On Monday, October 25, 1993, in the heat of June 12 annulment agitations, four Nigerian youngsters, Richard Ajibola Ogunderu, Kabir Adenuga, Benneth Oluwadaisi and Kenny Razak-Lawal, did the unthinkable! They hijacked an Abuja-bound aircraft, the Nigerian Airways airbus A310, and diverted it to Niger Republic. Twenty seven years after, Akin Adewakun caught up with the leader of the group, Ajibola Ogunderu, somewhere around Bariga, where he is presently undergoing rehabilitation. Ogunderu, who was 19 years old in 1993 when the incident happened, in this interview, gives graphic details about events leading to the hijack, how the plan was hatched, and why it eventually failed. Excerpts-
How did you conceive the idea, considering the fact that the four of you that carried out the operations were very young then?
The conception was not really by me. It was by Jerry Yusuf, now late. He was a business man, known internationally. I just finished my secondary school then, and was about 19 years old. We met in a hotel in Surulere. He called me and we had a meeting with some other guys. He said he read a report where somebody used a toygun to hijack an aircraft, and that we could do same here. But what actually touched me was the objective: that we wanted to reclaim the stolen mandate, freely given to Chief M.K.O Abiola, by the Nigerian people. I didn’t join for any pecuniary gain. I just felt since the people had, through the polls, given this man the mandate to govern, there was the need to put on such pressure on the military junta at that time, bent on truncating the process, to respect the people’s wishes. But it was Jerry Yusuf who conceived the idea of the hijack.
Tell us more about the meeting
Like I said we met in a hotel. He met me in a hotel I was living then. I had just finished my secondary school and my daddy was the manager of the hotel, so he just gave me a room in the hotel. My plan was to go to Jos where my mummy was, and my interest was to study Aeronautical Engineering. I had the plan to move out of the country, through my mum, to Canada, to study that course. So one night, around 11.30 pm, Jerry Yusuf was coming into the hotel, and he was hitting the gate and I was the only one available to open the gate for him. So when I opened the gate for him, he was now going in, and I called him back and said, ‘my man, come here, men’. He looked at me very strangely, and I said ‘give me money’. He said he wouldn’t give me. I now asked him why he was coming to knock the hotel gate at the dead of the night. I told him he actually woke me up from sleep. He now laughed and promised to see me later. I suspect that must have made an impression on him. So he called me later, because one of his boys had earlier spoken with me. He had about three of them, from Mushin and Iju Ishaga, then. He now asked me whether I had interest in carrying out an hijack. He said a lady recommended me to him, because we also had some ladies living in that hotel, then. I now asked him what he wanted to use that to achieve. He said the June election results had been cancelled, and his organization, the Movement for the Advancement of Democracy (MAD), needed to do something to get democracy back. I looked at the objective and concluded that I just had to take that step of supporting the cause. I said to myself that if I declined this, and move on to Canada, as planned, Nigeria might be at war before I would be back. I just believed somebody just had to go and demand that the democratic rights of the people be respected.
But within a short space of time, you had earned Yusuf’s confidence. How did you do that?
You know I told you he called me and said he knew his people had revealed their secret to me, that they were planning to hijack a plane. He now said since I had known, I should join them. I now laughed. He smiled back and told me that he had been told I was a very strong poison. He now told me he wanted me to be involved and that he loved my composure and the way I talked, and my action. He said he believed my involvement would give teeth to the plan, and I agreed.
Who now did the recruitment of others?
It was Yusuf. I was the last to join. You know it was from my hotel that we planned all this. And let me shock you, even after we had planned all this, I noticed we were even experiencing some paucity of funds. And it was a prominent pro-democracy doctor that gave us N10,000. So money wasn’t the motivation for us, but the need to reclaim the stolen mandate.
Was it you guys or the organization he gave the money to?
But was he aware of what he was funding then?
I can’t say he didn’t know. He knew the objective, but he never wanted to get involved directly. He knew the objective. The only thing was that he believed that if Abacha took over power from Ernest Shonekan, he would hand over to Abiola. But MAD did not share such belief with him. I also didn’t believe in that. You know the thirst of the average military man for power.
So it took you how many days, weeks, months or even years to map out your strategies?
It was actually impromptu. What Jerry told me was that he wanted the operation to take place before Abiola arrived from his overseas trip. Then Abiola was in America, that was why Yusuf had to ask the doctor for money. The hijack actually was to raise an alarm on why Nigeria needed democracy, and why the mandate given to Abiola must be respected.
Can you give us graphic details of how the operation was carried out? For instance, where did you board the plane?
We boarded the plane in Lagos, enroute Abuja, October 25, 1993. It was a domestic flight. The mission was to hijack and take it to another country. And the desire was to get to Frankfurt, Germany, and if we could not get there, we could go to Kotoko Ghana, to declare the message of the organization to the world.
When exactly did you announce your mission, while in the air?
It was 16 minutes to land in Abuja that we struck. According to the plan, I was supposed to take the pamphlet which contained our mission statement to the pilot. It was in a brown envelope. And while doing this, the second guy was supposed to come in with a pistol.
So he was actually holding a pistol?
No, it’s a toy pistol, but there was no way you could know. So the plan was to put the pilot at gun point, to force him to listen to my command.
At what point did the pilot know that this was a hijack?
He knew immediately, when he was held at gun point. I had to come in from my own corridor, the economy class into the cockpit and tear-gassed him. And immediately I did that, he knew this was an attack, so he had to obey us.
What did you tell the pilot, when you first got there?
I first gave him a paper containing our mission statement, why we were doing the hijack. And I even told him to give it to the air hostesses to read to the passengers. The main discussion between me and the pilot was where do we land the plane? He told me there was fuel scarcity and he would like to refuel.
And what now happened?
We told him what we wanted was where we could give publicity to our action. We told him we were going to Germany, where we could have a good press coverage that would support our democratic cause for Nigeria. But that couldn’t be because of the fuel scarcity then. So I just had to use my own initiative that whatever it was, we had places in Africa. So we looked for an African nation that could accept our idea, fortunately the pilot was in agreement with me. So he now moved towards the Sahara, towards the desert..
So you told him all these before he agreed to land in Niger Republic?
Yes, because you have to let him know so that he wouldn’t been thinking that you were hijacking to kill. For instance, when the BBC journalist asked me in the aircraft, ‘what is your cause, tell the world?’ And I told the world we were fighting for democracy. And we told them no going back, that we were going for democracy, and that anybody that would not align with that position would die.
After knowing your plans, what was the mood like in the aircraft? Did the pilot now communicate this to the passengers?
Yes, he did, through the air hostesses.
Was he the only one in the cockpit? What about the co-pilot?
He wasn’t the only one. The co-pilot was there too. We had already held the two to ransom. They were already under our control. What remained at that point was the mind of the passengers, and we gave the parcel to the pilot and asked him to give to the air hostesses, so that they could communicate what was happening to the passengers, and they did that.
And what was the atmosphere like, immediately that was communicated?
Immediately the passengers heard that, they were afraid, because it was strange. Leaving Lagos for Abuja, and suddenly finding yourself a victim of hijack. It was at this point in time that I came out to threaten them more with petrol, because we actually went with petrol.
But how were you able to bring in all those items on board, without them being detected?
They were in a bag. We were able to beat the checkers.
So when you now threatened, what happened?
We brought out the petrol, we wet everywhere, they were scared. We brought out a lighter, and threatened them that we were going to set the aircraft ablaze. We also decided to search the passengers as a way of securing the operations, and we found some pistols. We now seized them.
So what eventually happened?
We landed in Niger Republic, after our discussions with the Gabonese authorities had failed. You know we contacted some African countries before arriving at the choice of Niger Republic, when it was obvious that the fuel that we had could not take us to Germany. We even tried Ghana, but they refused, saying the Nigerian Airways was owing them some landing fees, otherwise they would have allowed us. Luckily for us we did it in a Francophone country, because the pilot communicated with Niger Republic and they promised they were going to give us fuel.
But did they know that they were about harbouring an hijacked plane?
Yes they knew. It was already in the news. The news was everywhere. The international community was already in the know. A flight expected to be conducted in 50 minutes suddenly taking four hours would definitely arouse suspicion.
So the whole thing lasted for how many hours?
What was the mood like during that period in the aircraft?
There were negotiations. It was during that period that the Aviation Minister of Niger Republic spoke to us through the aircraft intercom.
And what was he saying?
He said he was ready to give us what we wanted, that is fuel to go to Germany, and all that, and we told him our interest was to talk to the press.
But how were you communicating, since he must be speaking in French?
He was speaking in English. None of us understood French. There were already press men at the airport, but they didn’t allow them to get to where the plane was. The BBC correspondent now called me and asked me what we were fighting for, and the main reason for the hijack. I told him that we wanted to actualize the mandate given by the Nigerian people to M.K.O Abiola. That it was just a political adventure of some curious youths, that needed to protect their political interest.
Were you ever contacted by the Nigerian government?
Nigeria sent 24 delegates to come and talk to us, but none of them entered the aircraft to talk to us. They were in the hotel, asking us to come. Why we held it for that long was to get the attention of the international community.
What now went wrong?
At the dying minute, Abacha threatened. You know the mission was supposed to go for 78 hours, after which we threatened that we would set the aircraft ablaze.
Were you actually serious about burning down the plane?
Yes, we were serious about it, but not the passengers. That was why I first released some, and used the remaining to negotiate.
You were talking about Abacha’s threat?
Yes he threatened that he was coming to storm us with truckloads of soldiers from Nigeria. But the French government warned that it’s not British territory. Fortunately for us, the French government did not agree with Abacha, but they felt they had to do something. So they decided to capture us, by storming. You know the passengers must have told them that we had just a toy gun.
How were they able to achieve that ?
I learnt somebody among us demanded for water, since that was the third day. Everybody had been taking coffee and snacks, in the past three days. So they brought their best strikers (soldiers), and pretended they were bringing food. Somebody came to tell me that they brought food for us, and my instinct told me that must be a trap. And, I was quite right. When I got down there, I saw an ambulance, and was wondering why they brought food in an ambulance. I called the steward of the plane to come and carry the food from these stewards. I was about going back when I heard gun shots behind me. I ran back into the aircraft, but they followed me inside. We were arrested from there. They took me to the hospital because I had some gunshot wound, and others were taken to the police station. And when my leg was okay, and the day Abacha took over from Shonekan (November 17, 1993), they brought Jerry Yusuf to Niger Republic. We were remanded, and were later released around 2001.
So what have you been doing?
I’ve been trying to engage with the youths through an organization I run, African Youth Organisation. I use it to educate the youths about democracy and the need to be politically active.
(..laughs) I don’t have any regrets taking that action. The only regrets I would have had would have been if I had died, without seeing this democracy that we clamoured for.
I still have the intention to study, that is to further my education. I still want to go to |England to study Law. I need scholarship to do that, because presently I don’t have the financial capacity to do that, that is why I’m seeking help from government and kind-hearted individuals to come to my support.
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