By Owei Lakemfa
MANY of us who organised the bloody mass street protests, stay-at-home and sustained a five-year campaign to force the military de-annul June 12, 1993, presidential election did not believe in that year’s elections.
We knew the General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida Transition Programme was fraudulent. Our leader, Alao Aka-Bashorun, had repeatedly told the country that the regime had a “Hidden Agenda”. This was subsequently borne out as the regime changed the ‘transition date’ from 1990 to 1992, then to 1993. As it “shifted the goal post” so did it cancel the presidential primaries before allowing those that produced Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola and Alhaji Bashir Tofa.
So, the annulment of the election did not come as a surprise, but we stepped forward to challenge it because the political class was cowed and at that point, incapable of challenging the military dictators. Also, the annulment presented an opportunity to get rid of the parasitic Generals and there was a fair chance of enthroning a peoples’ democracy. To us, it was not a fight for Abiola, but a struggle for social justice.
As we mobilised millions of Nigerians for the inevitable war against the military dictatorship, we had a worry: the politicians! A lot of them backed the annulment while quite a number, including Abiola, were hopeful that the military would change its mind. Some of us, led by Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti, had to meet Abiola, not to solicit his support, but to extract a promise that he would not denounce us or the protests we were planning.
We lost quite a number of protesters to police and military firepower across the country, including 118 souls in a single day in Lagos. There was a crackdown and some of my comrades were thrown into detention without trial while there was a hunt for some of us.
We resolved not to hand ourselves over to the so-called authorities because we regarded them as usurpers. I managed to stay a few steps ahead of my hunters, but one day, I was trapped. I had sneaked into my office in the Vanguard Newspapers. It was a small pace in which I had squeezed a table, a chair and two seats for visitors. Two men walked in and instinctively, I knew they were security-men. They asked for me, and I calmly told them Mr Lakemfa had gone to the library downstairs. They broke into a run, and I walked out of Vanguard premises, turned to the left where there was a jetty rather than the right that leads to the main road. The security contingent that came for me laid siege for two weeks during which I went underground.
As the struggle for June 12 became more intense, and some began to go into exile, it was decided that I should become a liaison officer between those abroad and the home front. When I went for an American visa, the visa officer asked why I wanted to go and submit the visa at the airport, implying that I will be stopped from travelling. I laughed and replied: “You know I will not go through the airport.” It was supposed to be a secret mission. But a few weeks before I was to travel, I ran into a top politician who expressed surprise that I was still in the country. I knew my mission had been compromised and refused to travel.
Those were quite dangerous times. At a time, we in the pro-democracy movement formed an alliance with political leaders like Chiefs Ayo Adebanjo and Cornelius Adebayo and started meeting at 100, Oduduwa Crescent, GRA, Ikeja home of the chairman, Chief Alfred Rewane. His deputy was Chief Anthony Enahoro assisted by Chief Abraham Adesanya. Soon, those meetings stopped as Rewane, 79, was shot dead in that house on October 6, 1995.
We moved our meetings to detained Chief Abiola’s house with his wife, Mrs Kudirat Abiola as hostess. It was a larger group and one of our first tasks was to posit an alternative transition programme to that drawn up by the Abacha regime. But Mrs Abiola, 44, was gunned down in Lagos on June 4, 1996, by Abacha’s killer squad. Some members of that group like Chiefs Enahoro and Bola Ahmed Tinubu went into exile, Dr Ransome-Kuti was given a life sentence and quite a number were in detention without trial. Many of us remained. On January 14, 1997, bullets were rained on Senator Adesanya’s car by the killer squad, but miraculously, he escaped unhurt.
When I moved over to edit the now rested Today’s News Today, TNT, Newspapers in Ikeja, the Abacha dictatorship redeployed a tough cop, Abubakar Tsav, to take charge of Lagos regarded as the hotbed of the resistance against military misrule and the struggle for the actualisation of June 12. After some months, a story broke that the regime had redeployed Tsav, and jubilation broke out in police formations across the state.
The TNT ran the story of the jubilation. Next day, I was sitting behind my desk when policemen in plainclothes entered. They asked for me and I told them the editor had gone to the publisher’s office in the next building. Immediately they left, I walked out through the backdoor of the building, past waiting for police vehicles and melted into the street. The furious policemen turned on the staff, detained the news editor, Tokunboh Oloruntola and declared the crime correspondent, Owolola Adebola and I wanted. Of course, I refused to give myself up.
In 1997, I coordinated a Freidrich Ebert Foundation Programme for labour correspondents. It held in Oyo town. Just as we began, some detectives arrived and accused us of holding an anti-government programme. I explained it was a mere education programme. They seemed to understand but advised that I should go with them to explain to the police area commander.
When we got to the commander, I explained to him and pointed out that the Police also runs training programmes in their Police colleges. So why would he be hostile to journalists attending refresher courses? He paused, and said, the police was better educated and informed than seeking to disrupt a programme for journalists. Then slowly he informed it was the State Security Services, SSS, impersonating the police to effect arrests and detention.
I felt stupid. After years of evading arrest, I had walked cheaply into the trap of the secret police. When the SSS personnel returned, I tried to bluff my way, but they had informed their superiors probably in Abuja and a background check had been run. I was like a crab that had swum through many rivers, only to end up in an old woman’s pot of soup.