It led to one of the most notorious medical trials in history. Some believe it even inspired the corporate malpractice thriller 'The Constant Gardener'. But pharmaceutical giant Pfizer's Trovan trial in Kano State, Nigeria, in 1996 was no entertainment for Nigerian website editor Sowore Omoyele.
Fourteen years ago the Nigerian city of Kano was in the grip of a meningitis epidemic and the US-based company Pfizer wanted a human trial for what it hoped would be a pharmaceutical "blockbuster", a broad-spectrum antibiotic in tablet form. A team of Pfizer doctors set themselves up in Kano at the height of the epidemic, which killed 11,000 people.

The company calls it a "humanitarian mission" but others say it was an unlicensed medical trial on critically-ill slum children. Eleven of the children died and many more, it is alleged, suffered serious side-effects. Pfizer always claimed only five children died after taking Trovan and six after receiving injections of the certified drug Rocephin.

However, a campaign prompted by a whistleblower at Pfizer and parents of the affected children led to civil and criminal cases in Abuja and Kano, as well as a civil case in New York. At stake by early 2008 was more than $1bn in punitive damages being sought in a string of legal suits, as well as potential jail terms in Nigeria for several Pfizer staff.

In May of that year Mr Omoyele, who runs the news and opinion website Sahara Reporters, published an article alleging that Nigeria's Attorney General, Michael Aondoakaa, had sought bribes from Pfizer in order to facilitate an out-of-court settlement. It reported claims that Mr Aondoakaa schemed to receive payment of US$10m via his cousin, a Nigerian living in Texas called Paul Orhii, whom he had brought into the case as an expert witness.

"At the time Sahara Reporters was developing a reputation for breaking stories involving high-level corruption in Nigeria, which lies near the bottom of Transparency International's global graft index."

At the time, Sahara Reporters was developing a reputation for breaking stories involving high-level corruption in Nigeria, which lies near the bottom of Transparency International's global graft index. It also ranks 135 out 175 countries on Reporters Without Borders' annual World Press Freedom Index, and 80 percent of the media is owned by senior politicians.
Mr Omoyele stands by his story and neither Pfizer nor the Attorney General issued denials. Eight months later however, he was contacted by the high-powered Cook law firm in Houston to be told he was being sued for defamation by Mr Orhii, who was seeking $25m in damages.

Mr Omoyele was defiant. "I was ready to defend the story in court," he says. "My source was impeccable, a federal government lawyer who was outraged by what the AG was doing." He does not want to reveal the identity of his source but says that the lawyer was ready to be named if necessary.

The Media Legal Defence Initiative began to look for an attorney to represent Mr Omoyele and, with the assistance of the US-based Media Law Resource Center , found Julie Ford, an experienced Texas-based media lawyer, who took on the case on a pro-bono basis. She defended Mr Omoyele on grounds of personal jurisdiction, arguing that since the publication was clearly aimed at a Nigerian readership and the defendant had no links with Texas, the Houston courts had no jurisdiction. The judge agreed.
But there remain underlying concerns. Quoting sources, Mr Omoyele says he was sued by Mr Orhii as part of a deal with the Nigerian authorities under which the latter was appointed to an important government post - Director General of the Nigerian National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control - while the case was still pending.

Mr Omoyele says his effort to make his website a "clearing house" for evidence of corruption and give the Nigerian public "undiluted independent information" has made him a target. He believes that well-sourced expatriate media, free of the constraints on domestic media, are a "new model" for scrutinizing the powerful and corrupt.

Meanwhile, Sahara Reporters is back in court in the US, this time in Maryland in an action brought by a Nigerian lawyer over an article alleging graft in land deals relating to the country's embassy in Washington DC.

Sahara Reporters recently earned kudos by what it claims as a series of world firsts, on the Christmas Day bombing attempt on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, for which Nigerian citizen Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab faces charges in the US.

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