How I survived five assassination attempts —Osoba
RENOWNED journalist and former governor of Ogun State, Aremo Olusegun Osoba, is celebrating his 80th birthday in Lagos with a book launch entitled Battlelines: Adventures in Journalism and Politics. Osoba speaks on the party system in the country, politics of Yoruba land, among other vital issues, in this interview with journalists. BOLA BADMUS brings the excerpt.
You are in the forefront of journalism profession in the country. Can you give an insight into your adventure into it, and why you chose journalism as a career?
I found myself in journalism by accident. I was to study law because my closest teacher in school, the late Chief Adenola Oshuneye, wanted me to study law. He was even furious that I decided to go into journalism because I had admission into the University of Lagos to study law, but Alhaji Babatunde Jose persuaded me to jettison the idea of reading law and take up journalism. In my school days, I was a regular writer in the school magazine called the Magnate at Methodist Boys High School, Abeokuta.
What attracted you to the profession because some people of your age category said they ran away from it because they felt the proceeds from it could not take care of their families?
The attraction to journalism is the challenge because a good journalist faces challenge every day. Journalism is adventurous and educative; you learn everyday. Journalism gives exposure and for someone who is streetwise like me, I found journalism a great profession because you have the ability and training to relate with all sectors of the society, including armed robbers, prime ministers, parliamentarians and even petty thieves. For instance, I started my career as a journalist covering little crimes. A journalist must be comfortable with all sectors of the society. It is a great training ground that helped me in my years as a politician. Journalism trains someone to be a leader and to be objective. The profession trains someone to accept other people’s opinions because most of the times we publish articles and stories that we disagree totally with. A journalist’s duty is to report issues so that the public will make their judgment.
How did you break the news of the assassination of the late Prime Minister, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa?
The story is in my book. People talk about it as if it is the only feat I achieved as a journalist. I wrote many exclusive stories. For example, when Joseph Tarka ordered a Mercedes-Benz, which became a controversial issue, I exclusively covered the issue. During the civil war, I had many exclusive stories. Even in my later years when I got to Sketch and Herald, I had many exclusive stories. For instance, the assassination of Murtala Mohammed and the capture of Dimka, I did many exclusives on them. I have full details of all that transpired then. When the then the military governor of old Kwara State, the late Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo was assassinated, I was the one who went with the Secretary to the State Government, Obatoyin, to discover the body on the road to Offa. The case of Abdurrahman Shugaba, who was then Majority Leader of the Borno State House of Assembly, who was taken physically and thrown across the border like a stone, was another landmark. I witnessed the impeachment of the then governor of Kaduna State, Alhaji Balarabe Musa. There are many others, but there is much emphasis on the Tafawa Balewa case as if it was the only feat. However, it was the major beginning that threw me into the hall of fame.
You talked about some assassination attempts on your life. How would you recollect those moments?
Some of our people, who I would call vicious characters and I will give you examples; they are in my book, but I will give you my piece of mind on it. People like Wale Oshun, who wrote a book entitled Clapping With One Hand, he created the impression as if I was nobody in the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) struggle and Dr Femi Okurounmu, who for years because he wanted to be governor of Ogun State, tagged me as the late Gen Sani Abacha’s turncoat. I have had the occasion to challenge them if any one of them suffered as much as I did, then they have the right to insult me otherwise they should keep their mouths shut forever. I want them to reply in details the way I have put documentations in this book, the way I have put the names of witnesses.I was the first to be arrested after the formation of NADECO by Abacha and I was taken to Kam Salem House. I mentioned Oba Rilwanu Akiolu there, who was then the Commissioner of Police that gave me his office to use after the closing hour because I was sleeping in a big hall infested with rats. I was the first to be charged to court along with Bola Tinubu and Commodore Dan Suleiman before Justice Shonowo. We were to go to jail but the judge ruled on the matter. When we were not given bail, the late Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Modibbo Alfa Belgore intervened and gave us bail. I went through that. We were transferred from Kam Salem House to the Alagbon Police station, where we were taking our bath in the open as early as 6am. Tinubu, Suleiman, others and I were there. Subsequently, the attempt on my life started on August 24, 1994 when Chief MKO Abiola had returned and had then been arrested. We were to go and celebrate his (Abiola’s) first birthday in detention when they came to my house on the night of August 23. They had attempted to bomb Dan Suleiman’s house on August 22. They had attempted to set the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi’s chamber on fire. When all these attempts on Fawehinmi and Suleiman had occurred, I went into hiding. I was lucky to have escaped because they were out to eliminate me, but I was not at home. They gained access into my house without using any key. Unfortunately, the State Security Service (SSS) attached to me as a former governor, Stephen Itokpa, didn’t know that the invaders were security people, he engaged them in a shootout but after exhausting his ammunition, he escaped through the fence. That was the first attempt on my life in 1994, the rest I didn’t know until Sergeant Rogers, the government’s hit man came to give evidence in court and the Tell magazine did an interview, where he revealed all that transpired.
The second attempt was in September 1995 when they wanted to set my house on fire in Abeokuta. Also, I managed to escape because I didn’t sleep early on that day. I just heard a spark and smoke engulfed the entire room. I have all the narratives in my book. The fourth attempt was the evidence given by Sergeant Rogers in court that they were sent out to go and kill me, the late Afenifere leader, Senator Abraham Adesanya; the late publisher of The Guardian, Dr. Alex Ibru; Bola Ige and others. Another time was when they trailed me on the road to Abeokuta; the military boys on the road checkpoint waved me on, but the few minutes that they stopped them gave me the opportunity to escape. Five times I escaped attempted assassination. So when Osun and Okurounmu started talking, I looked at them as small boys in the struggle. If they didn’t go through the kind of things I went through, they should remain silent.
How come the late Sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo described you and two others as three musketeers?
I keep saying that the three of us were the youngest people who were close to Awolowo. Of the living, those closest to Awolowo, who are my elders are Alhaji Lateef Jakande and Chief Ayo Adebanjo. The Awolowo family knew that we dined with Awolowo and got tutelage from him. We did our ‘PhD’ in public life by being mentored by him. He made us part of all organs of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). There was no organ of the party that the three of us did not belong to. I can challenge them to produce the kind of photographs I took with Awolowo in Yola. I was with Papa Awolowo in Ikenne during the last broadcast that he made before the 1983 elections. I have the action photographs of those events. Can any of them produce such photographs? I have the record of all the minutes of the UPN. I want people to react to my book and I want anyone who is going to react to counter the things I said with documents. If I were to use the photographs, it would become a voluminous book. If I were to use all the documents I have, I would have ended up writing an encyclopedia. But I restrained myself from using many documents.
How would you describe the impact of your parents and that of others, who added value to your life till this moment?
I give the greatest thanks to my father, who was a disciplinarian. We were trained to wake up at 6 in the morning. Most times, we woke up before 6am and still remained in bed but whenever we heard the sound of his footsteps, we would wake up to avoid being flogged. He taught me how to be frugal. For example, when I was in secondary school, he always told me to go to UTC and Lennards stores to find out prices of shoes before making my choice. He chose the cheapest ones. I learned from him that the best material to use is guinea brocade and aso oke.My mother was a reserved person, who taught me how to respect people. Another great influence on me was my uncle, Prophet Joseph Ayo Babalola. People don’t know that I am related to him. He was one of the founders of the Christ Apostolic Church (CAC). I spent most of my holidays with him. He was the one who named me Oluwasegun, because my mother had some children before me who did not survive. Joseph Babalola named me Oluwasegun, saying I would survive. I am 80 today and I am grateful to God and Prophet Babalola. The religious aspects of my life were learned from Prophet Babalola.
The rascality side of my life was learned in Lagos. I was a member of virtually everything. I have a picture of myself which was taken in 1964, when I was a member of the Alakoro Boys and Girls Club in Ebute Ero. We were trained on how to be streetwise. We were trained on how to serve humanity and how to serve the people. My exposure was not limited to academics as I was virtually involved in many societies, including Red Cross, Boy’s Scout, Debating Society, and Yoruba Cultural Group, among others. I had broad education.
Alhaji Babatunde Jose was a well-known and celebrated personality in the journalism profession. To what extent did he influence your rise in journalism?
After my childhood days and I decided to go into journalism, Alhaji Jose truncated my ambition of studying law and immediately made me to go to the University of Lagos in 1965. Alhaji Jakande brought the International Press Institute Training in Nairobi to Lagos. We were the pioneer people in the University of Lagos. The course later metamorphosed into the Department of Mass Communication of the University of Lagos. In 1965, expatriates were sent from the International Press Institute in London to the University of Lagos. And at the time I left the university in 1965, Alhaji Jose sent me to the United Kingdom for a course under the Commonwealth Press Union. Within two years of joining Daily Times, I had done two major courses in journalism. As of 1970, I had gone to the Indiana University, Bloomington for another diploma course in journalism. It was as if Alhaji Jose was preparing me early for something big in journalism. When people say that I didn’t go to the university, I wonder if someone who attended these institutions and attended Harvard University for a postgraduate course, is not educated in their sight. What did they do that I have not done? To have been qualified as Niemen fellow is one of the greatest honours in America because the fellowship is limited to 15 people annually and I did a year postgraduate course in Harvard University.
But Areoye Oyebola has said severally that Jose liked you more than him.
They said I was Alhaji Jose’s lapdog. That was why I decided to go to Herald after the crisis in Daily Times to prove myself. If I was that lapdog or favourite, who didn’t know the job, how come the paper succeeded? Without being immodest, there is no newspaper I managed that I ever collected subvention from the Federal Government. I made profit in Herald and turned around Sketch when I started managing it. At Sketch, I built a new office complex, and bought new equipment. By the time I came back to Daily Times, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) had destroyed it but I turned it around to the extent that we were paying dividends to shareholders. Would a man, who didn’t know his left from right and who they said became editor by favouritism, have been able to lead Daily Times? I am proud to say that I am one journalist in Nigeria who managed three major newspapers and made them profitable. I paid salaries as and when due and provided housing and car loans. Apart from managing three successful newspapers, I am involved in The Vanguard and The Guardian, which are major newspapers. When people talk, they don’t know that the idea of starting The Guardian was Alex Ibru’s and mine. That was why the managing directorship was reserved for me for years.
Your foray into politics, when was it?
My foray into politics began when I became a member of the Peoples Solidarity Party (PSP), which metamorphosed into the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
Would you now say that a two-party system is better than a multi-party arrangement?
A two-party system is the best for Nigeria. That is why I said the mistake Babangida made on June 12 was destroying the political engineering that was put in place by Dr Joseph Cookey. The two-party system placed the progressives on one side and the conservatives on the other. At that time, nobody defected from SDP to the National Republican Convention (NRC) or from the NRC to the SDP. Nobody did that no matter the problem in the respective parties because the ideological divide was very clear. For example, Senator Kofo Akerele-Bucknor became a senator with two votes. The primary that was used then was the Open Ballot system, where people queued behind the candidates of their choice to vote. What happened was that the late Wahab Dosumu was in the forefront to win but there was a disagreement, which made them to boycott the primary. Akerele-Bucknor stubbornly said she was not going to boycott and only two people queued behind her and she won because the SDP said they were boycotting. Her two votes were upheld and she became a senator. In spite of that, neither Dosumu nor the other person left the party. The party still accepted her despite the fact that she was not the first choice. If we had gone with the two-party system, Nigeria would have been a better country today. There was only a little difference between the number of the SDP and the NRC governors. It was also the same in the Senate. Those who became governors at the time were high-calibre people. John Odigie-Oyegun, Dr Chukwuemeka Ezeife and Alhaji Saidu Bada from Katsina were all retired federal permanent secretaries. The late Dabo Lere of Kaduna State was a retired General Manager, Essential Commodities. Shaaba Lafiagi of Kwara State was the General Manager of Bacita Sugar Industry. I was the Managing Director of Daily Times. Michael Otedola was a Personal Assistant to Awolowo. Bamidele Olumilua had a successful foreign aervice career. I can go on to name other governors, who were people of high calibre exposure. It is different from what we have now.
You once said that you grew up with top military leaders of old. Since you were close to them when they were in leadership positions as young people, how do you feel hearing their names often mentioned anytime Nigeria’s leadership crisis is discussed?
Of course, the military was in control for many years. Two weeks ago, someone said that I was a security agent during the military era. What they don’t know is that many of those officers were Second Lieutenants when I became famous as a result of the Balewa story in 1966. I met some of them in 1961 when I went to Cameroon for Man’O War drills. I always tell them that they are Generals in the military while I am a Field Marshal in my profession. These are people who I grew up with. Babangida was one of them. The greatest “terror” in our days was Air Marshal Abass. That was when we used to visit nightclubs all over Lagos. How can I now be an agent of the people I grew up with? Is it not insulting?
For instance Babangida and I had interesting social life in Lagos as young people. For instance, on the war front, Gen T Y Danjuma (retd) was a Major serving under the late Gen Shuwa at the First Division, which was the first military formation to start the war. I met all of them on the war front. Danjuma was then a field Lt Colonel, can the man I met in the war front intimidate me? I had ‘hobnobbed’ with Tafawa Balewa, Adeniran Ogunsanya, Festus Okotie-Eboh and others in the parliament, how could my mates intimidate me? I covered the Sardauna of Sokoto and Awolowo, as well as moved with other high profile people. Those who called me an agent are limited in scope; they lack contacts and they are envious that I had contacts and influence. As of 1964, I had a telephone, which made it possible for me to relate with ministers and other top people. Wikileaks have been releasing names of agents, have they ever found my name on the Wikileaks list? As the officers were growing in the military, I was also growing in my profession. I couldn’t have been an apologist and still ran successful newspaper businesses.
With these explanations, are you dismissing the insinuation that you are a military apologist?
If I were a military apologist, would I have been able to run newspapers under the military regimes and made profits? It means that what I was giving out was acceptable to the readers. I replied them in my book. For instance, every newspaper has its editorial policy and all staff in the paper must lean in the direction of that policy otherwise you leave. There is no newspaper that is totally free. The freedom of any reporter stops where the editorial policy of the paper starts. Those saying that we that ran newspaper under the military regime are military apologists don’t know anything. I think I deserve some respect from those tagging me as a military apologist because of the achievements I recorded in all the newspapers I managed under the military without collecting subventions from governments. We walked on a tight rope under the military governments and still made the newspaper profitable.