I don’t know of any private citizen of Nigeria who has ever taken a greater risk for his country than Dr. Amos Arogundade Akingba, the unrelenting and tireless chieftain of the resurgent National Democratic Coalition, NADECO. On Thursday March 1, he turns 80. He remains unbending in his belief that Nigeria, to have a great future, must go back to the old regionalism agreed upon by our Founding Fathers. A few weeks ago, Akingba was at the Akure meeting of Afenifere, the Yoruba cultural and political organization, to again propagate his ideas. He is at one with the famous public intellectual, Professor Ladipo Adamolekun, author, retired regional director of the World Bank and polyglot who has been warning for many years with apocalyptic resonance that Nigeria, to have a great future must “reform or die.”
But Akingba is of a special stuff. Fearless and heroic, some of the risks he took during the reign of General Sani Abacha, could only have been taken by a man who had conquered fear. I met Akingba after the execution of our friend, Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was killed along with eight other Ogoni leaders in what became known as “judicial murder.” Before his journey of no return to Ogoniland, he was still with us at the TELL magazine headquarters propagating his ideas about Nigeria’s future.
The killing of Saro-Wiwa in 1995 was to change our operation in TELL, the weekly newsmagazine that was on the fore-front in the fight against the Abacha dictatorship. The directors of TELL and other senior editors were hunted by the Abacha goons and several of the top editors were eventually caught in the net, including Nosa Igiebor, the Editor-in-Chief and Onome Osifo-Whiskey, the Managing Editor. We moved out of our office on Acme Road, Ikeja, which we shared with the Textile Workers Union, our landlord. When we abandoned our office, Akingba offered us the use of his palatial home in Opebi. Akingba’s residence was one of many operational offices we were using in those dark days of military dictatorship.
Many of the stirring stories on the Abacha regime were done on the pent-house of Akingba’s luxury home. While the security agents were combing the streets of Lagos looking for us, we were ensconced on the third-floor of the house. The house had its swimming pool on the last floor with a garden to boot! In serene detachment from the hurly-bully of Lagos below, we would be writing our stories and be plotting our next move.
One morning in 1996, they brought the news that General Alani Akinrinade’s house had been bombed. Akinrinade, a former Chief of Defence Staff who also served as a Minister during the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida, had joined the agitation for the restoration of democratic rule. He and other leaders of NADECO, which included such former military men like Ndubuisi Kanu and Dan Suleiman, were insistent that Abacha should hand over power to Chief Moshood Abiola, the winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election which was voided by General Ibrahim Babangida. In the same Opebi axis were the likes of Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, who was Babangida’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Otunba Olabiyi Durojaiye and Akinrinade.
They were all NADECO chieftains and great partisan of Abiola who lived off Toyin Street in the same axis. In the wake of Abacha rampaging goons, Akinyemi, like Akinrinade, fled into exile. Only Akingba and Durojaiye remained resolutely at home, waiting for that mid-night knock on the door. Durojaiye was eventually to spend almost three years in detention.
The fire was closing in and yet Akingba remained at home. We were still producing our magazine in his premises. In the evening, the senior editors of TELL would saunter in and move to the swimming poll side on the pent-house. Then one day Akinrinade’s house was bombed by the agents of the Abacha junta. By this time, Akinrinade had fled and the agents, missing their quarry, had decided to destroy the house. I went there to see the extensive damage. There I met Kudirat, the brave senior wife of Abiola. It was to be our last meeting. After leaving the carcass of Akinrinade’s house, I moved to Akingba’s house to discuss the current events and the necessary things to do.
The topical thing at that time was the transmission of Radio Freedom Frequency, the rebel radio broadcast from the United States. The rebel radio was procured through the good offices of Professor Wole Soyinka, Africa’s first Nobel laureate for literature, who was also in exile. The radio became a major instrument of offence in the hand of external NADECO where the voices of such exiles like Professor Gbadegesin, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, Professor Mobolaji Aluko and Dr Kayode Fayemi were heard regularly. The Abacha regime suspected that there must be a booster transmitter of the radio somewhere in Nigeria, especially Lagos. The security agencies zeroed in on the palatial residence of the Akingbas. Still Dr Akingba remained in his house.
Few weeks after Akinrinade house was fire-bomb, I had gone to the residence of Akingba around 11 a.m. It was June 9, 1996.“Kudirat has been shot!” Akingba announced as I stepped into the compound. He was standing on the landing of the entrance to the house. He was grim. “She is dead!!”It was clear to us that we were participating in a death-game in our opposition to Abacha. “The brave woman had been betrayed,” he said. “But betrayal would not stop us!”
He was in a fierce but low spirit. For him, it was a blow that cannot be assuage by weeping, but by the gritting of teeth. It was a very low moment, but the struggle against Abacha continued. Radio Freedom was renamed Radio Kudirat after the assassination of Kudirat Abiola.
The Abacha killer squad was abroad picking off its targets one by one. Among those who fell before Kudirat was Chief Alfred Rewane, regarded as the financier of NADECO. Those who were hit included Alex Ibru, the publisher of The Guardian who was seriously wounded. Among those who escaped was Senator Abraham Aderibigbe Adesanya, the redoubtable leader of Afenifere. The most wanted was Chief Anthony Enahoro, veteran journalist, politician, nationalist, statesman and first Minister of Information in the defunct Western Region. Enahoro was the right-hand man of Papa Rewane and when Rewane was gunned down in the sanctuary of his Ikeja home, Enahoro knew he was next. He went fully underground.
But the heat was on and the famous man moved from one safe house to another. In the end, he was offered temporary sanctuary by a friendly embassy in Lagos. Few weeks later, he surfaced in a house at Iganmu. One Sunday I came into Akingba’s house and I met Chief Enahoro. Soon, a team joined us led by the intrepid Dr Frederick Fasehun, the leader of the Oodua Peoples Congress, OPC. Fasehun had come to escort Enahoro into exile through the famous NADECO route on the boarder with Benin Republic. On the instruction of Akingba, I joined the team in my car to Mile 12 where they changed vehicles and the great Chief Enahoro began his second trip into exile. The first was during the Treasonable Felony trial of the First Republic when he stood in the dock with his leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
Few days after Enahoro escaped, the Abacha goon came for Akingba. He was waiting for them. They took him away and turned the house upside down claiming they were searching for document. After about a week later, he was released on bail. How Akingba escaped through the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Ikeja, while all security agencies in Nigeria were looking for him, is a story only Akingba can tell. Few days after he fled, Abacha goons invaded his beautiful house, set fire to the place, which caused serious damage.
Even now after all these years, I still wonder why Akingba decided to risk everything for the struggle. He had led a good life and made good money and yet was prepared to throw everything away so that Nigeria can be free from military dictatorship. He is one of the best educated Nigerian. He graduated from the University of London 50 years ago and had his Master’s from the University of Leads in 1974 and his doctorate from Cornell University in 1978. The annulment of Abiola’s victory turned him from a mere theorist into an activist.
For almost 20 years now, he is back home, but he is still an exile from the political space. He paid dearly for him activism. His wife, his mother-in-law, his children and grandchildren, all suffered for the struggle. Akingba, like Chief Enahoro, Ralph Obioha, Dan Suleiman, Akinrinade and many of those who were in the thick of the struggle, have not being able to find space in the politics of the current republic. They are outsiders and exiles from the political space who made our victory possible. They canvassed that there should be political restructuring before the military handover in 1999 but they were overwhelmed by the professional politicians.
They want the country to have only six regions as the federating units and that the country should be guided by a Constitution closer to the Independence Constitution of 1960. It is clear now that the politicians of the two main political parties, the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC and the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, in the National Assembly are not talking about restructuring of the Federation. Therefore the culmination of Akingba’s great struggle is still in the future. He believes that there is no alternative to travelling that road when every region would have enough resources to make life more abundant for its citizens. I agree with him. What route to take to that future remains disputatious.
Dare Babarinsa is a veteran journalist of the Tell Magazine fame who used his pen to give the then military dictatorship sleepless nights.