Nigeria: Dapo Olorunyomi As Citizen and Soldier In the Everyday Struggle To Save Nigeria

Dapo Olorunyomi, publisher of Premium Times in Nigeria
11 November 2019

Abuja — Let me begin with reflections on a poem. As I gathered my thoughts for this piece, it kept echoing in mind, evoked, I think, by the brutal realities of the epoch of which our subject is an acclaimed hero: Wole Soyinka's "Civilian and Soldier." Bear with me for a moment as this will become clearer presently.

In that poem, Soyinka, by sheer lyrical intensity, makes an instant speak, unforgettably, about the bloody absurdity of the thirty-month Nigerian Civil War, the first battle for the nascent soul of our country. He depicts a civilian, the speaker of the poem, who thought himself all but dead, yelling out in shock his non-combatant status to a soldier — we are not told whether he is from the Biafran or Federal side.

The soldier is, in turn, confounded by the sheer unlikelihood of what he was witnessing: a body still alive in "that hour/Of impartial death," during "the lead (bullet) festival" of his (the soldier's) "more eager friends." The soldier is frightened and frozen still by what he must have concluded could only be a ghost, an "apparition [that] rose from the fall of lead." And in that moment of immobility, he remembers the lessons of his training: to "Scorch earth behind" him, to "not leave/A dubious neutral to the rear" — in order words, to kill, scorch and burn, to leave nothing to chance by letting the self-professed civilian, combatant or not, live. And so he "brought the gun to bear" on him; that is, he pointed his gun at the civilian subject of this poem, ready to shoot.

But just as civilian felt his death must surely be now, he also saw clearly the plight of the soldier. No, not just the soldier's plight but, as Soyinka puts it, all of him as well — that is, the actual human being and the conflict, the "quarrel" not of this world, that had produced this scene in which he was obliged to kill a fellow citizen, armed or not, combatant or pacifist. No time, after all, to verify the claim.

It is at this point of confusion and hesitation by soldier that civilian hopes for a reversal of fortunes, a changed situation in which he is halted by the apparition of the soldier fearfully screaming from a trench, "I am a soldier." Soyinka has civilian say that he would not hesitate but would shoot soldier "clean and fair," and celebrate with "meat and bread, a gourd of wine," only to end the poem on the riddling note of "that/Lone question—do you friend, even now, know/What it is all about?"

I hope that by now you have caught my drift. For that question, with a little shift in tense, can be asked now: Do we all, civilians and soldiers, know what it was all about—that needless but long-running war waged by the military against democracy and the true meaning of citizenship, launched in earnest that fateful day of Dele Giwa's cold-blooded murder in 1986? Yes, the war ended thirteen years later in 1999, or has it?

But lest we forget, it was, actually, only the second phase of the war, after the ill-fated truce of 1979-83, the war that began that doomed day of 13 January 1966 when the first military coup took place and soldiers left the barracks for the state house to assume the political and socio-cultural leadership of our country. The massive upheavals from that act of misguided heroism led directly to the 1967-70 civil war. And more than the trauma of two million Biafrans and a hundred thousand federal soldiers killed — not to mention the countless maimed and scarred for life—it also caused the abrupt truncation of the fledgling democracy that had gone from a robust period of pre-independence regional governance to the proper federalism of the post-independence years, even after the creation in 1963 of Mid-West Region out of the old Western Region.

Arguably, the 1966 coup is the original sin of Nigeria as a nation. And this for the simple reason of Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi's Constitution (Suspension and Amendment) Decree no. 34 of 1966, better known as the unification decree. That decree, we mustn't fail to remember, did not merely suspend the basis of democracy, of our civic existence, but also did the unthinkable and unpardonable: it abrogated the sacrosanct federal structure of our clamorously multi-ethnic nation-in-the-making and force-drafted all of us into a unitary state beholden to a top-to-bottom military command government. It is this calamitous bequest of military dictatorship that created an awesome social infrastructure of repression, massive and systemic violation of human rights, the decay and corruption of public service and public officials, and a crippling lack of accountability and transparency in government.

In a word, it enthroned impunity as the defining characteristic of literally every government action under the military, given legal sanction by the suspension of the constitution in the first decree promulgated after every subsequent coup, reinforced, secondly, by the entrance of the Federal Military Government (Supremacy and Enforcement of Powers) Decree in 1984 into our legal history.

As I'm sure we all recall, the sole objective of that superfluous exercise was to prohibit judicial review of any action of the military-in-power—that is, to put government above the law and beyond scrutiny of any kind. So it proclaimed that no civil proceedings shall lie or be instituted in any court for or on account of or in respect of any act, matter or thing done or purported to be done under or pursuant to a Decree or Edict, and if any such proceedings are instituted before, on or after the commencement of this Decree the proceedings shall abate, be discharged and made void.

And that the question whether any provision of Chapter IV of the Constitution [the bill of rights in the 1979 constitution] has been, is being or likely to be contravened by anything done or proposed to be done in pursuance of any Decree or an Edict shall not be inquired into in any court of law and, accordingly, no provision of the Constitution shall apply in respect of any such question.

And once the rule of law had been annulled, the pillar on which individual liberty and citizenship rests had also been abrogated. Not surprisingly, the State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree, fully clad with the ouster clause for emphasis, also made its infamous entry into our legal history. The socio-political context of the battle for Nigeria had become firmly defined as that of citizen-versus-soldier. It was clearly the setting of the murder of Citizen Dele Giwa, a first step in the well-laid plan to silence the press.

And because it was a direct attack on the press as the public voice of the people, the courts having been emasculated, journalism "gladly" accepted the challenge. I say gladly because it was with the same patriotic zeal that the press fought colonial Britain for our independence that courageous men and women of the Fourth Estate of the realm fought the internal colonising force of our own military. General Babangida's annulment of the June 12 (1993) election, constituted the worst atrocity of the war on Nigeria by the military-in-power.

This atrocity spawned the many others that followed, up to the judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 8; the long incarceration and death in prison of M.K.O. Abiola, winner of the June 12 election; the assassination in broad daylight of his wife, Kudirat; the targeted killing of Chief Alfred Rewane and numerous others; the arrest and indefinite detention of countless citizens, and the indiscriminate shutting down of newspapers and media houses, six media organisations at one fell swoop on 22 July 1993, right on the heel of the annulment of Nigeria's sovereign will. With newspapers proscribed at will and journalists hounded, the press had only one option: surrender or go underground. A brave and very influential detachment of it chose the latter. That was when the term "guerilla journalism" entered the lexicon of Nigeria's seemingly unending quest for democracy and self-determination.

The term described aptly the dogged determination of the press to publish from underground news of the ever more desperate and despicable deeds of the military in power, especially under the tyrannical rule of the dreadful duo of Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha. Rather than be cowered by the cold and calculated murder by a parcel bomb of Dele Giwa, founding editor-in-chief of Newswatch magazine, just as the murderer-in-chief intended, and go home to weep in their hands, the press, or I should once again point out, its radical vanguard, chose defiance. It went underground, changing location as frequently as soldiers and state security service (SSS) goons were sent to shut down their operations and occupy their business premises to ensure the cessation of publication.

One of the heroes of that epoch—indeed, the figure deemed by many to symbolise the glorious resistance of the press—is Dapo Olorunyomi. For a man whose life, right from his days as a student activist to reporter, editor, public servant—he was the pioneer Chief of Staff at the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC)—publisher, humanist and rights advocate has been lived in the public space, his genius seems to lie in self-effacement.

Olorunyomi, it seems, has perfected the impossible art of hiding in the open! But it seems the harder he tries to deflect attention from himself, the more those within his orbit or who have even a cursory encounter with him, are drawn to him by the sheer depth of his intellectual curiosity, his erudition and range of reference in any discussion of local or world affairs, his penetrating insights and striking angle of vision. Courage, the keyword of the title of the book Testimony to Courage: Essays in Honour of Dapo Olorunyomi, being presented to the public today in Lagos—the battlefront of the war against press freedom and the rule of law—can too easily highlight only the outward deeds of defiance that define guerilla journalism.

But equally, or even more important, is the mind, the intellect, that must be constantly alert to danger while remaining calm and composed enough to stay focussed on the burning question, all the while being constantly on the move. It is the sort of mind, I think that the novelist Ian McEwan ascribed to a fellow radical journalist in a different clime, Christopher Hitchens, when he said of him that everything "seems instantly, neurologically available" to him, "everything he's ever read, everyone he's ever met, every story he's ever heard." Olorunyomi is armed with "oracular" knowledge, as Omoniyi Ibietan says of him in his tribute "A phenomenological encounter," such that there is "hardly a topic" on which he would not have something significant to say.

To Gbile Oshadipe, who was part of the TheNEWS/TEMPO operation, Olorunyomi is so many traits and qualities rolled in one—babalawo, aesthetician, psychologist, etymologist, historian, visual theorist, media specialist, tactician and strategist—that it is difficult to describe him in one word. Chief Bola Tinubu, former governor of Lagos and one of the most formidable politicians of our present democratic dispensation, has a slightly different list that speak to the multi-dimensional and so complex, bet unassuming nature, of Olorunyomi: investigative journalist, writer, social crusader, teacher, mentor, and soldier for good governance.

We also have it on the highest intellectual authority from Professor Biodun Jeyifo, former teacher and mentor to Olorunyomi and many others — including, I'm happy to announce, yours sincerely. Olorunyomi, says Jeyifo, is "one of the most dedicated and delightfully inquisitive students" that he ever taught. And BJ, as he is popularly and affectionately called, has taught a great many number of students — from the former University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) to Oberlin College and the Ivy-League Cornell and Harvard universities in the United States (not to mention the many places where he has been a visiting professor)!

And then we also have the testimony of Peter Anyasi, colleague and mentee, on the penetrating insight that produced the cover story "Nigeria—Has IBB given up?" in the 9 April 1992 issue of The African Concord. That simple question was the product of a mind attuned to thinking beyond the surface or first order meanings of words and actions, that would subject even the seemingly innocuous to radical scrutiny, especially the words and actions of the powerful, those whose actions and inactions change the condition and destiny, mostly for the worse, of nations and peoples.

The words that led to Olorunyomi's thunderous poser were spoken by Babangida as he loudly expressed his bafflement that the Nigerian economy had not collapsed after seven years of military adventurism and his gospel of no-alternative-to-the-IMF-and-World-Bank's Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). It was during an interview with the government-owned Daily Times. "Frankly," he said, "I have kept asking my economists, why is it that the economy has not collapsed till now? What is it that is keeping it up? Surely, it is not our knowledge, it is not our theories, it is not anything we have read, I have still not found the answer."
As Anyasi noted, many who read the interview "and all [of] its evident contradictions probably shrugged their shoulders in despair and moved on," but not Olorunyomi who saw in that confession "an opportunity to interrogate the seven-year-old money-guzzling circus show of the Babangida dictatorship that was called a transition to democracy programme."

As Anyasi very correctly observed, Babangida's confession amounted to a Freudian slip and Olorunyomi surmised that for a dictator at his wit's end, mentally and physically exhausted, it seemed time was up. That Concord Press Limited, whose premises housed not only The African Concord but also the daily newspaper National Concord as well as a bakery and a bookshop, was promptly proscribed by Babangida, foreshadowing what was to come when Olorunyomi would become co-founder and publisher of TheNEWS magazine, shows how close to the mark his analysis was and how much the general's nerves were rattled.

The hounding of the press, as we have seen from the first bloody notice served by Babangida with the murder of Dele Giwa, was intended to be total: no action would be deemed too horrific or inhuman. In that sense, the shutting down of newspapers was, in fact, the most benign. After all, Newswatch was also the first newsmagazine to be proscribed just six months after Giwa's murder for publishing, allegedly, before the official release of the report of a political bureau set up for the precise purpose of conducting a national debate on the political direction of the country. Actually, Babangida's anger was the fact that his political bureau reported that Nigerians wanted a "socialist direction" for the country, and this just when he was about to mortgage the nation to the imperialist agenda of the IMF/World Bank.

In short, the debate had been no more than a ruse to divert attention while he perfected his plan for SAP and self-perpetuation. Soon, of course, it was not only the so-called radical publications such as TheNEWS (and TEMPO, the organ set up to continue the work after TheNEWS had been proscribed) and TELL magazines that would be shut down or proscribed outright but literally every newspaper, every title, that published anything that displeased the regime. And so at one point or the other, The Guardian, The African Guardian and all the titles in the Guardian stable, TSM, Punch, The Republic, The Observer, Vanguard, Lagos News, Abuja Newsday, etc., were visited by the storm-troopers of Babangida and Abacha. Then there was the constant hounding of journalists, many of whom fled their homes for months, arbitrary detentions and even hostage-taking, as the pregnant wife of Mr. Paxson Idowu, editor of the New Republic and, indeed, Ladi, a nursing mother and wife of Olorunyomi.

The taking of Ladi Olorunyomi as hostage in place of her husband took place in 1995, soon after Bagauda Kaltho, a reporter with TheNEWS, was killed by a bomb at Hamdala Hotel in Kaduna. By that time, Babangida had been succeeded by General Sani Abacha as the reigning dictator. Abacha was keen to solve the problem of TheNEWS/TEMPO and had no hesitation applying the final solution to Olorunyomi. And so it was alleged that he had procured Kaltho to bomb Hamdala hotel! That was when Olorunyomi finally agreed to go into exile so he could live to fight another day.

Not long after, Abacha found a way to entrap another alumnus of The African Concord and a founding editor of TheNEWS, Kunle Ajibade, together with two other journalists, Chris Anyanwu and Ben Charles-Obi of TSM (The Sunday Magazine) in a coup plot, stage a kangaroo trial before a special military tribunal under the Treason and Treasonable Offences Decree No. 29 of 1993, and jail them for life.

Testimony to Courage is neatly divided into three sections respectively entitled "Journalistic Exploits", "Activism and Democratic Struggle", and "The Legacy: Investing in the Future". It seems, however, that this is merely an inchoate attempt to organise tributes that mostly echo each other the way the many aspects of Olorunyomi's life interact to make him the exemplary man worthy of our profuse praise (to his discomfiture, no doubt). To address one quality is to point to another, and yet another! The sheer number of personalities from disparate walks of life who pay tribute to Olorunyomi makes it unnecessary to attempt a rehash of their encomiums: they are better read in their own words.

From professors, politicians, fellow journalists, rights activists, mentees and relatives, a glowing warm light is brought to bear on an inspirational figure. In any case, Dr. Anselm Chidi Odinkalu has done a brilliant review of the book. Yet I'm aware that many, such as myself, missed the opportunity to bear witness to this simple but transformational life. Often, journalists achieve fame as columnists; not merely as news-hounds or even as the most astute editors. Indeed, their opinion writing would supersede their reportorial and editorial work. Nigeria has a long roll of distinguished columnists, dead and living, but I don't ever recall reading a single op-ed penned by Olorunyomi. I've even checked with two other admirers who should know but they too could not think of any.

Moreover, Olorunyomi is famous for either giving up the by-line to a protégé even when he had done most of the writing or settling for sharing the credit. Thus, I will simply do the customary thing even after a detailed review of a book and enjoin everyone to read Testimony to Courage, so I can return to the question of Soyinka's poem, "Citizen and Soldier," with which I began my ruminations: do we, even now, know what that fight to end military rule was all about? In other words, did the return of the soldiers-in-government, of militricians, to the barracks end that struggle for the soul of Nigeria? If not—and I believe everyone gathered here would say it did not — what remains to be done?

I believe this is where the ultimate tribute can be paid to Olorunyomi, to the many heroes living or dead who dared to dream a different Nigeria. I think we can safely say today, as during the protracted struggle against military rule, that the burning question is the restructuring of Nigeria into a true federation. This is the fundamental act of nation-building that needs to be done now before it is too late. Lest we forget, the more radical wing of the pro-democracy movement had insisted on a sovereign national conference as a pre-condition for any genuine transition to democracy, failing which it called for a boycott of the 12 June 1993 election. But once the election had taken place, and Babangida's treachery had come into naked display with his annulment of the results, there was only one side to take: that of the people.

And so the self-same radical progressives turned round to lead the massive street protests and sustained resistance to Babangida's treason till the return to civil rule in 1999. But it also meant that many of them shunned General Abubakar Abdulsalami's transition programme, effectively shutting them out of any effective role in shaping the political direction of the nation as it emerged from one of the two most horrendous periods of her post-independence life, the other being the period of the first coup and civil war of 1966-70. In making this assertion, I assume we all agree that without a nation, the institutions that should serve it can only exist in the way and manner they currently do in our country: without an enabling environment and so as ineffective and downright corrupt or corruptible. For as lawyers are fond of saying, quoting the dictum of the venerable Lord Alfred Denning, "you cannot put something on nothing and expect it to stand." Everything requires a ground, a base, a foundation to stand on.

That foundation, for the Nigeria House that would accommodate all of its two hundred million citizens in peace, prospecrity and justice, can only be properly laid at a gathering of the tribes to draw up the just and equitable articles of association. Call it a sovereign national conference, as I would prefer, or any other name, as long as it answers to the free and unfettered meeting of citizens that produces the organic law of the country, a constitution that can truly proclaim itself as having been enacted by "We, the people," then and only then would it be a foundation well laid. But I'm a pragmatist, so if that same outcome can be obtained by any other means visibly respectful of the will of the people, I would take. Like the late Tai Solarin who would take free education if offered to him by the devil, so would I a people's constitution however it comes to be.

But convening a national dialogue for the rebuilding of Nigeria requires political courage of equal magnitude as the sort that bordered on martyrdom in the struggle for a free press and accountable governance and produced Olorunyomi as one of its authentic heroes. As Odinkalu very aptly puts it in his review, the courage to which the book that honours Olorunyomi testifies "is of a more fundamental variety than that of a media practitioner or of an investigative journalist. It is about the courage to seek to re-make society away from the hierarchies that make demi-gods of a few, tarnish the other with toxic prejudice and diminish opportunities for everyone."

I will stress the point: remaking society away from the inequities and injustices of the existing hierarchies and crippling distortions of a unitary state pretending to be a federation, that obligates supposedly autonomous states to exist as wards of the all-powerful Federal Government, demands courage bordering on a will to martyrdom. It also demands that we leave our comfort zones — our ethnic redoubts, our ideological hideouts, our religio-cultural sanctuaries — to engage in the unsentimental dialectic of political engagement.

I can't think of a better justification for the imperative of fashioning anew a sphere of civic participation in the life of a nation than that made by the German philosopher Hannah Arendt. She argues that the space is opened for political freedom and equality when citizens act in concert through the medium of speech and persuasion. Considering how polarising and dysfunctional political discourse — or whatever passes for it in our country as in the rest of our troubled world — can be, it is useful to be reminded that Arendt also sees political participation as crucial to the fostering of relations of civility and solidarity among citizens. Let me quote commentary from the entry on Arendt in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy on the subject.

Political activities are located in a public space where citizens are able to meet one another, exchange their opinions and debate their differences, and search for some collective solution to their problems. Politics, for Arendt, is a matter of people sharing a common world and a common space of appearance so that public concerns can emerge and be articulated from different perspectives. In her view, it is not enough to have a collection of private individuals voting separately and anonymously according to their private opinions. Rather, these individuals must be able to see and talk to one another in public, to meet in a public-political space, so that their differences as well as their commonalities can emerge and become the subject of democratic debate.

This notion of a common public space helps us to understand how political opinions can be formed which are neither reducible to private, idiosyncratic preferences, on the one hand, nor to a unanimous collective opinion, on the other… In her view representative opinions could arise only when citizens actually confronted one another in a public space, so that they could examine an issue from a number of different perspectives, modify their views, and enlarge their standpoint to incorporate that of others.

This is precisely the outcome intended by the patriots who have persistently called for a sovereign national conference, more discernably since 1989. Yes, the dialectic of this space is unsentimental, cutting and bruising since it enables the contest of a multitude of voices all making claims that are often very difficult to reconcile. But to go back to Christopher Hitchens, a journalistic fellow traveler—as I believe Olorunyomi might agree — "you may not be interested in the dialectic but the dialectic is interested in you; you can't give up politics, it won't give you up."

All of this might sound too gradualist, even accommodationist, to those who justly feel that too much is fundamentally wrong with Nigeria to settle for anything short of a revolution; that this is mere reformist talk by liberals who would rather have the unequal structure of society unchanged. I would, however, enjoin them — as the good old saying goes—to never let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Rather, they should pose to themselves the question Adam Gopnik asks in the course of explaining philosophic liberalism in his book, A Thousand Small Sanities. As quoted in David Brooks' op-ed essay "What Pelosi Versus the Squad Really Means" in The New York Times of 15 July 2019, Gopnik is of the view that "The Question is not: What do I want? It is: What good can I do in this specific circumstance?"

This is what, in conclusion, I believe is the driving impetus of Dapo Olorunyomi's radical humanism, the fulcrum of his irrepressible, self-sacrificing and eternally optimistic commitment to democracy, equality, social justice and good governance at home and in the world at large. And it is what Banji Ojewale, a contributor to Testimony to Courage, means when he says Olorunyomi was always "available where work was available"; in other words, whenever and wherever there is work to be done to save the soul of our country and advance humanity.

That work is both incremental and revolutionary, entails the many small steps or quotidian battles of survival and minimum respect for citizen rights as well as the gigantic leap of faith and action that the restructuring of Nigeria for peace, sustainable development and self-actualisation must necessarily be. It calls on all to be citizens and soldiers at the same time.

This is the point, it seems to me, that Frantz Fanon makes in his essay, "Spontaneity: Its Strength and Weakness" in Towards the African Revolution where he argues that the slogan "the struggle continues" actually encapsulates both the "the historical law" and the politics of the day-to-day. "[T]he struggle for national liberation," he says, "does not consist in spanning the gap at one stride: the drama has to be played out in all of its difficulty everyday… Day after day goes by." Commenting on this, the cultural theorist, Homi Bhabha, understands Fanon to be urging a recognition of the "emergency of the (insurgent) everyday," insurgent because "it represents the agency of insurgency and constitutes a counter-force" to the given historical experience, concluding that "the day-to-day is what Fanon calls the "knowledge of the practice of action."

I salute Oyedapo Oyekunle Olorunyomi for a life worthy of emulation by showing us that the seeds of radical change are in the pod of simple, everyday, verities of our lives. And that they are worth as much attention as the revolutionary tasks. I thank you all for listening.

This is the text of a speech at the public presentation of Testimony to Courage: Essays in Honour of Dapo Olorunyomi on Thursday, 7 November 2019, at NECA House, Alausa, Lagos.

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