By Owei Lakemfa
NINETEEN journalists were detained by the military following the April 22, 1990 attempted coup. It was a season of bloodbath and a number of us journalists who were free including Richard Akinnola, Lanre Arogundade, Kelly Elisha, Tunji Bello, Femi Ojudu, Ladi Lawal, Kayode Komolafe and then newly elected President of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, NUJ, Sani Zorro, swung into action.
We petitioned the military regime demanding their release, contacted international media organisations and organised our colleagues to use the media to campaign that all the detained journalists must be released immediately and unconditionally. Soon, information leaked that some of the journalists were being processed by the Military Special Investigation Panel for trial as coup plotters with the death penalty for those found guilty.
As part of the campaigns, I published a full page report in the Vanguard Newspapers of Thursday, May 10, 1990 titled “Our backs to the wall” detailing the travails of the journalists and those of detained academics like Professors Idowu Awopetu and Toye Olorode, both of the Obafemi Awolowo University, OAU, and the noted historian, Professor Obaro Ikime of the University of Ibadan.
News later filtered that the military was directly accusing Mr. Chris Mammah, the detained Deputy Editor of the Punch Newspapers of being a coup plotter. In reaction to this, in the June 5, 1990 edition of Vanguard I published a testimonial titled ‘Hostage for Journalism’ in which I wrote that Mammah “ is a good professional, fine gentleman and a disciplined citizen who should not be allowed to waste in a dungeon.”
Then a further confirmation of our fears came that Mammah was to be arraigned for being one of the master minds of the attempted coup. We intensified our campaigns and on June 19, 1990 I wrote an article in the Vanguard vouching for him. Titled ‘This Chris Mammah, I know”. I detailed his leadership of the National Association of Nigerian Students, NANS, his exemplary practice as a journalist, his high sense of patriotism and concluded that “ Chris Mammah is a very valuable asset to our country especially in these trying times when all patriots are needed to rescue our nation”.
One day, we received a message from the Chief Intelligence Officer of the regime, Brigadier General Haliru Akilu asking us to meet him at his Bonny Camp office. He was one of the most dreaded soldiers in the country arising primarily from accusations, particularly by Human Rights lawyer, Chief Gani Fawehinmi that four years earlier, Akilu sent the letter bomb that dismembered leading journalist and publisher, Mr. Dele Giwa.
At this time, Akilu coordinated all the security agencies in the country and was known to be presiding over those to be sent for coup trial. He received us and said the regime did not want a war with the media. That it was willing to examine the list of those we demanded should be released but, on a case-by-case basis. He however hinted that there were some journalists that would have to go on trial for treason. That was the beginning of many meetings as we strived to get one journalist after another, released.
It was surreal as we engaged in negotiations that centred on people’s lives. A few journalists were quickly released, but we knew we had a hard task when the Akilu team refused to allow discussions on some of the detainees. For instance, Akilu told us that any negotiations about the publisher of the Newbreed Magazine, Chief Chris Okolie was off the table because he was caught in the act of counter espionage including tapping the telephones of security agencies. We responded that if the claims were true, then Okolie should not have been detained for coup plotting and that our mandate is to free all journalists. Akilu said the military also has its prized generals whom it was moving against. He gave the example of retired General Olusegun Obasanjo, former Head of State whom he said was running an illegal detention centre on his Otta farm and physically abusing his staff including inflicting bodily injuries on them. Obasanjo he said, will have to be brought to book. We responded that we were not there for persons like Obasanjo but that although the alleged acts by Obasanjo are common knowledge and condemnable, it did not amount to coup plotting.
Then the situation of the media became more complicated as more media organisations were shutdown. The positive side of this, was that the media employers, under the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria, NPAN, were drawn into the battle. The case of former NUJ Deputy President, Ekpo Bassey Ekpo was also considered off limits although the security chiefs would not tell us the exact charges against him.
One day, we received ‘summons’ from Akilu that we should report at his office. When we got there, he was absent, but his Military Secretary, then Major I. D. Akinyemi was on hand to receive us. He said his chief asked him to bring us to the then headquarters of the State Security Services at 15, Awolowo Road, Ikoyi-Lagos. That was the main place military regimes kept their perceived enemies with some of the detainees emerging as skeletons.
When we got there, we were ushered into a large icy room. There was a big television set which was beaming the CNN satellite television which was not common in those days. We found a way of controlling the air conditioners. After about three hours with nobody talking to us, we started to wander whether we had also become detainees. One of us opened the door, there was not a soul in sight, all he could see was a long lonely corridor. We needed to test whether we were detained. In any case, the world should know where we were.
So it was decided that I should leave, and if I succeeded in walking out of the gate, I would be a source out there to inform the country where the rest of my colleagues could be located. I walked out of the office, made the long walk from it to the gate.
As I approached the gate, I heard heavy boots behind me. A soldier came running and breathlessly shouting “Oga you can’t go! You can’t go!!” “Am I under arrest?” “No Sir” “So why can’t I leave” “Oga say (said) he must see you” “Okay, go and tell him, I have waited long enough, I have other appointments so I had to leave” “No sir, I can’t go and tell him that” “Okay, can you at least go and tell him I want to leave?” “No Sir” So with the soldier behind, I walked back to join my colleagues.