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Remembering the dark days of military rule

Remembering the dark days of military rule
March 30
23:30 2024

Two weeks ago, armed men invaded the Lagos home of Mr Segun Olatunji, editor of FirstNews, grabbed him, loaded him onto a vehicle and sped off. There was no warrant of arrest, as you would expect in a democracy, or a word to his family on what his offence was. There was no information on where he was being taken. The newspaper issued press release upon press release raising the alarm, but there was no response from any quarters: the military, the police, the DSS, or even Boys Brigade. Sadly, only sections of the mainstream media gave prominent coverage to this disturbing development — after all, Olatunji is only a journalist, not a politician or billionaire. The irony!

The military authorities played dumb for long. It took a dogged move by the International Press Institute (IPI) Nigeria, under the leadership of Mr Musikilu Mojeed, the editor-in-chief of Premium Times, to uncover the fact that Olatunji was seized by men of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA). If Olatunji, reportedly asthmatic, had suffered a medical crisis on the way and died, his body could have been fed to alligators and we would be here asking “Where is Segun Olatunji?” until the world comes to an end. The military would never claim responsibility. In a country where kidnapping is two for one kobo, how can you pick up someone without disclosing who you are and what you want?

I hope criminals will not imitate this method and leave us guessing if it is the military authorities at it again. If journalists who have voice and institutions behind them can be treated like this, imagine what will happen to an average Joe. This dangerous development must be thoroughly investigated. Whoever is culpable must be brought to book. It is extremely dangerous for the security agencies to be picking up people in a Gestapo manner. This must not become the norm. If a journalist has committed an infraction, due process must be followed in terms of invitation, arrest and trial. Journalists are not above the law, but they should also not be treated without respect for the law.

Olatunji is lucky to be alive. He was lucky that the military finally admitted that he was in their custody and released him thereafter. When Nigeria was under military rule, the story might have been completely different. Mr Chinedu Offoaro, a reporter with The Guardian, disappeared one weekend in May 1996 and never returned. No dead body has been found till this day. I remember attending a prayer meeting organised by The Guardian seeking his safe return. Till today, we know nothing about his fate. We presume he is dead because that is the only sane thing to do under the circumstance. But how can you ever heal and come to closure when all you have is presumption?

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In the heyday of His Royal Madness, Gen Sani Abacha, media houses were shut down or bombed with glee. I still tease my wife that she would never have agreed to marry me if we had met under military rule. Journalists and activists were routinely harassed, arrested, tortured or killed. Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, wife of Bashorun MKO Abiola, was killed by Abacha’s goons in daylight. Her killers were reportedly asked to rape her first (they allegedly got a pittance of N50,000 for not following the order to the letter). Pa Alfred Rewane, a 79-year-old businessman, was assassinated on the suspicion that he was funding the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), the leading pro-democracy group.

In 1995, Abacha said there was a coup plot against him, led by Col Lawan Gwadabe. Abacha rounded up dozens of suspects and set up the special investigation panel (SIP), led by Gen Patrick Aziza, for preliminary interrogations. TheNews magazine reported that the suspects had been exonerated by the panel. Thereafter, soldiers invaded the magazine’s office at Omole, Lagos, in search of Mr Bayo Onanuga (now presidential adviser) and Mr Dapo Olorunyomi (now publisher of Premium Times). They were not around. Mr Kunle Ajibade, the most senior editor around, instantly became unfortunate. He was arrested, charged with coup plotting and sentenced to life imprisonment.

I will never forget the tragic case of Bagauda Kaltho, a journalist at TheNews at the time of the phantom coup. He disappeared in 1996. We suspected that it might have to do with the cover story on the Aziza Panel as he was one of those who contributed to the report. Kaltho’s friends and family lived in suspense for years. The next thing we heard from Mr Zakari Biu, head of Abacha’s anti-terror squad, sometime in 1998 — two years after Kaltho had gone missing — was that Kaltho had died while trying to plant a bomb at Durbar Hotel, Kaduna. Kaltho was cast as an agent of NADECO who died from mishandling that bomb. All our follow-up questions went unanswered or ignored.

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When the Durbar incident happened on January 18, 1996, the then Kaduna deputy commissioner of police, Alhaji Umaru Suleiman, had said the “bomber” was burnt beyond recognition. “Anyone who tells you that the body can be identified is lying,” he said emphatically. However, a picture of Kaltho’s corpse that was shown to us by Biu two years later was highly recognisable: no burns on his face. The late Mr. Young Arabamen, then police PRO, dismissed our questions with contempt: “There is no contradiction… Suleiman’s statement was on-the-spot assessment while what Biu told the country is a full-scale investigation which himself and his team carried out… you don’t wallow in speculation.”

Before Abacha, Nigerian journalists lived through the dictatorships of Gen Muhammadu Buhari and Gen Ibrahim Babangida. For instance, in 1984, The Guardian reported an exclusive story on ambassadorial postings. Mr Nduka Irabor and Mr Tunde Thompson, who authored the story, were arrested. While cooling their feet in detention, the Buhari government quickly enacted Decree No 4 (Protection of Public Officers Against False Accusations) and jailed them. Although Babangida abolished Decree No 4 when he came to power in 1985, no government closed down more media houses than his own “liberal” government — but Abacha surpassed him in attacks and killings.

The military era was when those who disagreed with government policies were classified as “radicals”. Dr Patrick Wilmot, a Jamaican academic who taught sociology at the ABU, Zaria, was deported for his political views. Chief Gani Fawehinmi, the legendary social crusader, was arrested and detained times without number. He was once arrested in Lagos at night, taken by road to Gashua (Yobe state), and detained in the nation’s oldest and hottest prison cell. By the way, Gashua by road was a 24-hour trip. Defenceless Nigerians were mowed down on the streets for protesting over harsh economic conditions. Maybe we need to be reminded of these military evils every now and then.

Whenever I hear some Nigerians canvass for a return to military rule, I pinch myself to be sure I am awake. Some people are eternally bitter over the 2023 presidential election and think the solution to their problem is a coup. “If I won’t have it, let no one else do!” The coup campaign was so loud that the military hierarchy had to deny plotting one. I would not have cared about the coup baiters if it was just the social media generation who were high on the initial smoke emanating from Niger Republic, but I became alarmed when my contemporaries and those far older than I am started entertaining the thought. God is so kind that he doesn’t allow us to retain memories of pain forever.

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What I have recounted today, triggered by the unlawful arrest and detention of Olatunji, are the events pertaining mostly to the media under military rule. I can write a whole book on how activists were tortured, how protesters were massacred with evidence of dead bodies riddled with bullets, and how the general populace was subjected to perpetual fear, anxiety and humiliation by the jackboots. If we retain memories of pain, no right-thinking person will seek a return to military rule, not even as a joke. They are not in power and are still assaulting our rights so brutally. If they can do this under democracy, imagine what they will do if they are fully in charge and their word is law.

Someone said if the military were in power, we would have conquered Boko Haram, banditry and oil theft long ago. Not so fast. Mali has been under military rule since 2021 and Burkina Faso since 2022. Militants are still operating massively over there. Niger Republic recently lost dozens of soldiers. One of the many justifications for the coups in these countries was that the civilian governments could not contain insecurity, in addition to harsh economic conditions. But are their citizens safer, richer and freer today? More so, who is fighting insurgents and bandits in Nigeria? Is it not the military? What would they do differently if they were in power? Level up communities with nuclear bombs?

I often hear a barbaric statement made by many otherwise respected Nigerians that we need a “Jerry Rawlings” to come and kill all Nigerian leaders, past and present. In 1979, Rawlings, an air force officer, seized power in Ghana and executed eight military officers and three former heads of state for corruption. Some say, unabashedly, that this is what Nigeria needs to do to be able to fight corruption — as if the Nigerian coup leaders will be saints. You would be forced to think corruption has ended in Ghana or that Ghana has become Singapore because of the mass executions. This warped street logic has curtailed the ability of otherwise intelligent Nigerians to think rationally.

There is no doubt that our democracy has not delivered the desired dividends to the majority of Nigerians since the return to civil rule in 1999. We are still soaked in poverty and disease. We are struggling daily to get a few hours of power supply. We are clearly in the grip of insecurity, north and south. Public infrastructure is still in a dire state everywhere. Frauds and scams in government are getting bigger by the day. All these problems and challenges are enough to frustrate Nigerians. I myself am frustrated. But before 1999, the military ruled Nigeria for 29 out of 39 post-Independence years and the country was not exactly El Dorado, neither was the system free of corruption.

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This is my message to the coup baiters: the military can never be the solution to our problems, no matter the fantasy in your heads. We have been ruled by them before. Countries currently being ruled by the military have not become better than Nigeria. Our first instinct should be to protect and promote our democracy. It has a self-cleansing mechanism which we must engage with in our quest for a better Nigeria. We should never seek a return to the era when our civil liberties were trampled upon, and when we had no right to seek redress. Our democracy, despite its failings and ailments, still gives us a voice. We don’t have to lose it before we value it. Thank God, Olatunji returned alive.

AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…

BACK TO SCHOOL

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The 137 schoolchildren abducted in Kuriga, Kaduna state, were freed last week after 18 days in captivity. Governor Uba Sani, who had been under intense pressure since the abductions, can now breathe easy. The Uba Sani Foundation has promised the children scholarships up to university level and pledged to renovate their schools. There was controversy over the actual figure of those kidnapped — initial reports said 287 — and there are conspiracy theories here and there, as there were when the Chibok schoolgirls were abducted 10 years ago. My own interest is always to rejoice with the parents and guardians who were more than glad to be reunited with their wards. Cheers!

EXCLUSION ZONE

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I was fascinated by the decision of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) to shut down a KFC outlet at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, for discriminating against a passenger on wheelchair. Mr Debola Daniel was denied entry by a member of KFC staff who told him blatantly that wheelchairs were not allowed. Daniel was disgracefully treated. I am glad this high-profile experience has mainstreamed the issue of inclusion. However, I don’t think shutting down the business is the right response, although Nigerians love knee-jerk sanctions. A fine and a demand for apology would be okay, followed by a compulsory training on inclusion to educate businesses. Civil.

FELICITATING FAYE

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It always feels special whenever a young African ascends to power. I am happy for Bassirou Diomaye Faye, the president-elect of Senegal. He is just 44. This should offer African youths hope that they can end the era of gerontocrats on the continent. Also, Senegal has proved yet again that a well-organised African opposition can defeat the ruling party without whingeing. But when the euphoria dies down, Faye will have to face the task ahead: tackling poverty, disease and unemployment. It is not just about cutting ties with France — as some of his emergency supporters are goading him to do — but improving the quality of life of his people. This will require a bit more tact and thinking. Focus.

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If I were Mr Peter Obi, the man who popularised the Labour Party in the 2023 general election, I would be borrowing from the Tinubu playbook by now. In 2006, Tinubu, then governor of Lagos state, got his associates to quietly register the Action Congress (AC) on sensing that his opponents had infiltrated the Alliance for Democracy (AD). AC later co-founded the All Progressives Congress (APC). The LP has entered into a prolonged crisis, culminating in an open war between its leadership and that of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), which founded the party in 2002. When NLC’s foot soldiers picketed LP’s secretariat recently, they were accused of stealing staff salaries. Wonderful.

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