By Lanre Arogundade
AT a stage we constructed a cage at the secretariat of the Lagos Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, NUJ, in Shomolu area of Lagos in which we inserted images of incarcerated journalists to demonstrate to the world that the Nigerian media was in chains.
It was in the aftermath of the annulment of the June 12, 1993 elections during which journalists and media outlets who stood with the people in the struggle to rid the military through the validation of the mandate freely given by Nigerians to Bashorun MKO Abiola were being hounded.
Lagos NUJ was actually very much part of the June 12 struggle having been led into the Campaign for Democracy, CD, and the Joint Action Committee of Nigeria, JACON, by the radical Ladi Lawal leadership in the thick of the battles in 1993/94. Once we got elected into the exco on the banner of ‘Change ‘95’, we picked the gauntlet in 1995 and the struggle had to continue.
Early occupants of the cage were Chris Anyanwu(The Sunday Magazine – TSM), Ben Charles Obi (Weekend Classique), Gorge Mba (Tell) and Kunle Ajibade (The News). Others followed in flurry – Nosa Igiebor (Tell), Osa Director (Tell), Femi Ojudu (The News), George Onah (Vanguard), Bunmi Aborisade (June 12 magazine), Soji Omotunde (African Concord), Niran Malaolu (The Diet), Moshood Fayemiwo (Razor), etc. We fought their battles here and abroad.
Amnesty International adopted some as prisoners of conscience and the Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ and Repoters Sans Frontiers, RSF, spearheaded the mobilisation of the international media freedom and free expression community including the International Federation of Journalists, IFJ and the Kabral Amihere led West African Journalists Association, WAJA.
The escape into exile of Bunmi Aborisade leaving behind a pregnant wife and Dapo Olorunyomi, whose wife and three-month old baby were arrested as proxies when the security agents could not lay their hands on him to drag him before their instructors dead or alive, turned out a positive factor on the international front.
Working in both the National Concord and Vanguard newspapers at different points during the period, I knew what editors Frank Aigbogun and Nsikak Essien went through managing invitations or visits by security agents along with their newspapers. Some other editors and even publishers were traumatised. The likes of Olu Akerele and Frank Igwuebeze, journalists and personal assistants to MKO Abiola were equally of vital link to the Nigerian human rights and the international community especially during the later’s incarceration before he unfortunately died on July 7, 1998.
The struggles yielded desired results and in the thick of it, for example, I, as Lagos NUJ Chairman, secretly received Chris Anyanwu’s PEN International award on her behalf, kept it along with the donation and handed it over to her after she was released from prolonged detention. But we were also fighting our collective battles.
Outside the jails, which the Lagos NUJ cage symbolised, there were many other journalists in chains. Journalists working in The News/Tempo group and Tell magazine who had to go underground to consummate a marriage with guerrilla journalism following persistent murderous raids by armed military personnel.
Journalists working in the Concord group of Newspapers, The Punch and The Guardian, etc, who faced the ordeal of forced closures and job losses. The Guardian demonstrated courage in consistently referring to MKO Abiola as the presumed winner of the June 12 election and in the case of Concord it was particularly painful that the publications in the stable never made it back to the newsstands.
Beyond job losses, there were lost pensions and lost insurances with some dying in frustration. There were brutalities meted to reporters, editors and pho to journalists covering the series of protests. Painfully too, journalist Bagauda Kaltho became a martyr when he was bombed in Kaduna. The role played by the media in the June 12 struggle and the ultimate triumph over the military would make several volumes of books just like that of non-journalists like Chima Ubani, Beko Kuti, Gani Fawehinmi, Olisa Agbakoba, Fredrick Fasheun, Frank Kokori, Arthur Nwankwo, Shehu Sani, Femi Falana, Segun Sango, Uba Sani, Col. Umar Dangiwa, Anthony Enahoro – who I met and had prolonged conversation with on the way forward in the company of Dapo Olorunyomi and Femi Ojudu in New York in 1997 – among several others.
It can be no exaggeration to say that without the media, there would be no democracy in Nigeria today. Let the current wielders of power therefore be reminded of this fact so that they can know that their current battles against the media and free expression are a fight against history in which they will end on the losing side.
For that history records that the media will always survive governments no matter how tyrannical or dictatorial. On the media and spiritual fronts, I certainly belong to the Thomas Jefferson school of thought. On the former, he stated: “Were it left to me to decide if we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter” and on the later he said: “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God”.
*Arogundade, Executive Director of International Press Centre, IPC, Lagos Nigeria is a pro-democracy activist and former Chairman of Lagos NUJ.