December 9, 2014

Why is a Nigerian federal court blocking their ex-president’s memoirs?


Former president Obasanjo is not shy. Image via Wikipedia.

Former president Obasanjo is not a shy storyteller. Image via Wikipedia.

The Nigerian publishing industry, which recently seemed like it was heading into a brighter tomorrow, has hit a new bump. Farafina Books, which publishes several major Nigerian authors including Chimamanda Adiche and Ben Okri, is releasing the three-volume memoirs of the nation’s former president, Olusegun Obasanjo. Titled My Watch (great title), the book was set to go on sale next week. However, a federal judge has blocked the publication, in a ruling that comes as part of an ongoing libel suit against Obasanjo.

The Nigerian Tribune reports:

The judge, Justice Valentine Ashi of Abuja High Court, sitting I Wuse II, made the restraining order on Friday after listening to Dr Alex Iziyon who argued a motion exparte brought on behalf of a chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Buruji Kashamu. Iziyon had argued that the content of the book related to issues contained in Obasanjo’s December 2, 2013 letter to President Goodluck Jonathan and former PDP national chairman, Bamanga Tukur, where he (Obasanjo) claimed that Kashamu was allegedly a fugitive wanted in the United States (US).

Last month, an anonymous associate of Obasanjo claimed that the book would cause a “political earthquake”, a sentiment that was seemingly echoed by NewsDay Reporters, which published a listicle of “11 shocking things” from the book. Among these “things” were multiple swipes that Obasanjo supposedly takes at Jonathan, i.e. the current president, who’s certainly no stranger to criticism as he faces down his upcoming re-election campaign.

However, political barbs alone aren’t enough to warrant the judge’s ruling. The part of the book with which the court takes issue is a letter, written by Obasanjo to Jonathan, entitled “Before it is too late”, which later became widely publicized when it was reprinted in two Nigerian newspapers. In the letter, Obasanjo severely criticizes Jonathan’s decisions and cabinet, and claims Kashamu is a fugitive from drug charges he faces in the United States; an accusation that Kashamu claims is libelous. A statement can only be considered libelous if it is untrue, as we know, but more on that later.

After bringing suit against Obasanjo for over $100 million, Kashamu’s lawyer was able to successfully argue that the book either includes or addresses the supposedly libelous letter, and therefore should be blocked from publication pending the judgement of the larger libel case. Thus the court’s injunction. But here’s where it gets even stranger.

Who is Buruji Kashamu, and why is he so adamant about stopping Obasanjo’s book from hitting shelves? Well, he’s the chieftain in the conservative People’s Democratic Party, currently the ruling party of Nigeria, and he also just won a Senate primary, according to The News Nigeria. If you click that link and scroll past the somewhat leading headline, the piece provides some details on the ongoing drug case in which Kashamu is very definitely involved, despite his claims to the contrary. If you look at the list of defendants in the case who have since pled guilty, there’s only one person who faced fewer charges than Kashamu, and her name may be familiar: Piper Kerman.

That’s right, Buruji Kashamu is allegedly the heroin kingpin from the bestselling memoir-turned-cultural-phenomenon-TV-show, Orange Is The New Black. (Piper’s last name is of course changed to “Chapman” for the show, and if you don’t remember a West African cartel boss from your bingewatch of Season 2, that’s because that character on the show was changed to become a Turk named Kubra Balik.) Kerman’s memoir never mentions Kashamu by name, only by his nickname “Alaji“, according to a piece in the Chicago Tribunewhich details the reasons why the case that sent Kerman to jail remains open today.

Kashamu claims the real “Alaji” was his dead brother and that he has been mistakenly identified by everybody involved in the case. The government has argued that those claims are absurd, given that the witnesses include his former American lover and her sister, who recruited Kerman into the ring.

Kashamu is still wanted in the US, and recently lost an appeal to have the case thrown out, but it’s unlikely that he’ll be extradited. And while the Nigerian court may think that Kashamu’s claim of mistaken identity holds enough water to hear his libel suit and issue the ban against My Watch, the ban itself doesn’t appeal to be leakproof. SaharaReporters says that the book has already been available for sale in print form, will soon be available as an ebook, and is just as damning as everyone thought it would be.

I’d wager that despite the sway of the Nigerian judiciary, Kashamu will be forced to contend with a second book that makes him look bad, one way or another. The media loves presidents criticizing other presidents, our own included. I certainly doubt his 2015 race for Senator will be uneventful.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.