Saharareporters has learned that the Umaru Yar’adua regime has budgeted $5 million in an elaborate effort to create and sponsor “friendly,” pro-government websites.

Details gathered during a two-week investigation found that the bogus “rebranding project” designed by Information Minister Dora Akunyili was taking a turn into a scheme to undermine top foreign-based Nigerian websites and blogs critical of the Nigerian leadership. Several sources within the Yar’adua government told our correspondents that Saharareporters.com was at the top of the regime’s “targets.” In the words of one security source, “The whole idea is to do everything to ensure that websites like yours and others are stopped from taking root in Nigeria.”

Three security sources, who are privy to the plan, revealed that Yar’adua last week approved the covert operation to stop websites and bloggers from influencing public opinion in Nigeria. The president's Chief Economic Adviser, Tanimu Kurfi will source the funds for the operations.

A major plank of the Yar’adua regime’s “anti-bloggers project “ is to fund the setting up of new websites designed to deceive unsuspecting readers with “patriotic rhetoric.”

“The government has decided to mobilize a few individuals to set up online forums that promise to extend the frontiers of online journalism,” said a security source. He added that, in the initial stages, these websites would release a few detailed and seemingly credible stories calculated to garner credibility for them as well as a wide readership. “But the ultimate objective is to fully divert the websites to the task of acting as attack dogs for the government’s online critics,” said a source. She added that the government plans to fund and roll out about 50 of such new websites between now and the beginning of serious campaigns for the next round of elections scheduled for 2011. “The idea is to use these websites to counter negative publicity trailing the Yar’adua regime preparatory to the 2011 elections,” said the source. She said Yar’adua’s handlers were aware that negative publicity linked to poor performance would affect his chances of winning the election due.

“The amount of $5 million is going into the project to create the impression that the president is popular among Nigerians,” said one of them. He added that part of the plan was to recruit 700 Nigerians at home and abroad to counter a growing critical blogging culture that is taking the Nigerian nation by storm and effectively replacing the mainstream local media.

We learnt that the government has already enlisted more than 200 people in Abuja, Port Harcourt and Lagos, amongst them local journalists, to register on popular Nigerian listservs, chatrooms, comments sections and website forums to counter negative publications against the Nigerian authorities by presenting opinions that appear neutral and demanding “objectivity in the reports of bloggers.”

Our sources disclosed that the paid commentators are given cyber café tickets as well as blogging allowances based on the number of comments they are able to make daily.

“The only good thing about this program is that it has provided a small source of income for many unemployed youths,” said one of our sources. He said many of the hired online writers stay overnight in cyber cafés and use various e-mail addresses and chat-room handles to make comments that defend the Yar’adua government against growing negative publicity or question the objectivity of websites and blogs that articulate widespread dissatisfaction by Nigerians who have found the internet as a free avenue to air their views.

One of our sources revealed that the Yar’adua government was persuaded to try this strategy of “hiring friendly online writers” after Akunyili was briefed that numerous state governments had long employed it.

Our sources said that such state governors as Bukola Saraki of Kwara, Ibrahim Shekarau of Kano, Akwa Ibom’s Godswill Akpabio and Ogun State’s Olugbenga Daniel are notorious for deploying “anti-bloggers” to counter negative reports in Internet chat-rooms and commentary sections of websites. Speaker Dimeji Bankole of the House of Representatives was also reported to use a well–funded anti-bloggers unit to counter negative publicity.

Our sources said numerous Nigerian PR consultants have also designed anti-blogging services that are marketed to an increasing clientele of politicians for a good fee. Some of the consultants regularly print out reports of their activities as proof of their effectiveness.
 
Human Rights Watch and other monitor groups have accused the Yar’adua regime of intolerance of free speech and undemocratic practices. In October and November 2008, security agents of the regime arrested and detained two US-based bloggers at the Lagos and Abuja international airports respectively. The State Security Service (SSS) keeps a list of so-called “internet warriors” who are supposed to be arrested and summarily detained whenever they are seen at any Nigerian airport or other point of entry into the country.

The regime also drew widespread local and international criticism when it closed down two television stations, African independent Television (AIT), and Lagos-based Channels TV for reporting “unfriendly stories.” Late last year, Yar’adua invoked an obsolete law dug up by Attorney General Michael Aondoakaa to sue Abuja–based the “Leadership” newspaper for alleged criminal libel.

A senior official in Yar’adua’s government also revealed that the regime encouraged Paul Orhii, an acolyte of Aondoakaa’s, to file libel lawsuits against Saharareporters. Last December, Orhii instituted a multi-million dollar libel suit against Saharareporters in Texas. Shortly afterwards, he was appointed as the director general of the Nigeria’s National Food and Drug Administration Control (NAFDAC). The agency is mandated, among other duties, to combat the influx of fake drugs and other hazardous products into Nigeria.

A Federal District judge in Texas later threw out the lawsuit for lack of jurisdiction.

Shortly after the lawsuit in Texas was settled in favor of Saharareporters, Ephraim Emeka Ugwuonye, a Nigerian-born attorney based in the State of Maryland, sued Saharareporters for millions of dollars for alleged libel. Before filing the suit, Mr. Ugwuonye had written a letter to the Federal Government asking permission to sue Saharareporters, even though he claimed that confidential information pertaining to the Nigerian government could be divulged in the course of the lawsuit.

The lawsuit is progressing, but Ugwuonye is resisting a motion by one of the defendants to subpoena the records related to the attorney’s work in the sale of properties owned by the Nigerian government in Maryland. Ugwuonye is claiming that the information contained in the transaction ledger sought by the defendant, Mobolaji Aluko, a Howard University professor, would put the Federal Government in bad light.

In addition, Ugwuonye has made several efforts to amend his original motion, but the Federal District judge denied his motion to enlarge the pool of Nigerian citizens who have engaged in discussions regarding the controversial sale of properties owned by the Nigerian embassy. Ugwuonye has also tried to expunge from his original motion allegations he made against the publisher of Saharareporters, Omoyele Sowore. He had alleged that an Abuja-based businessman believed to be Terry Waya bribed Sowore to write negative reports about former Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission, Timi Alaibe.

In written correspondence with Saharareporters as well as telephone interviews, Alaibe denied ever retaining Mr. Ugwuonye to act as a solicitor.

The Maryland Attorney Grievances Commission once suspended Ugwuonye from the practice of law in three jurisdictions due to misconduct. 

 

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