As a young generation of Nigerians enjoy what is now Nigeria’s longest democratic spell, it is imperative that they be reminded, from time to time, of what life was during the military years so they don’t romanticise those days and desire them.
There have been a few comments by some people that a military takeover of power would solve some of Nigeria’s problems and there have also been the desire for a strongman leader. These desires might seem normal for a generation of largely ahistorical youths but the height of it came when a video surfaced on social media purportedly created by a group named HART (Hamza Al Mustapha Reform Team), showing images of Hamza Al Mustapha, with an accompanying voice praising him as a young vibrant military intelligence officer and a hero of democracy who should be given a chance to become Nigeria’s president in 2023.
For those who do not know, Hamza Al Mustapha was Chief Security Officer to late military dictator, General Sani Abacha. He supervised and personally conducted several murders and unjust incarcerations during his time Abacha’s number 1 henchman. Expectedly, the video received some pushback from people but there were the few young enthusiasts who insisted that the man represents a ray of hope for the country. It is because of these young people that older people should continually write and talk about their experiences under the military.
One of the most important accounts of the Babangida and Abacha years is Kunle Ajibade’s Jailed for Life because it is the prison account of Kunle Ajibade, a Nigerian journalist who spent three years in jail for trumped-up charges. The memoir, titled Jailed for Life, begins by chronicling the climate of fear and oppression that marked General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida’s military dictatorship. It further details the many tactics that Nigerian journalists adopted to continue their work in spite the Junta’s many oppressive tactics. The memoir could have been a handbook on how to survive a tyrant and how to operate as a journalist in the midst of an institutional crackdown by soldiers who do not answer to any reasonable authority. It is the kind of book that should be an essential read for trainee journalists in Nigeria.
Military dictatorships must not be romanticised. In recent times, coups are making a comeback in African politics but it must not be allowed in Nigeria.
In narrating Kunle Ajibade’s experience, the memoir also touches on many issues that affect Nigeria; press censorship, ethnicity, corruption, religion, activism and many other issues. The author reveals that the Nigerian military government resorted to printing fake copies of some newspapers that were critical of them to give themselves some credibility with the masses. In the battle for public opinion, they used the State owned television network, the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), which has stations in every state in the country, as propaganda tool. It probably explains why the NTA now lacks quality and credibility in spite of its pioneering role in Africa. Besides being a documentation of how journalists lived through military dictatorships, Jailed for Life also details how the wretched of the earth negotiated life in jail. In prison, they created their own lingo, there were soldiers who acted as religious ministers, there was exchange of money, there were reported cases of sodomy and the warders added more potash to the prisoners’ food, believing that it would reduce their sexual appetites. Nigerian prison warders, the book documents, hardly had the benefit training in dealing with mental health cases. It is doubtful if things have changed in the 22 years since the book was published). The memoir reported that a mentally ill prisoner was taken out and flogged to confirm whether indeed, he was mentally ill. The prison is an industry and the warders are actively involved in the racketeering. The warders y manifested micro aggression as their working conditions were inhumane and their salaries were often delayed.
It must have taken a lot of mental courage for Ajibade to write about such a traumatic experience in elegant prose
Mr. Ajibade paints a picture of hierarchy of power in the Nigerian prison, in which prisoners had their own justice system. When the prisoners heard that the Abacha regime had hung Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni leaders, they were worried for their own selves. Every death reminded them of their own proximity to it. It must have taken a lot of mental courage for Ajibade to write about such a traumatic experience in elegant prose. As terrible as things were for him in the jail, reports coming from outside the jail frustrated him and other inmates. At some point, he felt that being in jail was some respite as things were really bad for his colleagues outside because of the military crackdown. Their offices were razed; his colleagues were trailed and assaulted. Notable is Babafemi Ojudu who was arrested and treated like a criminal.
His sufferings were also alleviated when he was allowed access to his correspondences and he saw letters of solidarity from all over the world. By this time, he had devoted himself to reading in jail as a way to stay sane. The other prisoners also held a mini valedictory for him and sang prison farewell songs when he was eventually released after the death of Abacha. Although Abacha had earlier commuted the life sentence to 15 years, had he not died, Ajibade would have served the entire 15 years term just because he was a journalist. For many people, the mysterious death of Abacha was just an historical event but for someone like Ajibade, his family and others who were jailed unjustly by the Junta, it was a life changing event.
Bagudu has served in the Nigerian Senate and he is now the governor of Kebbi state, and the Chagoury family remains one of Nigeria’s richest families and they remain close to power. Because Nigeria is a country of collective amnesia, a lot of people who aided Abacha’s tyranny are still treated like the cream of the crop in the country.
One remarkable thing about the memoir for younger readers is the history of the names featured there. A lot of familiar names are featured for their roles at the time. Many people only know Dapo Olorunyomi as a newspaper publisher but he had to flee Nigeria because the military regime was bent on sending him to jail and they harassed his family in his absence. Babafemi Ojudu who was harassed has served as an elected Senator in the fourth republic and is now an adviser to the Nigerian President who himself was a coup plotter and ex military dictator. Daniel Kanu, who has been trying to become Governor of Imo State was mentioned for his role as the coordinator of the infamous pro Abacha group, Youth Earnestly Ask for Abacha (YEAA). Ayo Obe, Olisa Agbakoba and some others were also mentioned as having organised a courageous counter protest that must have shown Abacha’s handlers that Nigeria’s youth do not ask for him. Apart from his sons, Abacha also used Gilbert Chagoury, Mark Risser and Atiku Bagudu for his money laundering schemes, according to Ajibade. Bagudu has served in the Nigerian Senate and he is now the governor of Kebbi state, and the Chagoury family remains one of Nigeria’s richest families and they remain close to power. Because Nigeria is a country of collective amnesia, a lot of people who aided Abacha’s tyranny are still treated like the cream of the crop in the country.
The memoir proves that military dictatorship was not benign, it was ruthless. It also traces the history of indiscriminate arrests and the clampdown on press freedom to the Babangida regime. It is this fact that makes it surprising when recently, former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigerian and 2019 Presidential aspirant, Professor Kingsley Moghalu tried to justify military dictatorship when he posted on Twitter that “In the context of his era in power in which military rule was normal in Africa, he achieved much, but like every leader, was imperfect. Respect.” I wonder how Moghalu felt when journalist, Dele Giwa was brutally murdered the same year Moghalu graduated with a Law degree from the University of Nigeria. As Babangida clamped down on Press freedom and repeatedly scuttled the transition programme, I wonder how Moghalu felt. When Babangida was busy manipulating the political process and eventually annulled the June 12 elections, I wonder how Professor Moghalu felt wherever he was then. I wonder whether he has forgotten. Thankfully, there are books like Ajibade’s that offer an actual account of Nigeria’s military history from the citizens’ perspective instead of the accounts of those who have decided to forget.
The memoir took a few detours, with the author reflecting on the role of journalists in some parts. A section details his experience with Chief Bola Ige when Ige was arrested and transferred to the same prison where Ajibade was held. It is good for the memory of the former Oyo State Governor and Attorney General of the country to read about his experience as a defender of democracy. Also, there were documented exchanges between the author and his colleagues, Idowu Obasa and Dapo Olorunyomi on separate occasions, where they reflected on journalism and life under dictatorship. While the experience with Chief Bola Ige is the most reflective of the detours the memoir takes, the documented exchange between Dr. Beko Ransome Kuti and General Olusegun Obasanjo is what I find most interesting as it gave an interesting glimpse into the temperament of the two men. While it might seem like Nigeria’s democracy has now matured to the point that coups have become impossibility, military dictatorships must not be romanticised. In recent times, coups are making a comeback in African politics but it must not be allowed in Nigeria. The military must remain in the barracks and people must continually document and disseminate their experiences under military dictatorships so no one thinks it is a walk in the park.
Ajibade will deliver a keynote at the Lagos Book & Art Festival on November 20, 2021