By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
Going to work could mean your death. It was indeed a bad time. The June 12, 1993 election won by Bashorun MKO Abiola had just been annulled by the military regime of General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida. Nigeria was in deep crisis and journalism was under severe assault.
Babangida had to perforce step aside. The Interim National Government (ING) under Chief Ernest Shonekan that was hurriedly installed by Babangida was just as hurriedly swept aside by General Sani Abacha.
The goggled and unsmiling Abacha did not mince words in banning almost everything. Abacha had no stomach for journalists and journalism.
It was a tough season, but the publishers of The News magazine and Tempo tabloid would not bow the knee to military intimidation.
The never-say-die journalists set up a newspaper named AM News, and constituted an editorial board under the chairmanship of the irrepressible poet Odia Ofeimun.
I was involved.
The baptism of fire that welcomed us was the arrest of our colleague Kunle Ajibade who was accused of coup-plotting.
The next thing we saw was that Kunle who knew nothing about the story that led to his arrest was facing a military tribunal.
It was enough to kill the spirit but somehow we persevered.
The military tribunal passed a life sentence on Kunle Ajibade who has since written a book on his travails entitled Jailed For Life.
Coming to work in the office at a nondescript house in the Ogba area of Lagos was a dicey matter.
Even if anybody called our name, you just pretended that it wasn’t you that was being called. It was a strategy of security agents to call the name of a wanted journalist, and if you just turned to show attention, you would be promptly nabbed and may end up in the underground cell in Apapa.
We were dependent on co-workers like typesetters to alert us of any strange fellows around. Once given the sign, you would walk past the office and wait until you were given the all-clear signal to make a safe return to do the work in the office.
My colleagues on the editorial board were Odia Ofeimun (chairman), Professor Kayode Soremekun, Akin Onigbinde, Kayode Komolafe, Ifeanyi Uddin and Banji Ojewale.
We used to have solidarity visits of committed icons such as the master bard Professor Niyi Osundare who would wonder aloud how fast one turned out the editorial once Odia gave the marching orders to get the editorial written in the course of the meeting.
A turncoat radical serving in the Abacha government once paid us a visit in the office and we all ran away, dodging to meet with him until he went away! The case of Ken Saro-Wiwa took so much out of us as we literally bombarded the reading public with editorials, opinions, news analyses and so on.
Ken’s bother, Owens, was always around during the interventions even as he was also being haunted by the military authorities.
On the day Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed, I was at the National Stadium, Surulere watching a match between the Nigerian Super Eagles and Uzbekistan, with the then FIFA President Joao Havelange as the guest of honour, when one top security source called me aside and said: “They have killed your friend.”
I was among the first persons to learn of the killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa. I walked in a daze to my Ikate, Surulere abode and somewhat passed out.
I was surprised when I opened the door of my apartment early the next morning only to see the journalist Pita Okute sitting on the staircase. He said he had been knocking on the door since the night when he heard of Ken’s hanging in a party and decided that the only way he could bear the loss was in my company.
Pita Okute became friends with Ken Saro-Wiwa after he had written in a review of Sozaboy, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s novel in “rotten English”, that the book had a “silly plot”. The review riled Ken Saro-Wiwa so much that he renamed Pita Okute as “Pita Dumbrok” and put him as the leading character who always mouthed “silly plot” in his two books, Prisoners of Jebs and Pita Dumbrok’s Prison.
There was no escaping going back to the office to report on Ken Saro-Wiwa’s hanging and condemn the dastardly act in unstinting editorials.
The fact that Abacha could hang Ken Saro-Wiwa despite all the international pressure clearly showed that the military goons could not be bothered.
The American ambassador, Walter Carrignton, once invited us to his Eleke Crescent home where we urged him to tell his home government to seize all the Nigerian assets in USA.
The ambassador revealed to us that the Nigerian assets in America amounted to nothing when compared to the US investment in Nigeria.
It was not in our character to be dispirited. We continued all the avalanche of attacks on the evil Abacha regime and added all the “atmospherics” for good measure.
One day a slip was delivered to me via the office to come and collect a parcel at Ikeja Post Office.
The parcel was said to have been sent by an Uzoatu, a relation I had never known or met. I knew instantly that was a very cheap way to try to catch a guerrilla journalist by the security goons.
I simply tore up the slip and went away to drink a beer in a bar very far away from Ikeja Post Office!
*Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, poet, journalist and public affairs analyst, writes from Lagos