CSI interview with Luka Binniyat, Spokesperson of Southern Kaduna Peoples Union (SOKAPU)
By Reto Baliarda
Luka Binniyat, a journalist and human rights activist from Kaduna State in Nigeria, spent three months in jail on trumped up charges linked to his reporting on Fulani militia attacks on Christians in his state. Just days after his release on 3 February, Binniyat kindly agreed to speak to Christian Solidarity International (CSI).
In this interview, Binniyat talks about the events that led up to his arrest, the “evil” being meted out to Christians in Kaduna State, and the horrors of prison life in Nigeria.
CSI: Luka Binniyat, you are a very courageous journalist and human rights activist. How long have you been advocating for persecuted Christians in Kaduna (and Nigeria)?
LB: Thank you for the compliment. But I have my fears and worries like every other journalist. It is just that I see my career as a journalist more as a calling to serve Christ through standing strong for his oppressed flock, and indeed, humanity as a whole, whenever tyranny and evil rear their head in my areas of primary assignment.
I see myself carrying out the basic tenets of Jesus: the pursuit of love, sacrifice and justice for His children. I have done this since 1998 when I started journalism. I did reveal a lot of corruption and exploitation of the Gbagyi natives, who are the aboriginal people of the Nigeria Federal Capital Territory. The Gbagyi, who live in Niger, Kaduna, Kogi and Nasarawa states, are a peaceful people blessed with thousands of hectares of pristine land. I exposed how their lands were expropriated and portioned out to privilege individuals who in turn racketeer most of the acreages for huge profits, while the owners were forced out to live in destitution.
I also tried to expose unwholesome practices at the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Nigeria’s state-owned oil firm. This got me into trouble and I was one day stopped from attending a press conference, treated brutally and forced out at gunpoint from the corporate buildings of the NNPC in Abuja in 2008. I was writing for Vanguard newspaper then.
In 2011, Vanguard transferred me to its Kaduna office to head the place. In April that year, violence sparked and fanned out to other parts of the state and to other states in northern Nigeria. It was ignited after overzealous Muslim supporters of retired General Muhammadu Buhari went berserk, attacking homes and top officials of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) after their presidential candidate in the 2011 presidential elections, Buhari, lost to Dr Goodluck Jonathan of the PDP, a Christian from the oil rich state of Bayelsa. When the fracas hit Southern Kaduna, a dominant Christian area, it became a bloody clash and Muslim youths attacked their Christian counterparts.
This sequence of events later led to night invasions of communities of Southern Kaduna, to the extent that many observers insist that the marauding attackers are carrying out ethnic cleansing with the Muslim-led government complicit by its actions and inactions. I have been deeply involved in exposing the horrific cruelty that these Christian communities suffer at the hands of the invaders, now clearly identified as Fulani herdsmen. I have taken dangerous trips to some of these communities. On one occasion I missed death by a whisker when armed Fulani men ambushed me as I traversed from one destroyed Atyap village to another in Zangon Kataf Local Government Area. The Fulani had on a few occasions called for my arrest over my constant coverage of the wanton destruction of Christian communities in Southern Kaduna and parts of the Middle Belt of Nigeria.
LB: To me, that is the best way I believe I can serve Christ and add my microscopic contribution to a just, free, prosperous and happy society. I fancy myself like a kind of missionary. I have met some youths who claimed that they became journalists because they wanted to be like me. It could be quite flattering, you know.
LB: As a matter of fact, I am surprised that it took them so long to come for me after my second arrest and imprisonment between July and October 2017. Both as a reporter and now the spokesman of the Southern Kaduna Peoples’ Union (SOKAPU), I have consistently reported on the evil going on in Southern Kaduna and reported stories that even made my colleagues fear for my life.
When I kept coming out with exclusives about the continuing murder in Vanguard, and the ensuing outrage in the country, Governor Nasir El-Rufai came on a live programme on Channels Television – a popular Nigerian cable TV channel – and accused Southern Kaduna elites of organizing the pogrom of their own people so that they can get paid by him and also receive donations from abroad.
As the number of casualties keep mounting, El-Rufai never said a word nor visited any of the ravaged Christian communities. When I became the spokesman of SOKAPU in December 2019, I keep a diary of the evil, from which I gave details of the victims such as name, age, gender, profession and the community. It was so factual and so impossible to refute, that reporters in the state felt comfortable enough to report these findings each time I sent out a press statement. And it became fruitless for El-Rufai to refute the claims of SOKAPU.
I would always point out that the governor had never visited nor taken relief materials to the victims. In no time, Kaduna State Commissioner of Internal Security and Home Affairs Samuel Aruwan started dishing out government press statements naming the casualties in the same format as SOKAPU and he would add that Governor El-Rufai commiserated with the families of the victims. It has now reached a situation where he gives a quarterly report of the carnage in the state. I believe that SOKAPU has driven the government to acknowledge and make public its spectacular failure in protecting the lives and property of its citizens. No politician in a third world country is happy doing that. So, I was not surprised when they came for me.
LB: The welfare and security of my wife and children was foremost in my mind. I was scared that they might go hungry or that some agent of the state would harm them. That is common in Nigeria.
I was also worried that my incarceration would hurt the steady supply of information on the violent suppression of Christians in the state since I seemed to be the major outlet of such news, though, glory to God, some young independent reporters are coming up and appear more vibrant and ready to take more risks than I took.
Another matter was whether I would survive the filthy conditions in the cell.
LB: A Nigerian prison is the most dingy, undignified place imaginable. Imagine a cell of the size of a classroom for 35 pupils holding an average of 80 adults. Lice, bedbugs and maggots covered the floors, walls and mats. Cockroaches were too numerous for us to bother to shoo off. Since there are no door and window shutters, only thick iron bars in their place, mosquitoes enjoyed unfettered access to us. You queue to use the single toilet which you squat to use. Urine from the toilet is steadily seeping back to the cell giving the place an unrelenting stench. Then there was the repulsive smell of human bodies and the sight of horrible rashes on some inmates. Dysentry. diarrhoea and malaria are the most common ailments. The food served us was not fit for dogs. And the rations were small. I ate bread with tea mostly since my wife brought food twice a week. Nights in prison are long and boring. Drugs are commonplace in Kaduna prison.
So, I made a case for books, and I was given quite a number. By the time I was out, I had read ten books. And that was my major gain there.
LB: It was my third time in prison, so the warders knew that I was not a criminal, and they treated me with some measure of respect. The ‘capons’ in the cells protected me from other unruly disrespecting ‘big boys’ and my most humiliating task was to fetch water for use in the toilet. I was never made to wash the toilet, nor remanded inside the reeking toilet each time I mistakenly broke one of the 93 rules in the cell. I was called “baba journalist”.
LB: Yes, several of them. I met young people whose faith in Christ and their work brought them to jail. I met a pastor who was imprisoned with his wife after a Muslim girl converted to Christianity and the enraged parents and the powerful northern Nigerian Muslim group Jamaatu Nasril Islam accused them of kidnap and forced conversion. Even in prison the pastor kept on converting Muslim inmates and hardened crooks to Christ. I met warders who were kind and were assisting inmates in various forms. But they are very few. Very few!
LB: From the beginning I knew I was not going to spend Christmas at home and I told my wife so the first day I was brought to court. As the days went by and they kept postponing my court appearances, I knew that one of two things thing was certain: I will come out of that gate as a free man or I will be taken out as a dead man.
LB: I was happy and grateful to God the almighty and all the good people all over the world that fought for me. It was good to walk on the street without handcuffs and prison wardens escorting me. It was emotional reuniting with my wife and kids; I missed them so much. That night, I slept for 12 hours. That was my first real sleep in three months.
The next day, I went to see a doctor and carried out some tests. Apart from a skin infection and my sugar level that I need to watch, I am in good shape.
LB: I feel very fit and I exercise thrice a week. My mental state is better than okay. The only concern I have now is my security. But I don’t get paranoid about it. It has always been a challenge. God has been in control.
LB: I am absolutely confident that I will be acquitted. I have never doubted that for a moment.
LB: The fellow that put me in jail, Kaduna State Commissioner of Internal Security and Home Affairs Samuel Aruwan, carried a huge media campaign of calumny against me while I was in jail, in which he maligned me as a purveyor of fake news and did everything to discredit me before the world. It is like chaining a man and challenging him to a duel. He did that in 2017, after Governor El-Rufai ordered my arrest and imprisonment. But to the chagrin and shame of the Kaduna State government, the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) gave me one of its most prestigious awards, The Torchbearer of Truth. Unfortunately for the El-Rufai government, the NUJ that same year declared Kaduna State “the worst place to practise journalism in Nigeria”.
My integrity is intact. My incarceration is a confirmation of the efficacy of my activism. It has given me more exposure and encouragement than ever. I won’t relent. Because, as the saying goes, “evil triumphs when good people keep silent”.
LB: As a matter of fact, my mum while she was alive resented my venturing into dangerous terrain to scoop for stories, and she tried all she could do make me look for another job. That was back in 2003. My wife is uncomfortable with a job that brings in relatively small remuneration despite its high risks. But she has discovered that I am also married to both journalism and activism and she has accepted that. Out of my five kids, only one wants to be a journalist.
LB: My biggest fear is that armed herdsmen may ravage most of Southern Kaduna before 2023. I also fear for my kids should anything happen to me. In Nigeria everyone has to look after himself. It is a zero-welfare state. I fear for Christendom in Kaduna State and in Nigeria. But I believe that God will intervene.