by Kakuna Kerina
The Pen is Still Mightier
by Kunle Ajibade
Rats on Two Legs
by Chris Anyanwu
My Trial Was a Charade
by Ben Charles-Obi
I Knew I Would Outlive Abacha
by George M'bah
God and Mandela Inspired Me
to Survive Abacha's Gulag
They Wanted My Magazines to Die
by Babafemi Ojudu
by Kakuna Kerina
For Nigeria's besieged independent press, the
time that elapsed between the sudden death of reviled strongman Gen.
Sani Abacha on June 8 and Chief Moshood Abiola's fatal heart attack
on July 7 proved to be the cruelest month ever for the profession.
Abiola, owner of the nation's largest independent media house, the
Concord Group, and widely believed to have won the presidency in 1993's
democratic elections, was imprisoned by Abacha in 1994. He became
Nigerian journalists' weapon-of-choice in their battle against the
military regime which responded with a calculated, and almost successful,
campaign to decimate the independent press. With Abiola's death in
detention, the euphoria the press enjoyed upon Abacha's demise dissipated
as quickly as it had erupted.
Amidst this maelstrom, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, a senior career
soldier who was virtually unknown outside of military circles, emerged
as Abacha's successor. The watchdog private press immediately exposed
Abubakar's relationship to his mentor, close friend, and neighbor,
former military dictator Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, who has remained
a potent force within the military since he ceded power to Abacha
in a 1993 palace coup d'état. Babangida has now assumed a public
role in the current regime's desperate attempt to placate military
fatigue-weary citizens demands for an immediate transition to democratic
rule, courting the same press that was targeted during his regime.
The 139-year-old Nigerian press is the continent's most prolific and
vociferous, setting the standards for media practitioners throughout
the region. This decade they met their match in the Abacha regime,
which set new standards of abusive treatment of the press with tactics
such as indefinite detentions without charge, secret trials by military
tribunals, torture by police and state security agents, disappearances,
office bombings, and bans and seizures of publications.
The regional impact of the regime's decimation of the private press
was exemplified by the unprecedented deterioration of press freedom
in the West Africa sub-region. Gambian ruler Yahya Jammeh's importation
and enactment of restrictive Nigerian decrees, many aimed at silencing
the press, has paralyzed the country's legal system. At the time of
Abacha's death, exiled Nigerian journalists based in Ghana were being
threatened with deportation to Nigeria for critical commentary published
in and aired on Ghanaian media. Nigerian security agents faced no
impediments in February 1997 when they kidnapped Razor publisher Moshood
Fayemiwo in broad daylight in neighboring
Benin and transported him
to Nigeria, where he was detained incommunicado, chained to a pipe,
and tortured until his release in September.
The Committee to Protect Journalists held a
conference in Ghana in August, providing leading Nigerian journalists
the first opportunity in years to meet without the threat of security
raids or detention. As they discussed political events in their country
with colleagues from Ghana, Zambia, and Argentina, many expressed
the view that Abubakar's recent release of detained journalists was
not an indication of lasting change, nor did it constitute a "honeymoon"
as expressed by Western observers. The resounding opinion of the conference
participants was that the Nigerian press had a long way to go before
they could freely practice their profession.
A host of decrees remains available to the regime, should it grow
weary of what it regards as "ungrateful" journalists who repeatedly
criticize the actions of its officials: The Detention of Persons Decree
No. 2 allowing indefinite, incommunicado detention of citizens; the
Offensive Publications Decree No. 35 of 1993, which allows the government
to seize any publication deemed likely to "disturb the peace and public
order of Nigeria"; and the Treason and Treasonable Offenses Decree
No. 29 of 1993, which was used in 1995 by a special military tribunal
to convict Kunle Ajibade, Chris Anyanwu, George M'bah,
and Ben Charles-Obi as "accessories after the fact to treason"
for reporting on an alleged coup plot, continue to threaten journalists.
The four journalists, who were released by Abubakar last summer and
whose stories appear below, would likely still be serving their 15-year
prison terms if Abacha were still in power.
Abubakar's tacit endorsement of the controversial 1995 draft constitution
is also widely regarded by the media as an indication of the regime's
refusal to enact systemic change that would reverse the damage inflicted
on the media and civil society as a whole. The draft constitution
ensures the creation of a Mass Media Commission that would be granted
sweeping powers to restrict journalists' ability to practice their
profession, and grants rulers the authority to silence the press in
the name of national security.
Abubakar's quiet demeanor and his public pronouncements of a commitment
to press freedom were put to the test during the late 1998 escalating
unrest in the oil-rich Niger Delta region. Government harassment of
journalists covering the crisis, specifically the arrest and subsequent
banning of The Punch correspondent Ofonime Umannah from the
area, could signify the return to Abacha-era tactics at a critical
time preceding the February 1999 presidential elections and May 1999
scheduled handover to civilian rule.
Yesterday's cynics, who claimed the country would disintegrate without
Abacha's totalitarian rule, are today's skeptics, questioning whether
democracy can flourish without the military. Critics point to the
regime's promotion of former military ruler and recently released
detainee, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, as an example of Abubakar's contradictory
message on democracy.
Although the release of 16 of 17 jailed journalists in June and July
brought relief to their families and colleagues, the ordeal has not
ended. These journalists may now begin to rebuild their lives, but
the continued imprisonment of Niran Maloulu, editor of The Diet
newspaper, serves as a warning to journalists that while Abacha, the
tyrant who put them behind bars, is gone, his successor Abubakar could
take away their freedom on a whim.
Nigeria's independent journalists are hailed by their fellow citizens
as the true heroes and heroines in the pro-democracy struggle to rid
the country of successive military regimes. They have fought for every
citizen's right for free expression at great risk to themselves and
their families. Their courage in the face of often incomprehensible
brutality is an example to us all, and most certainly the pride of
their colleagues and profession worldwide. The extraordinary resilience
of these journalists is captured in the six personal accounts that
Kakuna Kerina has been program
coordinator for Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists since
September 1995. An award-winning documentary filmmaker and author,
she has studied, worked in, and traveled throughout Africa for more
than 35 years.
Pen is Still Mightier
by Kunle Ajibade
The news of my release did not come as a surprise.
There had been two batches of releases before ours, and after the
death of Abacha, I knew something would happen. There is nothing you
can compare to freedom. In prison, I learned that people could be
so cruel. There is no reformation going on in our prisons. I was taken
to Makurdi on October 18, 1995. I was not allowed the use of a mosquito
net, and that place is mosquito-infested because it is a stone's throw
from the Senue River. They only allowed the net in September 1997.
I received chloroquine injections at the end of every month. To this
day, I don't really know what effect the monthly dose will have on
The meals we received were very poor. We were fed gabsar (corn meal).
In the morning it was kunnu (a non-alcoholic beverage made from corn),
in the afternoon another corn-based meal. The same thing was repeated
in the evening. People were dying because of the poor facilities and
the feeding. And when people around me were dying just like that,
I felt dehumanized and unsafe. There was no medical care until December
18, 1997, after the death of Maj. Gen. Yar'Adua. Then the government
sent two doctors regularly to give me checkups.
To survive the solitude of confinement, I read extensively. After
screening, and a lot of hassles, some of my books were sent to me.
My happiest day in prison was when they brought my
second son to me. My wife was carrying his pregnancy when I was arrested.
He was born January 16, 1996, and he was brought to Makurdi Prisons
in April 1996. I had sent his name, Folarinwa, from prison. He was
four months old when I saw him for the first time. My incarceration
caused my wife a lot of problems. That she delivered safely was a
great relief. My son is now two-and-a-half years old.
To be frank, Abacha's death was a relief because I knew that freedom
was near for me. And it would afford us the opportunity to address
the problems of this country. This is what Nigerians expect of the
current regime, to address the problems critically.
While I was in prison, I asked myself about the kind of country we
are in. Not only because of my situation, but also because of the
prison system itself. The warders are poverty-stricken; their salary
is poor and always late. Criminals keep coming and going. The system
is simply incapable of reforming anybody.
I was arrested by the State Security Service (SSS) on May 23, 1995.
They interrogated me about a story we did on the coup, then they told
me to go home. But I later learned that it was the Directorate of
Military Intelligence (DMI) which asked the SSS to arrest me because
of the stir George M'bah's arrest had caused.
I was allowed to go home on May 23 and they told me to report to them
on May 24. The next day, as a law-abiding citizen, I reported back
to the SSS. They just asked me to board a station wagon and drove
me to the DMI offices at Apapa.
On getting there, I was interrogated by three lieutenant colonels.
They wanted me to divulge the source of our story. I told them that
it was never done. Interestingly, they had demanded my source previously
at DMI, at the Special Investigation Panel, and later at the tribunal.
When it was clear that I was not going to say what they wanted, they
told me I was not helping myself. They all walked out and asked a
soldier to take me to one of their cells. It was a very terrible cell.
I was there for one week.
I subsequently wrote a story, which was intercepted. As punishment,
they transferred me to a worse cell. Before this, I had complained
to some soldiers about the state of my first cell. They said I should
consider myself lucky, because George M'bah, that man from Tell,
was in a terrible place. So, when I got to the cell, I met M'bah there
and a few hours later, they brought Ben Charles-Obi. It was a damp
place without light. We were sleeping on the bare floor, but our spirits
They gave us Swan (mineral water) containers to urinate in and to
pour the urine through the window. That was how we were living before
I collapsed and I was taken to the military hospital on Awolowo Road
in Ikoyi. It was from there that I was taken before the military tribunal.
The entire trial was done hastily and the judgment was done summarily.
It was a charade, an unfortunate one. I think it is the nature of
a military tribunal to be so lackadaisical about the rights of the
accused. In our own case, I think Brig. Gen. and Chairman of the Treason
Tribunal Patrick Aziza just followed a written script. Jail this person.
Jail that. So, everything was geared toward that objective. They gave
me a lawyer who was more with them than with me. It took about one-and-a-half
Then the second time was my judgment day. It was also the day they
brought in Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, a leading human rights activist
and chairman of the Campaign for Democracy. To buttress the comedy,
let me tell you what happened on that day. They brought Dr. Beko to
the lobby. I told him that they would soon deliver judgment on my
case, and I was likely to bag life imprisonment. Dr. Beko said, "Was
it that bad?" He then said if they gave me life, he was sure he would
bag the death penalty.
And when Aziza gave me life in jail, let me tell you, and M'bah will
also confirm this, I just smiled and laughed. I never knew that any
person in his right senses would jail a person for life on account
of a story he published. I told myself it would not last long. When
the Provincial Ruling Council commuted my term to 15 years, we felt
they must be crazy. We just thanked God that nobody was shot, especially
the military officers.
Looking back on those three years, I have no regrets at all. It is
actually professionally fulfilling. I got to know through the experience
that the pen is mightier than the sword. The soldiers were afraid
of the power of the pen. The recruit mentality still haunts the soldiers
and no soldier likes to be frightened. Which is what they feel the
critical press has been doing to them. That is why they have been
so ferocious. They destroy. We expose destruction and build. I can
never leave journalism because of what has happened.
My message to my colleagues is that truth will always prevail. The
energy they put into the struggle should constantly be renewed. Journalists
are in constant touch with the aspiration of the people. And the people
will always win.
This narrative was originally published in TheNEWS shortly
after Kunle Ajibade's release from a three-year incarceration. Ajibade
recounted his experiences in an interview with TheNEWS assistant
editor Adegbenro Adebanjo.
on Two Legs
by Chris Anyanwu
It was a journey that spanned 1,251 days. I
moved 10 times through the nation's most notorious detention centers,
through spooky, forsaken prisons. It was a tour of a world which,
even in my worst nightmares, I could never have imagined. I had a
taste of life at its most raw, perhaps its lowest and, in the process,
got a fuller appreciation of human nature and our creator.
Kirikiri Women's Prison was the first prison I had seen in my life.
I was led through the gate by 20 armed men in three trucks and two
jeeps. The first whiff of air hit my nose, my stomach wrenched, and
I bent over and threw up in the reception hall. The thought of prison
was abhorrent to every nerve in my body. It was mortifying enough
to be tossed around in the Black Maria military vehicle, but to be
caged like an animal was devastating. By the time I got to the cell,
all I wanted was to close my eyes. I wished the night would draw on
and on. For eight days I lived on bottled water. I had nightmares
every night. Within eight days, my hair went grey.
Flip the scene. State Security Service (SSS) detention center, Ikoyi.
I am marooned in a huge building. Locked in all day, drapes drawn,
the room dark, dank, airless. My only neighbors are monstrous rats
that not only hop, but actually walk on two legs. Now I hear the pounding
in the wide, echo-filled hall as the heels of military shoes hit the
cement floor with force. Minutes later, I am in handcuffs and leg-chains.
Imagine a woman in a long, tight skirt, arms cuffed, legs chained,
attempting to climb a narrow, shaky ladder four feet high into an
airless police truck. She is propped up by two soldiers while another
38 armed men surround the scene. Imagine, in the dark container, the
vehicle speeding at 120 mph, five other trucks blaring their sirens,
the heavy Black Maria creaking thunderously with every bump, bounce,
or jerk. A sudden stop at a street light and the bench slides in the
opposite direction. I hit the floor, slide, and ram my head into the
metal frame. We return after a 45-minute jolly ride round town. It
is part of the breaking-down process.
The tribunal. Fifteen stiff men in uniforms sat on cushioned chairs
on a raised platform. Ten uniformed men stood at strategic corners
of the hall, automatic weapons in their arms. I sat on a bench facing
the high table. Leg irons removed, I could at least cross my legs.
In 30 minutes flat, Patrick Aziza, chairman of the tribunal, said
he was giving me life imprisonment for being an "accessory after the
fact of treason." It was the first time I had ever heard of such a
crime. How did I become an accessory to a treasonable crime after
it was committed? By publishing news of a coup in my weekly, The
Sunday Magazine (TSM).
Before and during this sham, I was denied contact with the outside
and not permitted to meet with my lawyer. A military man just out
of law school was imposed on me. He was not permitted to contact my
staff, relatives, or anyone who could help my case. No witnesses were
allowed. He was not permitted to visit me. We met at the tribunal.
In the first few minutes of his presentation, the judge advocate threatened
him with a court-martial. He crawled into his shell and let his superior
officers have their way.
In March 1995, there was widespread speculation of an imminent coup
d'état. Coups are big news in Nigeria because, in 38 years
of independence, it has been the traditional mode of power succession.
Coups jolt society. They reorder the affairs of the nation and the
individual. There is no greater, more compelling "new and urgent matter
of public debate" than a coup. In the 1995 coup scare, the weight
of the story was elevated more by the status of the individuals arrested.
It was, therefore, a matter of compelling duty to the public to publish.
As we began to investigate the story, I received a telephone call
from an official ordering me not to publish "if you love your children."
But there was a compelling need to inform the public of what was happening.
In a news-breaking situation such as this, every journalist calls
up his or her contacts. Contacts are assets in journalism, not a crime.
TSM, like other publications, employed all legal avenues to
get to the heart of the story, and this included talking to military
men, government people, civilians, and relatives of suspects.
It was, therefore, rather amazing when the Aziza military tribunal
claimed that I was "instructed" to publish the stories by one of our
sources who happened to be a distant relative of one of the accused.
Nothing could persuade them that a news source does not dictate the
story. Put simply, I went to prison for 1,251 days for interviewing
a stark, illiterate man, barely able to communicate, since he spoke
only his native language. This is an effort to give our readers a
true and accurate picture.
To muddy the waters, they fabricated a story suggesting that one of
the accused plotters had a financial interest in our company and we,
therefore, wrote about the coup to help him escape justice. The accusation
was baseless since neither the man, nor anyone remotely connected
with him, even held shares. But in any case, no law stops any Nigerian
citizens from investing in private-sector enterprises and, if he had
been an investor, nothing stopped the magazine from covering news
of such overwhelming public concern. No one imprisoned the editors
of the Concord Group for covering the ordeal of its proprietor, the
I was faced with a situation in which military men wanted to redefine
journalism, dictate to me how I was to gather my information and how
I was to write my story. I would not stand for that. What was clear
was that Abacha and his team saw women as the weakest link in the
chain of humanity and, therefore, put the squeeze on me to break the
media chain. The cheap blackmail they fabricated was meant to pull
the wool over the eyes of the fickle-minded who would believe any
story. They could not find a convenient blackmail against my male
colleagues: Kunle Ajibade, Ben Charles-Obi, and George
M'bah. But they imprisoned them just the same, using my case as
a benchmark for the trial of all journalists.
TSM was not the only publication to run stories of the coup-scare.
All other magazines and newspapers, except those with links with the
regime, published. No other editor is known to have been overtly threatened
in the manner I was. It was a sexist act of intimidation, another
in a series of measures, including the forgery and printing of fake
editions of TSM by Abacha's agents, aimed at scaring me off
mainstream journalism. What was at issue was the right of the individual
to hold a nonviolent thought, express a nonviolent opinion. Abacha's
position was that no one had the right to call his acts into question,
and he demonstrated it amply throughout his administration. The landscape
is littered with his victims who suffered solely for exercising their
freedom of thought, freedom of speech, or freedom of choice.
I was merely one of the earlier victims. I held dissenting views.
That was a crime in his eyes. The coup was a convenient "package"
for silencing foes and dissenters. I was programmed into it. Without
doubt, I suffered unwarranted punishment and a terrible insult. I
am not bitter. I only hope that future generations of journalists
are spared the same fate. Although the Abubakar regime has shown good
sense in releasing journalists and other political prisoners, fear
of media repression is far from gone. One significant way of putting
this fear to rest would be to expunge the stain of the convictions
from the records of innocent journalists. Journalists do not plan
coups, they do not carry them out. They write about them.
There is a world of difference -- and 1,251 days -- between an observer
and an actor.
Anyanwu, editor in chief and publisher of the weekly The Sunday
Magazine, had served three years of her 15-year jail sentence when
she was released in June 1998 by Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar. She originally
wrote this article for Index on Censorship. Anyanwu is a recipient
of CPJ's 1997 International
Press Freedom Award.
Back to Top
My Trial Was a
by Ben Charles-Obi
The journey to the zoo started that memorable
afternoon in May 1995. I had been underground in hiding following
incessant security surveillance of Classique and some of the
staff, when the Classique advertising manager informed me that
the publisher wanted to see me in the office.
On arrival, the publisher said I was wanted at the Directorate of
Military Intelligence (DMI). I asked her what was the reason for the
invitation but she couldn't give me any additional information, so
we both left for the DMI.
We got there at about 4:30 p.m. and we were ushered into the office
of the second in command, Capt. Bashir Manuai. As soon as we entered,
he yelled at me and tried to disarm me psychologically.
He held out the then-current edition of Classique, captioned,
"Colonel Shauib: Man Who Betrayed Coup Suspects." Then he shook his
head stating that the story had caused some security problems and
discredited the government's coup allegation, prompting people to
demand the release of the arrested suspects. Finally, he concluded
by saying he had been mandated to extract the source of the story
at all costs.
I responded by dwelling on the ethics of the journalism profession
that forbid a journalist from disclosing his source. But he insisted,
and began screaming when I said it was not possible.
A Capt. Mumuni joined us with other security operatives and it became
a shouting session. As the interrogation continued, the commanding
officer, Lt. Col. Kolawole John-Olu, came in. John-Olu would have
been an asset to this country if he had not joined the wrong profession.
He was very brilliant, but unfortunately, he used his intelligence
in a negative way. Unlike Capt. Mumuni, who was shouting, John-Olu
tried to cajole me. He praised the new look of Classique, and
said the magazine had become authoritative like Tell, TheNEWS,
and TEMPO. Then he brought out the current edition of Classique and said
the story had embarrassed then-head of state Gen. Sani Abacha. He
demanded that I disclose the source for the story. As the interrogation
continued, he received a phone call which he claimed came from Maj.
Hamza El-Mustapha, Abacha's chief security officer. He said it was
Mustapha who ordered my arrest. I said John-Olu was pretending friendliness.
During the lengthy interrogation session with Capt. Mumuni and other
security agents participating, they threatened to take me to the Special
Investigative Panel (SIP) and the Special Military Tribunal (SMT)
where they were certain that I would be convicted, condemned, and
shot. That was when my journey to the gulag began.
I was dumped in a room where I sat and slept on a bare floor for about
five days. From there, at Park Lane, Apapa, I was moved to DMI headquarters,
where I shared a cell with Kunle Ajibade of TheNEWS. The mosquito
bites were terrible and the premises were hellish. It was my first
encounter with Ajibade. However, I had met Mrs. Chris Anyanwu of The
Sunday Magazine at Park Lane where she was detained in a cell
next to mine. Initially, they tried to stop us from interacting, but
later we had useful discussions where we shared our experiences, and
our spirits were lifted.
From DMI, Ajibade and I were moved to a dungeon in Apapa. There, we
met George M'bah of Tell magazine. That was where we had our
worst experiences in a four-by-four room that was completely dark
and without ventilation. We were not allowed to see sunlight. We were
held in solitary confinement for about two months and devoured by
voracious malarial mosquitoes. We were each fed with 20 Naira (US$
0.25) per day. We narrowly missed death in that place. In fact Ajibade
almost died at one point when he fell into a coma. M'bah and I started
shouting and banging on the door until somebody came in and saw him
collapsed on the floor. The prison guard insisted that he needed permission
to take him to the hospital, but eventually, they rushed Ajibade to
a military hospital at Apapa from where he was taken to the SIP and
My interrogation at the SIP was patently ceremonious and gang-like.
An officer just walked into my cell early in the morning and ordered
me to get dressed. When I came outside, I beheld a gang of warlike
soldiers dressed in war fatigues and in a shooting stance. I was chained
like an armed robber, thrown into an army truck, and driven to the
SIP at Ikoyi where the so-called interrogation did not last more than
As soon as I entered the SIP, the panel's chairman, Brig. Gen. Felix
Mujakperuo, shouted at me, saying, "We will finish you," and punching
the table like Mike Tyson. He brought out the edition of Classique
on Col. Shuaib and demanded the source of the story. I refused and
he cut me short, saying that if I didn't cooperate, I would be taken
to the tribunal, condemned, and executed. He then switched to pidgin
English: "My friend, if you like your life make you talk better. Make
you cooperate or we will kill you. We no bring you here for grammar."
I stood my ground and said they should go to court if they felt offended
by the story. The man said I should be carried out of the room, threatening
that I would see fire. I was then taken back to my cell.
The so-called trial lasted no more than 15 minutes. It was a farce
and a charade. A young officer came to me and asked, "Are you Mr.
Ben Charles-Obi?" I said yes. He gave me a piece of paper stating
I was charged with treason. I asked him, "Treason?" He replied, "Yes,"
and left. Later he returned to retrieve the paper, and then another
young officer handed another piece of paper to me. This time, I was
charged with being an "accessory after the fact of treason." I thought
they were really confused.
The new officer introduced himself as my lawyer. I replied, "I don't
know you from Adam, how can you be my lawyer?" I wondered how the
government could be the defense in their own case, because as I saw
it, the government was now the prosecutor, the defense lawyer, the
judge, and the appellate authority. It was more than an Alawada (traditional
traveling circus) show.
I asked the lawyer if there were any documents linking me with the
coup, or anything showing that I attended a clandestine meeting. He
replied that there wasn't. I then asked him to explain "accessory
after the fact of treason." He said, "My brother, I do not know."
I decided that I was not going to dignify the kangaroo tribunal with
a formal defense.
I was eventually brought before the tribunal. The prosecutor, a colonel,
read out the charge against me and the copy of the Classique
edition on Col. Shuaib. They brought two witnesses to testify against
me. Capt. Mumuni was the first; he said that he was the one who had
interrogated me and that the story was highly sensitive. The second
witness was a Lt. Bature, attached to the SIP. He also testified that
the Classique story disturbed the SIP the day it was published.
Ironically, the two witnesses confirmed the authenticity of our story.
After they testified, my statement (of innocence as my defense) was
read publicly. SMT Chairman Brig. Gen. Patrick Aziza shook his head
as my statement was read. Aziza then announced that he agreed with
the prosecution that I was the editor of Classique who authorized
the publication of the story which debunked the coup allegation and
then pronounced, "You are hereby sentenced to life imprisonment."
I could do nothing but weep that such a thing could still be happening
in 20th-century Nigeria.
I was taken to the Inter-center [State Security Service Interrogation
Center], which is located in the Ikoyi Cemetery. For some time, we
were practically living with ghosts. It was like we were abandoned
for death. There, I met Col. Lawan Gwadabe and all the originally
condemned officers of the so-called coup plot that we had reported
was a fraud.
My arrival enlivened the place, because the coup plot detainees had
heard of the journalists' travails resulting from our attempts to
sensitize the world to their plight. At Inter-center, my cell was
next to Col. Bello-Fadile's. He told me, in one of our many discussions,
that he was sorry for giving false testimony against Gen. Obasanjo,
Maj. Gen. Yar'Adua, and Col. Gwadabe. He said he was tortured until
he "confessed" that he had been to Gen. Obasanjo's residence. He said
that contrary to his testimony, he had never met Yar'Adua.
Later, Gen. Obasanjo was brought to Inter-center and placed in a cell
opposite mine. Obasanjo looked confused. But he eventually became
a father figure to us, leading prayer sessions.
From Inter-center, we were all taken to Kirikiri Prisons. As we arrived,
Fadile began weeping and begging Obasanjo and Yar'Adua for forgiveness,
saying that he had almost shed innocent blood. He prostrated himself
before Obasanjo and Yar'Adua who said they had forgiven him. Later
he wrote confession letters to Obasanjo, Yar'Adua, and Gwadabe about
his false testimony.
* * *
Although I was not allowed access to radio and newspapers, I still
had a way of getting information. When Abacha died, the warders were
excited and talked about it with detainees. Initially, I didn't believe
it was true. And I collapsed when I heard that Chief Moshood Abiola
had died in detention. In fact, I warned my informants to stop joking.
But when it was confirmed, I was devastated.
Initially, members of my family were not allowed to see me at Agodi
Prisons in Ibadan, but later, the rule was relaxed. I had access to
two people once in a month -- my mother, Mrs. Julliet Obi, and my
elder sister, Mrs. Ayo Obiageli Sangobiyi. My colleagues and human
rights activists in Oyo State were also wonderful. Specifically, Olalere
Fagbola, Punch bureau chief in Ibadan, really helped me.
I saw that the Nigerian military has completely lost touch with reality.
It has deviated from the civilized standards of military institutions
worldwide and degenerated into a gestapo institution. It is not only
an army of occupation but a terrorist institution that has become
a killer, a torturer, and a maimer of the people they are paid to
I call on Gen. Abubakar to restructure the military. The military
has no business in government. Abubakar was used by Abacha to announce
the phantom coup. Later, when he got to know, he spoke against the
execution of the condemned people. Abubakar was not part of the original
clique that framed innocent people. That clique comprised Abacha,
Ismaila Gwarzo, Hamza El-Mustapha, Col. Abibu Idris Shuaibu, and Gen.
I'm not exonerating Abubakar. I feel that he should have resigned
if he didn't like the system. I'm not grateful to him for releasing
us, I'm grateful to God, my colleagues, the international community,
and human rights groups. I thank Nosa Igiebor, Bayo Onanuga, Wole
Soyinka, Olisa Agbakoba, Anthony Enahoro, Gani Fawehinmi, Femi Falana,
and so many other people. They are the people who released political
detainees, not Abubakar.
There is nothing to be equated with freedom. Honey is sweet, but freedom
is sweeter than honey. My imprisonment affected my earlier plans but
I have no regrets at all.
This narrative by Ben Charles-Obi, editor of the now-defunct Classique
magazine, was originally published in Tell magazine as an interview
with Yemi Olowolabi.
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I Knew I Would
by George M'bah
My release came as a surprise because in Biu
Prison we had what I call "Philistinic restrictions," and I was kept
in a total news blackout. The first inclination I had about my release
was on Monday evening [July 20, 1998] when the chief superintendent
of the prison called me into his office. He told me that the government
had been releasing people. Then he said, "If we have offended you
in any way, please forgive us, we all make our mistakes."
The following evening, the man called me again and said that the head
of state made a broadcast on Monday and that I had been released.
I then signed all necessary papers and he gave me Naira 500 (US$6)
for transportation. I left the prison and checked into a hotel for
the night before continuing on to Lagos.
Throughout my years of incarceration, I had no access to books. When
I arrived at Biu Prison in 1995, they said I could only read the Bible
and confiscated all the books I had in my possession. After some time,
I was tired of reading the Bible, so I asked the warden for a copy
of the Koran. I was given an English translation copy. I think one
of the guards saw me reading it and reported me. So, the next day,
all hell broke loose. They said I wanted to cause a religious riot
and they confiscated the Koran. For the following eight months, I
wasn't given anything to read. They would bring books from the library
for other detainees, but they wouldn't give me any. They said I had
not come there to read.
Throughout 1996, I never received any medical care, despite the fact
that I was ill. They would give me tablets. I don't know whether it
was the correct dose because they called it "half treatment." Yet
every two or three weeks, I continued to become ill.
I couldn't eat the prison food because they only served tuwo (corn
porridge). They said I could buy something else for myself, so I started
giving them money to buy bread and other little things. I paid for
it with part of the money Gen. Obasanjo and Chris Anyanwu gave me,
which was only N1,200 (US$14).
By November 1996, I was already out of money and my drugs had finished.
My case was reported to the comptroller at Maiduguri. He came and
I complained about the food and the fact that my drugs were finished.
He said he would go and see the chairman of the Biu Local Government
to give me N1,000 (US$12) to buy the medicine, but I never heard anything
from him again.
Biu Prison is a 1912 Native Authority Prison constructed during the
colonial era by the British. My cell was a big room. I was held in
solitary confinement and given a bug-infested mattress without a bed
or a blanket. The prison authorities said that they didn't want me
to break my back and that was why they didn't give me a bed for the
three years since my arrest on May 5, 1995.
I was arrested by Maj. George Ukachi. Originally he had asked for
Adegbenro, the writer of the story. My only contribution to the story
was my interview with Col. Godwin Ugbo, acting director, Defense Information.
So, when I got to the restaurant, he said, "Your magazine has been
worrying the government. And the government is planning to appoint
Nosa Igiebor (the editor in chief) as the Minister of Information,
and appoint you to a position. Just give me your bank account. Government
can put money in it for you and show me land that you want. They will
build you a house, and give you a car, and you will be comfortable."
I told him I was not interested because I was not that kind of journalist,
and that he would not find those kinds of journalists at Tell,
because we are serious-minded people. Then, I asked him what was going
on with this coup business. He said there was no problem, that we
could meet the following day at the officer's mess in Marina, Lagos.
He said I should give him my name for him to leave at the reception
so that they could allow me to see him at 3:30 p.m. for a talk. So,
I said let me go, it was getting to 6:00 p.m. He said, "Relax, you
are going to see our Oga." Then he brought out his gun. I didn't know
that officers had surrounded the restaurant. They said I should enter
their vehicle. I said, "Okay, let us go and see your Oga." That was
how I was arrested.
They interrogated me about 10 times. I met the Group B Investigation
Panel in July 1995 where you go before all these big generals. They
put me at the center, and asked me how we got the story. I told them
I did not know anything about the story, that I only contributed to
it. Then they asked me why did Tell establish Dateline (a weekly
tabloid newspaper)? I told them it was just part of being competitive.
But they said we established Dateline because the government might
close down Tell.
Then, they kept asking how we got the story on the death of Maj. Oni.
I told them that my only contribution was the interview with Col.
Ugbo. They brought Col. Ugbo to confirm. He started shouting: "I told
him not to publish it. I told him not to publish it." I said even
if he said I should not publish it, the editors do not take instruction
At the trial, they said I was trying to cause civil war with that
report. They also said I was trying to save coup plotters. So, I was
charged with "accessory after the fact of treason." The first military
lawyer who defended me was one Ahmed, who left because of a death
in his family. He was replaced with an Igbo lawyer named Maduko, who
said if I had not done the interview with Ugbo that I would not have
been part of it, so, they should let me go because I was innocent.
Special Military Tribunal Chairman Brig. Gen. Patrick Aziza and the
others left. Later Aziza said, "We like making scapegoats to deter
others from the irresponsibilities of Nigerian journalism that make
black white and white black."
Aziza sentenced me to life imprisonment in a trial that did not last
30 minutes. At first, I broke down because I couldn't understand what
was going on. I was also surprised that from the day I was sentenced,
I was kept in chains. Just my hands were chained, but when I was going
out they would put on the leg irons. One thing I was sure of was that
in the civilized world, this could not last. Abacha could not last
forever. That was my only hope.
So, I relaxed, because detention has always been part of the hazards
of the job. I have no regrets. Journalists have gone through a lot
of things in this society, because we only work in the public interest.
This narrative by George M'bah, Tell's senior assistant
editor, was originally published in the magazine as an interview with
Adebola Adewole, Wola Adeyemo, and Mikali Mumuni.
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and Mandela Inspired Me to Survive Abacha's Gulag
by Onome Osifo-Whiskey
I was on my way to church with my four children,
between three and nine years of age, when, just half a kilometer from
home, some vehicles obstructed mine and forced me to a halt. Some
men jumped out with guns and demanded that I get out of my car. At
first, I thought they were hired assassins, because we had recently
received death threats at Tell. I was relieved to learn that
they were State Security Service (SSS) agents when they told me to
follow them to their office. I asked about my children, and they said
I should abandon them in the street. I refused to do so, stating that
even if I committed all the offenses in the world, my children cannot
be said to have committed them. We argued over this and eventually
they said they would take them to my house. I said that if they knew
the location of my residence, why didn't they arrest me there so that
the children could be spared this experience.
After a flurry of radio activity with their headquarters, we drove
back to my home. When we arrived, men with guns surrounded my car,
shouting, and then they quickly overpowered me and threw me into their
car and drove off. It was the most humiliating, traumatic experience
children of that age could have.
When I look back at my experiences in prison, I experienced both physical
and psychological pain during my two detentions. Here is a situation
where you are detained, and only those who captured you know why they
took you. They even make it appear as if you are responsible for your
detention. The pain is a grievous one. Grievous in terms of the expectation
of a country that was the hope of democracy for Africa by 1960, but
that has now gone overboard into the land of state harassment of its
But we are still being arrested and harassed for offenses that are
either ill-defined or not defined at all. Even laws enacted by the
state are simply thrown aside by the people who operate the detention
system. It is tragic that after so much progress, with the kind of
intellectual attainment of this country that has even won a Nobel
Prize, we still cannot run a civil society.
And it is the more painful not so much because it is you, but because
you appreciate the fact that at the end of the 20th century we are
worse off than we were in colonial times. Our experiences have been
an abortion of great expectations, ideals, and desires that Nigeria
should have showcased to the rest of the world.
During my detention, I was never physically tortured. For the 173
days that I was imprisoned by the SSS, I did not have the privilege
of due process of law. So, my accusers were also the inflicters of
my punishment. When you are in SSS detention you are quarantined as
if you were somebody suffering from smallpox. Nobody speaks to you.
You are held incommunicado and you are not even allowed to speak with
your jailers. You are not allowed access to any information of any
kind. You may not even know where you are in the first place. I believe
prison incarceration is better because you will rub shoulders with
I was held on the grounds that I was a threat to state security because
I worked for a media house that is considered to be "unfriendly."
And because I have a certain level of responsibility, I must be equally
I was asked about things as varied as the illness of Gen. Sani Abacha
and our sources for our knowledge. And this becomes rather pathetic
considering the fact that the illness of a person like Gen. Abacha
is of fundamental importance to the public in view of his position
as head of state. And in any other society, it is reported with much
interest. In Russia, which is just emerging into an open society,
still with rigorous restriction here and there regarding press freedom,
the heart operation of President Yeltsin was not a hidden affair.
It was reported by the Russian press. But here it becomes a very serious
state offense, capable, in the eyes of those who are knowledgeable
about state security, of abolishing the Nigerian state -- with one
stroke of the pen.
They were also demanding to know who our supporters are. And Tell
is a company that has existed for seven years. Any business anywhere
in the world is supported by the market system. The dictatorship of
the market is, in fact, more severe than the dictatorship of military
juntas. But they don't realize this. So if you can survive the harsh
economic environment under which the press operates today, you must
be financed by foreign embassies. If they know that we collect money
from foreign organizations, they should come forward and show the
My freedom came as a total surprise because in detention, one learns
not to rely on such information. But when the prison authorities sent
for me, what came to my mind was that I was in for another round of
interrogation. They said they had revoked the order under which I
was being kept, but they didn't say I was being given my freedom.
So they told me to go and pack, and I was given only 30 minutes to
When I arrived at the director's office, he greeted me and said I
was free to go. I thought this was a joke. When I was being taken
from SSS headquarters in Abuja to prison in February, I was initially
told that I had been released. I later learned the opposite from the
Ironically, I had just finished reading [South African President Nelson]
Mandela's biography a few weeks before I was arrested. He was a monumental
inspiration to me, and when you realize that the man went through
this thing for 27 years, you are encouraged. For the first 36 days,
I wore the same clothes. I had to beg and plead until they bought
me some second-hand shorts and T-shirts, which I could change into
and wash my original clothes. I had also lost 10 kilograms in weight.
I learned that if you are in the lion's den and you see how the lion
roars, you get used to it. Detention and the fear of detention will
become demystified. Detention itself is a demystification of detention.
It is a demystification of the power of captivity that they exercise
over you. The positive aspect is that you will become stronger in
your resistance to the pain and agony of detention. If they realize
that you do not break down easily, that is a plus for you.
This narrative by Tell managing editor Onome Osifo-Whiskey
was originally published as an interview with Shola Oshunkeye.
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Wanted My Magazines to Die
by Babafemi Ojudu
I think the authorities had me under surveillance
before I traveled to Kenya. I have been a wanted person probably over
the stories we (TheNEWS) did on the failing health of the then-head
of state Gen. Abacha, and the one on Abacha's business link with a
private businessman by the name of Chaugory. When they arrested me,
they were particularly interested in the source of those stories.
They threatened and tortured me, but I refused to budge. They also
wanted to know my mission in Kenya, and the U.S.A., and other places
I had been to earlier in the year. I told them, but they seemed unimpressed.
They alleged that my publishers, the Independent Communications Network
Limited (ICNL), were being sponsored by the U.S. and British governments.
I told them it was not true. They also alleged that I was a friend
of Walter Carrington, the former American ambassador to Nigeria, and
Nene, the South African envoy to Nigeria. In fact, I told them that
these are the people I would want to be close with, but in actual
fact we were not friends.
I ought to have been released since April, but the individuals involved
thought that I was too stubborn, and they decided to punish me. Further,
the intention was to cripple my organization. They reasoned that since
I am with them and Bayo (Bayo Onanuga, the editor in chief of TheNEWS)
had gone into exile, the magazines would die. But to their surprise,
the magazines were still coming out regularly. So, they wanted to
know who was behind the operations.
I was afflicted with typhoid and jaundice and I never received any
medical treatment. I thought I would die the next day, that was why
I wrote my will. I was tortured throughout. I was kept in solitary
confinement. I was not allowed to go out of my cell. I slept, shat,
urinated, ate, and did everything in the confined room. The experience
was so terrible.
I was never spoken to for more than five minutes everyday. In the
morning, they would say, "Wetin you go chop?" (What will you eat?)
They came back in the evening to ask the same question. That is all,
no further conversation. I sat in that place for a whole nine months.
It was a mental torture. At one time, I asked for the Bible or Koran;
they refused. No books, nothing.
Zakari Biu, assistant police commissioner and head of the task force
on terrorist activities, came to visit me once. He just abused me.
He told me that I was a quack journalist. That I did not go to a school
of journalism. To him, you can have a Ph.D., but if you did not go
to a school of journalism, you are not a journalist. He further boasted
that he would deal with me. He wanted to impress Abacha that he was
working hard. He thought he was doing what he did to us in the interest
Help me convey my unreserved appreciation for those who worked for
my freedom -- the Nigerian press, international organizations and
others. I say thank you and God bless. Please, keep the flag flying.
In November 1997, Babafemi Ojudu, managing editor of TheNEWS
and TEMPO newsmagazines, was arrested without charge by authorities
while attempting to return to Nigeria after attending a conference
in Kenya. He was released in July 1998.
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