Ajibade, class of ‘98 and the day after
It is 20 years now that Kunle Ajibade graduated from Makurdi Prison where he shared a room with the late Chief Bola Ige, first elected governor of old Oyo State.
“We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves,” Chief Ige said recalling the experience with the scholarly journalist.
“It was a wonderful experience.” You would have thought Uncle Bola was serenading you with report of his tour of the Caribbean Sea on Queen Elizabeth II instead of a spell on the battle field during our war to bring democracy to our fatherland.
The Makurdi Prison was one of the worst in the country. It was built during the colonial period to take care of those restive people of the Middle-Belt, especially the Tivs of the Benue Valley who never understood why a foreign power should have suzerainty over them.
It was a familiar place for Uncle Bola Ige, who, as a lawyer during the turbulent First Republic, had seen several of his clients, including the unforgettable Joseph Tarka, being led into that prison.
Ajibade however was a new comer and he complained so much about the smell, the dirt, the insolence of the powerful warders, the heat, the aroma of hate and the unforgiving mosquitoes.
Chief Ige was not around when Kunle Ajibade marked his 60th May 28, 2018. He also missed the 60th birthday of Femi Falana on May 20.
Ige was not with us yesterday when Chief Olusegun Osoba, former governor of Ogun State, presided over an impressive gathering of mostly journalists and veteran of the great struggle against military rule, to celebrate Kunle Ajibade at 60.
It was at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, NIIA, Lagos. Ige left us suddenly on December 23, 2001, a victim of a dastardly assassination at his Ibadan home.
Both Kunle and Femi Falana belonged to the class of ’98, those men and women who paid dearly that Nigeria may be free from military dictatorship. They were the Davids who were ready to confront the military goliath with their slingshots.
For both Kunle and Femi as well as our country, ’98 was a watershed year.
The dictator, General Sani Abacha, was holed up in his Aso Rock lair while the nation was grinding to halt. He was in charge and his killer squad was roaming the land with impunity to prove the point.
The assassinations of Kudirat Abiola, Chief Alfred Rewane and several others, as well as the attempted assassination of Senator Abraham Adesanya and Mr. Alex Ibru, were indications of their effectiveness. Then Abacha died suddenly on June 8, 1998.
It is a poignant irony that most of those who tasted the bitter pill of Abacha dictatorship were not to participate in the democratic dispensation or take high office of state.
Chief Gani Fawehinmi, veteran opposition leader and human rights activist, formed the National Conscience Party, NCP, but it remained a struggling party till today. Falana attempted to become the governor of his native Ekiti State and he failed.
Femi Ojudu, another member of the Class of ’98, defeated Ayo Fayose to win a term into the Senate only to be squeezed out of the recent governorship nomination contest of the ruling All Progressive Congress, APC. The consolation was that Ojudu’s nemesis was Kayode Fayemi, another veteran of the anti-Abacha struggle.
The truth is that those who went on exile have fared better than the home brigade who endured imprisonment and the horror of a hunted life of the Gypsies. Fayemi, once and future governor of Ekiti State, is one of those lucky exiles.
Another one is Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, former governor of Lagos State, who was pillar of the external wing of the National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, in the United States.
He returned from exile in 1998 and has become a constant predicate of power politics in Nigeria.
The Class of ’98 who benefitted from Abacha sudden death could be divided into four categories: the journalists, writers and human right activists, the politicians, the soldiers and the moneybags.
With Kunle Ajibade at the barricades were his colleagues in the radical TheNews and Tempo publications. At one point, almost 20 members of staff of the publications were in prison, in detention or in exile.
Among the victims were Bayo Onanuga, Ojudu and Idowu Obasa. One of the journalist of TheNews, Bagauda Kaltho, disappeared till today, believed to have been killed in Kaduna by agents of the Abacha junta. His body has never been found.
Ajibade, unlike many of the others, at least endured the charade of a kangaroo trial. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for alleged involvement in the coup of 1995.
Other journalists who were tried and sentenced along with Ajibade were Chris Anyanwu (who lately served in the Senate) of The Sunday Magazine, the late Ben Charles-Obi of Weekend Classique and George Mba of TELL.
Made to taste the bitter pill of detention and imprisonment were Niran Malaolu, editor of Diet and Onome Osifo-Whiskey, Nosa Igiebor, Kola Ilori, Ayo Akinkuotu and Osa Director; all of TELL magazine. There were also Soji Omotunde, editor of the African Concord and his colleague, Mohammed Adamu.
Among the journalists, the position of Moshood Fayemiwo was unique. Operatives of the Directorate of Military Intelligence seized Fayemiwo in Cotonou where he was led in chains to the DMI headquarters in Apapa, Lagos.
There he was kept in an underground cell, in solitary confinement and for years he was not allowed to come to the daylight.
He is now living in voluntary exile in the United States. Fayemiwo was the publisher of the radical Razor magazine which was very critical of Abacha and his collaborators.
In the DMI cell detention were some prisoners who were considered luckier than Fayemiwo. Though they were also in solitary confinements, they were allowed 30 minutes or even one hour of sunshine daily.
Among the lucky prisoners were the likes of Professor Akinjide Osuntokun, first Nigerian ambassador to united Federal Republic of Germany and Otunba Olabiyi Durojaiye, lawyer, banker and former executive director of the Mint, who was later to serve with distinction in the Senate.
Also in the Class of ’98 were the powerful activists and NADECO chieftains.
Some of these are Chief Frank Ovie-Kokori, the secretary general of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG, who was a pain in the neck of Abacha until he was captured on August 20, 1994, Chief Ayo Opadokun, the secretary general of Afenifere, the mainstream Yoruba political and cultural movement, Dr Frederick Fasehun, the founder and leader of the Oodua Peoples Congress, OPC, Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti, the leader of the Campaign for Democracy, CD, Professor Adesegun Banjo, leader of the Peoples Liberation Army of Nigeria, PLAN, and his wife Ngozika and Olusegun Maiyegun, the student and youth activist.
Among the big political figures that also faced detention were the likes of Ige, Chief Olu Falae, Sir Olaniwun Ajayi, Senator Adesanya, Chief Ayo Adebanjo, Alhaji Sule Lamido and Alhaji Abubakar Rimi.
In a special class were the soldiers who were opposed to the self-perpetuation agenda of Abacha.
In the firing range were General Olusegun Obasanjo and his erstwhile deputy, Major-General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua. Yar’Adua was to die in prison.
Obasanjo came from prison to power and he has remained in the epicenter of national politics since his return in 1998.
The wealthy class endured the reign of Abacha and at the time of his death, 85 billionaires and multi-millionaires were being detained at the Alagbon police station, Lagos, for bank-related offences.
We should not forget that the tragedy of Abacha happened because the Nigerian military and political elite failed to manage well the outcome of the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by Chief Moshood Abiola.
Abiola also died in 1998. Another general election is around the corner and we need to manage it properly so that we would not need to summon Ajibade, Falana and members of their tribe, back into the barricade.