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Tinubu, Ibadan is angry!

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President Bola Tinubu’s Democracy Day broadcast of 12 June 2024, did Ibadan incalculable dishonour. The speech celebrated the heroes of Nigeria’s 25 years of civil rule with a very scant mention of Ibadan’s fight against the tyranny of military rule. Was it an institutional slight on the city of Ogunmola, the great warrior? The angry spirits of Ibadan dead must be seeking vengeance. Why does Aso Rock suffer the austerity of official remembrancers?

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela did not allow the comforting breeze of freedom to numb his sense of remembrance. Walking out of the Victor Verster Prison after 27 years in jail, his first post-prison address at the Cape Town City Hall on 11 February 1990, showed that Mandela never forgot Cape Town, the city where the battle against the tyranny of Apartheid was fought and won. “I send special greetings to the people of Cape Town, this city which has been my home for three decades. Your mass marches and other forms of struggle have served as a constant source of strength to all political prisoners”, he said.

In that speech, Mandela recognised the contours of personal and city/town heroism. To him, when you add these to the pathos of elite heroism, it forms an ensemble of struggles of men and women who constitute the corpus of unforgettable people of yesterday. In recognising that an average person possesses the innate power to act heroically, Mandela cleft his hand firm together, lifted it as a symbol of the anti-Apartheid struggle, and shouted “Amandla! Amandla! I-Africa Mayibuye”! translated to mean, “Power! Power! Africa, it is ours”! He then began an acknowledgement of “Friends, Comrades and fellow South Africans” who “I stand before… not as a prophet, but a humble servant of you, the people.” He then reeled into the names of “millions of my compatriots and those in every corner of the globe who campaigned tirelessly for my release”.

While acknowledging the big fishes of the liberation struggle, Mandela remembered Joe Slovo, a South African Marxist-Leninist Luthanian emigree who died of cancer in 1995. Slovo passed on a few months after the expiration of the white rule he spent a significant portion of his adult life-fighting. Mandela also memorialised ordinary men, “great communists like Moses Kotane, Yusuf Dadoo, Bram Fischer and Moses Mabhida” who he said “will be cherished for generations to come”.

Were inputs of remembrancers sought and got in the drafting of Tinubu’s 25th Democracy Celebration speech, the submission of two American social psychologists, Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo, could have struck the drafters. In their ‘The Banality of Heroism’, these two authors concluded that heroism isn’t strictly the preserve of the elite who perform extraordinary actions. They said that heroism can be found in the everyday actions of ordinary individuals faced with challenging situations or moral dilemmas. So, when Tinubu reeled into the extraordinary actions of his elite colleagues in the trenches fighting military rule, he forgot a long list of towns and ordinary Nigerians who suffered and died so that he could be in Aso Rock.

Though Sani Abacha was part of Ibadan city, having been General Officer Commanding of the Second Mechanised Division, Ibadan rose against him. In his infernal autocratic anger, he responded by mowing down Ibadan, leaving weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth in its trails.

The eyes of the world had riveted towards Ibadan immediately Abacha began to make subterranean plots to transmute into a civilian dictator. To underscore his anger at Ibadan turning itself into the political capital of dissent against the military, Abacha reportedly got his goons to kill Ibadan sons and daughters who were against him. One of them was a retired nurse, Alhaja Suliat Adedeji. Adedeji’s cruel mode of assassination reflected the anger of the mastermind of her killing. He established five political parties, superintended over by his politician lackeys, as a springboard to achieving this aim, then attempted to get them to adopt him as a presidential candidate. The five parties received the flagellating tongue of Bola Ige right from his Ibadan home, where he penned his Uncle Bola’s column in the Sunday Tribune. In a cryptic analogy, Ige likened Abacha’s five political parties to five fingers of a leprous hand, a description that riled the dictator.

Being the traditional capital of the Western region, it was obvious that any resistance elegy chanted in Ibadan approximated a dirge from the Yoruba people. While Lagos was a mirror of inchoate voices, resistance in Ibadan, where Obafemi Awolowo incubated those developmental projects, was a signifier of dissent of the sons and daughters of Oduduwa. With resistance to military rule effectively curtailed in Lagos, Abacha looked Oluyole-wards. He then planned a two million-man rally slated for a sprawling 130,000 sqm multipurpose centre, hitherto named Race Course, now the Lekan Salami Stadium, Adamasingba. On that day, I saw a young man lying in the pool of his blood. He was dead to all the cares of this world. Blood oozed out of him like a broken cistern. Nobody knew his identity. He was one of the about three persons who had just been martyred for democracy to rebirth in Nigeria. They were felled by the irreverent rifles of Abacha’s death squad of policemen and soldiers. The rally was one of those scheduled to etch Abacha’s name in the pantheon of life rulers in the hue of Hastings Kamuzu Banda. A success of the rally would have spelt Yoruba’s approval stamp on Abacha’s transmutation bid.

It must however be known that as resilient and valiant as Ibadan was, it had its stones (kànda) in the rice in Lamidi Adedibu and Alhaji Abdul-Azeez Arisekola-Alao. While the former was a major contractor for the military, the latter was his anvil, the Man Friday. So, Abacha got the above leading sons of Ibadanland, renowned for being lickspittles of the infernal dictator, to handle the rally. They then got an Islamic musical group called Alasalatu to sing to pep up the event. Renowned Ibadan masquerade, Jalaruru, was also recruited for a traditional icing on the cake of the infamy.

The Lekan Salami Stadium quaked on Tuesday, 14 April 1998. The pro-democracy movement, coordinated by Comrade Ola Oni, elder brother of another military apologist, Niyi Oniororo, firmed out plans to scuttle Arisekola-Alao and Adedibu’s Abacha rally. A coalition of groups arrived at strategies to ward off an impending sacrilege of planting autocracy on Ibadan soil.

On D-Day, I was there to report for my medium, Omega Weekly. I had, a few months earlier, resigned from the Tribune to join forces with Segun Olatunji, Wale Adebanwi, Adeolu Akande and Bode Opeseitan who had also left the Tribune. Journalists like Dapo Ogunwusi, Tinu Ayanniyi, and Lasisi Olagunju of the Tribune were also there. It was a day of war. We could not enter the stadium as it was filled to the brim. The pro-democracy group protesters soon took over the outward of the stadium. They were estimated to be above 5,000 people and were singing acidic songs which demanded that Abacha should relinquish power. They also sang demanding that Generals Oladipo Diya, Olanrewaju, Abdulkareem Adisa and three other south-western region soldiers who had been sentenced to death a month earlier for plotting a coup called phantom, should have their sentences commuted. What still astounds me is that, immediately after his release from prison upon Abacha’s death, and current editor of the Tribune, Debo Abdulai, and I interviewed him in his Oja-Iya Road office in Ilorin, Adisa told us: “I don’t know what Boda Diya was saying o. We planned a coup o. May the spirit of Gen Abasa (sic) forgive me”.

On the rostrum, Arisekola-Alao and Adedibu were elated that Abacha must be popping champagne on the impending success of their Satanic endeavour. However, outside the stadium, expletives were being shelled on the maximum ruler. People trekked from all four corners of the metropolis to identify with Ibadan’s anger against Abacha. Abacha’s military administrator, the very loquacious Colonel Ahmed Usman, was also in high spirits, literal or metaphoric. As he addressed the rally, sure his cringing voice would be amplified to Aso Rock, Usman decked his principal in superlatives. All of a sudden, stones and other dangerous objects began to fly into the stadium. This got the people within scampering in a death race out of the stadium. Then, the huge crowd stormed the main bowl of the stadium in maximum anger. A stampede ensued. Jalaruru the masquerade, the Alasalatu crew and other hired crew fled. They all abandoned the instruments of their panegyric craft. Members of the Alasalatu group were so thoroughly beaten by the pro-democracy group militants that their songs changed immediately to that of ululation. They sang: “Sèb’Álásàlátù la bá dé bí, a d’óríi fíìdì ló bá d’Àbáchà, sèb’Álásàlátù la bá dé bí – We came here as prayer group, only to become hirelings of Abacha.

As Adedibu fled out of the stadium, he ran into the furious anti-Abacha campaigners and was reportedly hidden inside the OB Van of a private television station at the event. The van got damaged in the process of saving Adedibu from being killed. The victory of the anti-Abacha elements was short-lived as 82 Div sent a detachment to the stadium. Thugs were also unleashed on the activists with soldiers firing into the crowd. Many died and some sustained injuries.

On May I, 1998, mayhem was again unleashed on Ibadan. Military and police killed protesters at random. The protesters had pounced on the property of Arisekola-Alao and set them alight. The Monitor newspapers, which had Arisekola-Alao as publisher, was set on fire. Eleven exotic cars were burnt in the process, as well as the premises of his newspaper. Adedibu’s three houses were also incinerated in the process. Arisekola’s multi-million flour mill however escaped being razed. The Abacha forces, in retort, shelled the protesters with live bullets, leading to the death of at least 10 protesters, with many others suffering varying degrees of injuries.

Words soon got to Arisekola-Alao that some of those who escaped from the burning of Monitor ran into the opposite building which housed a hospital called Lifecare. It was owned by the then South-Africa-based elder brother of one of the pro-democracy activists, Niyi Owolade. Gunmen were immediately ordered to storm the hospital. They ransacked the hospital, shooting sporadically at the infirm who were killed in cold blood in their scores. In other areas in Ibadan, some journalists got shot. Current News Editor of the Tribune, Akin Durodola, escaped death by the whiskers on his way to the office. A gunshot grazed his skin and missed his spine by a hair’s breadth.

Three days later, masterminds of the pro-democracy activism were rounded up. A total of 40 people, including leaders of the group like Dr Ola Oni, Ige, Comrade Moshood Erubami, Owolade, Lam Adesina, and others, were slammed into Agodi Prison. The list also included Femi Adeoti, Editor of the Sunday Tribune, who had to carry the can for Paul Ogundipe whose story on the riot irked Abacha. Ogundipe never recovered. He died a few years later. They were subsequently charged to court. Flippant Usman, who himself was a marked man by the Abacha regime, having been a protégé of General Olanrewaju, one of the arrested officers of the Abacha phantom coup, seeking to cry more than the bereaved, immediately sprung into action and declared the activists “Prisoners of War” who could be summarily tried and imprisoned. The trial of the Prisoners of War however could not hold as Abacha died on 8 June 1998, and the country breathed an air of freedom.

On 17 November 1998, while anger against his role in the Abacha debacle still subsisted, Arisekola-Alao was spotted coming into the University of Ibadan gate by irate students. It was the university’s convocation. Nobody claimed responsibility for inviting him to the occasion. He was thoroughly manhandled, leaving him visibly shaken. He had attended the ceremony in a convoy of cars. Six of the cars in his entourage, including a limousine, were burnt by the irate mob. He was spirited away by security operatives.

While Tinubu did well in generically affixing heroism to the press, he did incalculable damage to the memories of the dead in the media by not singling them out for mention. He did Ibadan worse injustice. Those media heroes were the ordinary individuals in everyday situations who Franco and Zimbardo spoke glowingly of in their The Banality of Heroism. The Nigerian media paid dearly for being in bed with civil society activists. Men of Tell, TheNEWS and Tempo deserve to have their names carved out in the pantheon of unsung heroes. To date, the body of TheNEWS’ Bagauda Kaltho is yet to be found. Journalists lost their means of livelihood as The Guardian, Punch and others were shut down peremptorily by the duo of Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Abacha. Alex Ibru, owner and publisher of The Guardian escaped an assassination attempt perpetrated by the regime of Abacha on 2 February 1996. State assassins fired at his car, hitting Ibru in the eye, with one of his eyes dangling from its socket. He was partially blind by the time he transited. Former editor of Thisday, Yusuph Olaniyonu once told me that a week after his wedding, he encountered Abacha’s executioner-in-chief, Colonel Frank Omenka at his Apapa office which traumatised him for years.

Ibadan, a formidable axis of the much-talked-about Lagos-Ibadan press, received chunks of the military and Abacha’s scalding anger. As said earlier, Omega became Ibadan’s avenue to express anger against military autocracy. We were young men with luxuriating idealism. Funded by pro-democracy activists, in Abacha’s dying years, Omega shelled his government. From the first print to the last, Omega concentrated on deconstructing the Abacha regime. Indeed, the last cover of the newspaper had the banner headline “Anti-Abacha forces emerge in Aso Rock”. About two weeks later, Diya and others were rounded up in an alleged military coup. None of us returned to our Olusanya, Ring Road office after that edition. We moved our computer equipment from one point to the other. One day, we moved them to the inner room of a cloth seller’s shop in Ibadan’s Gbagi market to produce the paper’s edition. At a point, the computers were moved at night to my house in the Oke-Ayo area of Odo Ona, Ibadan. There, two great heroes of this press struggle against military autocracy – Ayo Isikaye and Tunde Solomon Adesina, (Adshine) our computer operators, unsung heroes – demonstrated their love for the fatherland. Whenever I saw my Iwo, Osun state-born landlady, now late, Madam Folashade Ashake, I used to pity her. If only she knew that by harbouring journalist-dissidents in her house, among whom I was one, she was whiskers away from being whisked away as an accessory to anti-government publication!

So you can imagine how anyone who went through that Abacha experience would feel at being under any other government that figuratively brings back Abacha’s memories. It will amount to figuratively running from sickness, only to encounter death. It will then mean that, in the bid to escape death, we ran to Okuku, only to be told, upon getting to Okuku, that the king of Okuku had just died; what Yoruba express as, a t’oríi ká má baà kú a sá lo s’Ókukù, a d’Ókukù, wón l’Ólókukù sèsè kú.

Great that the Tinubus did the struggle a lot of good by counterpoising the struggle in exile, if we had all run away like them, Abacha would likely still be in the saddle today. Similarly, if the struggle were strictly a Lagos battle as Tinubu seemed to have approximated it in his Democracy Day speech, the war would have been lost and the military would still be here today. The moment Ibadan joined the struggle, as it did in 1840, the war against military rule was won.

Tell the above epistle to those children of perdition who ignorantly accuse the Tribune and Ibadan axis of the Nigerian press of misguided antagonism against today’s presidency. We risked our all to give them what they proudly call their “bragging day” of today. For us, as Thomas Jefferson once said, eternal vigilance remains the price of freedom. We will not relent in fighting autocracy shawled in the cloak of democracy. Let them know that no one can remove the resilience, glory and liberation fervour of Ibadan. I leave them with this evergreen aphorism of musician Ayinla Omowura. He sang that, though strikes of thunder and lightning assail trees in the forest, they only strengthen the Baobab tree, called Igi Osè by the Yoruba. This unique tree does not suffer what ordinary trees suffer. When its bark is even peeled, it does not wither. Ose shocks and shames its attackers by blossoming into awesomeness. Adversity gives it greater energy to live for a thousand years. Singing in Yoruba, Omowura said, “Mélò mélò l’àrá tó ti sán lo… ìpa tí wón ńp’Osè l’óko, ńse l’ó fi ńsanra…”

Are they listening?

I wish our Muslim sisters and brothers happy Sallah celebrations.

In the spirit of appreciating great media men, I also wish my brother and namesake, Ibadan-born Festus Akanbi a happy 60th birthday. Akanbi began his journalism career with Onyema Ugochukwu, then editor of Daily Times. Since then, he has been with the Business Times, and Punch and became the Sunday Business Editor and Deputy Editor of Thisday in 2015. He worked as Special Adviser to Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun and Assistant Director at the Federal Inland Revenue Service. He is today Deputy Editor of the Thisday.

Congratulations, brother.

Erratum: Last week, I mistakenly referred to the 8 June anniversary of Abacha’s death as marking 28 years of his departure. The error is regretted. Abacha died 26 years ago.

First published by TheCable, 16 June 2024

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