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Nigeria’s unknown, unsung, and unlionised heroes

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While marking his second 12 June or Democracy Day last 12 June 2024, President Bola Tinubu tried to remember the labours of our heroes past, so that their sacrifices may not appear to have been in vain. Good as his intentions were, he, nonetheless, stepped on toes. He did not remember the names of all the heroes or he could possibly not have mentioned all of them. In this, he stirred the hornets nest and attracted the ire of many.

For example, the Fasheuns were upset that President Tinubu forgot or glossed over the original founder of the Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC), a man with whom President Tinubu himself matched on the streets, arms locked together in a show of comradeship and defiance of military dictatorship. How dare President Tinubu forget such a man as Dr. Frederick Fasheun and his heroic contributions to 12 June? A man who was harassed and detained and whose means of livelihood were incessantly put in jeopardy for his pro-democracy activism! True, then, are the words of Josef Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s chief propagandist, that human memory is very short!

Another example is my brother and professional colleague, Dr. Festus Adedayo, who, in his FLICKERS column in the Sunday Tribune of 16 June, 2024, angrily exploded in President Tinubu’s face! “President Tinubu, Ibadan is angry!”, he cried. Festus reeled out the heroics of Ibadan pro-democracy activists too numerous to mention and the many unknown (like the unknown soldiers) and unsung pro-democracy activists brutally murdered and martyred in the streets of Ibadan.

Ibadan, in fact, has a history of activism long before 12 June 1993. It was, in those days, the hotbed of activism. Who can forget the role played by Comrade Ola Oni, Dr. Bade Onimode both of the University of Ibadan, and Comrade Laoye Sanda of The Polytechnic, Ibadan in the 1978 Ali Must Go student protests? Who can forget the heroics of Niyi Oniororo (blood brother of Comrade Ola Oni), an accomplished activist in his own right, and many others?

We must forgive President Tinubu. He cannot possibly remember, know or acknowledge everyone. The list is endless. Many are not known and may never be known. That is why I am not angry that President Tinubu did not mention my own name! Does he still even remember me? Here was a man who, while in exile, sent one press statement after another to me for publication as editor of The PUNCH! Here was a man who sent me letters saluting my courage for publishing all the incendiary statements he was sending home from exile and which I was publishing without fail! Some of those letters will form part of my soon-coming memoirs.

In fairness to him, President Tinubu sent me the gift of a wristwatch, which has long gone out of use but which I still keep as mementos. Akintola Benson Oke, his aide at the time, who later became a commissioner in Lagos state under Gov. Akinwunmi Ambode, was President Tinubu’s emissary to me. But, like I said, we must forgive President Tinubu, especially so for anyone whose contribution to our renascent democracy was borne out of conviction and not propelled by any hunger for material gains or personal recognition from any quarters.

Now, the story you are about to read is about another set of heroes neglected, heroes forgotten, heroes snubbed, and heroes unappreciated. But that does not make them less heroes anyway!

I will forever remember Prof. George Obiozor, one-time Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), who lamented that Nigerians do not celebrate their heroes. Obiozor is now late but that statement of his I have kept in my heart – although I did not agree with his choice of heroes on the occasion of that lecture held at the NIIA, Victoria Island, Lagos. That was a long time ago, when I was a Foreign Affairs correspondent.

“Nigeria, honour your heroes!” 0biozor moaned repeatedly. A nation that does not honour its heroes cannot be great. And a nation that chooses the wrong set of heroes is perfidious and on the road to perdition.

Now to the story: “As important as this story stands in the history of our nation’s struggle for democracy, it is a shame that not many of our teenagers know much about it… On 25 October 1993, four dissatisfied Nigerian teenagers hijacked a Nigerian Airways Airbus A310 that was flying from Lagos to Abuja and diverted the plane to Niamey, Niger Republic.

“They were dissatisfied with the annulment of 12 June elections by the military Head of State, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. The young Nigerians were: Richard Ogunderu, 19; Kabir Adenuga, 18; Benneth Oluwadaisi, 20 and Kenny Rasaq Lawal, 19. They were students of the Federal University of Technology, Akure (FUTA).

“They all… boarded the flight at MMA alongside other passengers. About 16 minutes before landing, they waited until the pilot had announced that passengers should fasten their seat belts and prepare for landing. Next thing the passengers heard was: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this plane has been taken over by the Movement for the Advancement of Democracy. Remain calm, we will not harm you. You will be told where the plane will land you. You do not move or you die’.

“The leader of the hijackers, Richard Ogunderu, walked into the cockpit and seized the process, and then one other hijacker followed. The two others remained to watch over the passengers. When he got to the cockpit, the pilot knew immediately this was an attack, so he had to obey instructions given to him.

“Ogunderu asked the pilot to divert the aircraft straight to Germany. The pilot convinced him the plane did not carry sufficient fuel to cross the Atlantic and then suggested they divert to a nearby country, Niger, or they would crash and everybody would die. The two hijackers told the pilot what they wanted was where they could give publicity to their reason for the hijack. They told him they wanted Germany because they could have good press coverage that would support their democratic cause. But that couldn’t happen because of the fuel shortage. They agreed to land in Niamey, Niger Republic.

“Upon landing, the hijackers found themselves surrounded by hundreds of armed Nigeriène soldiers at the airport. They had earlier distributed their demands in pamphlets among the passengers calling on the Nigerian government to overturn the annulment of the 12 June election. They gave the government 72 hours to meet their demands or else they would set the plane ablaze. To show they were not ready to kill anyone so long as the government listened to them, they released 34 of the 193 passengers, among whom were top Nigerian government officials.

“The leader of the hijackers spoke to a BBC correspondent. The correspondent asked what they were fighting for, and he told him they wanted to actualize the mandate given by the Nigerian people to M.K.O Abiola. The Nigerian government sent 24 delegates to talk to the hijackers but none of them entered the aircraft to talk to them; instead, they were in the hotel, asking the hijackers to come down.

“The Nigeriene soldiers did not storm the plane because the hijackers claimed to have rigged the plane with explosives. And so began negotiations, keeping the remaining passengers hostage. For three days, the hijackers and the passengers fed on coffee & biscuits. At some point, they ran out of water for coffee, and one passenger demanded water. Under the guise of bringing them water and food, the Nigeriène soldiers eventually realized the hijackers were not armed, and under the cover of darkness, they stormed the plane.

“The four teenagers were arrested, cuffed hands behind their backs and taken straight to a prison cell. The hijackers spoke neither Hausa nor French and nobody made any attempt to question them in English. They were denied food for days. The hijackers were remanded in Niamey prison for nine years before they were released in 2001.

“The Nigerian government did not even request for them to be extradited. They wanted them away from Nigerian soil to prevent them from becoming a symbol of resistance to Nigeria’s youths.

“These teenagers represented the generation of Nigerian youths of 1993: Intelligent, bold, patriotic and courageous. They courageously believed they could save Nigeria from the tyrannical steel claws of the military Junta. Even as teenagers. They placed their lives on the chopping block to save Nigeria. They weren’t asking for what Nigeria could do for them, they thought of what they could do for Nigeria. They were only teenagers, yet they wore the chest of warriors”.

The story was forwarded to me by one John Faluyi. Of course, I was familiar with the story when it broke, being the editor of The PUNCH at the time. But where are the guys? Dead or alive? How has life or, better still, how has Nigeria treated them?

Whatever is the situation, they have etched their names in gold. And for as long as there are pens and biros and platforms to recall their heroism, official recognition or not, they will remain heroes in our hearts, like Princess Diana, who metamorphosed from being the Princess of Wales to becoming the more prestigious and longer-lasting Queen of Hearts!

Former Editor of PUNCH newspaper, Chairman of its Editorial Board and Deputy Editor-in-Chief, Bolawole writes the On the Lord’s Day column in the Sunday Tribune and the Treasurers column in the New Telegraph newspapers. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television. He can be reached on turnpot@gmail.com +234 807 552 5533

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