A sad report emerged on Monday, May 10 2021, that some vendors in Owerri were arrested. Some police officers stormed Rotobi Street early in the morning and picked up the vendors. Rotobi Street houses most of the newspapers in Owerri. Newspaper distributors and vendors gather at Rotobi each morning to do business. The vendors and distributors arrested included a middle aged man popularly called Shagay, and Mr. Okoro. They have all been released.
The police has made no statement in connection with the arrest, but speculation is rife that the vendors were arrested in connection to selling newspapers and newsletters that promote the activities of the IPOB. The arrest had generated some reactions. This is understandable. Many said that “innocent vendors” should not have been picked up by the police. They claimed that the vendors were only middlemen providing retail services to the public and were not responsible for the content of the newspapers, magazines or newsletters they sold to the public. This school of thought argued that instead of arresting the vendors, the police should have gone after the publishers or editors of the said publications.
The Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) in Imo State condemned “the gestapo invasion, arrest of Newspaper Vendors, Distributors in Imo”. In a press release signed by the State Chairman, Chris Akaraonye, and Secretary, Juliet Dim, the Union said: “Imo NUJ states that the invasion and subsequent arrest of the newspaper vendors was more embarrassing as the Imo Police Command and DSS were not even aware of the plan until it was fully executed”. They said it was “an insult that the Imo State Governor as the Chief Security Officer of the State, and his Government, were also not informed about the planned invasion and arrest of newspaper vendors”. The NUJ demanded “that the presidency and police authorities should investigate the embarrassing invasion and arrest of newspaper vendors by the IGP’s IRT squad”.
In a bizarre development, a faction of the Imo State NUJ that goes with the alias of Caretaker Committee took a shameful turn, accusing the Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Chief Declan Emelumba, of being the mastermind of the arrest. In a statement signed by the Chairman of the Caretaker Committee, Comrade Precious Nwadike, and Secretary, Comrade Austin Okoro, on Tuesday, May 11, the group said: “Much as we do not intend to apportion blames for the woes of the the detained vendors since we are yet to be told their actual offences, we make bold to say that the Commissioner for Information should be held responsible for their detention as it is a fallout of his numerous blackmails against Imo Journalists”.
You would think that the allegation against the Commissioner coming from the factional NUJ must be a credible one. According to the press release, the unjustified allegation stemmed from mere suspicion. “Our suspicion for this stems from the fact that the Commissioner for Information had before now exhibited such tendencies that throw him up as number one antagonist of Imo journalists. He has never wavered in his avowed inclination to gagging the press in Imo through every available opportunity, and official paraphernalia within his reach”. What has the Commissioner done to deserve the unfair, wrong profiling? The group answers: “A most recent instance was his squabble with a nursing mother who was simply suspended at his instance for demanding her salary and that of her colleagues…we lay the blame for whatever the Government has done wrong on Hon. Declan Emelumba. Because as a journalist himself, he ought to properly advise the Government on issues relating to the media and the practitioners in the State… being an accomplished media practitioner, [he] would have been an assurance for a robust relationship with the government and its institutions, if he had played a fitting role”.
To set the records straight, the press in Imo State is free, not gagged. There is no record of Emelumba antagonizing journalists in the State either. Any claim suggesting that is a figment of the imagination of those making the claim. The press release by the Nwadike NUJ is full of malice and betrays a group that is cantankerous. It is disappointingly unprofessional. Reading side by side the two press releases from the Imo NUJ, one will have no difficulty noticing that the Nwadike NUJ did a lazy, hatchet job, carried out no investigation but was rathet set out to speculate and spread falsehood. The press release smacks of vindictiveness. Remarkably, one would have no qualms applauding the diligence and clear headedness of the Akaraonye led NUJ on the arrest of the vendors. “According to investigations by Imo NUJ, policemen from the…Intelligence Response Team (IRT) swooped on the newspaper vendors and distributors at Rotobi Street, Owerri, where newspapers and magazines are usually distributed, and arrested no fewer than seven of the vendors…The investigation by the Union also revealed that the State Police Command and the DSS in the State had no knowledge of the embarrassing invasion and arrest”, said the Akaraonye led NUJ.
The newspapers vendors association in Owerri also disagrees with the Nwadike NUJ. On Tuesday, the leadership of the association led by Mr. Odofia Alex met with the Commissioner for Information. Condemning the “gestapo arrest”, the Commisioner said the Government was not aware of the arrest. He assured that the Government would intervene and ensure the release of the arrested vendors. He expressed Government’s support for the freedom of expression and freedom of the press. He called on the vendors not to be frightened by the development and abandon their duty posts. The Akaraonye led NUJ confirmed that the Commissioner played a role in the release of the vendors, saying: “the leadership of the NUJ in collaboration with the State Commissioner for Information, the Police, DSS and the leadership of Newspaper Publishers have secured the release of those arrested”.
Our interactions with some of the vendors indicate that they were arrested partly because a certain newspaper had published a false story that the IRT had planned to carry out armed robbery in the State. They said this was why the distributor of the said newspaper was the last to be released, because they were waiting for the Publisher, who refused to show up. The vendors said Emelumba had asked them to calculate their expenses and submit it to him, that the Government would reimburse them. It is therefore baffling that the Nwadike NUJ would throw decorum to the trashbin and unjustifiably pick a fight with a Commissioner for Information, a senior colleague, “an accomplished media practitioner”, based on mere suspicion. This baseless suspicion is the continuation, or rather, the extension of the rift in the Imo NUJ. It is a baseless reason to get even with a Commissioner that did no wrong, a Commissioner that has been the vanguard of professionalism. The Nwadike group is fighting Emelumba partly because he chose to follow the rule of law and not recognize the Caretaker Committee led by Nwadike because there is a pending case in Court over the most recent NUJ election. That the so-called Caretaker Committee delights in painting Emelumba black further buttresses the point that a lot has gone awry in the journalism profession.
This is what the Commissioner has been battling. He has said that journalists must not be agents provocateur. They should make their reports factual and not deceive the public, like what the Nwadike NUJ is doing. Anthony Lannarino, an international speaker, author, and sales leader, wrote about things going wrong in an organization beginning with the leadership. He said: “If the culture is broken, only leadership can fix it. If leadership doesn’t establish and protect a healthy culture, some unhealthy culture will fill that vacuum. If the leadership culture itself is unhealthy, there begins the rot, and soon the fish is lost. If a pocket of negativity and cynicism exists, it’s because leadership hasn’t cut it out of the organization – especially when the pocket of negativity comes from the leadership ranks”.
It is clear to all that only those who are uncomfortable with the truths from Emelumba; those who specialize in peddling falsehood; those who have chosen to align themselves with the opposition, or have transformed themselves into the opposition in the State, will go out of their way to spin gibberish against a star player and harmless person like Emelumba. For the Nwadike group, it is enough to remind them that a Caretaker Committee should be very clear of its mandate. It should know that its mandate does not include picking unjustified fights with the Government, especially a Government that has been supportive of the media.
The Imo NUJ should not be allowed to be used by anyone as his personal armoury. The NUJ is a respectable Union and should not be dragged into unnecessary warfare, or reduced to [an] instrument for settling personal scores. The Imo NUJ is not a front, rogue Union.