlines, television news footage and other information widely known about a government gasoline subsidy that saw billions of dollars stolen by greedy companies and the nation’s elite.
It also, according to Nigerian authorities, could spark violence and potentially threaten national security.
The 30-minute film called “Fuelling Poverty” has been online for months, but only recently Nigerian officials have refused its director permission to show it publicly in this oil-rich nation of more than 160 million people. While free speech is enshrined in this democratic nation’s constitution, an ever-increasing drumbeat of complaints and critical articles about the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan has seen authorities increasingly target journalists and others.
The film, sponsored by Soros Foundation’s Open Society Justice Initiative for West Africa, focuses on the protests around Jonathan’s decision to remove subsidies on gasoline in January 2012. Life in Nigeria ground to a halt before unions backed down. Later, a report by lawmakers demanded businesses and government agencies to return some $6.7 billion over the subsidy program.
Ishaya Bako, who directed the film that features civil rights activists and Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka, later applied for the right to show the film publicly. In a letter dated April 8, Nigeria’s National Film and Video Censors Board told Bako that the documentary was “prohibited for exhibition in Nigeria.”
“I am further to inform you that this decision is due to the fact that the contents of the film are highly provocative and likely to incite or encourage public disorder and undermine national security,” the letter signed by board lawyer Effiong Inwang reads. “Please you are strongly advised not to distribute or exhibit the documentary film. All relevant national security agencies are on the alert.”
Tanko Abdullahi, a spokesman for the board, initially told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the film wasn’t banned, but was “denied classification.” Later, in the same conversation, he acknowledged it couldn’t be shown over unspecified “security issues.”
“What is national security for Nigeria is different from that of the U.S.A.,” Abdullahi said. “We made that determination because of the content of the film. That’s why you have regulators.”
The government’s decision has seen more people watch the film online. It also has sparked outrage from human rights activists and press freedom groups.
“Instead of banning the documentary ‘Fuelling Poverty,’ authorities should look into the important questions it raises about corruption and impunity in the country’s oil sector and at the highest levels of government,” Mohamed Keita, an official with the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement. “We urge Nigeria’s National Film and Video Censors Board to overturn this censorship order.”
The move to ban the film comes as Jonathan’s government, which many voted for believing he would change the engrained interests and corruption of Nigeria’s government, has grown increasingly unpopular as extremists carry out bombings and the state-run power company cannot offer stable electricity. During the strikes, government officials put increasing pressure on broadcasters not to show images of protests, which at one point saw tens of thousands in the streets of Lagos.
Today, journalists at a newspaper face forgery charges over a story that claimed the presidency would try to disrupt opposition parties. Security agencies have harassed reporters at a weekly newspaper that wrote about abuses by the military in its crackdown against Islamic extremists. And workers who ran a call-in radio show in the northern city of Kano face charges over talking about rumors surrounding polio vaccinations in the wake of at least nine women vaccinators being killed.
Despite the outcry, however, the apparent crackdown continues, only fueling more of the same apathy for Nigeria’s government seen by those featured in the documentary.
“We don’t have government. It’s a whole big banana republic,” barber Emmanuel Tom Ekin says in the film. “They’ve been coming telling us story all the time, deceiving us. And right now, in our faces, they are still deceiving us.”