Outliving Abacha: Six Nigerian journalists' prison stories
|Publisher||Committee to Protect Journalists|
|Author||Kunle Ajibade, Chris Anyanwu, Ben Charles-Obi, George M'bah, Onome Osifo-Whiskey, Babafemi Ojudu|
|Publication Date||February 1999|
|Cite as||Committee to Protect Journalists, Outliving Abacha: Six Nigerian journalists' prison stories, February 1999, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c567c42.html [accessed 26 April 2015]|
|Comments||This report was included as a Special Report in CPJ's "Attacks on the Press in 1998".|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
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 follow.
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.
The 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 my health.
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 were high.
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 hours.
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.
Rats 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 late Abiola.
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.
My Trial Was a Charade
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 the SMT.
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 10 minutes.
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 protect.
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. Abdulahi.
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.
I Knew I Would Outlive Abacha
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 from anybody.
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.
God 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 own individuals.
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 other inmates.
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 guilty.
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 evidence.
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 comply.
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 same director.
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.
They 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 of Abacha.
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.