By Adewale Adeoye
Life is funny…and a bit of a mystery. Mental pictures of the future are often kept in the womb of the present. This often happens in our younger ages, when we are green, fresh and innocent, but we often fail to take the full snapshot.
Growing up in the poorer, deep recesses of Ado-Ekiti, the root of my paternal grandmother’s Oja, a royal. I cannot remember if I ever had any encounter with an elder brother. He was a black, slim young man, probably with a pencil line moustache, in his 20s. He is an indigene of Ado. This unique city was and still is the “damsel of treasure” of many Ekiti people and every man or woman would dream to flirt with her.
Ado gave the rainbow colours of civilization in the 70s and 80s. She had the first street light, the best roads, the best collection of TVs, the only GRA, which my half-educated uncle once insisted meant Governor Robert Adebayo, Instead of Government Reserved Areas. Ado, the bride, was often arrogant about her imposing pedigree.
He was already a full boy then, but for me, and I was yet to hit the real puberty age when you could dance “tight” with a girl. The 70s and 80s were the years of sonorous music- Sunny Ade and Emperor Pick Peter’s bitter rivalry at the local level and Michael Jackson and Kool and the Gang for foreign impact. It was when the hairstyle was either Rico Bay, Kenedy, and the trousers, JB, baggies; and the shoes, Sttileto or Safari.
Oga Femi was born and bred in Ado. As his junior, most certainly, we may have had some interactions either in the disco parties or during the usual fisticuff associated with the masquerade outings. Known for gatecrashing at late night discos and notorious for disrupting the parties of seniors, younger elite, hated for their monopoly of the bevy of ladies.
I am almost sure my path may have crossed that of Oga Femi, a product of Ado Grammar School, who’s all-male older students considered Ado as their social dominion and sphere of influence. Where an invincible toll-gate must be manned by them at those late-night Christmas parties.
Oh! In that generation, being a student was accompanied by the reading of novels, mostly James Hardley Chase and spending the evening leisure hours under the neon lights of music, gist and dance.
The mental picture of old began to crawl back when in later years, in 1988, I met a certain journalist, who had the reputation of a nutcracker, the zeal of a horse and the will of a fighter. It was at twilight. The leader of the country was a certain Mr Ibrahim Babangida, who had seized, at gunpoint, power from Gen. Mohammadu Buhari and was three years into what would later turn out to be a catastrophic misadventure in Nigerian history.
I and now Prof Uzodinma Nwala, who was once the National Secretary of ASUU, sat still at the pony reception of Dr Beko Ransom Kuti at his famous Imaria Street home in Lagos. It was a windy day. I remember. It took us 7 hours to travel from Nsukka to Lagos. Imagine: each paid 7 Naira as that was the transport cost.
In a few minutes, we were ushered in. Beko had a cigarette hanging in one corner of his mouth. His wide eyeballs radiated with some charm. On the other side of the table was a black man who Beko introduced as a ‘radical journalist’. We greeted. His gritty handshake had an ancestral impact on me. We began the discussion on the state of the nation, the anti-SAP riots, the killing of students and at each junction, I heard, over and over again, the journalist said something like “We can’t continue this way. We have to bring down this house of evil. I’m ready to sacrifice my life.”
Later that day, Beko took us to Fela Anikulapo Kuti, whom we met at midnight. Fela strolled down the aisle, a tattered pant on him, his pubic hair visible, and he scratched his buttocks too. He blew the saxophone, his muscles flexing and rumbling, his cheekbones standing out. By this time, Oga Femi was not part of the delegation, but he assisted in helping us to book the appointment with Abami Eda.
However, in the 1990s, I was to meet Babafemi Ojudu again, and again at Imaria Street. This time, across the country, the thick cloud had begun to gather. The nights were becoming starless. It was a few months after the Gideon Orkar coup. Babangida’s myth had been shattered. He barely escaped being killed by some young boys in the military. Instead of learning his lessons, he had become more toughened. People were being arrested and held without trial. It was time for Nigerians to organize. And very few people began this battle.
Oga Femi was one of them. Many people came to those meetings. I can remember Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Labaran Maku (former Minister of Information), Shehu Sanni (Senator), Denja Yaqub, Chima Ubani, Lanre Ehonwa, Innocent Chukwuma, Ema Ezeazu, Lanre Arogundade, Sam Omaseye, Femi Aborisade, Femi Falana, Alao Aka Bashorun and many others. The Babangida’s transition programme that never ended had started.
As we mapped out the strategy for national mobilization, I again got enthralled by the power of logic and the compelling spirit of a thrilling revolutionary voice whose position captured all. He was with The African Concord. The owner of the newspaper was one of Babangida’s rookie and confidant, Chief M.K.O Abiola. Oga Femi stood up, raising up his clenched fist, he urged the gathering to prepare for a “long, tortuous battle” in the campaign against military rule. He again reechoed what I heard him say the first time we met: “I’m ready to sacrifice my life for the good of the country.” He ended up with the famous quote of Frantz Fannon: “Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable.”
What shook my senses most was his prediction that the regime of Babangida was not ready to hand over power unless we rose up like a swarm of stinging bees, surge to attack and make the country tough for the military. I recall he always cautioned the audience not to ethnicize the campaign but to see the potentials of a new Nigeria emerging. Emerging from the pains, sacrifices, pangs, and sweat of Nigerians from across bridges, Nigerians on the top of the Adamawa mountains, those whose makeshift homes dot the creeks and streams of the delta, and those who etch out a winding living under the humid sun of the desert North, amidst sand dunes and isolated anthills.
Babafemi Ojudu spoke for all Nigerians, of all races, faith, and creed. His power of argument was thrilling.
After he spoke, many of his suggestions, and the ideas of many others, included pamphleteering, house-to-house campaign and mass rallies, all were adopted as part of the working group’s mechanisms.
From that moment to 1992, we met frequently at Imaria Street, which had now become the seat of the emerging national revolution. But an event shook the country in 1992. Babangida laid bare his fangs; journalists were singled out as targets in the midst of the riotous waves against the military regime. In the months following that year, the June 12 election was held and it was annulled.
But for Oga Femi, the campaign for democracy was a twin brother of free speech. He rolled up his sleeves, driving some of the subterranean and open committee meetings day and night, even as one of the most vicious military machines was arrayed against him. The SSS was on the prowl. People were being declared missing or shot dead. This was the situation until the worst military dictator stepped in. That was in November 1993.
At this period, Oga Femi would come into every meeting like an invisible ghost. The African Concord, where Oga Femi worked was later picked as an arch enemy. The team of radical journalists, who had become the darling of local and international communities, had him as one of the flagbearers. I recall that two vehicles were always parked, with their headlight permanently on, on the street adjacent to Imaria, where Beko lived.
Now his prediction that the battle was worth laying down one’s life had come to pass. Many were being declared missing. I remember with heavy heart, the sudden disappearance of Mr. Prince, who worked with The African Guardian where I was also working. He was the Secretary of Mr. Andy Akporogu, one of the directors of The Guardian Newspapers. Chinedu Offoaro of The Guardian had also disappeared. Tunde Oladepo of The Guardian was shot dead in his house at Abeokuta. Now, it was getting personal. Oladepo was my University colleague.
In the midst of these bloody days and nights, Oga Femi stood like a tall, indomitable tree, his heart as strong as the cedar of Lebanon, and his sword, his pen, turned not back. I remember his vigorous defense of the campaign, his insistence never to go into exile, even when reports came that he had been identified as one of the most “dangerous journalists” by the military regime. Walking in the scary corridors of avengers, he stood still, like a rocky hill.
I cannot imagine how today, those who worked with the devious military, who took contracts from them and who betrayed their people, or were actually nowhere to be found on the thorny track to national rebirth, now come forward as political leaders, promising Nigerians “heaven on earth.”
There are few men I have encountered with such raw courage as that of Oga Femi. There are few journalists that have demonstrated such uncommon zeal in confronting the powerful outcasts that kept the entire country in the dungeon. It was not long after that, the African Concord was proscribed. The idea of the military was to cut off the economic base of people like Oga Femi.
I remember that shortly after we had a meeting at the office of Chief Gani Fawehinmi, some of the attendants came forward to show support having heard that Concord had been closed down. I remember what he told them something like: “Do not worry about me. Worry about Nigeria. We need to double our efforts. We shall win.”
Leading a struggle for the people has not always been easy. It gets even more difficult when the means of livelihood are halted. Many caved in and became rookies of their adversaries. For Oga Femi, taking away the job was only another source of renewed vigour. It was a moment he probably would trek for kilometers on the streets of Lagos since the source of his livelihood had been wrenched.
Despite his dwindling economic fortunes at the time, I remember clearly how he would dip his hands into his pocket to share the little he had, with many that were stranded at the end of each meeting.
I saw a compassionate person. a bundle of humanity, an honest, down-to-earth giver, a natural being, a dogged fighter, who places humanity in the centre piece of his relationships. I still hope to read his memoirs about how he concealed his family, his children from the harmful claws of the enemy and how he survived the trauma.
Now, suddenly, Oga Femi and a few others, from their own sweat and hard labour, backed by a few men, came up with another medium in pursuance of the struggle that had caught the rapt attention of the world. With the emergence of The News Magazine, the rabbit, smoked inside its hole, soon found another outlet. This time, with a more energetic spirit.
He reinforced his commitment to the anti-military movements which had established a major frontal group, Campaign for Democracy, (CD) the most formidable mass-based opposition group that Nigerians had ever seen. In one of the meetings, a Western embassy official had sent emissaries, asking some people to leave the country for personal safety. Oga Femi was one of them. In his chat with me, his feeling was that he was born to live and fight with and for his people for the public good.
Like many of us, Oga Femi’s house was now under siege. His whereabouts were known only to a handful. One of the reporters with The News at that time told me the editorial meetings some of which Oga Femi presided over were held right inside the Oshodi market or at the National Stadium or even near some police stations where the enemies would never have imagined he would have been.
This was one of the rare iconic struggles that were ever fought in Nigeria. His arrest must have been a huge asset to the military regime of Abacha but a calamity for the civil rights movement. He was picked up, we were told after all efforts to arrest him had failed. There were even speculations that he has some mystical powers that made him able to disappear. But the fact is that Oga Femi is simply a magical figure, a surgeon when it comes to statecraft and knowledge. He simply outsmarted the entire arsenal of the military.
The SSS had to spend several months in Ado Ekiti, molesting his family but also gathering information about one of the most wanted men. We were told on the day of this arrest, the SSS who had discovered his pet name in his primary school shouted “Gani”. It was like a man calling your hidden name known only to your closest relations and childhood friends in a strange environment like say, Hong Kong. Reflex action took charge. He turned his face. One of the most wanted men in Nigerian history, who was wanted for his revolutionary zeal, sought to be killed for his sacrifices and commitment to the liberation of his people, was arrested and whisked into the dark tunnels.
But Nigeria is full of irony. We can only hope that the right time will come. A time when those who shared in the pains and anguish of the people will be allowed to lead the people, instead of mercenaries that had no meeting point with the people in their most circuitous route to freedom and who only seek the stage, for nothing but perks and privileges.
Adeoye is a multiple award winning journalist.