By Owei Lakemfa
I GREW up in Obalende, one of the tough neigbourhoods on Lagos Island where the struggle for survival was a daily challenge. There was a tall, handsome boy who was older. He was the architect of a lot of schemes which got boys into trouble. But somehow, he was never caught. So he escaped punishment. As he grew into full teenagehood and expanded his territory of operation to other areas like Ikoyi and Lafiaji, he, to the best of my knowledge, escaped arrest unlike many of his collaborators. I no longer recall his name, because he became better known by his nickname, Escape.
In the heady days of military dictatorship when it was dangerous to challenge continued military misrule, whenever I escaped any arrest or crackdown, I remembered Escape.
After we had seen the back of the Babangida regime and General Sani Abacha emerged the new dictator, things became worse. While under the former, we could hold meetings openly, we no longer could under the Abacha dictatorship whose bestiality, including assassination of perceived opponents, remain unparalleled in our history. So we had to abandon our old meeting places such as Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti’s offices and home in Anthony Village, and places in Mushin provided by Dr. Frederick Fasehun, for new venues. One of such places was the Iron and Steel Senior Staff Association of Nigeria offices, Dopemu, on the outskirts of Lagos. One of the reasons we picked this venue was because union meetings were usually held there, so the entry or exit of many young people from the premises will draw no suspicion. It was also in a fairly populated neigbourhood so people’s attention could easily be drawn if the military or security forces were to discover the venue and launch an attack.
Despite this, members were cautioned to be on the alert and shake off any tail by security agents. Also, our meetings were not really scheduled; we met when necessary. It was in the pre-cellphone days so there was no way activists could be called or sent text messages; it was usually through verbal communication. As meetings could be at very short notices, some missed them, but accepted whatever decisions were arrived at or instructions passed. Additionally, I had the knack of driving to the premises from the back street which was longer. But it enabled me to survey the street ahead and detect anything amiss.
One day, I went for a meeting at the premises. As I drove into the street, I noticed some persons discussing at a side road. Apart from that, nothing seemed suspicious and activities seemed normal.
As I drove into the premises, a young man playing the gateman, welcomed me. I knew the union only had night watchman or men. Immediately, my antenna was up. He greeted me politely and I asked: “Sorry, do you work for the union?” “Yes Sir” “Is the President or General Secretary in?” “Yes Sir” “Okay, please tell them a journalist wants to see them.” He asked me to come down and I said I was in a hurry, could he please go inform his bosses as I had a deadline to beat. Then a second man appeared, swiftly opened my car door, packed the papers and files I had at the back seat, and ordered that I followed him upstairs to the union office. I feigned anger and protested the assault. He ignored me and ran upstairs; I followed him protesting and hurling insults at him. I told him he had no right to seize my papers. When we arrived in the office, a number of my comrades were there under arrest with operatives of the State Security Services, SSS (now DSS) keeping watch over them.
I pretended I did not know any of them, and continued my challenge of the first agent. Another agent who was apparently the superior asked what the argument was about, and the agent said I had driven into the premises for the subversive meeting. I shouted, “What meeting? What meeting? I am not an official of the union, I merely came to interview the President or General Secretary.” The superior officer said I should be quiet as he tries to determine my true mission. I told him I will not, that as a journalist I have a right to do my job without interference, and that even if they were policemen, they could not interfere with my job as I would not interfere with theirs. I told them that I was sure they would not want to take on the Nigerian Press as I intend to press a case of repressing the media. We had a shouting match and the superior officer asked his subordinate to release my documents and let me go. As I left, I cast a glance at my comrades who had been rounded up, primarily to note who had been arrested.
Downstairs, another agent was there, waiting to arrest more activists. I sped off. It was a narrow escape. I was not too worried about being arrested; this likelihood was ever present for us. Of course, the more of us free out there to organise and mobilise against the junta, the better. But my primary concern was a document I was carrying. The National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, an umbrella opposition group to military rule had been established a few months before. It had resolved to write a petition to the American President detailing the atrocities of the Abacha junta and asking for his assistance to bring it to book.
Dr.Ransome-Kuti who had represented the Pro-Democracy Movement at the meeting had briefed me about the decision and asked me to write a draft for NADECO’s consideration. It was before the days the computer became popular; I had written the draft in long hand. It was among the documents the agent had packed from my back seat. Had I allowed them to go through my seized files, the draft would have been discovered; and it was in my hand writing!
As I drove through the front street, I met some of my fellow activists; they had stationed themselves to stop others from falling into the hands of the security agents, but I had come from the back street and missed them. Secondly, rather than flee when the initial group of the state agents arrived, the activists had confronted them, throwing stones. Eventually the former secured the premises and helmed them in. By the time I arrived, the crowds had dispersed and everything seemed normal.
Those arrested were moved to the SSS offices. We then began the process of identifying their exact location and how we could secure their freedom. As I drove away that day, I recalled the story of the Obalende boy called Escape.