Human rights activist, lawyer and journalist, Ayo Opadokun, relives his multifaceted experiences in life in this interview with BOSEDE OLUSOLA-OBASA
Has it always been your dream from childhood to be a lawyer?
I think so but I don’t know what came over me though that I chose to first study mass communication. But I remember that I was inspired by my father who didn’t go to school but he was very ambitious. He learned to read and write and even spoke English. I saw that he had the habit of purchasing and reading Iwe Iroyin Awon Yoruba. Whenever he left it, I read the newspapers to the extent I got really interested such that when Daily Times was being sold for one kobo, I used to save a part of my allowance to buy it and read.
As earlier as 12-15 years old, I already had good understanding of events in our country by reading. We were living in Offa, Kwara State then, but later went to Kano State. In Kano, I learned short-hand and typing and later had opportunity to train in a teacher’s training college. Right from Form Three in the college, I already made up my mind on the kind of life I wanted to live. I was committed to becoming a journalist first and then a lawyer. But my dreams were fulfilled at God’s time. In the years that I would have been admitted into the University of Lagos to study mass communication, I was one point less than the eight points entry requirement.
The point I had could have conveniently given me a slot to study law, which was three points but I wanted to first study mass communication. So, I decided to re-enter for the course. Those days, mass communication had the highest cut off point. Those days, you didn’t need to lobby anyone once you passed. The year after, I received my admission letter via telegram to study mass communication and I came out with Second Class Upper. Much later in 1983, I enrolled to study law. Papa Obafemi Awolowo was one of the two persons that signed my admission letter for the law school, which had to be signed by senior lawyers. The other person that signed for me was Alhaji A. F. Razak.
How did you develop your relationship with Pa Awolowo?
As the head of the PUNCH opinion poll, I believe that leaders of the Unity Party of Nigeria had been reading my bylines and were fascinated. I don’t know what they discussed with Pa Awolowo but two of them L. A. Omisade from Ife and Alhaji King from Kano were assigned to speak with me. I was invited to come and see him and I sat at the table with him. The executive made a case for the need for better organised research arm, so I was appointed as the party’s senior research and publicity officer and subsequently I rose to be director.
Could you relive your days as a journalist?
I worked at PUNCH newspaper in 1979. I was appointed then to head the opinion poll unit. We used scientific approach to verify public opinion as was done in Europe. We found out people’s views on matters of importance to the public. Dr. Idowu Sobowale was my external consultant then. It was about precision in journalism. Before then, I was with The Herald Newspaper in Kwara State. After Tunde Idiagbon and Muhammadu Buhari’s coup in 1983, Pa Awolowo asked Chief Ebenezer Babatope and I to go to Tribune and start doing something there.
It was at that point that I enrolled for law. Some of my friends wondered what was wrong with me for wanting to leave journalism to go and study law. They thought that I was belittling the profession but I knew my lifestyle – I knew that I would remain a critic, seeking to right the wrongs against the Nigerian people. I knew that I could not guarantee that government would patronise anything that I would be engaged in. I knew that I needed an independent source of income that will not put me at the mercy of the government and law provided me that platform. I know my right, I can utilise my knowledge to help other people while earning a living.
Are you now saying that you prefer law to journalism?
I have difficulty responding to that. That is because they are both important. All I know is that I am first and primarily a reporter before being a lawyer.
In your days as a reporter, which report do you consider very challenging?
I remember a feature story I wrote while at The Herald about Dr. Olusola Saraki and his water gesture to people in the community. The theme of the story was based on my observation, which revealed the political and not charity motive behind his giving water to the people. There was inadequate water and he used to give out water using tankers, but the story opened up Saraki for who he was. That was during the military regime, Saraki was very angry because of the story. I got to know that he placed surveillance on me. I could have been eliminated for that story or dismissed except for the intervention of some people. The story put me on the side of reality of ’write and be damned.’ The Libertarian Theory of the press says publish and be damned. Truth is regarded as sacred, while comments are free.
Were you a politics reporter?
Yes, my interest has always been to cover politics. I was there when the Unity Party of Nigeria organised its first conference in Lagos, among so many other landmark events.
As a politics reporter, how often was your byline on the cover page?
It wasn’t so often. The gatekeepers had parameters for determining which story made it to the cover. I must have clocked two and half years in The Herald before I wrote my first cover story. Newsroom managers in those days were not educated but they were really skilful on the job.
What’s your purpose for choosing to be an activist?
My parents, both Christians had impact on my choice. My father was a Baptist Church leader for many years. My mother was the president of women missionary society for about 15 years. I was born by parents, who were traditional protectors of the rights of the poor; that had its own impact. Besides, they were people who never pandered towards an unprincipled position. In 1978, my father insisted that priests in the Baptist church then must upgrade educationally to be adequate with the development in the lives of the congregation.
They were given an option to opt out if they couldn’t meet up with that requirement and it was ratified by the council of the church. There were a few people who were against the move and at a point, the police had to come to the church to keep peace. Those who were against the move were sad that my father was bent on sending the pastor away, but my father stood on his position because he understood that it would be to the advantage of the point being made. I learnt from my parents to be able to defend whatever I did. I follow the mandate of the Bible that I should be a voice of the voiceless.
You appear to be someone who loves to be beside great people (Like Awo and MKO Abiola), how do you get this done?
I don’t think I have any extra thing that I have done. I only have the grace of God to stand for what is right. I don’t mind the consequences when I decide on standing for the right thing. The fact is that people often find me acceptable. I have been so lucky, and I often act as a bridge builder. Looking at National Democratic Coalition, when Ibrahim Babangida annulled that election, every effort to make him change his mind failed.
The election was in June 1993, so I sat down and thought and I became persuaded that if nobody did anything about the matter, children after us would feel disappointed in us. So I decided that Nigerians must stand up, I went to Papa Adekunle Ajasin in Owo to discuss how we could have a platform of different groups and people that would speak up against the annulment. I told him the implication and that he would have to come to Lagos. We were able to establish a broad-based political platform which we called NADECO. Afenifere called an emergency meeting with me and approved my submission.
People from South South, South East and the Middle Belt also lent their support. This done, Pa Ajasin and I decided to co-opt retired military officers into the group. That is why the first meeting was held in the Ikeja, GRA home of Major General Adeyinka Adebayo. I spoke with the Campaign for Democracy, the CDHR and we all collaborated to form what was known as NADECO.
With my role, it was not a surprise that I was appointed the chief scribe of the coalition and there was a directive that I should be the only one to speak on behalf of the organisation. That was decided at the first steering committee meeting, especially because we were under a military regime. So, I was declared wanted. That was in 1994. I had to go underground for five months. I was later detained for the first 24 months.
In other words, you are saying that NADECO was your brainchild…
I won’t say that. It will be an overtly ambitious assumption. The truth is that so many groups were trying to do so many things around that time. What God used me to do was to coordinate them to form a whole. At our second meeting, we had MKO Abiola in attendance and he agreed with our position.
Principally, he agreed to, once he assumed the position as president, bring about a government of national unity by convening a sovereign national conference to respond to the national question. The meeting was at the instance of a committee of three and the name NADECO was arrived at. It was Pa Anthony Enahoro that fine-tuned the suggestions on what the name should be and it became NADECO.
Do you recall your first meeting with MKO Abiola?
I really had nothing doing with him until when he wanted to run for the presidency in 1993 precisely. I had only been looking at him from a distance. Maybe he was told that he couldn’t have a successful campaign without the Afenifere group. I was told that he had gone to see Mama HID Awolowo in Ikene and that he had gone to see Pa Ajasin in Owo. So, we were asked to draw up the Awo creed. After he had done some rounds across the country, I received a call from him.
He said that he wanted me to be close to him. I remember that one of his wives, Mrs. Doyin Abiola, also invited me and some other people to discuss the political campaign. The work was done. As part of my commitment to principles, when the election was annulled, I got closer to Abiola. We cultivated each other and I found that he was genuine in what he was doing, only for the jackboots to arrest, detain, humiliate, prosecute and killed him for reasons still unknown till date. That black spot will remain eternal in the history of Nigerian military.
You looked forward to seeing Abiola become president. Can you recall your mood when you learnt about the annulment of his election?
I recall clearly. The first public speech on the annulment met me in the palace of the Ooni of Ife. There were so many traditional rulers who were there for a meeting and the Ooni wanted me to play a role there. The meeting had not started when the announcement came at about 12 noon. I was not only devastated; I felt that Nigeria had lost an opportunity to fashion out nationhood. We lost the chance to respond to our divine destiny as the leader in the black world. I felt totally and personally cheated. My expectation had been corroded by evil intention and action of a few military jackboots. They are so contemptible of the Nigerian people and I felt that it was not good.
If you still feel this way after two decades, how then do you feel still seeing IBB around?
I see him as a man that would have been the luckiest person, who could have used his office to give the country the best, but he chose the option of serving personal interest and in the process lost what he thought he had. If he had allowed the victory of Abiola to stay, I believe that Nigeria would have been highly rated in the comity of nations. It was very hard for Nigerians to bear. Abiola lost the election and his life.
Do you believe he should have forgone the mandate and saved his life?
Unfortunately, I don’t. I believe he did the right thing. He stood for what he believed in. It was a sacrifice he paid. If he had not, he most likely would have been forgotten. He is no more now but he has succeeded in keeping his name alive as the martyr in Nigerian politics. It is his killers that must account for their actions, no matter how long they live. All the things that they have gathered will be taken away from them.
Do you believe in the national conference as being muted by President Goodluck Jonathan?
Well, for me, between an agenda for a national restructuring and 2015 presidential election, my priority will be the convocation of a sovereign national conference. As to whether Jonathan is sincere or not, I believe that people have a right to be cynical because we have seen so much in the political sphere. I will continue to watch, we will be fools not to choose to watch and see whether he means it or not. We were here when Sani Abacha came in and observed that people were indifferent, he promised to organise a national conference, and later conference with constituent powers, which is the same as sovereignty.
But when we saw that decree, it was clear that he would appoint all the principal officers, he would nominate one third of the staff membership, that the military had been given the right to amend, rewrite, subtract, add to the resolutions of the conference. So it became obvious that he didn’t mean it, he just wanted to buy time. During Olusegun Obasanjo’s time, he filled the seats with his choice of members, but behold, we later discovered that the most important reason for the conference was to support his intention for tenure elongation.
And when people kicked against that purpose, the conference collapsed. So, people must be cynical, but I still think that we should give it another try under Jonathan. The most suitable constitutional arrangement for our kind of country is a federal constitution, which must be established by the people. That was the basis on which the 1960 constitution was fashioned but less than five years, the military took over and they have infiltrated our constitution. Nigerians must utilise this opportunity to subscribe to their own constitution. President Jonathan has to show that he is genuine.
Do you see NADECO outliving its founders?
Yes, as long as the country remains the way it is, NADECO will be relevant. Our agitation is for the convocation of a sovereign national conference.
How much of your time does your family have seeing your kind of schedule?
I would say that I have not scored a distinction in that aspect. I am on the average. The role that God has used me to play has deprived my children of the opportunity to hold on to their father as they would love to. I can tell you that in spite of the efforts we make, it has been God’s mercy that has helped me to satisfy the aspiration of my wife and children. I am not such a fantastic father because I was not really available when they were being raised. I must give credit to my wife; she is a Christian and has done a yeoman job in nurturing the children. Whenever I am around, I provide parental care and guide.
In one of the instances, you were detained for two years, how was the experience like?
That was the first one; I was rearrested again in 1998. I was in Ikoyi prison when Abacha died and I was released. The prison is a leveller. Once you are there, you are not in control of yourself; the warder is in control of you. The habitual prisoners are kings and presidents of the cell. You are not in control, they can come and pull you out of your cell to another prison and nobody would explain anything to you and you must not say no.
To make matters worse for people like me, I was not prosecuted. I was detained for political reasons. In my detention warrant, they didn’t state the date that I would be released. You are just there, that can be more depressing, and you don’t know when you would get out.
What they did to us occasionally could be very dangerous, we were being moved around – I spent about 15 months in Kano prison and later I was taken to Kuje prison in Abuja, where I spent another five or six months. When I was first arrested in 1994, I was taken from Ikoyi to Kano.
My experience is that Nigerian prisons are not designed for correction, it hardens prisoners. Prisoners get so bad that when they are released, they tell warders to retain their ration because they will soon be back, they can no longer integrate into the society. There is need for a radical reform in the prisons. About two third of people there are on awaiting trial. The money said to be spent on prison is not showing at all.
During Abacha’s regime in 1998 that you went back to the prison, did you ever think that you’d regain freedom?
I had two sets of thoughts in my head. In a way, I had intelligence report on what was happening in government. I was of the opinion that I could be taken to a far distant prison like in Yola or places with bad climatic conditions, abandoned there or eliminated. I knew that Abacha was a very ruthless man. When I was released from Ikoyi prison in 1998, I was convinced that I would never be released if Abacha had not died.
I was told that he said that I was stubborn and that he thought that I had learnt my lesson from my first ordeal. I was sometimes invited by the State Security Service officers on insurgency to answer some questions. It was around 12 to 1 am and when I gave my answer, the officer got angry and ordered me to be taken back to the cell. They asked me where NADECO got funding from.
When on that day, two SSS officers brought my release warrant and I was told I would be leaving, they pleaded with me not to let other prisoners know about it. But I had to tell my confidant in the prison. But the awaiting trial guys got to know and it caused uproar. I wanted my money back from one of the prison officers but he had spent it.
I was however able to get N10 and took a kabukabu back to Offa. The SSS guys wanted to give me a lift to Abuja but I refused. I went to sleep at the home of Chief Olu Akerele, then the bureau chief of the Concord newspaper. The SSS men actually wanted me to come and see Abacha but I didn’t want to go though I didn’t tell them. I simply rose up very early the next day and told Akerele that I was leaving for the garage. I refused to go and see him, why should I see him?
You seem to have some personal dislike for Olusegun Obasanjo…
I would say it once again; he is an unpleasant complex of a man. Here is a man God gave very rare privilege but he redirected himself. He failed to use his opportunity to paint his name in gold. Before he assumed office, he was aware of a group called New Generation, which had passion for seeing a turnaround in the power sector.
The group was made up of professionals and blue chip companies, who had the blueprint of how to make it work. They met with him before he got into office and promised to ensure that they had opportunity to revive the power sector. But he slept over it for so many months and years. He started the independent power project but it was not properly done.
We were talking about 2,800MW for a country as big as Nigeria. In education, he refused to go beyond five per cent budget despite the hues and cries and despite UNESCO’s 1976 recommendation of 26 per cent budget for member nations. Why is it that Nigeria cannot provide effective medical care for people?
Obasanjo’s project on that also failed. Rich people are airlifted to go for medical treatment, but the poor people are dying because they can’t afford N5,000 treatment. Obasanjo cannot pretend not to know that James Ibori had been stealing state funds, he never did anything. He was allowed to run for election despite the evidence brought to court on his convictions home and abroad.
My problem with that man called General Obasanjo is that perhaps he had a round table with God where he was told that he will live for 200 years, otherwise, he shouldn’t have done some of the things he did in office. How can a man in a public office in Nigeria build a private university? Where did he make such fortune?
Source: The Punch