By Wale Adebanwi
Three passions—to paraphrase Bertrand Russell—strong and overwhelmingly propelling, have governed Babafemi Ojudu’s public life: a longing for democratic freedom, a passionate and dissident craving for public affairs reportage, and the pursuit of the creation of an egalitarian society in Nigeria.
The three passions are differently illustrated but also merge in the story that I will tell about the journalist, activist and politician whose concern about, as well as consternation at, the failure of his fatherland to fulfil her manifest destiny has driven him to causes and courses that could have consumed him life. Though he survived, that longing for freedom, that craving for investigative distinction in the course of democratic life and the commitment to the creation of an open and welfarist society, robbed him of his freedom under military rule and traumatised him for many years.
Now to the story.
After seizing power in November 1994, Nigeria’s most brutal and corrupt military dictator, General Sani Abacha, imposed a tyrannical rule. However, he faced a determined opposition led in part by the radical press which was forced by circumstances to transform into a guerrilla press. One of the major institutions of the guerilla press was TheNEWS magazine edited by some of the most imaginative and boldest journalists in Nigeria’s history: Bayo Onanuga, Dapo Olorunyomi, Babafemi Ojudu and Kunle Ajibade. As the managing editor of TheNEWS, Ojudu was on the ‘wanted’ list of the Abacha security network. Yet, he and the others continued as if their lives and freedom were not at stake.
In the course of this struggle against dictatorship, Ojudu, who was returning to Nigeria on a visit to the United States, decided to stop over in the United Kingdom to see Senator Bola Tibunu, who, along with some other pro-democracy activists, was in exile in the UK. When they met, Tinubu told Ojudu about a “hot exclusive” he had in his possession. The ever curious journalist was interested. The man who would later become the governor of Lagos State had become aware of a colossal financial scandal involving the murderous regime in Nigeria. As a prodemocracy activist and one of those who invested in TheNEWS enterprise, Tinubu had both political and quasi-journalistic interest in the “scoop”. A certain lawyer in London, he learned, had a load of information on how Abacha was stealing Nigeria dry and buying property in France, Germany and elsewhere. He was ready to talk in the strictest confidence to Tinubu about it. When Tinubu went to see him, he knew he needed some evidence about the promised revelations, since he suspected that the source would not be willing to give him the relevant documents. Also, he suspected that his memory might falter in recalling all the details. He therefore decided to do something radical, if not rascally. He transformed himself into an emergency newshound and therefore hid a midget tape-recorder in his pocket when he met the source.
As Tinubu played the tape of the revelatory and explosive details provided about the Abachas to Ojudu, the latter was already thinking of how to pursue this further and get a cover story out if it for the TheNEWS. But Tinubu insisted that he will not release the tape. He asked Ojudu to write down the details. However, the journalist was not satisfied; he wanted the tape for full transcription and as “evidence” to convince his colleagues in Nigeria. Later, Tinubu advised against publishing the story. He enjoined Ojudu to “forget about it,” as publishing such intricate and super-secret money laundering deal by a raving military despot could spell death for the journalist. But Ojudu was beyond fear; what mattered most was unveiling Abacha’s grand theft and helping to disgrace him out of power in the hope of returning Nigeria to democratic rule while ensuring the creating of a developmental state that served the common interest.
If it had taken a puckish method for the Senator to record the details of Abacha’s grand larceny, it would take an equally impish means by the future Senator to liberate the tape off his senior friend so that the Nigerian public could know more about the criminal actions perpetrated against them by their maximum ruler. In spite of Tinubu, Ojudu left for Nigeria with the tape. For the latter, the public’s right to know had triumphed over Tinubu’s disinclination and his own awareness of the dangers to his life represented by the plan to expose Abacha’s thievery.
Once he got to Nigeria, Ojudu called his colleague, Onanuga, to tell him about the “hot story” he brought back from London. They did some background checks and added other perspectives to the story. Despite the dangers, it was the cover story of TheNEWS of 10 November, 1997. Nigerians reacted sharply to the revelations. TheNEWS was commended for the “investigative genius” that produced the story as well as the rare courage to publish it.
However, by this time, Abacha’s murderous gang had started a series of public and private executions of the regime’s opponents. The previous year, Abiola’s wife, the delectable and courageous Kudirat Abiola, had been cowardly executed on the streets of Lagos on 9 June 1996. The year before that, the patriarch of the pro-democracy movement, Alfred Rewane, had been silenced in his home by Abacha’s thugs. Abacha’s spate of murderous actions, in addition to the vast gulag that he had created for the opposition all over the country, could have scared less valiant men against publishing such grave allegations against him, but not Ojudu and his colleagues.
After the publication, through one of the newsmagazine’s well-placed sources in intelligence circles, Ojudu and Onanuga were informed about how livid Abacha was over the cover story. The two were told to “disappear” because Abacha had ordered their assassination. By this time, their two other colleagues, Dapo Olorunyomi and Kunle Ajibade had been forced into exile or jailed on spurious charges by Abacha, respectively. Just about the time the news of Abacha’s threat reached them, Ojudu got an invitation from the Freedom Forum in the United States to participate in a programme in Kenya. Journalists all over the world were to attend the gathering and Ojudu was expected to address them on the problems facing journalists in Abacha’s Gulag. Ojudu knew he could not dare to go through the airports, so he promised to attend if he was able to get out through what had become the “NADECO Route” – the illegal alleyways and borders through which opposition elements crossed to the neighbouring Republic of Benin.
Ojudu got through to Accra from where he boarded a flight to Kenya. In Kenya, the editor told the gathering about the perilous state of journalism practice in Nigeria and the siege that Abacha had laid against the radical press and free expression. He articulated the immediate backdrop to this, which was the struggle to end military rule, so as to return Nigeria to democratic rule. While he was there, news came that Onome Osifo-Whiskey, the managing editor of TELL, had been arrested in Nigeria. That evening, officials of the Freedom Forum met with Ojudu to review the situation in Nigeria. Their conclusion, which he agreed with, was that, if he returned to Nigeria, he would be arrested and may be killed. They made him an offer. Since he had a United States’ visa, he should go with them to the US from where they could send him to their office in Hong Kong to wait Abacha out. Ojudu appreciated the kind gesture but rejected the offer. He knew the dangers but was sure that if he was able to slip into Nigeria through the illegal routes, he would survive Abacha. At any rate, he could not abandon his colleagues fighting against Abacha in Nigeria without reviewing with them the dangers of his continued presence there. The night before he left Kenya for home via Accra, he sent a few mails to friends in Europe and America warning them that he was journeying into danger. When he landed in Accra, he also met and had discussions with the Chairman of the Ghanaian Union of Journalists who was also ready to help. The Ghanaian was also certain that Ojudu would be arrested in Nigeria. The editor again reassured his colleague that if he managed to get into the country, he would evade arrest….
But he never made it to Nigeria on his own terms in November 1997. As he drank his own urine when he risked dying from dehydration in the SSS detention centre some months later, Ojudu replayed in his mind the errors of his assumption of continued circumvention of Abacha security network and the ill-advised decision to take the normal route. It is a long story of fate which included unfortunate experiences with the means of transportation from Ghana to Togo and Republic of Benin and then to Nigeria. He had been spotted by Abacha’s intelligence officers during the journey across the three countries and therefore when he crossed into Nigerian territory, the vehicle he travelled in was double-crossed as he was arrested.
He ended up less than 24 hours later in the State Security Service’s notorious detention centre in the middle of a cemetery in Ikoyi. It was Abacha’s birthday on 17 November, 1997 when Ojudu was arrested. He would never be free again — until Abacha perished in his lair the following June.
But Ojudu’s expectation of freedom after Abacha’s death was not to be consummated for several weeks. His health had deteriorated terribly. Other detainees were going home, but not him. When was he going home? No one could say. While news filtered into the detention centre about political negotiations in the immediate post-Abacha era, Ojudu was as desperate for freedom as he was desperate for the restoration of his health. His health worsened still. At a point, his captors brought a lady doctor to examine him. The doctor broke into tears after the examination. Ojudu was bewildered. What did she discover? That he would die soon? She only volunteered that her patient had a low blood count, typhoid and one other disease that the “patient” had never heard of. She recommended some drugs, but promised to buy them herself and get them to Ojudu. The detainee was convinced that the doctor knew something she was not telling; perhaps he would die soon.
He asked a “warder” for pen and paper to write his will. It was more a testament to his willpower than the fact that he had much to leave behind for anyone who survived him. Anyhow, he smuggled the will out to his wife who he asked to hand it over to Olisa Agbakoba, the lawyer and former President of the of the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), who was Ojudu’s cellmate at some point in detention. When Agbakoba got the will, he called a press conference to tell the world that despite the slew of releases carried out by the succeeding General Abdulsalami Abubakar regime, Ojudu was still languishing in jail. It turned out that the Abacha regime had lied to the world through the Pope when he visited Nigeria by adding Ojudu’s name to the list of released detainees as a gesture of “goodwill” to the Papacy. Therefore, officially, he was already free.
When it was confirmed that Ojudu was still in jail, an order was given by the new military leader for his immediate release. By the time he was set free, the editor had already grown a bushy beard in eight months of confinement. He was dishevelled and dying. He had worn the same clothes for eight months. Ojudu was only allowed to brush his mouth in the last two months on his eight month detention. When he returned home, his family and landlord could hardly recognize him. In a couple of hours, he had to be rushed to the hospital….
This story is just one among many that speak to Babafemi Ojudu’s sacrifices in the service of journalism, freedom and fatherland. His icy determination, dissident temperament and strong work ethic, his capacity to build bridges and create amazing networks, and his commitment to good causes and invigorating steadfastness in the tortuous journey of progressive politics in Nigeria are all connected to his abiding trust in the possibilities of egalitarian rule in Nigeria. Senator Ojudu comes from a long tradition of human possibilities through egalitarian rule, one that was shaped, nurtured and elaborated by Obafemi Awolowo; a tradition which Ojudu and many others continue to carry on as we struggle for collective well-being for every constituent part of Nigeria.
No doubt Ojudu’s passion has, understandably, been chastened by post-transition experiences and Nigeria’s almost unbreakable matrimony with the perverse and perfidious. But he remains unbroken in his commitment to the possibility of positive change. It is for this that he sacrificed his freedom; it is for this that he risked extermination.
Having experienced the innate possibilities of dissident activism in his years at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), after graduation, Ojudu refused to be trapped in the conditions of unwilled inconsequentiality to which millions of young Nigerians were designed to live given the socio-economic and political arrangements imposed by the post-Second Republic military autocracy in Nigeria. For most of his adult life, he has shown that he has the courage of his convictions. He mobilized his public affairs journalism in opposition to the abhorrent despot to end Abacha’s unappeasably appetite for potency (political and otherwise) and currency. And before Abacha, Ojudu also played his part in ending the extravagant monocracy of the ruinous genius, General Ibrahim Babangida. Through all these, he did his part in leveraging democratic rule, public advocacy journalism and egalitarian rule. And while he was engaged in the national struggle to save Nigeria, he always returned to his natal base, Ekitiland, in affirmation of where his charity began. No doubt, the positive obstinacy that is the abiding trait in the legends of the Ekiti is perceptible in Ojudu’s enduring activism as a journalist and vigour and effectiveness as a politician.
However, as one of those who fought hard for the enthronement of democracy, I still find it painful that, as a senator, Ojudu allowed his voice to be drowned out deliberately by those he fought against during military rule, some of whom have since ambled their way into power. Perhaps the often exasperating compromises of political life has attenuated the subversive instincts of the activist. Or perhaps it was the silence and stealth of the searcher. Yet, the end-point of Senator Babafemi Ojudu’s public struggle can be summarized as one which constitutes an attempt, to use Nurudeen Farah’s words in Maps, to write “a letter of glory to posterity.”
It is my hope that he will not depart from this path.
• Prof. Adebanwi is a Fellow of St. Anthony’s College, Oxford University, UK.