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My Dodan Barracks, Aso Rock days – Duro Onabule

The Babangida years, undoubtedly, will go down in history as some of Nigeria’s defining moments and one man who was witness to most of those events that shaped the fortunes of the country is Duro Onabule (70 years today), fondly called ‘Double Chief’ by his colleagues. In this interview at his Lagos residence, he reminisces about his sojourn in government and his passion, journalism.

By DAPO OLUFADE, Editor, & DAPO AKINREFON

YOUR appointment as chief press secretary to General Ibrahim Babangida in 1985 seemed not to have gone down well with a good number of your colleagues in the media, who felt that as editor of a leading national newspaper, such a position was beneath you; but you went ahead to accept that appointment. Looking back now, do you think you were right?

(Laughs) First of all, my colleagues won’t determine my life for me. Nobody determines my life for me. That was 1985. I wonder if they still hold the same view now because after me, others have gone there and I mean newspaper editors or former editors. Tunji Oseni (senior special assistant, media, to President Obasanjo) was one time editor of Sunday Times, Segun Adeniyi (special adviser, media, to President Yar’Adua) was editor of ThisDay before he got the job.

If I was laying a very dangerous precedent, so to speak, nobody should have followed my footsteps.

Secondly, you will be shocked by this: one day at an hotel, I ran into Alhaji (Babatunde) Jose and I went to greet him. He said ‘I must congratulate you because I was one of those who disagreed with you when you left your post as editor, but right now, I agree with you. You took the correct decision because after you joined government, we saw a different relationship between government and the press.’ That was Alhaji Jose. Unfortunately, he’s dead now.

Is that the only difference you brought to your position as chief press secretary to the president?
What do you mean by difference?

What difference did you make apart from the fact that you brought about a new relationship between your colleagues and government?
The situation was this: before me, the general impression people had of chief press secretary was that, it was a civil service post, whereas, it’s more than that.

Chief Duro Onabule
Chief Duro Onabule

Ideally, a professional journalist should be there. Because as editor and before I got there, they were not, for example, carrying national broadcasts on the same day. That is, newspapers were not carrying text of national broadcasts. You would wait till the following day and the regional papers, which had just one edition, would carry it on the third day.

But I came in with the background of an editor and as soon as I came in, national daily broadcasts were carried. I had to get the copies ready and I embargoed it and I released to their editors to publish on the very day it was broadcast.

That was the major thing. Infact, I had a showdown with the minister of information, who said I should not release but we fought it out because he said the media would break the embargo; I said no, that no media would break the embargo. He was a military man and I was a journalist, so we argued it out.

In any case, I was not reporting to him, so, he could not control me. On the day the broadcast was made at about 7.00a.m, we came back from parade and I took the papers to IBB. He was surprised that the broadcast he made at 7.00 am, how did I get it published? And so, I narrated to him what happened and that this was how we operated in the press and he was impressed.

The Babangida years,  recorded a high turn over of appointees. Appointment today, reshuffle tomorrow,  but you lasted all the eight years that he (IBB) was in power. How did you survive those eight years?
I would give my view on anything boldly, whether it was popular or acceptable or not. I don’t think I was the only one, the personal physician, Dr.Wali, was there who lasted eight years; the principal secretary, Hamidu Wathanafa was there, he lasted eight years. There were so many others who lasted the period. It’s just the mentality of the average Nigerian that this post should be held for two or three years after which, other people should come in.

If the man working for you satisfies you in his performance, why change him or her? And that was also my argument when ministers were being changed. My argument was that they should be careful who they were going to appoint ministers because once you put somebody there as a minister today and he spends the next two or three months trying to grasp the place, as soon as he settles down, you remove him again either to another ministry or dismissed entirely.

And so, ministerial appointment is not patronage, people come in to serve the country. Once he’s good, he should be retained. Why I was not able to convince him initially was because he said ‘well, Duro, you know these people are controversial.’ And I said ‘excuse me sir, even you are controversial: do we because of that remove you (IBB)?’ He sat back and relaxed.

Only IBB could have taken that and perhaps, only Duro Onabule could have boldly said that and he said ‘Duro, you are correct’and that was how we stopped changing ministers. No minister sent me, but I was concerned about the image of the government. In fact, he told the late Chief MKO Abiola and later his wife (Mrs Abiola), that what he enjoyed most about me was my courage in facing him and arguing out points and MKO told IBB that that was why he could work with me.

And if you work in that position, that’s what it means: no sentiments, no hiding place, let your man know whether he’s correct or not. If he does not agree with you that he’s wrong, it will be on record that you cautioned him.

There were speculations in those days that there were attempts to also shuffle you, may be first as minister which you rejected and later as deputy governor of Ogun State in the final months of the government. Is that true?
Since what you are saying is speculation, I think that ends it. But ordinarily, to be fair with you, there was never any speculation about me being made a deputy governor. As for ministerial appointment, I won’t refute that one entirely but I counter it this way.

Chief Onabule
Chief Onabule

I had to be fair to the minister of information. Name one minister of information in this country since 1960, that has not been battered by the press. You can never have a perfect minister of information. I went to him (IBB) and said the present minister of information is doing his best; if I was the one in his position, people would come to you and say he’s not performing. If they say the man is not performing, then, let them look at government policies; if our policies are good, the minister will be performing, if the policies are unpopular, there is no way any minister of information can sell it to the public.

Apart from that, like I told him, I see myself as more powerful as chief press secretary than minister of information; because when I speak for the president, that’s the president speaking. As a matter of fact, when another friend was to be made governor, the late U.K. Bello, (then ADC to IBB, who was killed in the 1990 attempted coup) I went to him and told him that ‘my friend, do you know what you’re doing? ADC to the president, you are one of the most powerful men in this country.

If you become a governor, when you get to the gate, an ordinary sergeant can just tell you that ‘I’m sorry sir, you have no appointment.’ But as ADC, you can see the man 24 hours; you can allow generals see him or stop them from seeing him. Everything is not money.’ I told him and the man agreed.

Unfortunately, in the Orkar coup, he was killed and I felt so bad. That is one thing you should look at. Everything is not money. At times, you look at the influence you wield. For instance, I am a columnist, I know that I influence government decisions or policies.

Onabule
Onabule

To me, that is satisfying and I do these things without any prompting from anybody. I just write because I feel like writing. If you disagree with me, feel free. The power and authority you wield, are more important than what people may think is the money you give.

Was there ever a time, while you were chief press secretary to General Babangida that you fell so frustrated that you wanted to leave?
There was one issue during the June 12 crisis. Some felt they were helping IBB but I understood it in a different way and I fought that showdown. People have their own way of covering a crisis, when a government media house, its correspondent covering Aso Rock, was to be removed without my knowledge. A letter came from the media house concerned redeploying him and replacing him with another person.

The person to be removed, happened to be a Yoruba man. When you link that to the June 12 crisis, if I allowed it to go ahead, the president would look bad in the media. When I got that letter, I called the person concerned and asked what the problem was. Do you have any problem with your boss? He said no. I said I saw a letter saying that you were being redeployed and that somebody had been sent to replace you. He said he didn’t know the reason. I said okay. I then took my pen, what infuriated me most was the language of the letter that ‘following discussions between the director-general of the media house concerned and the minister of information that this fellow was being withdrawn and to be replaced by another fellow.’ Then, I responded ‘I refer to your letter on this date, since I was not privy to the meeting between you and minister for information, to first of all acquaint me with your discussion.

Secondly, please take note that this office of the chief press secretary is not subordinate to or an extension of the Ministry of Information and I’m returning your man you sent to replace to the man here.’ I just sent the letter to the media house concerned. It was my own decision and if a showdown was to come, at that stage, I was prepared to go because I believed I was making that major sacrifice by not jumping ships.

At that time, if I made so much sacrifice by standing by the government, I was to be undermined as chief press secretary without my consent. Of course, I sent a copy to the president. Till today, we have not discussed it. If I had allowed him (a Yoruba man) to be redeployed, they were going to remove him because he was not covering the events according to their taste, that is from anti-Abiola but he was reporting events. The reporter would not manufacture stories, and I stood my grounds.

You were quite close to Chief MKO Abiola, whose election was nullified and the day that announcement was made, where were you and what was your immediate reaction when you heard the announcement?
I was in the office when one of the correspondents brought a copy of a statement given to him by Nduka Irabor (CPS to the then vice president, Augustus Aikhomu). I told him that it was not signed and he said no.

Then, I had a call from the director general of Voice of Nigeria, Yaya Abubakar who said he got a copy of that statement and he wanted to know if it was true because it was not signed. Unfortunately, I could not confirm it because IBB had gone to Katsina for General Yar’Adua’s father’s burial and I didn’t want to be a saboteur.

duroonabule5

Ideally, I should say hold it until IBB comes back, so that I can confirm it, but it might be misconstrued. I said well, just take note Yaya Abubakar, I did not give this story to you; if anybody gave it to you, go ahead and broadcast. That’s what happened.

So, when you met the president, what did he tell you?
It was in the news already and there was no point discussing it and government did not inform me and so, there was no point discussing it.

Not even the implications of government’s action…
(Cuts in) We had agreed on that for a long time. You see, you media men were concerned only about June 12 annulment.  Before then, there was an annulment of the SDP primary election, that was Shehu Yar’Adua’s annulment.

First of all, the victory was annulled before he was disqualified. I took that up with IBB and we argued over it for over an hour if not more. But I secured an assurance that there would be no more annulment.

Meanwhile, I accuse you people (media) that you all jubilated when Gen. Yar’Adua’s election was annulled.  You all jubilated, infact, some sections of the press called for the cancellation of Yar’Adua’s election, which was okay. That approach by the press undermined me when the June 12 election was annulled because if one was annulled, why am I complaining now about another one being annulled? On the June 12 annulment, my attitude was that since we had an agreement that no more elections would be annulled and this one too, has been annulled, we just have to leave on August 27,1993.

So, you were not surprised by the nullification of the June 12 elections?
I was the most surprised because already I had secured an assurance that there will be no more annulment. If, therefore, this one took place, it was against the assurance I secured because I insisted that we must leave on August 27, 1993.

A few days before the June 12, 1993 elections, I had an interview with you because I wanted to know where the president would be voting and you told me that he did not register for the election and that he was not going to vote. I was curious.

Then, the Monday or Tuesday following the elections, the then governor of Edo State, Chief Oyegun, led a delegation of Edo State elders to the Villa to thank the president for visiting Edo State a few weeks earlier and in his remarks, he congratulated the president for holding an election that was generally considered to be free and fair. And one expected the president in his response to say one or two things but he didn’t mention anything about the election. That I found curious. For you as an insider, nothing suggested to you that the election might be tampered with.

You are the one suggesting it because a week before the election, the then CGS (chief of general staff), Admiral Aikhomu spoke to Aso Rock correspondents saying that there was no law with which to cancel any election. I remember the press briefing. Like every other Nigerian, I was taken by surprise by the cancellation.

Even after the exit of General Babangida, one expected that he would leave with all the service chiefs but he left General Abacha behind…
(Cuts in) I am not a soldier. I know nothing about military process or retirement.

But a few days after you left office, you issued a statement authorised by President Babangida on the appointment of General Gusau as chief of defence staff and General Dogonyaro as chief of army staff. Was that correct?
If I did, it must have been authorised because that’s a military matter.

You’ve been editor, chief press secretary and Jagunmolu of Ijebu land.  Which of these, would you say has given you the best opportunity to serve Nigeria to the best of your ability?
To serve Nigeria, that will be between the editor of the Nigerian Concord and chief press secretary. Because once you are a journalist, your major task is to effect change in the society. Then as chief press secretary, it’s an opportunity to serve your country at government level. So, there are two different positions. Editor of a newspaper, yes, especially at our own time; you were able to effect changes in the society, curbing excesses of government. And then, as chief press secretary, you are serving your country at government level.

duroonabule1

Everybody can’t be president, everybody can’t be minister, everybody can’t be governor. So, as chief press secretary especially under a military regime, you had the opportunity to serve your country and what politicians these days call over sight functions but you cannot do now.

If a governor is to be removed, under the military, if there were grounds for removing him, you could alert the authorities; if there were grounds for not removing him, you could. But in a democratic setting, the president has no power to remove anybody, so, you have no business on that one. But under the military, you can make a case for or against a sitting governor.

You talked earlier about the death of Colonel UK Bello on the day Orkar wanted to seize power. At what time that day did you hear of the attempt?
It was around 2:30am.

What were you doing then?
I was in bed. A friend phoned me that somebody had just phoned him that there was shooting at Dodan Barracks. Shooting? As we were still talking, I could hear the sound of shots being fired. Then, I called the principal secretary who was living near the barracks.  Like me, he was not aware. I alerted him and he too made some phone calls and confirmed.

So, what was the next move you made?
I quickly phoned the barracks to ask for the president’s whereabouts and I was told that he had left the building.

What time did you get to Dodan Barracks?
Before IBB got there.

Was it that you didn’t fear for your life?
Well, once you are part of a team, anything could happen. You did not have to be in Dodan Barracks that day to die. Anybody could be shot by a stray bullet on the streets, anyone could have run into the mutineers at FRCN. An innocent civilian could be driving into the place and could have been shot. So, the question of being afraid did not occur to me. Once I knew that IBB was back at Dodan Barracks to address the press, I was there. In any case, at that time, things had died down. The mutineers had taken to their heels.

There was this media war some years back between you and the late Chief TOS Benson, a fellow Ijebu and Zikist. What was the problem?
The man is dead now. He accused me of leaking government documents and I felt bad about it. Even members of the same family occasionally disagree, you can have cause to disagree with your brother.

Talking about Zik, what were those qualities that endeared him to you?
For my generation, he was the man, he was the inspirer, he was the nationalist. He opened the eyes of everybody to education and political advancement; that’s why he made way in the West and in the East and of course, Lagos was inside his pocket. He was a strict constitutionalist, he would do everything according to the constitution, even of his own party not to talk of the Nigerian constitution.

You didn’t seem to like Chief Awolowo.

I will send you to the Awolowo family, go and ask them. I disagreed with him politically, but when I found myself in a position of defending the interest of his family, I did. So, go and ask from his family. Infact, under General Buhari, when there was this disagreement between General Idiagbon and Chief Awolowo on whether UPN governors, that is Bola Ige, Onabanjo, Ali, Ajasin and so, if they had confessed to being corrupt or stealing government money.

Papa Awo said as far as he was concerned, as at the time his governors were being accused by the government, he was sure that the governors had not in fact, been interrogated yet, so they could not have confessed. And to me, that was a hot issue. If the government said this and Papa Awo countered, we waited for a statement but government did not issue a statement, but when their trial came up and only Chief Onabanjo was jailed, the question arose: what happened to the alleged confession?

I took it up in my column that Papa Awo was correct in his argument with General Idiagbon. If you don’t praise me, I’ll praise myself. And after the man’s (Awo’s) death, his family were to be humiliated in Ikenne.

When I got to know about it, I stood up for them. Go to them and ask. It’s not a question of not liking. If you had two or three brothers, one of them would be your favourite, it does not mean that you are the enemy of the rest. Then there was also this wrong perception that being a Yoruba man and Ijebu man, you should be an Awoist, it’s wrong. Yorubas are trained to be able to decide for themselves. You decide what you want to eat, you decide what course you want to do, nobody can decide for you. If as a father, you don’t decide for your children, that is in Yoruba, you train the children to be self assertive.

You were features editor of Concord, when the late Bisi Onabanjo wanted to dethrone the Awujale, you used your position to oppose that vehemently. Why did you have to do that?
You are wrong in your submission. It was Concord’s editorial policy, not my own decision. It just happened to be suitable for me, it was convenient. Don’t forget, Chief MKO Abiola as publisher, had this editorial policy, a major aspect of that policy was to check government excesses and the attempt to dethrone the Awujale was one of such excesses. And that was that editorial policy, that was what happened and not me as a person even though, I was one of his subjects. It just came out to be suitable and convenient for me.

And after that, he (Awujale) rewarded you with the title of Jagunmolu?
Not as cheap as you are putting it. After any war, you decorate your commanders with military honours. That’s what happened to me.

As a journalist, what would you say was the biggest challenge you faced?
As a journalist?

Yes, when you were practicing
Well, we didn’t have as many opportunities as you have now.  There were about two or three newspapers. And out of the three or four, only Daily Times was the place, after that, say Punch. These were the two foremost papers in the country. So, we didn’t have the chance to move round. Once you got into the Daily Times, you had to prove your best. It was a major challenge and it brought out the best in us. It was a major challenge, but these days, there are so many opportunities. Within two years, you can become editor.

What made you take to journalism in the first place?
It just came to me naturally. As a young boy growing up in Lagos following Nigerian politics, which was Lagos at that time. I got to reading newspapers and at school at that time, a major subject was essay writing. You had to be good in your essay. They were either narrative or descriptive. I discovered that I was very good in essay writing. And then, attending functions like political meetings, I was reading the reports in the newspapers and I discovered that my essays were as good as those news reports.

When I was coming here, I expected to find you in a mansion because the impression is that those of you who were in government must have stolen a lot of money but here we are a modest place. So, what happened to all the money?
(Laughs) Which money? I think it’s wrong perception. It’s so easy to make the allegations, but by the time you take them to court, you will discover that you don’t really have the evidence.

When you have the evidence, no problem, prove it and send the man to jail. It’s a wrong perception that everybody goes to government to go and steal money, it is wrong.  Again, you don’t have to be in government to steal. Thanks to Sanusi (CBN governor) who flew the lid off the happenings in the banks. So those stealing in the banks, were they working in government?  So, it’s a misconception to say people go into government solely to steal. As at the time I was growing up under Awolowo and Azikwe, politics was attractive, there was integrity and personal merit. You don’t have that now. People challenged Chief Obafemi Awolowo at that time, both within and outside the party. These days, you can’t even criticize your governor, once you are in the same party. And of course, it’s even worse if you belong to another party. The governor does not believe that you must hold your meetings publicly to criticize him, you will become his enemy. And there have been so many mysterious deaths out of that. When candidates are to be brought up, you just discover that people’s wishes are not allowed to be reflected. I’m not talking about the elections proper, but primaries to select candidates. The governor will decide who he wants as candidates, Papa Awo never did that, Zik never did that.
As a matter of fact, in 1959, Chief Remi Fani Kayode broke with Chief Awolowo because Michael Omisade defeated Fani Kayode in the primary elections and Chief Fani Kayode believed that Chief Awolowo should intervene. He (Awolowo) refused. He said that was the decision of the people.

Again in 1954, in Egba constituency, the leader of the NCNC was virtually Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome Kuti. But once candidates were to be selected for the Federal level in the House of Reps, the people chose Chief E.B. Sorunke. Mrs Kuti believed that Zik should intervene, but Zik said no, that Chief Sorunke had been chosen by the people. That was politics in those days. If Awo were to be a dictator, he would over rule Omisade’s victory but he said no, that the people have chosen Omisade as the candidate.

Let’s go back to June 12, couldn’t it have been saved?
No. You Egbas, (pointing at the interviewer) undermined it, and even betrayed Nigerians. Egbas sustained June 12 annulment. Egba Council of Chiefs and Obasanjo. Chief Toyin Coker (late Apena of Egbaland) announced to the world that Egba Council of Chiefs had met and had decided to support and accept Shonekan’s regime, that was when people were being killed in Lagos, even in Ijebu Ode against the annulment.

The Egbas decided to abandon Abiola. They (Egbas) undermined MKO, they have not denied it. People were killed in Lagos, IBB’s coffin was carried in Ijebu Ode. Mallam Adamu Ciroma called for MKO Abiola to be given his mandate. From the blues, Egba people came out and said they supported Shonekan.

When are you going to write your memoirs on your days in government?
Why are you people interested about my days in government? I should be able to write memoirs as a Nigerian. I spent only eight years in government and watched Nigerian government for more than 50 years.

A lot of Nigerians criticized the Babangida government for various reasons.  Now, looking back at the regime of Presidents Babangida, Obasanjo and even those before them, how would you rate them?
Like any other government after now. The major one was the June 12 cancellation. I’m sure if IBB did not cancel that election, nobody would be talking about him today. Nobody would criticize him. But again, it was not a personal decision for him, it was a government decision. Otherwise, people would have been talking about him (IBB) positively.


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