Thursday, October 18, 2018 8:00 am
By Gbenga Alaketu
Twenty-One years gone. Just like that !
October 17, 1997 was a rainless Friday. Unusually dry for an October day in Lagos, Nigeria.
For those of us on the stable of Tempo magazine, Friday was more of a free day. For those less conversant with the historical struggle for democracy in Nigeria of 1990s, it’s not trite that we recall here the preeminent position of Tempo as the media anchor of the bruising campaign.
Every Thursday morning, the weekly publication hit the streets trenchantly proclaiming the wish of Nigerians that Dictator Sani Abacha and his co-sojourners, in the armed usurpation of our political rights, must pack and go.
That Friday , twenty-one years ago, nothing but enjoyment was on my mind. That’s, very satisfied the weekly patriotic message had , once more, been delivered effectively and the intended fire of confusion among the bruisers Of our national psyche was successfully ignited.
As I stepped out of the innocuous building that housed ICNL, publishers of The News, Tempo and PM News, fate confronted me at the gate and diverted my course from a destination of enjoyment to that of anxiety and sadness.
With my mind set on Sango Ota for the usual LaLe Friday, I caught the sight of Demola Abimboye sliding his famous Beetle car( RIP) into a parking space in front of the office on Ijaiye Road of the Lagos suburb of Ogba.
Straight away , I realised Ota was off the plan for that evening.
Yes, It was Demola Abimboye’s Birthday, the 39th anniversary of the day he came to be, somewhere in Edun Abon, a City in Nigeria’s State Of Osun.
Done with the ritual of congrrantulations, we settled for across the road on the ‘Tarmac’of the adjacent Shogunro Estate. Not very long, the whole space was packed, full of Demola’s friends and colleagues merrymaking in honour of our birthday boy.
Then, they came. As Fela would say, bringing sorrow and tears.
These harbingers of commotion came in form of three young men . One stood by my table and another took a position by Demola. The third stood few meters away in what appeared an operational survey.
The one by my side, threateningly pulled up his long shirt to reveal a shotgun in his hip pocket. He was definitely not from the tribe of our legendary armed robbers.
I was sure they were ‘friends’ from one of General Sani Abacha’s sundry security outfits.
The officer that stood by Demola’s table gently announced that they were there to arrest Demola and myself on ‘criminal investigations’.
The revellers , many of them young reporters and workers from the media industry, were courageously poised to confront these intruders.I shuddered in fear of the emerging bloody conflagration.
Demola quickly stood up and gently cautioned the angry young men and women. He smilingly assured them that we would be back, Very Soon.
Both of us were eventually heralded into a 505 Station wagon car on a journey that ended that night at the Security dungeon of Alagbon Close in Ikoyi, Lagos.
On the way to Alagbon, I pondered on how the two most senior staff were identified in the crowd. Months later, the Judas that aided the security goons was revealed as a colleague from a sister media organization.
We were just dumped in the notorious security yard without telling us our offence and possible next course of action . This psychological suspense accentuated my anger against a System that allowed this kind of abuse.
My anger simmered down when I discovered our co-inmates.
In that detention center were frontline warriors of the ProDemocracy group called NADECO. There were also many captains of the country’s banking industry.
A detained executive officer of the defunct Commerce Bank and Demola’s acquittance, took us to Dr. Frederick Fasehun , a member of NADECO and founder of Oodua Peoples Congress, OPC.
Dr Fasheun took to us to the cell room of Chief Olu Falaye .
Chief Falaye assured that we would be released very soon. His assurance was based on the foreign pressure that would attend the arrest of journalists.
We talked about many things concerning the political developments in the country.
The following morning came and our captors arrived for us. We were told the authorities wanted us in Abuja.
We were again loaded into the back seat of the Station wagon on the way to Abuja.
The journey was uneventful until we got to the River Niger Bridge at Lokoja. Our captors ordered the driver to stop, right on the bridge . Two of them disembarked, peeped menacingly at us and uttered some words I will dreadfully take to my grave.
“What if we throw you into this river now” They chorused . Eventually, they spared us and the journey continued
But the few minutes we spent that day on the bridge seemed an eternity with my heart hanging in the void.
So much so that fifteen years later, when I was diagnosed as suffering High Blood Pressure problem , the natural impulse was to trace it to that few minutes on the Niger Bridge.
We safely got to Abuja and luckily, our captors did not take us to Al-Mustapha’s den in Aso Villa. We were locked up on the 3rd or 5th floor of the Police Force Headquarters in then budding Federal Capital. That was on Saturday night.
By Sunday evening, we got back our freedom. By Monday morning we were in Lagos .
By the Evening of the same Monday , we were back at the point of our arrest to continue the birthday celebration.
Idowu Obasa, General Manager at ICNL, expressly thought we were carelessly endangering our life by going back to the place of our arrest. My response was that the most effective way to conquer fear is to dare it in it’s den.
This experience was to prove a baptism and a forerunner of what to come.
As the domestic and foreign pressure piled, the regime of General Abacha became frightened, threatened and desperate.
The dictator’s response was to clamp down on progressive media houses. Our administrative offices , Newsroom and Press were invaded and occupied by armed soldiers and police.
Reporters and administrative officers were seized and clamped in jails across the country.
By that time Kunle Ajibade, the executive editor was in in prison , convicted by a military tribunal for planning a military coup !
Ojudu Babafemi , Managing Editor, was caught and locked up without charges . Bayo Onanuga, the editor-in chief was eventually run out of the country. Idowu Obasa was forced underground.
The goal of the rampaging agents of the dictator was to cripple the company’s operations. Fate again saved Demola and I to continue the struggle.
Demola held fort at The News and I led the young editorial soldiers at Tempo.
Babajide Kolade-Otitoju’s gigantic effort kept PM News going. Beecroft Adedeji Adedamola turned a mobile administrative office, combining the jobs of Accountant and Distribution manager.
Our meeting points were were eating and drinking joints across the outer suburbs of Lagos . We were able to turn the inherent hazards into excitement. General Abacha died and his own genre of dictatorship fizzled out.
Our incarcerated colleagues were released with the exception of Bagauda Katho, believed to have died in detention.
Meanwhile, let’s celebrate our today’s birthday boy. Demooo, this is wishing you more fruitful years on earth