Reminiscences: For Olisa Agbakoba and the Human Rights Campaigners

Olisa Agbakoba


Olisa Agbakoba

By Babafemi Ojudu

I am writing this a bit late as my June 12 tribute to Olisa Agbakoba. I read a short piece written on Olisa by my good friend Richard Akinnola on his Facebook page in commemoration of the heroes of June 12. Olisa deserves this and more . Today I am adding my voice to appreciate this great lawyer and man of conscience.

It is incontrovertible that Olisa was a pioneer or one of the pioneers of human rights campaign in Nigeria. He and his colleagues set up the Civil Liberties Organisation ( CLO ) . The group worked very hard and conscientiously too to popularize the agenda. I feel it is a good thing at this time of his birthday and celebration of June 12 to drop this short piece about this Olisa Agbakoba, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria ( SAN ) , that I know.

I remember attending one or two meetings at inception of the Civil Liberties Organisation ( CLO ) championed by Olisa.

Somehow I didn’t quite join the group but in the reporting of the group’s activities in the publications I worked in then I and my colleagues contributed a great deal to further the cause of the group and that of human rights in Nigeria. It was through this period my path and that of Olisa crossed.

While I admired Olisa , his group and the other participants in that group such Richard, Abdul Oroh and Mrs Ayo Obe, I collaborated with Dr Beko Ransome Kuti, Femi Falana and Lance Arogundade to establish Committee for the Defence of Human Rights ( CDHR ) .

I egiyiActivist Femi Aborisade was arrested by the military authorities and detained. We came together and said this must not be allowed to stand. Aborishade must be freed. We came up with the organization Free Femi Aborisade Movement. We had a couple of meetings, issued press statements and printed leaflets. We didn’t stop at that we planned a trip to visit Aborishade’s parents in their village somewhere in Oke Ogun, Oyo State. It was myself, Falana and Beko.

Beko was on the wheels in his ever reliable Volvo( more about Beko and his Volvo in my autobiography). We drove the almost five to six hours trip chatting and nibbling on sandwiches brought along by Beko and downing it with black coffee. As usual Beko never stopped poisoning our lungs with the perpetual smoke coming from his cigarettes.
It was in the course of our chit chatting on this trip we came to the conclusion that since there are many other Nigerians being daily arrested by the military authorities and since we were also potential victims we should rather than setting up campaigns to free individuals set up a body to campaign for the right of all whose rights are trampled upon by the then government. This we concluded should include social as well as economic rights.

Babafemi Ojudu

That was how we came up with CDHR. Our first activity was a gathering in Beko’s living room at 8, Imaria Street, Anthony Village. We brought in the University of Lagos law professor, Akin Oyebode to deliver a lecture and he titled his talk They Shall Not Pass. Subsequently a number of friends colleagues and activists joined us. Dr Balogun was among other medical practitioners Beko brought on board. I also invited my friend and fellow journalist, Sam Omatseye to become a member. I think he later emerged our secretary as well pioneer editor of our occasional publication My Right. Falana too brought in a couple of young lawyers and student activists who all played a great role in popularizing our activities then. Prominent among them was late Bamidele Aturu. When the government of Ibrahim Babangida introduced the destructive Structural Adjustment Program ( SAP) this students mobilized to resist it across the country. It was a prelude to the June 12 struggles. Many lives were lost and several were arrested detained and tortured.
I remember smuggling myself and a photographer ( Idowu Ogunleye ) into the mortuary in central Lagos under the guise of searching for a missing relative. Idowu secretly snapped away (while I provided cover) at the piles of bodies on ground in the mortuary.

I think I am digressing as this piece is more about Olisa than the evolution of human rights campaign under the military regime in the 80s and 90s.

Olisa played a very significant role in the struggle of those days. He displayed courage and resilience in the face of tyranny. In spite of his comfort as a successful lawyer and a background of silver spoon , he threw himself into the campaign without caring about the risk and danger involved.

Now a personal testimony. I was arrested by the Abacha junta in November 1997. I was processed in Badagry, Shangisha, Awolowo Road Ikoyi before being dumped at the Intercenter by the Ikoyi Cemetery.

After some months at the Intercenter I was moved back to the Awolowo Road for reasons I have not been able to fathom till today. There on Awolowo Road one night I heard a loud argument between a new detainee and the jailers. From the voice I heard I knew that was Agbakoba. He sounded like a lion newly brought into a new enclave . He roared and barked, abusing and cursing his jailers. I later learnt the day after that this detainee refused to eat only smoking his cigarettes and drinking water. Quite often from the loneliness of my cell I overheard him in heated argument with Mrs Adokie, the head of the jailers supervises then by Zakari Biu. Olisa never gave her a breather . They argued and shouted at each other day and night as the woman visited to inspect the cells.

The atmosphere in the facility was charged. Olisa will not give his jailers an inch. He protested every condition in the cell. I was in solitary confinement while he was kept among some other detainees in a bigger space within the facilities. I kept squeezing out information from the jailers who fed us . I coyly demanded to know what the problem was about. I was even told when he was taken to his house for a search, Olisa’s wife was not sparing in her contempt for the woman.

Ojudu after his release from detention in 1998

It was not long when our ‘bush radio’ informed me that Olisa protested that unless and until the cost of feeding us was reviewed upward he would rather fast and refuse to eat till he die. That went on for close to a week. We began to feel individually and collectively that a leader to mobilize a revolt has come. Our part crossed one or twice early morning when we were taken out in the open to pour water on our body using some disused cars as cover. Olisa also refused to bath under that condition. In his mild stammer he said then, “Me ? Bath here? You must be crazy.” He refused to bath in the open.

On occasions we exchanged winks and thumbs up. Suddenly I was told he has been moved out of the facility but not without a benefit to some of us left behind.

Because of his heroic sacrifice and protest our feeding allowance was increased from N40 a day to N90. We however continued to bath in the open, women and men alike, as there was no provision for a bathroom in the facility.

Talking about our meal it used to be N20 per meal and we were served breakfast and dinner. One of the guards come to you in the morning, ask what you will like to have for breakfast. “Buy me N10 bread , N5 akara ( bean cake ) and the rest buy pure water with “, you say. That was about the time water in sealed nylon container was just invented.
For dinner you had a choice of N10 Eba and N10 beef or you could choose rice. The meat always came tasting rotten. Not only was the food meager, it often came fridge cold before they are served. Sometimes you forgo meat or a meal to buy panadol or malaria medication or soap to bath or to watch your cloth.

Talking about washing cloth what you do is when taken out to bath at about 5.00 am you remove your top, wash it and spread out to dry. Later in the night it is brought in to you. The following morning you remove the trouser and wash while you put on the top. That was how I managed to wear a caftan for close to nine months. The caftan got weak and torn in some parts and is now an exhibit in a museum of news ( Newseum ) in the epicenter of Washington DC.

Olisa’s struggle and personal sacrifice brought about the alleviation of our situation a great deal. N90 a day became a lot. You could now even ask for fruit or a bottle of soft drink; you could have a store of gari and groundnut in your cell for when you are hungry between breakfast and dinner. Men, those were harrowing days and moments.

Olisa exhibited leadership where others failed. Some were brought in and all you heard was their singing like kannaries on who and who was responsible for what. I was so disgusted by the ‘ singing’ tendencies of one of the leaders that I had to send messages to him to shut up his mouth. Even some of the guards were shocked and embarrassed at some of the information volunteered that they appealed to me to caution him.

Olisa was rock solid. The facility shook to its foundation when he was brought in. He took up leadership and exhibited those traits of a leader that made people want to follow and die for them.

I guess to forestall a rebellion, the facility’s manager thought it fit to quickly take him away and reallocate him somewhere else.

When Abacha died he was among the first batch of detainees to be released. I happened to be the last. Why that was so I can guess and that will be in my book.

About a month after Abacha was dead , and Abiola killed, I was the only one left in the facility in solitary confinement. I fell ill. A female doctor was asked to see me . After taking my blood pressure and pulse she got emotional and I saw tears dropped from her eyes. I sensed that something terrible was about happening to me . She however assured me after noticing my concern. She immediately ordered my evacuation to a military hospital. Before I left, I cajoled and persuaded one of the guards to get me pen and paper to draft my will. He did and I told him to find a way to take it to Olisa who I learnt then had regained his freedom.
By the way, I was moved to the military hospital in Ikoyi with legs and hands chained to the bed like a criminal.

When my note got to Olisa he got in touch with Tola , my wife. Both of them addressed a press conference the following day and the papers ran my story on the front pages the day after and that began the beginning of my journey out of prison.


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