08.12.10

Africa's WikiLeaks

From a cubicle in midtown Manhattan, a Nigerian publishes staggering examples of his country’s government corruption online—information that would get him killed back home. Philip Shenon reports.

The new rules for kleptocrats: Keep your Bentley well hidden in the garage in Mayfair. Convince your mistress living in the duplex on South Beach to leave the shades pulled—and to limit the bling. Bribe your banker in Dubai to keep your accounts a secret. Corrupt dictators and thieving bureaucrats of the world, beware. Your plunder is about to go online—certainly if Omoyele Sowore has anything to say about it.

Sowore, a 39-year-old political dissident from Nigeria now in exile in New York, has created a website that has been referred to by more than a few of its hundreds of thousands of loyal readers around the world as “Africa’s WikiLeaks.” Sowore likes the comparison.

One ex-Nigerian governor’s holdings are reported to have included a $6 million London townhouse, a $580,000 armor-plated Maybach sedan, and a 12-seat private jet.

The site, Sahara Reporters, is dedicated to gathering up—from mostly anonymous sources—and then publishing all of the dirt it can find on corruption and political skullduggery in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation.

Its scoops shielded by U.S. libel laws, the site is a phenomenon in Nigeria, a nation that is blessed by huge oil reserves—it is the fifth-largest foreign supplier of oil to the U.S.—and also cursed by the outrageous corruption that petrodollars have created.

The scoops have brought threats against Sowore, who is often publicly denounced by political leaders back in Nigeria as a scandal-mongering criminal. Sowore says he assumes his life is in danger if he travels openly in his homeland anytime soon, a view shared by Western diplomats in Nigeria. The site, which has been sued in U.S. courts by prominent Nigerians alleging defamation, is aggressively defended by volunteer First Amendment lawyers here.

Sowore said the site’s slightly confusing name refers to the Sahara Desert—the actual desert ends well north of Nigeria—and his hope “to kick up some sand in the air and get people thinking.” He said the site “is providing information to Nigerians in a way they’ve never had it before.”

With help from fellow members of the educated Nigerian diaspora in the U.S. and Europe, Sowore, operating mostly from a cubicle in an office in midtown Manhattan, collects photos, court documents, and other evidence of corruption among Nigeria’s leaders and posts it online.

The graft is eye-popping.

Since its launch five years ago, the site has tracked the overseas assets of several politicians, including a large, impoverished Nigerian state's former governor whose holdings are reported to have included a $6 million London townhouse, a fleet of luxury cars that includes a $580,000 armor-plated Maybach sedan, and a 12-seat private jet. The jet’s delivery date was pushed off because of a demand that the plane’s entertainment system be iPod-compatible, the site reported.

Sahara Reporters has posted official land records for what the site describes as several shady real-estate transactions in California, Texas, Washington, D.C., and across Europe involving the families of prominent Nigerian politicians and diplomats. (The Nigerian embassy in Washington did not return several calls for comment from The Daily Beast.)

The scoops go beyond corruption. Sowore said Sahara Reporters was the first news organization to produce a photo of the young Muslim terrorist from Nigeria who tried to set his underwear on fire on a trans-Atlantic flight to Detroit on Christmas Day.

The site repeatedly made news last year with reports that rebutted false government claims that the country’s then-president, Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, was recovering nicely from cardiac troubles that forced him to spend several months in hospitals in Saudi Arabia. Yar’Adua was actually gravely ill and died this spring.

“This is evidence-based reporting,” said Sowore. “We are here as a check against corruption and bad government. If we have photographs of the corruption, we post them.” He said “a lot of our leaks come from Nigerians who are angry—who want to see a different country.” The site has given Nigerians a journalistic watchdog that local reporters back home in West Africa could not hope to duplicate. In Nigeria, reporters are routinely threatened with violence or bribed into silence.

The site’s impressive muckraking has drawn the support of that most august of American philanthropies—the Ford Foundation, which has given Sahara Reporters $175,000 over the last two years.

“I hadn’t seen anything like this,” said Calvin Sims, a former New York Times foreign correspondent who now works for the foundation and is overseeing the grant. “The impact it’s having—holding political leaders to account—is very impressive.” He said Sahara Reporters could be a model for similar sites throughout the developing world.

In exchange for the foundation’s money, Sahara Reporters established a formal editorial board and released a concrete mission statement promising the site’s reporters would be “unapologetic practitioners of advocacy journalism” while producing “verifiable and accurate news and untainted social commentaries.”

The site has many fans at the State Department. John Campbell, U.S. ambassador to Nigeria in the Bush administration and now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, tells The Daily Beast that he logs onto the Sahara Reporters “all the time” and “my experience has been that it’s reporting has a very high level of accuracy.”

He said the site has a huge following among the educated Nigerian elite—both in their homeland and abroad—because its corruption reporting could not be duplicated by any news organization in Nigeria without “a bunch of goons” on the payroll of government and business leaders “knocking out the offices and a quite possibly murdering one of the principals.”

Remarkably, given the fury directed at the site by the Nigerian government, prominent Nigerian banks and hotels have begun advertising on Sahara Reporters, a reflection of its affluent, globe-trotting readership. There is hope that the site will one day be self-supporting from ad sales.

“At the beginning, no one would be brave enough to advertise with us,” Sowore said. “Now they realize that it is a very popular website, that we have important readers. It’s a risk they want to take.”

Philip Shenon, a former investigative reporter at The New York Times, is the author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.