The Murder of Dele Giwa, a Journalist Who Gave His Life For Freedom of the Press in Nigeria

Nigerians protesting carrying flags main

The murder of Dele Giwa underlines both the importance and dangers of a free press. Dele Giwa spent his life, both in Nigeria and the United States, being an excellent journalist. He was repeatedly arrested for reporting the news, a dangerous job during unstable Nigerian military rule during the 1980s. After being questioned for allegedly anti-government reporting, Dele was killed by a mail bomb. His murder was never solved.

Freedom of the Press 

A free press is fundamental to democracy. The United States recognizes this by protecting freedom of the press in the First Amendment. The press investigates and reports the news of the day. It informs and helps the public decide how to act, including at the voting booth. 

The most dangerous activity for journalists has been reporting foreign wars. One report referenced eleven journalists killed during the 2023 Israel-Gaza conflict. Journalists risk their lives to report the news. Bad actors, including governments, sometimes target them personally. 

Freedom of the press is particularly at risk in militarily controlled regimes. 

Nigeria: A Snapshot of The Time 

Nigeria is a country in West Africa.  It is the sixth-largest country in the world and the most populous African nation. It currently has over two hundred million people. 

Nigeria’s history after declaring independence has been problematic. A tragic civil war led to over a million deaths. The failure of the Biafra independence movement did not end the nation’s political struggles. Military coups continued to occur, including multiple incidents in the 1980s. 

In 1985, Ibrahim Babangida overthrew Major General Muhammadu Buhari in a coup d’état, who himself was in power because of an earlier coup. Babangida fought in the Biafra conflict.  

A NYT article noted:

Nigeria is considered to have the freest and most diverse press in Africa, and the country’s military leader, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, has often said he is committed to respecting all human rights, including freedom of expression.

The article discussed the death of Dela Giwa, a reporter accused of speaking against the government, by a bomb delivered to his home. The reputation might have been questionable. 

Dele Giwa Goes To America 

Sumonu Oladele “Baines” Giwa was born in 1947. Dele was born to a laundryman during colonial times. He was the oldest child. His academic excellence was apparent at an early age.

Dele was the editor of his college newsletter. His outspokenness was a familiar part of his personality. Dele was academically skilled in the English language and literature. He took the nickname “Baines” from the American President Lyndon Baines Johnson

He worked various jobs in and outside the news, including as a news assistant at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC). Dele went to the United States to continue his education, including obtaining a master’s degree at Fordham University (New York City). 

Dele married an African-American nurse named Ann. 

Dele Returns To Nigeria 

Dele Giwa worked at the New York Times for over four years, including reporting at the United Nations. While there, he met the managing director of the Nigeria Daily Times, who offered him the job as editor.  Dele accepted the offer and went back to Nigeria in 1979.  

He married twice more after moving back to Nigeria, including to Florence Ita Giwa (later a Nigerian politician) and Olufunmilayo Olaniyan (his wife at his death). He had five children. 

Dele Starts To Get In Trouble 

Dele was arrested (1982) for writing articles critical to the government. He was bailed out. It helped that a powerful Nigerian businessman owned Dele Giwa’s paper. 

Dele was detained for a week in 1983 after allegedly publishing classified material. A Nigerian court later found this unlawful and ordered Nigeria’s police chief to pay damages.

Newswatch Started 

By 1859, an Anglican missionary printed the first newspaper in Nigeria, Iwe Irohin Fun Awon Ara Egba ati Yoruba, to “help the overall development” of the people. Many newspapers followed. The Nigerian people have since then appreciated good journalism.

Dele Giwa and three other Nigerian journalists started the news magazine Newswatch. Giwa, the editor-in-chief, had overall responsibility for all editorial matters.  It began in 1985.

The magazine was a pioneer in Nigerian investigatory journalism. A profile later declared that it “changed the format of print journalism in Nigeria [and] introduced bold, investigative formats to news reporting in Nigeria.”  Dele continued his history of fine journalism.  

It became a thorn in the side of the Nigerian military government.

Death of Dele Giwa 

The state security service (10/16/86) called Dewe in for questioning. 

The government accused him of anti-government activities, including a relationship with people charged with arms importation. Dewe had many contacts with different groups as a newspaper reporter. A military government is likely to be concerned about such connections. They are not interested in a free press that engages with people they deem national threats.

As a good reporter, Dewe also knew when it was time to worry. He had already been arrested multiple times. Nonetheless, a call from the security services was a serious red flag. 

A few days later, a parcel with government markings was delivered to his house. Dele regularly obtained material from the government. He had multiple government sources. He was worried for his safety. A mail bomb, however, was not something he expected.  

Billy, his 19-year-old son, gave the parcel to his father. Dele went to open the parcel, exploding a bomb that mortally wounded him. He was thirty-nine years old.  

No Justice 

Omoyele Sowore, a Nigerian human rights activist, posted a message on social media thirty-seven years later (October 19, 2023):

Till date his killers were never brought to justice. Rest in Power, Dele Giwa. May your spirit continue to torment Babangida and others who conspired to kill you in your prime.

Sowore accused the military leader at the time,  Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, of being behind the murder. The government at the time claimed that its investigation turned up no leads. 

The suspicions that the government was involved are very credible. For instance, Ray Ekpu (Giwa’s neighbor and colleague) reported that, shortly before the bombing, a government official asked Giwa’s wife for directions to their home. 

This fact would not be suspicious beforehand because Giwa received government materials in the past. In hindsight, it is fishy. If a non-governmental actor was involved in the bombing, it still was likely a product of his reporting. Reporting the news can be a lethal business.  

Soon after his death, Newswatch was less critical of the government. This caution still was not enough to keep them safe. The government shut them down for a time for publishing what at the time appeared to be a benign government report. The message was received.  

Time went by. New leadership came into office. Dele was no longer persona non grata. In 2008, the Nigerian government named a street after Dele Giwa in the new capital city. 

Dele is remembered today as a model of a good journalist as well as a martyr for freedom of the press. Reporting the news in some parts of the world continues to be a very risky business.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.