Chief Frank Kokori, a former Secretary-General of National Union of Petroleum and Gas Workers (NUPENG), who was incarcerated by the Abacha regime, relates, in his autobiography, “The struggle for June 12, the facts about how he was nabbed by the military.Extracts from the book, entitled, Frank Kokori: The Struggle for June 12.
On August 17, 1994, the crisis reached a crescendo after General Sani Abacha, by fiat, dissolved the executives of NUPENG, PENGASSAN and NLC, because of the crippling oil strike.
He personally went on air to justify the action. NLC, NUPENG, and PE|NGASSAN had their National Executive Councils dissolved by Decree 9 and 10 of 1994, with union leaders denied access to union premises and bank accounts.
Check-off facilities were also withdrawn from these Labour organisations. General Abacha immediately appointed administrators for the hammered Labour unions, which saw Dr. Usman Jalingo taking over as sole administrator for NUPENG.
Abacha’s move caught me gasping with surprise, as it were. He was writing a strange chapter in Labour history, slamming three Labour organisations in one fell swoop.
And where did that place me on the side of history? Our agitations had precipitated the dissolution of NUPENG’s leadership. In an environment that extols might as right and where the rich and the mighty rewrite history to favour themselves, would history record me as being in the right or in the wrong? Agamene and I (both of whom had returned into hiding long before that pronouncement) sat down to review the situation. I told my President, “What is your reaction?”
And replied: “Do you want us to call it off? What do you have to show for all these days; all the inconvenience; all the risk; all the sacrifice? No, we must fight on.”
His determination surprised me. Despite being a well-paid worker in the oil industry, the man showed an unexpected readiness to die for the cause.
His commitment encouraged me a lot. I don’t know what I would have done if I had been all alone at that crucial moment of the struggle. The ban had been so unexpected that it would have drowned my determination in despair. As they say, two heads are better than one, and Agamene, at that crucial moment, provided a worthy anchor for me.
Pa Enahoro had always inspired me with his courageous spirit and words of timely wisdom. Enahoro immediately phoned me and encouraged me, “The Commander-in-Chief’s address was based on you, so it shows that you are something to this country”.
My zonal chairmen quickly began ringing me to say, “No way! We are ready to fight to the end”.
But we had one fact to contend with, Lagos was getting too hot for us (for me in particular), especially in the light of the Head of State’s announcement of NUPENG’s ban. Agamene and I held a long strategy session.
The only way to sustain the struggle was to escape the gropping arms of Abacha’s hunters and remain in touch with out men on the ground, that way, we could keep the lines of communications open to our men and issue instructions to them as well as get situation reports. We concluded that we should move out of Lagos to Port Harcourt.
The first leg of our exit from Lagos would entail us moving to Warri in different vehicles, not our normal cars. Thereafter, we would go to Port Harcourt, the centre of Nigeria’s oil industry. Once there, underground, we would show ourselves to our people, like the NUPENG zonal council leaders, in order to reassure them and keep up the fight.
Unfortunately, it did not work out that way. That night, a Judas betrayed me and Abacha’s men captured me.
NADECO and most concerned Nigerians phoned my mobile number to encourage me over Abacha’s hammering of NUPENG. Callers included people like Chief Anthony Enahoro, Chief Segun Osoba and other SDP ex-governors. On my cellular, I granted interviews to BBC, VOA and other international, as well as local media. The callers insinuated I was the last man standing, and my arrest would virtually inflict incalculable damage to the struggle.
At about 9.30 p.m. somebody rang me (I think it was Segun Osoba or Doyin Okupe, as both of them rang me that night) to drop this piece of unsettling information.
“Frank, you have to take your security very seriously now. Don’t let anybody know where you are. They have picked up Chief Cornelius Adebayo, Prince Ademola Adeniji-Adele and Pa Enahoro. Adebayo just went to see Pa Enahoro at Sheraton Hotel when he was picked up as well. You are now the soul of the struggle, please don’t joke with your security”.
They themselves did not know my whereabouts. I had moved from the guest house that had hosted me for long in Lagos to another one. I had my wife with me.
Throughout the struggle, I had drunk from Pa Enahoro’s courage and wisdom. His arrest meant I had lost a significant pillar of support. At that stage, it was very difficult for my wife and me to find sleep. We were helpless. What should we do?
Before SDP, I really did not know Segun Osoba one-on-one. Like Kingibe, he had good human relations. If he happened to be absent when you phoned him, even as the Governor of Ogun State, he returned your call as soon as he got your message. You could not but like such a fellow.
While I was in prison, Osoba went out of his way to assist my family. He visited and donated. However, on my release from prison, I heard this strong rumour that his betrayal led to my arrest. As far as I know, Osoba did not betray me. I don’t know the brains that planned the betrayal, but I know the person who lured me out from my hideout – and it was not Chief Segun Osoba.
I had concealed my hideout from everyone, save my wife and children. The SSS hovered around Genesis Hotel and my house those days. My family members had cause to suspect they were being tailed, thus, they took extra precautions not to give away my hiding place.
My wife went to great lengths to conceal her tracks while coming to my hideaway. She usually had someone drive her to one of the popular markets in Lagos – Idioro, Mushin or Tejuosho.
Esther would enter the market, return to the parked car to take something and enter the market once more. Going through this motion a couple of time, she would finally sneak out of the market passing through a much different exit and casually take a taxi. She alighted from the hired cab some distance from my chosen hotel and stroll into my hideout. She could spend days in my company.
When I emerged from my hideout on the night of my capture , it was on humanitarian grounds. What happened was this:
On the night of 19th to 20th August, 1994, around 11 pm, a voice started calling me, saying, “Please, tell me where you are staying”. It was Fred Eno.
His request sounded strange. None of my callers ever asked me to disclose my whereabouts. Although in his 30s, and by far younger than the key elements in the struggle, Fred Eno was an Abiola confidante and Personal Assistant. He played an important role, coordinating media contact for the struggle.
“But you know I can’t come out. How do I tell you where I stay?”
He said, “Please. The issue now is that Pa Enahoro has been arrested and he had handed some important documents to me. But my own life is in danger too. I can be arrested anytime now. Pa Enahoro says I must personally give you those documents.”
Eno had struck a significant chord,f or the rule and strategy of struggles and revolutions stipulate that if a team member falls, another must take over his role immediately. If Pa Enahoro had fallen, someone must quickly stand in for him.
I remember too that my cell phone, a Motorola Workhorse, had all that day been malfunctioning. Unknown to me, the phone was being scrambled. The audio was poor. I had earlier laid this complaint to Fred Eno and he promised to source a good replacement for me. It was up his alley, being MKO’s public relations person.
Meanwhile, I suggested Fred Eno take the materials to my daughter at Genesis, but Eno declined. According to hi, in the light of the NADECO chieftains’ arrest, the whole of the Ojuelegba area, bordering my hotel buzzed with SSS operatives. Once they saw him, they would pick him up too. “My wife is in danger”, he said.
Along the line, strangely, my cellular phone became clear; crystal clear. I could hear Eno very brightly. I could feel the desperation in his voice, almost as if we stood face to face. I could feel the tearful emotions in his voice. He sounded close to tears. I succumbed. I directed him to my hideout, which was Domino Guest House, owned by Ben Bruce’s Family. A small decent place with no more than eight chalets, Domino Guest House was very neat and exclusive. My President had separated from me and stayed at a different guest house to prevent the possibility of our being arrested simultaneously.
“Okay, meet me in front of Niger Palace Hotel, Yaba.
When you get there, ring me up”.
“I will be there before 11 pm”, he said.
He was not there by 11 pm. I kept calling him, “Where are you now? You said you will be there before 11 pm”.
“I am on the way”, Eno assured me. But now the hysteria appeared to have evaporated from his voice. He sounded more stable, more confident.
Some minutes before 1am, his final call came. He said he was some 50 yards from the Niger Palace Hotel, waiting for me in a white Mercedes Benz. But it was so late – usually I never ventured out of my hideouts at such a time.
My wife was sleeping soundly, laced with medication the family doctor said would help calm her stress-fired blood pressure. I left the room. At the reception, I woke up the boy on duty to escort me to the Niger Palace Hotel where I needed to bring some people who would be lodging in the guest house with me (actually, I had planned to help Eno get accommodation in the guest house. It was a safe haven to which no one would think of searching for him). I led the way towards the Niger Palace Hotel, and the boy followed from a distance.
Shortly, in the midnight shadows, I saw a White Mercedes Benz parked close to the hotel. Sure that it contained Fred Eno, I keenly approached the vehicle. The back passenger door opened as I touched the flank of the vehicle. The other side opened too. Then I found hands grabbing at me. I quickly back-pedaled. Too late! The hands found me and eagerly pounded me with a rain of heavy blows. They tried pushing me into the Benz, but I held on to one assailant’s shirt.
The boy following me quickly retreated, standing away in the shadows. From there, he saw everything. That saved him and helped my case. He must have heard me shout.
“I am Kokori!”
“I am Kokori! I am not a criminal! They are trying to kidnap me!”
We struggled. Something told me that my assailants were security agents. They were big muscular creatures and I so diminutive, but they could not overpower me. Like a frenzied demon, I fought viciously against all attempts to push me into the car. I held on to the open car door. One of them left the fray and moved to the back of their car. He opened the car boot and returned with a spray gas that he sprayed into my face. The pungent chemical stunned me and momentarily knocked me off balance. They immediately bundled my slack form into the car. The struggle took not less than two minutes.
Engines revved into life. Tires screeched. Two cars flew out of the shadows into the night, one contained me, in the company of people I by now guessed formed a squad. A special squad. In my own vehicle were four men. The other car followed with two or three more men. They threw me on the floor of the vehicle and sat on me. Two of them sat on my tummy, with their combined weights, pinning me down to the car floor. I was still conscious but could hardly breathe. I gasped for breath. Were these the throes of death? For a brief moment, some life came into me and I spoke hoarsely.
“My death will set this country ablaze!”
Somehow, I had managed to say the right thing. Since the strike was on, I had strong confidence in NUPENG. Despite the government’s hammer, NUPENG and PENGASSAN had maintained the strike, and effectively; even though NLC had been all along reluctant to join the latest fray, I was confident my death would spark that fire of Labour solidarity nationwide. Injury to one usually amounted to injury to all.
“My death will set this country ablaze!”
My statement stung my assailants into wakefulness. It frightened them, so I could see. They immediately raised themselves off me, giving me space to push myself on to the car seat. I sat up. Then they began to sweet-talk me.
One of them had the temerity to speak my native Urhobo language to me, telling me there was no cause for alarm. The impostor! Would an Urhobo man join hands with others to mete such a harsh treatment out to his own kinsman? Impossible! His voice really grated my frayed nerves. I ignored the impostor. I kept mute.
“Frank Ovie Kokori”, another one said. “What beautiful names!”