By OWEI LAKEMFA
ONE of the most traumatic days in my life was September 21, 2005. Exactly ten years today. A few weeks before, then President Olusegun Obasanjo had again decided to increase the price of petrol (PMS) In reaction, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) decided to hold mass rallies and street marches in selected parts of the country to demonstrate the people’s opposition, and as a warning that the citizenry would resist such increase.
We took off with the rally in Lagos, the pro-democracy capital of the country. There was a massive turn out. As we marched on Ikorodu Road, headed for the Alausa seat of the Lagos State Government, I met Tunji Oyeleru, my former colleague at the VANGUARD Newspapers who was covering the event. Tunji, or Oloye (Chief) as some of us called him, was a quiet, humble and friendly person. He was also an outstanding photo journalist with a sense of professional commitment and a burning patriotism.
His photograph of the march, which was splashed on the newspaper’s front page the next day, was as expected, an award-winning one. The sea of heads which Tunji might have taken from a bridge or storey building, must have sent the desired message to the Government. It was not surprising that Tunji went on to cover the rallies in Kano and Maiduguri.
Chima Ubani was an outstanding patriot with an uncommon commitment to the masses. He was then, the Executive Director of the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) and joint scribe of the Labour and Civil Society Coalition (LASCO) Chima, a former student leader, had played an outstanding role during the pro-democracy street battles that eventually saw General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, step aside from power, hopefully, forever. Chima was Secretary General of the Campaign for Democracy (CD) the umbrella coalition of groups that organised those protests against military dictatorship.
He arrived Kano for the rally, and had called me to enquire about the venue. I told him, and he joined the march. The next rally was Maiduguri, and both Tunji and Chima, had been part of it.
On that September 21, 2005, at the NLC Secretariat, Abuja, we received a call that the NLC official car had been involved in an accident on the road to Potiskum. Then there was a follow up information, that two bodies laid dead. We made several phone calls trying to ascertain the identities of those involved in the accident.
Someone at the scene described a slim gentleman the then NLC President, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, had held long conversations with earlier. He said he had the victim’s phone which he had switched off. I told him to use the phone to call me. He did, the name that appeared on my set was Chima Ubani! Shock, dead silence amongst comrades who had gathered at the General Secretary’s office. I picked up my phone, called Chima’s number. The same voice answered me, confirming that the owner of the phone was one of the dead.
The second victim was said to be the AIT Photo journalist who had covered the rally. I placed a call to the then Managing Director of AIT, Ladi Lawal, an old friend and comrade. He confirmed the station had reporters at the scene of the accident, but that none of them was involved. The second victim remained a puzzle. I knew AIT would run with the story, so I asked Ladi when they were going to use it. He said almost immediately. I asked him for a favour; can he give me about five hours to enable the NLC reach and inform Chima’s family before AIT broke the new? I explained I was in Abuja and would need somebody in Lagos to go through the usually heavy traffic to Chima’s home in Opebi. I knew it was a difficult request as some other media might get the news and broadcast. He said he would give me three hours.
With that, a race for time started. I needed somebody with stature, experience and closeness with Chima who could go break the news to his family. The best person I could think of was Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, a father figure in the Pro-democracy Movement who had been CD President when Chima was its scribe. I knew he was sick, but there was little time. I called him and asked when last he heard from Chima. He said some hours before. I switched off. Then called him again “Doki, I am afraid Chima has been involved in a motor accident on his way from Maiduguri” He asked how bad? I replied that he was injured and had been taken to the hospital. I promised to keep him updated, and hung up. I then called Mrs. Ngozi Iwere, a very brilliant political activist whose leadership in the 1980s, some of us had accepted. She agreed to go immediately to Dr. Ransome-Kuti’s house in Anthony and accompany him to see Chima’s family. I then called Doctor, told him Chima had died and that Mrs. Iwere was on the way to his house.
My being further quaked when we had confirmation on the second victim; Tunji Oyeleru! The first step was to get the NLC officials in Bornu and Yobe States to ensure the injured got the best medical treatment available and that the remains of our comrades were well preserved. Then they were to get coffins and ambulances to transfer the bodies to Abuja. In Abuja, all the mortuaries awere full, so we got our unions at the National Hospital to get us two places in the morgue by any means necessary. Mrs. Esther Ogunfowora of the Nurses and Midwives union was particularly helpful.
There followed a vigil; the convoy from Yobe was delayed near Keffi as armed robbers were operating on the road. Eventually, we received our fallen heroes and made preparations to fly them to Lagos.
I was handed their travelling bags. I had the emotional duty of handing that of Chima to his younger brother, and Tunji’s with his camera and lenses, to VANGURD editors. Chima and Tunji are gone ten years, but the pain never ceases.