Columns

June 24, 2024

Arise O Compatriots, Nigeria, We Hail Thee, by Owei Lakemfa

Arise O Compatriots, Nigeria, We Hail Thee, by Owei Lakemfa

IT was a bit of an emotional period for me when names of people who fought for democracy kept popping up in the Democracy Week. It was quite good hearing from the family of Mr Alao Aka-Bashorun, Father of the Nigerian Pro-Democracy Movement. He led many, including lawyers, against the rapacious regimes of Babangida, Shonekan and Abacha. Aka-Bashorun watched over the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC; the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU; and generations of radicals like a protective mother hen.

Also, hearing from the family of Dr Fredrick Fasehun was quite moving. When elements of the Abacha gang bombed the convoy of then Lagos State Military Governor Buba Marwa behind the Sheraton Hotel, the regime blamed it on Fasehun. For this, he was held in isolation in an underground cell at the Ikoyi Cemetery. He told me that his most traumatic experiences were the three occasions a notorious secret security agent named Abdulrahman carried out his fake executions, rolling bullets in his gun barrel.

One day, I got the good news from Fasehun that he had been moved to the notorious Criminal Investigation Department, Alagbon, Ikoyi. It meant he would be able to interact with other detainees and, we could have access to him.

When I visited, Fasehun wanted me to help nurture a militia, the Oodua Peoples’ Congress, OPC, he had established before his detention. Quite a number of them, including later leader, Chief Gani Adams, were our cadres in the Campaign for Democracy, CD.

I was quite familiar with three of the OPC co-founders, people who today, are virtually unknown. There was Iya Ijebu, a stoic elderly woman and, Baba Oja, an elderly market leader both from the Babalola Market, Mushin. You will imagine these were not their real names. But any day, they helped to hold the Mushin/Isolo axis in any pro-democracy protests or shut down of roads and businesses. The third was Tony Engurube who had vast knowledge in mass mobilisation and underground cell work both in Sweden and Nigeria. He had been detained by the Gowon regime in the mid- 1970s for making public the salaries of the Armed Forces following wage reviews. Engurube who later fell sick and passed on in Dr Fasehun’s Besthope Hospital, Lagos, was the Father of armed militancy in the Niger Delta.

There is Akanni Iromini. In those days before the age of the internet, one of our major ways of communication with the populace was through leaflets, handbills and posters. Any of these found on a person meant instant detention without trial. It could also lead to disappearance. Yet, they were always in circulation nationwide. It required a lot of courage, tact and good luck to move them across the country.

 Unfortunately, the secret services discovered one of our major printers, Mr Akani Iromini. That was the beginning of his spells of detention. His printing press and means of livelihood were destroyed. Despite these, he continued in the struggle against military dictatorship. Today, somewhere in bustling Lagos, Akani Iromini is battling with ill-health and desperately in need of assistance.

Iromini and I also belonged to a group that campaigned for the release of political prisoners, visiting their families and bringing them together for various activities. It was symbolically named after the Campaign for Democracy, CD, President, Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti who had been sentenced to life imprisonment. In those days, belonging to such an organisation was considered treasonable.

In the group were three fantastic lawyers: Nike Ransome-Kuti, Tope Egunjobi and the quite reserved Jide Bello. Also in the organisation was Dr Bosede Afolabi, now Professor of Gynaecology dedicated to drastically reducing childbearing, sickle cell and maternal mortality. There was also Muhtar Bakare then of Citibank, and later, publisher of Farafina Books. There were also Messrs Femi Ojudu and Uba Sani, later Senators. The latter, today, is the Governor of Kaduna State.

We were daring. For instance, we penetrated the Agodi Maximum Prisons to lift up the low spirit of Ben Charles Obi, a journalist who had been sentenced to life imprisonment. Obi’s aged mother was his dependant, the magazine ‘Classique’ he worked for was dead, as was its publisher, Mrs Mee Mofe-Damijo. So he felt virtually alone in the world. As a political prisoner, he had no visiting rights, so Nike had to disguise as an evangelising priest to get to him at the prisons.

Sometimes we were lucky. We once held a reception for the children of political detainees at the Excellence Hotel Ogba. We sent out different venues and time. By the time the regime realised where we were and sent armed contingents of the police to stop the programme, it was over. Sometimes, we faced rejection. For instance, we once organised a birthday programme for incarcerated Chief Moshood Abiola and the family locked us and our guests out. We once visited Mrs Stella Obasanjo whose husband, later President Olusegun Obasanjo, was in prison. Those around her pointedly refused us access. They did not want her to be associated with us.

We felt some urgency when General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua died or was killed in the Abakaliki Prisons on December 8, 1997. The group was particularly worried about the safety of incarcerated CD Vice Chairman, Comrade Shehu Sani, who had been taken to the Abia State University Teaching Hospital, ABSUTH, by prison officials.

So, we organised a publicised special programme and photo exhibition for political prisoners and their families. The Abacha regime was determined that the programme should not hold. It sent armed police men and the security services around the streets adjoining the venue which was Beko’s house on Imaria Street, Anthony Village, Lagos. Also, a helicopter hovered overhead, in intimidating fashion. But in a move that boosted our confidence and ensured the programme held, then United States Ambassador, Walter Carrington, gathered and led a convoy of ambassadors with flags flying. The regime lost its nerve and allowed the convoy through. As the programme wore on, the helicopter noise was disturbing. In the midst of it all, a child was busy, playing with the telephone handset and placing it on her ear as if making a phone call. It was an award-deserving photograph which we widely circulated. That child was Ebube, daughter of incarcerated journalist, George Mbah.

The heroes of democracy in our country are mainly those unnamed or virtually unknown. They include Mrs Suliat Adededeji, murdered on November 14, 1996 in her Iyaganku, Ibadan home; and Ms Rebecca Onyabi Ikpe, sentenced to 25 years imprisonment for exposing the lie that was the claimed 1995 coup attempt. There is also the journalist, Mrs Ladi Olorunyomi, thrice detained at the notorious Directorate of Military Intelligence, and the hundreds killed in pro-Democracy struggles, with many buried in unmarked graves.