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OSOBA @80 : How I survived 5 assassination attempts

• Speaks on why he abandoned law for journalism, role in June 12 struggle
• Relives relationships with Awolowo, Tafawa Balewa, Jose, military chiefs
• Says two-party system is best for Nigeria

Just like in his autobiography in which he chronicles his times as a journalist and politician, a former governor of Ogun State, Chief Olusegun Osoba, in this interview, speaks on his exploits in those fields. The elder statesman, who clocks 80 on July 15, 2019, also provides interesting insights into other areas of his life. 

BY CHARLES KUMOLU, Deputy Editor

Did you ever envisage you will clock 80?

To have been able to reach the age of 80 having survived major assassination attempts, by the immense grace of God, that is why I take every day as an extra day from God and I give glory to Him.

Why did you choose journalism when you were growing up?

I found myself in journalism by accident. I was to study law because my closest teacher in school, the late Mr. Osuneye, wanted me to study law. He was even furious that I decided to go into journalism because I was admitted into the University of Lagos to study law, but Alhaji Babatunde Jose persuaded me to jettison the idea of reading law for journalism. In my school days at Methodist Boys High School, Abeokuta, I was a regular writer in the school magazine called The Magnate.

Osoba
Chief Olusegun Osoba

At the time you opted for journalism, what attracted you to the profession?

I found the everyday challenge a good journalist faces attractive. Journalism is adventurous and educative. It makes one to learn every day. Journalism gives exposure. And for someone who is streetwise like me, I found journalism a great profession. It gives one the ability and training to relate with all sectors of the society including armed robbers, prime ministers, parliamentarians and even petty thieves. For instance, I started my career covering little crimes. A journalist must be comfortable with all sectors of the society. It is a great training ground that helped me in my years as a politician. Journalism trains someone to be a leader and to be objective. The profession trains someone to accept other peoples’ opinions because most of the times we publish articles and stories we disagree totally with. A journalist’s duty is to report issues so that the public would make their judgment.

How come the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, described you and two others as three musketeers?

I keep saying that the three of us were the youngest people, who were close to Awolowo. Of the living, those closest to Awolowo who are my elders are Lateef Jakande and Ayo Adebanjo. The Awolowo family knew that we dined with Awolowo and got tutelage from him. We did our ‘PhD’ in public life by being mentored by him. He made us part of all organs of the (defunct) Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN. I can challenge them to produce the kind of photographs I took with Awolowo in Yola. I was with Papa Awolowo in Ikenne during the last broadcast that he made before 1983 elections. I have the action photographs of those events. Can anyone produce such photographs? I have the record of all the minutes of UPN (meetings). I want people to react to my book and I want anyone who is going to react to counter the things I said with documents. If I were to use the photographs, the book would have become voluminous. If I were to use all the documents I have, I would have ended up writing an encyclopedia. But I restrained myself from using much documents.

You story on the discovery of the corpse of then Prime Minister, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, was believed to have put you in the limelight. How come you were known for exclusive stories?

The story is in my book. People talk about it as if it is the only feat I achieved as a journalist. I wrote many exclusive stories. For example, when the late Joseph Tarka ordered a Mercedes-Benz which became a controversial issue, I exclusively covered the issue. During the civil war, I had many exclusive stories. Even in my later years when I got to Sketch and Herald, I had many exclusive stories. For instance, the assassination of then-Head of State, Gen. Murtala Muhammed, and the capture of Dimka (coup plotter), I did many exclusives on them. I have details of all that transpired. When then-Military Governor of old Kwara State, Col Ibrahim Taiwo, was assassinated, I was the one who went with the Secretary to the State Government, Obatoyin, to discover his corpse on the road to Offa.  The case of Alhaji Shugaba, who was then Majority Leader of Borno State House of Assembly, who was taken physically and thrown across the border like a stone, was another landmark. I witnessed the impeachment of then Governor of Kaduna State, Alhaji Balarabe Musa. There are many others but there is much emphasis on the Tafawa Balewa case as if it was the only feat. However, it was the major beginning that threw me into the hall of fame.

You talked about surviving many assassination attempts. Can you give us insights into some of them?

There are people who I call vicious in my book. I named them in my book. One of them wrote a book and created the impression that I was nobody in the June 12 struggle. Another, for years, tagged me as an Abacha (the late dictator) turncoat because he wanted to be the governor of Ogun State. I have had occasions to challenge them to state if they suffered as much as I suffered during the struggle. If they suffered as much as I did, they have the right to insult me but if they didn’t go through what I went through, they should keep their mouths shut forever. I have documented the things that happened in my book and I want any of them to challenge the things I wrote. I was the first to be arrested after the formation of National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, by Abacha and I was taken to Kam Salem House. Oba Akiolu was a Commissioner of Police then. He gave me his office to use after closing hours because I was sleeping in a hall infested with rats. I was the first to be charged to court along with Bola Tinubu and Commodore Dan Suleiman before Justice Sonowo. We were charged as the people who formed NADECO.

We were to go to jail but Justice Sonowo ruled on the issue. When we were not given bail, the late Justice Belgore, who was the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, intervened and granted us bail.  Before then, we were transferred to FCID Alagbon where we were taking our bath in the compound at 6 am before people report for work. Apart from Tinubu, Dan Suleiman and myself, there were others who were among us. Subsequently, the attempt on my life started on August 27, 1994.  That was when we were to celebrate the late MKO Abiola’s (winner of the annulled June 12, 1993 presidential election) first birthday in detention. They came to my house on the night of 23 after attempting to set Dan Suleiman’s house on fire. They had also attempted to set Gani Fawehimi’s chambers on fire on August 22. When all these attempts had occurred, I checked out of my house and went into hiding. They came to my house purposely to kill me but I was not home.

They gained access into the house without my key, showing that they had their own security key. Unfortunately, an officer of the Department of State Security Service, DSS, attached to me as a former governor, Stephen Etokpa, didn’t know they were security people and he engaged them in a shootout. When he exhausted his ammunition, he had to scale the wall out of the compound. That was the first attempt on my life in 1994.  I didn’t know about the rest until Sergeant Rogers confessed. The second time was when they followed me to Shagamu Interchange because they wanted to get to a quiet place to do their job. Unfortunately for them, the military boys at the checkpoint recognised me and asked me to go. They were stopped for a few minutes making it possible for me to drive away. The third attempt was in September 1995 when they attempted to set my house on fire in Abeokuta. I was saved because I didn’t sleep early. I heard a heavy spark, with smoke engulfing the entire room. I had to crawl out. The fourth attempt was in the evidence Rogers gave in court, saying they were sent to kill Abraham Adesanya, Alex Ibru, Porbeni, Bola Ige and I. He said they stayed in front of my house for a whole day; unfortunately, I didn’t come out. Therefore, when those vicious peple start talking, I consider them as small boys in the struggle.

What about the reports about several attempts on your life during the administration of a former governor of Ogun State, Gbenga Daniel?

He accused me of wanting to kill him on October 19, 2003. It was a lie. He got me arrested and I was taken to Zone 2 of the Nigeria Police. It is all in my book.

How do you describe the impact of your parents and others, who added value to your life till this moment?

I give the greatest thanks to my father, who was a disciplinarian. We were trained to wake up at 6.am everyday. Most times, we would wake up before 6.am and remain in bed but when we hear the sound of his footsteps, we would jump to avoid being flogged. My father taught me how to be frugal. For example, when I was in secondary school, he always told me to go to UTC and Lennards stores to find out the prices of shoes before making my choice. He always chose the cheapest ones. I learned from him that the best materials to use are Guinea brocade and Aso Oke. My mother was a reserved person who taught me how to respect people. Another great influence on me was my uncle, Joseph Babalola. People don’t know that I am related to him. He was one of the founders of the Christ Apostolic Church, CAC.  I spent most of my holidays with him. He was the one who named me Oluwasegun because my mother had some children before me who did not survive. Joseph Babalola named me Oluwasegun saying I would survive. I am 80 today and I am grateful to him. The religious aspects of my life were learned from him. The rascality side of my life was learned in Lagos. I was a member of virtually everything. I have a picture which was taken in 1964, when I was a member of Alakoro Boys and Girls Club in Ebute Ero. We were trained on how to be streetwise. We were trained on how to serve humanity.  My exposure was not limited to academic as I was involved in many societies including Red Cross, Boy Scouts, Debating Society and Yoruba Cultural Group. I had broad education.

To what extent did Babatunde Jose influence your rise in journalism?

When I decided to go into journalism, Alhaji Babatunde stopped me from studying law and immediately made me to go to University of Lagos in 1965. Alhaji Jakande brought the International Press Institute Training in Nairobi to Lagos. We were the pioneer people who studied journalism in University of Lagos. The course later metamorphosed into the Department of Mass Communication of the University of Lagos. In 1965, expatriates were sent from the International Press Institute in London to University of Lagos. And after I left University of Lagos in 1965, Alhaji Jose sent me to the UK for a course under the Commonwealth Press Union. Within two years of joining Daily Times, I had done two major courses in journalism. As at 1970, I had gone to Indiana University, Bloomington for another diploma course in journalism. It was as if Alhaji Jose was preparing me early for something big in journalism.  When people say I didn’t go to the university, I wonder if someone who attended these institutions and attended Harvard University for a postgraduate course is not educated in their sight. What did they do that I have not done? To have been qualified as Neieman Fellow is one of the greatest honours in America because the Fellowship is limited to 15 people annually.

What do you make of Alhaji Areola Oyebola’s claim that Alhaji Jose liked you more than him?

They said I was Alhaji Jose’s lapdog. That is why I decided to go to Herald after the crisis in Daily Times to prove myself. If I was that lapdog or favourite, who didn’t know the job, how come the paper (Herald) succeeded? Without being immodest, there is no newspaper I managed that I collected subvention from government. I made profit in Herald and turned around Sketch when I started managing both media houses.  At Sketch, I built a new office complex, and bought new equipment. By the time I came back to Daily Times, then-NPN had destroyed it but I turned it around to the extent that we were paying dividends to shareholders. Would a man, who they said became Editor by favouritism, have been able to lead Daily Times? I am proud to say that I am one journalist in Nigeria who managed three major newspapers and made them profitable. I paid salaries as and when due and provided housing and car loans. Apart from managing three successful newspapers, I am involved in Vanguard and Guardian which are major newspapers. When people talk, they don’t know that the idea of starting Guardian was mine and Alex Ibru. That is why the managing directorship was reserved for me for years.

Can you recall your days as a member of the defunct Constituent Assembly?

That was the beginning of my foray into politics. I was a member of the People Solidarity Party, PSP, which metamorphosed into the Social Democratic Party. Two-party system is the best for Nigeria. That is why I said the mistake (former military president) Babangida made on June 12 was destroying the political engineering that was put in place by Dr. Cookey. The two-party system placed the progressives on one side and the conservatives on the other side.  At that time, nobody defected from SDP to the NRC or from NRC to the SDP. Nobody did that no matter the problem in the respective parties because the ideological divide was very clear. For example Kofo Akerele-Bucknor became a senator with two votes. The primary that was used then was the Open Ballot system where people queued behind the candidates of their choice to vote. What happened was that (the late) Wahab Dosumu was in the forefront to win but there was a disagreement which made him to boycott the primary. Kofo stubbornly said she was not going to boycott and only two people queued behind her and she won because the SDP said they were boycotting. Her two votes were upheld and she became a senator. In spite of that, neither Dosumu nor the other person left the party.  The party still accepted her (Kofo) despite the fact that she was not the first choice. That is enough to tell anyone that Nigeria would have been better today if the two-party system was retained. There was only a little difference between the number of SDP and NRC governors. It was the same in the Senate. Those who became governors at the time were high-caliber people. Oyegun, Ezeife, Saidu Bada in Katsina were all retired Federal Permanent Secretaries. The late Dabo Lere of Kaduna was a retired General Manager. Shaba Lafiagi of Kwara State was the General Manager of Bacita Sugar Industry. I was the Managing Director of Daily Times. Chief Otedola was a Personal Assistant to Awolowo. Evangelist Olumilua had a successful Foreign Service career. I can go on to name other governors who were people of high caliber. It is different from what we have now.

On becoming governor again in 1992

Abacha kicked us out on November 17, 1993. Six years after, the state asked me to come back. In any of my elections, I was never challenged in court. In 2003, I won the election but then President Obasanjo wrote the figures. The details are in my book.

You once said you grew up with top military leaders of the old. Since you were close to them when they were in leadership positions as young people, how do you feel hearing their names often mentioned anytime Nigeria’s leadership crisis is discussed?

Of course the military was in control for many years. Two weeks ago, someone said that I was a security agent during the military era. What they don’t know is that many of these officers were Second Lieutenants when I became famous as a result of the Balewa story in 1966.  I met some of them in 1961 when I went to Cameroon for Man O’ War drills. I always tell them that they are Generals in the military while I am a Field Marshal in my profession. These are people who I grew up with. Babangida was one of them. The greatest ‘terror’ in our days was Air Marshal Abas. That was when we used to visit night clubs all over Lagos. How can I now be an agent of the people I grew up with? Is it not insulting? For instance Babangida and I had interesting social life in Lagos as young people. For instance, in the war front, Gen Danjuma was a Major serving under the late Gen Shuwa at the First Division which was the first military formation to start the war. I met all of them in the war front. Danjuma was then a field Lt Colonel. Can the man I met in the war front intimidate me? I had hobnobbed with Tafawa Balewa, Adeniran Ogunsanya, Okotie Eboh and others in the parliament, how can my mates intimidate me? I covered Sarduana of Sokoto and Awolowo as well as moving with other high calibre people. Those who called me an agent are limited in scope, they lack contacts and they are envious that I had contacts and influence. As at 1964, I had a telephone which made it possible for me to relate with ministers and other top people. Wikileaks has been releasing names of agents, have they ever found my name on the Wikileaks list? As the officers were growing in the military, I was also growing in my profession. They must be stupid to think that I was a military apologist. I couldn’t have been an apologist and still run successful newspaper businesses.

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