Though OBJ is my uncle, I joined others to hold him hostage —Suraju
Kamoru Olanrewaju Suraju is a human rights and pro-democracy activist. He is the chairman, Human and Environmental Development Agenda (HEDA). He shares his life story with TUNDE ADELEKE.
YOU are an activist. How did you choose this path?
I have always had a humble background from an average family. Way back in the 70s, I attended Ilupeju Primary School, which the child of the then governor of Lagos State, Alhaji Lateef Jakande, attended, and also Ilupeju Grammar School. Those were public schools. At that time, nobody talked about private schools. But the motivation to activism emanated more from the music of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. We listened to his music and songs of some other critical Yoruba musicians with my father. It was a kind of orientation to listen to some of the music that propelled one to have a deeper thought and reflection of what was happening in the society. It was like that until I got to higher institution. Even before then, there had been interest in activism as practised by Gani Fawehinmi. College of Technology, then [Yabatechy], was a period when there was no students union, but on getting admission to Yabatech a higher institutiom, I got involved in students activism.
So, it was by conviction?
I was propelled to join by conviction, rather than by any form of indoctrination. So, it wasn’t a thing anybody can say okay, this is what you have to do and throughout my National Diploma programme at Yabatech, we had been exposed to some of the things happening outside in the society. There wasn’t that opportunity to fully realise that much of the influence and contribution that was desirable in the political arena and outside the campus, but we were always reading and studying the writings of critical minds around. By the time we got back for the Higher National Diploma, there had been serious movement for the reinstatement of students union and we succeeded in pushing the school to recognise the need for students union within the campus. Due to my contribution, I became the clerk to the parliament of the school. There was no election; it was a kind of internal arrangement for the executive. We were very active, not only at the local level, but also at the National Association of Nigerian Students level.
At the expiration of that regime, I contested for the president of the students union and I won. But by virtue of my political exposure, the school authorities would not tolerate my emergence as the union president because, at that time, the union was becoming too radical for the school authorities. So, the school authorities had a different candidate in mind to emerge, but my emergence was a major challenge and they used the military to frustrate the swearing-in, not the election, because we already had the election. The interregnum between the end of one session and the next was exploited and the school was thrown into another major turmoil whereby the school authorities decided to ban the students union again.
What year was that?
This was in 1996. We had a major battle up to 1997/98 and we were suspended. We faced a panel. The school was closed for about a year and when we resumed, some of us were suspended for one year, two years. This we challenged in court with the support of people like the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi. At the end of a year suspension, another letter was issued for expulsion. It was reversed to a year when I had to go back to school to complete my final year. By the time I went back to the school, General Sani Abacha had died. I was about to graduate then. I started to sensitise the students because the union was already back as at that time. We started building cells and we succeeded in building another force. Immediately Abacha died, we took advantage of that situation and immediately agitated for the reinstatement of the union. Again, the school was shut down for another three weeks but it had to reinstate the students union with a caretaker committee. That was how I continued with the process until I graduated and joined, as a volunteer, both the Civil Liberty Organisation and United Action for Democracy where I worked together with others like Omoyele Sowore to form the Congress of Progressive Youth and Committee for the Protection of Peoples Dignity, and then we founded HEDA.
In all of this, what was the position of your parents?
I lost my father in 1986, so, a single parent took care of me and my siblings with the support of my late grandmother. You can imagine what a single parent would feel having her son arrested and detained for weeks. Media coverage for some of those things we did was not much. Quite a number of things would have happened before it got to the knowledge of my parents. I looked innocent and most times when I walked in the midst of the people, they hardly recognised me. My mother got to know about my involvement in activism when I was contesting for the students union president. Someone took a poster of me home and pasted it in front of the church. The guy, incidentally, was attending the same church with my mother. My mother walked past the poster several times without knowing it was me until someone called her attention to it. When the whole victimisation started by the authorities began, I got support from her because it seemed I was passionate about it. I convinced her about the need to make changes in the system and up till today, she only calls me up when she sees me on the television or something to offer prayers for me.
How was growing up?
Quite interesting. My father had about two cars and at that time, we had a family house at Mushin until 1986. I was still in the secondary school when he died and my mother remained unmarried, though she was of marriageable age. At a point, I decided to go and stay with my late grandmother around Shogunle, Ladipo area. I was there till I completed my secondary school education. I did not proceed for higher institution immediately after secondary school. I had a family friend whose mother had a business where we worked together and I was also working as a store keeper to a family that dealt in large distribution of beer. I was managing the store somewhere in Alagbado area. I would go from Shogunle to Alagbado to prepare the sales, handle accounts and take the money back to the owner of the business. The son was my very good friend, though he’s late now. He was my closest pal while in secondary school. The mum said: ‘you guys are still awaiting your results. Rather than do nothing, why don’t you do this and I pay you till you get admission?’ So, we started doing that. That was where I learnt active driving. Before my father died, he had started teaching me how to drive, but, of course, he wouldn’t want me to drive.
What pranks did you play?
I played quite a number of pranks but I was lucky not to have been influenced by people who could expose me to any form of criminality. At that time, we would stroll into the airport, play around and see some of those aircrafts, that were already abandoned, go into them and walk out. At that time, security had not completely collapsed. We would go in without having any criminal intent and go home. It was part of the fun we got most of the time. Now, I will not allow my son to walk from school to our house because of not only the state of general insecurity, but also because of the unsafe nature of our roads. As a young person living at Mushin and schooling at Ilupeju, whenever my father was not coming to pick us, we were given the money to come by commercial bus back home but we would walk home, armed with a bag of popcorn and Samco that we would lick from Ilupeju Supermarket to wherever it would last us. We would stop over and throw our shoes and sticks at all manner of trees [to pluck their fruits] that we ate before we got home. Most times, we got home late.
Can we have an insight into your roots?
My father and mother are both from Ogun State. My father was from Egba, Owu, and my mother is from Ifo area. My mother and former President Olusegun Obasanjo are from the same clan. I remember when we formed Moshood Abiola Vanguard for Democracy and Abiola died and Obasanjo came to Abiola’s house. I led other youths to chase Obasanjo out of the place. Sowore and I were in charge and we chased Buba Marwa, Senator Anthony Adefuye and others, out of the house. We were almost leaving when Obasanjo, who had said, outside the country, that Abiola was not the Messiah Nigerians were waiting for; arrived. Unfortunately, he drove straight to Abiola’s house from the airport. I was there with other young people and we subjected him to vigorous interrogation, to explain what he meant by that statement. He had some security guys with him who actually threatened to shoot, but we dared them. We chased them with their guns out of Abiola’s house. He offered to go out, but we said ‘No, you’re not going’, that we must interrogate him. Not until we finished the interrogation did we chase him out and we warned him never to show up there again. It actually went viral in most of the television stations because we had television stations covering the happenings there at the scene. When the news was aired, it showed where I was interrogating him and he was answering with his hands behind his back. As usual, before my mother saw it, someone had asked if she had seen what happened. When she saw it, she was like ‘Do you know he is your uncle?’ I said he had never been introduced to me as one, though I know people mentioned it to me that we are related. As I was concerned at that time, I wasn’t seeing an uncle but a man who made an utterance and needed to account for his statement. A few days later, some of my uncles got in touch with my mother and said her son had embarrassed our uncle. I gave the same response I gave to my mother that I wasn’t doing it for myself, but for my colleagues.
Any direct interactions when he became president?
When Obasanjo eventually became the president, one of the uncles said, “Yes, you are one of the critics the president would like to work with. If you won’t mind, I have spoken with him, I’ll take you straight to him…” I said ‘No and that from what I knew about that man, he was a leopard that could never wash off its black spot. He said “No, he has changed”. Coincidentally, he was the Akogun of Owu while Obasanjo was Balogun Owu. So, they were both titled chiefs in Owu. He became the regent when the immediate past Olowu died. Unfortunately, they fell apart. I told him I couldn’t work with him, that there was actually no way we could flow together. He said, ‘’Well, we all know egbon, but now that he has gone to prison and come back, he has actually changed.” That was his response at that time. But when he became the regent and he and other chiefs resolved on the appropriate person to become the Olowu of Owu and President Obasanjo had a different candidate in mind, he not only harassed all of them that were opposed to his choice, he got my uncle (the Akogun) arrested when he was just coming out of the bathroom and he was detained for days. After the arrest and the whole matter was resolved, I confronted my late uncle and asked ‘how is it with the new improved Balogun?’ He said “Oh, just don’t talk about that man’. I said ‘But I told you six years ago that this man cannot change’.
In terms of career, how has it been for you?
I have not, till today, written any form of application letter to any company or any organisation. After graduation, my mind was set on changing the system, and not take any professional job. So, after graduation, I went to serve in Maiduguri, Borno State. I had my posting reversed to Lagos. It was health-wise, difficult for me to cope in Maiduguri because of the heat. It was a place that I really loved, but it wasn’t good for my health. In Lagos I worked with Petroleum Product Marketing Company (PPMC). It was actually attractive for a person to want to retain my service there. How many companies will give you three square meals as a corper? And that was got at PPMC. You get the tea, free company transportation, picking you up in the morning and dropping you off at the close of work; you get provision at the end of the month or at the end of every two weeks, getting that as a corper, not even as a staff.
What did you opt for then?
Upon completing my service, I knew I didn’t belong in any of those places. So, I immediately went into activism, even when there was no salary paid It was at the time when Omoyele Sowore and I became very close. At that time, he was trying to work with the Campaign for Democracy (CD), but it was difficult working as any staff anywhere; so, we decided to start as volunteers for United Action for Democracy. We were responsible for most of the activities of the organisation. We were the real foot soldiers. We were behind the blockades, mass actions; we take responsibility for most of the blocking of roads on Ikorodu Road, Lagos-Abeokuta Road, the bonfires. We not only mobilised people around, we led some of those activities. From there, we founded Committee for Protection of Peoples Dignity. We started doing some of the things we know how to do best: building the capacity of young people. I think we started off with the campaign against cultism on campuses. We went visiting campuses to campaign against cultism, trying to revive student unionism on some of those campuses and migrated to general, broad human rights issues. For more than 10 years we were doing civil and political rights. We decided to go into anti-corruption and governance when it became very clear to us that it was really difficult to have any form of serious development if corruption was not combated. It was just like taking money from institutions and giving it to some others to just be stealing because you ask for more money for education. You see money allocated, but you don’t see any form of improvement.
At what point did you decide to focus on anti-corruption?
I had seen quite a lot of what was happening that it was easy for us to connect so many socio-economic issues with the case of corruption and it was clear that our state of corruption was not limited to public officers alone and to grand corruption, We have corporate businesses also being part of grand corruption; you have local and international partners in corruption. I can remember after running a postgraduate programme in Development Law and Social Justice in The Netherlands, some of these issues were brought to light as part of the training that we got at the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands and I opened a conversation with one of my lecturers at the Institute. My proposal then was to see how we could form a network of civil societies, young people organisations in West Africa, to start looking at the issues of accountability and transparency. Incidentally, we had some grants to do an alumni refresher course for all the alumni of the institute for West Africa and I offered to host it in Nigeria. In 2007, they agreed and offered to provide the grant to invite other alumni from across West Africa and we had a very good engagement at that time, reflecting on the impact of corruption on the system and connection of corruption to human rights’ violation and the rest of that. It was at that point that we started giving serious consideration to the reason for corruption, the elite class of corruption, the circumstances under which corruption will naturally fester, the indications of corruption. That was how we decided to not only work on corruption and accountability, but also on environmental and social justice issues before we formed the Human and Environmental Development Agenda (HEDA) Resource Centre to deal majorly with those issues and we started the connection with some of our partners both locally and internationally.
How did you meet your wife? Is she also an activist?
One of the things I don’t indulge in is that I don’t mix pleasure with work and I don’t allow emotions to get into my activities. One of the key things I started with and I sustained in both activism and social work is that I don’t involve in any form of amorous relationship with other activists or those I’m involved with. So, I have fun outside the realm of where I work. My wife was actually outside the social work. She studied computer. We met through mutual friends. I had a friend and she also had a good friend who my friend was dating. Interestingly that my friend is one of friends I love in the social circles, no connection with activism and we relate freely; some of them accountants, some engineers. Many times we joke and make jest of what I do and we laugh about it. It doesn’t cost me anything and doesn’t cost them anything as well. I joke with quite a lot of them and call them criminals as well.
So, I met a completely innocent lady who was not into what I do. We started talking and it’s just like mutual attraction between magnetic forces and we got clicked. I think after about our third meeting, we kind of clicked and we had our friendship going and it metamorphosed into a relationship. But she was always originally scared of my life and my security.
My friend was also very instrumental and we started talking about it; it’s like ‘that’s how he started his whole life’ and it wasn’t like I was going to change, anyway. So, there’s a distinction between someone you are falling in love with and a person who really doesn’t care about his own life. Before I really discussed a relationship with her, we never ever thought of living to start work or start a family life. As I said, even when I see the government harassing Sowore, I just tell some of those who care to listen that it’s just a complete waste of time because this is more or less like somebody who really doesn’t care what you’re bothering yourself about. We only live for every other day; we wake up, we go out and we really don’t know if we would return. We hide somewhere in Yaba area in the School of Radiography. We stay there, we live there like normal students and we had a room in the hostel. We go out as early as 5:30 to either start the bonfire… So, our every day life is like ‘where are we going to cause the next trouble?’ So, it was just like change was our life. So, it was the only thing we understood right from the time we graduated, even while in school, it was the only commiment we had. With my wife, I made that abundantly clear and I was very lucky to have a someone like her. She’s quite understanding. I credit her for actually tolerating me.