Fellow Nigerians, thanks for travelling with me these past couple of weeks on my trajectory. The whole essence of my biographical essays is to remind our youths of today that there can be no greatness without pain. As Dr Tai Solarin, the famous social critic and educator once wrote, “may your road be rough…” Mine has been a rollercoaster, full of bumps and turns. No Formula 1, or better still Le Mans, driver could have envisaged, navigated and manoeuvred my life’s journey properly and easily. I shall endeavour to demonstrate the immutable laws and power of time today. Your life can come tumbling down within a twinkle of an eye. Yes, in a matter of seconds, your life can freeze. That was my case on July 22, 1995.
I had spent the previous night in Abeokuta, the city of rocks, where I had gone to visit the former Governor of Ogun State, Chief Olusegun Osoba, to discuss the June 12 imbroglio. My adopted father, Chief Moshood Abiola, had been in detention for about one agonising year and it appeared we were all helpless to get him freed from General Sani Abacha’s gulag. I liked to sit and draw from Chief Osoba’s fountain of knowledge. Almost from the moment I landed in Lagos, from the ancient town of Ile-Ife, in 1988, I had identified and chosen him as my role model and ultimate inspiration in journalism business. It is difficult to find any star reporter greater than Osoba. I followed his every move with keen interest and read his story with admiration and addiction. Let me take you on a voyage on how I got hooked on my Osoba drug.
I was squatting with friends for a while in Lagos because I just couldn’t afford to pay rent. I had rotated from Bimbo Ajiboye to Segun Adegbesan and Biodun Obisakin. It was while in Segun Adegbesan’s house that I discovered a song sang in praise of Osoba by the Juju Music maestro, Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey. My God, I woke up every morning to play this song and fantasised endlessly about wanting God to structure and bless my life like that of Akinrogun Osoba. I’m sure I played the tape for what seemed an eternity. Osoba has remained my point of prayer contact ever since. You can then imagine how elated I would have been getting to meet and bond with this hero, my idol and my all-time journalism icon. In case you are wondering what the love was all about, it was simply because Osoba was able to kill the myth that journalists should be the dregs of society and lambs of God who took away the sins of the earth. Why should journalists risk so much and yet remain poorer than church rats, I used to wonder.
The case of Osoba and I was that of love at first sight. I had heard of his supposed arrogance and short temper, but my experience was totally different. He found a worthy protégé in me and never stopped admiring and acknowledging my strides. He was permanently proud of my excursions and audacity in the media world. He read me religiously and we spoke as frequently as time permitted both of us. His bosom friend, Mr Obafunke Otudeko, also turned out to be a great fan of my work. Just imagine such grace from God. This was the background to my going to spend time with Osoba in Abeokuta on July 21, from whence I departed the following morning, ostensibly to Lagos, not realising I would be embarking on a longer, more dangerous journey.
I was driving home to the remote village of Adigboluja on the fringes of the Lagos and Ogun States border when I saw my wife’s car, so I stopped. I was tired and looking forward to a great sleep on getting home, after chatting late into the night with the big boss in Abeokuta. “Ajani, I’m happy you passed this route because I was just wondering how to get you to break some bad news…” my wife said with a calmness that actually pumped up my adrenalin. “I hope no one died,” I exclaimed! “No dear. It is about your political activities and the role you are playing in Chief Abiola’s saga…” My wife was yet to drop the bombshell. I could no longer bear this suspense, so I thundered, “darling, please, tell me what the matter is. You know when it comes to Abiola, he is my Daddy, and I must continue to support him in whatever little way I can…”
My mind did some supersonic journey on a stream of consciousness and I flashed back to my last encounter with Chief Abiola. After his Epetedo declaration where he proclaimed himself as the President of Nigeria in 1994 and his journey to South Africa for the Inauguration ceremony of the great Madiba, Dr Nelson Mandela, where he grabbed the seat reserved for the Nigerian leader! So much water had passed under the bridge. Abiola had to go into hiding for about 13 days, and a few of us, including his personal assistant Fred Enoh, and politician, Ademola Adeniji Adele, a Lagos Prince (God bless his departed soul), and others worked feverishly for his re-entry into the community of humans. We had gone to get him out of Chief Wahab Dosunmu’s house in some long-winding street in Surulere, Lagos, for a short rally, I think on a field in Shitta, before proceeding to his house in Ikeja.
A detachment of fully armed police officers was waiting patiently, like vultures, along Toyin Street, as Abiola’s convoy drove through. Chief was riding in Adeniji Adele’s open roof jeep and was standing tall for all to see him as we meandered into Moshood Abiola Crescent. One spiritualist who was recruited by a family member (supposedly to protect Chief from any harm and release honey bees into the atmosphere to sting the police if they tried to arrest Chief) was hanging to the right of the jeep while I was hanging to the left. I don’t know what would have happened if some snipers had chosen to be trigger-happy. The spiritualist was the first to panic while Chief remained brave to the end. That’s a story for another day. We drove into Chief’s house without any incidence. Chief thereafter told me to go home because I had not refreshed in the last 48 hours. I told him I would be back in a few hours. By the time I got back, the massive security operatives had taken possession of his expansive home and no one was allowed in or out.
I rushed quickly to a business centre on Allen Avenue to place a call to Chief Abiola. Mobile phones were not yet common in 1994 (see how much life has changed) and I called the operator who passed me on to him. When he came on the line, I instantly knew there was big trouble. Chief tried to sound tough as always. “Dele 1, please go home to your wife because these security guys won’t let you in… I’ve been reliably informed that they are coming to arrest me in the night when the crowd around here would have left but I don’t think Sani can try it o!” Those were Abiola’s last words to me on earth, as the phone went dead. Of course, Chief was arrested, and the rest is history!
Those last moments raced through my mind like a blockbuster movie as I stood, transfixed, before my wife. Her next words were going to shock me to my bone marrow: “Four men came looking for you this morning. At first, I was reluctant to open the door but one of them called Abdul Oroh said he is your good friend and brother so I let them in. They told me to inform you to disappear immediately because there was a security report that you are to be picked up for being one of the brains behind the pirate radio, known then as Radio Freedom (later Radio Kudirat)”. As she spoke, my heart was pumping and thumping. Wow, I soliloquised! I already had a premonition I was going to be targeted. Truth was I knew nothing about the operations of the radio which was being managed by Kayode Fayemi, with the active knowledge and interventions of Wole Soyinka, Bola Tinubu and others.
My wife and I took an instant and reasonable decision. I should go underground immediately and that was it. I never saw that home again. I called Tokunbo Afikuyomi in London and he advised me to get out of Abacha’s clutches and the impending peril as soon as possible. He gave me an elaborate roadmap of what was known as the NADECO routes, what to do, how to prepare, what to expect and, basically, how to disappear through the forests of a thousand daemons.
First I went into a bunker, like Saddam Hussein, away from prying and probing eyes, somewhere in Kaffi, Alausa, near the Lagos State Secretariat, thanks to my dear friends, the Orolugbagbes, who kept me safe and sound, from July 22 to the early hours of July 25, when I started my journey of fate and faith. My wife had moved to her sister’s place in Ikeja GRA with our first son, Olupekan, who was barely ten months old. I was accompanied by three wonderful people, Captain Rotimi Seriki (my brother-in-law, a pilot at Nigeria Airways, now deceased, one of the kindest souls God ever created), my very close friends, Olakunle Sikiru Bakare (a Director at Fame magazine and now Publisher of Encomium magazine) and Bola Orolugbagbe (a successful businessman who dealt in automobiles in Victoria Island). We set out by road towards Badagry and found our way to some place close to Seme Border. Captain was at the wheels driving with uncommon gusto. Every now and then we stopped at those grisly and gory checkpoints with palpable trepidation on my part, as the fugitive. But we went through without any problem.
Fortunately, I had a two-year multiple visa to the United Kingdom. I had obtained an ECOWAS passport for the purpose of this dangerous voyage. We parked our car somewhere along the route and Captain Seriki showed me the narrow path to take into Benin Republic, alone. They would drive and meet me on the other side. That must have been one of my lowest and scariest minutes on earth. I was dressed and trudged like a farmer going to his farm. I had been told to walk as confidently as possible and keep a straight poker face, avoiding direct eye-contact with anyone. It was a lonely distressing and depressing, seemingly never-ending trek. My main passport was with my co-conspirators. One of them carried my bag. I strolled across easily, even if my heart was in my throat, and waited for my people to arrive. I looked back towards my beloved country Nigeria, and wept bitterly.
I never planned to live outside my country. I loved to travel but never stayed more than three weeks. This journey was going to be tough. I wondered where, when and how it would end. After what seemed an eternity, my people arrived. I wished they could penetrate my mind to see how truly grateful I was. We took a vehicle to Cotonou from the Bening Republic side of the Seme Border. Captain had arranged with a friend of his to host us briefly. My own Guru and Spirit had provided some logistical support as always. After having a quick bath and changing into better clothing, I was set for an epic journey. Since I was not ready to stay anywhere near Nigeria, my people drove me to a motor-park where I boarded a jalopy of a vehicle to Lome in Togo and from Aflao Border to Accra, Ghana. The moment my people dropped me and went back to Nigeria must have been one of my loneliest. I arrived Ghana for the first time ever that evening, and checked in at a small but cute hotel called Noga Hill Hotel. It was more than a poor relative of our fabulous Nicon Noga Hilton (now Transcorp Hilton), but for me it was like the best sanctuary one could hope for.
That was how my journey into a three-year exile began without knowing what exciting and better plans God had kept secretly from me and was soon to reveal…