Bayo Onanuga, Managing Director, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)

Without any equivocation, Bayo Onanuga, along with the likes of his ‘fellow conspirators’, remains among the greatest icons of Nigerian journalism owing to his fearless and passionate leadership for committed journalists in confronting military rule. The News magazine, TEMPO and PM News that he founded along with his colleagues became thorns in the flesh of Nigeria’s military regimes.

Now in his first-ever assignment on the side of government as the Managing Director/CEO of the News Agency of Nigeria, Mr. Bayo Onanuga casts a backward glance at the pro-democracy struggle for the cause of June 12, 1993 election won by Chief MKO Abiola. He spoke with The Nation’s Assistant Editor, ‘Jide Babalola. Excerpts:

Where were you on the date the annulment of June 12 1993 election was announced by Babangida’s military regime ?

I think I was in my office and when we heard it from our correspondent in Abuja, we initially thought it was a joke. The initial feeling was that no, it could not be possible. But our correspondent confirmed that there was a statement issued by Mr Nduka Irabor. At that time, Mr. Irabor was working for the Chief of General Staff (CGS).

For most of us who took part in the election of June 12 and for us , as a news organisation , because we already had the result and we already knew that Abiola had already won the election fair and square, we felt a sense of outrage, we felt it was wrong. We felt it was a monumental injustice to deny Abiola of his victory. We did not need anybody’s prodding on what we should do. We just felt we had a campaign for justice to wage. That was how it all started.

Don’t forget that before the June 12, 1993 election and before the 23rd June annulment of the election, there was another annulment before then in which some aspirants under both the SDP and NRC came out to contest for the presidential primaries of their respective political parties. Just after the results had been declared, Babangida decided to annul their election.

The underlying political trend at the time was quite significant in Nigeria’s history. You found a person like Shehu Yar’Adua beating Lateef Jakande in Lagos.There were several political upsets like that. But Babangida did not just annul the whole exercise, but went further to ban the contestants from further participating in politics.

The ban paved way for Abiola’s emergence as an aspirant for presidency in the SDP. Abiola came out, believing that the regime had learnt its lessons and that it was ready to turn a new leaf. Also, the citizens also believed that the transition programme was going to be a real transition programme, dismissing the anxieties of some activists that the transition programme, as being implemented had a ‘Hidden Agenda”.
After the primaries of the parties, Abiola emerged as the presidential candidate for the SDP. Tofa got the NRC ticket.

We were set for the election. Then came attempts to stop the election with a court judgement delivered at night. But another court ruled that the election should go ahead. So everybody voted. I voted too.

Part of reasons why the annulment pained me most was that I remembered that on the day I was going to vote, I made a lot of efforts to ensure I voted.

Then, somebody said the election had been cancelled. It was only natural we shared the national outrage in our newspapers. As journalists, we felt we should use our own tools to redress the injustice of that time.

The shock and disappointment was the primary inspiration for fighting against the annulment?

It was central to it. And even more important was the need for the enthronement of justice in our country. Those were the reasons we joined the struggle to validate June 12.

You have had some problems with the Babangida regime before then. What really happened?

Before we started publishing in February 1993, I was working for MKO Abiola’s Concord Press, as the Editor of the African Concord magazine. In April 1992, the Concord organisation was shut down by Babangida’s administration. Because what we published in the magazine was the ‘cause’ of the shut-down , Abiola asked me to go and apologize to Babangida and Halilu Akilu, the Director of Military Intelligence. I opted to resign from African Concord. Many of the senior editors also resigned. So, we went to form ‘The News’ magazine and very early in the life of ‘The News’ magazine, when we were not up to three months old , they came to shut down our office. We then had a meeting: should we just go back home and go and start selling fish (a good business at the time ) or find something else to do? We decided to continue and see how far we could go in defying the military regime.
We had no office. We were operating from a space given to us by a friend. We continued to publish as if nothing happened. Initially, the regime did not do anything, but when they found out we were still publishing, in fact we were even publishing things that they termed subversive, they decided to act further .

The last interview we published before they proscribed the magazine was the interview with former Head of State, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, in which he told us how the Babangida group toppled him. The title of the interview was “How I Was Toppled: Buhari”. One of the persons who conducted the interview was Bagauda Kaltho, who was later killed by the state.

So, an interview with Buhari precipitated the final closure of ‘the News’ magazine?

Yes. What Buhari’s interview precipitated was our final closure and proscription. We just heard it on radio. We had advertised that we were coming out with the Buhari interview and of course, we also tried to whet appetites by disclosing some of the things Buhari said in the interview.

That week when the magazine was about to come out, they announced the proscription and also declared many of our editors, including myself, wanted . In the interview, Buhari warned that the entire ‘transition programme ’ of the IBB military regime was a waste of time and that it was going to lead us to a pseudo-democracy. Eventually, we had the June 12, 1993 election about a week afterwards and it was a peaceful election, only for the government to annul it eleven days after. Let no one distort history : the election was conclusive, the official results declared in each of the 30 states and Abuja. We already knew the results. Abiola won in 19 states and Abuja. Tofa won in 11 states. Abiola also defeated Tofa in Kano, Tofa’s home state. We published the election results in ‘The News’ magazine.

After that proscription and police announcing a manhunt for us, we again had to plan our next line of action. We had a meeting with all our staff and the idea was that we should float another magazine, ‘TEMPO’. The founding editors would henceforth play a backroom role. That was how TEMPO came to be.
TEMPO was going to be like ‘The News’ magazine, a normal magazine . I could recall that during the printing of our first edition, we were at the press and while the very beautiful magazine was being rolled out, the security services people suddenly appeared at the Abiola Press in Isolo, Lagos where we were printing.

When they came, they didn’t know me and they ordered the people working on the magazine to stop working. We were there because at that time, you needed to be there to ensure that no one succeeded in stealing your magazine . They ordered us, myself and Seye Kehinde, now publisher of City People, to pack our magazine into their truck. We had no other choice than to help them load our confiscated magazine into the truck. While we were loading the truck, we suspected at a stage, that the operatives could ask for our ID and decided to hide in one of the offices. And that was what happened. Later they were shouting “Where are those men that were helping us to load, we are looking for them”. Because we had worked at Concord Press before, we shut ourselves inside one of the offices. We left when we were sure they had gone.

It all happened on a Saturday night. We left in great despair and we nearly gave up but for the luck of meeting Alhaji Lateef Jakande.

I met him at a function on Monday and the news was already all over the place that the military regime had seized TEMPO. So, Alhaji Jakande asked: “What are you going to do next?” And I said: “ I don’t know sir”. And he said: “Why don’t you turn the magazine into a tabloid. I can print for you?”
Tabloid? It never occurred to us that we could go tabloid, until the old master mentioned it. It was not a bad idea at all.

I left that function; it was that of a newspaper, “The Economist” being run by Haroun Adamu. That was where I met Alhaji Jakande. I left that place to meet my colleagues where we were always holding our meetings. I told them what Alhaji Jakande suggested. Everybody jumped at it.

Luckily, we had the negatives of the seized edition. So it was the negatives that we took to Jakande’s place. The lithographers had to re-shoot them all and blow them up to fit the newspaper size, which is the tabloid size. That was how we rolled out that magazine that they said they had seized. It came out on a Thursday because we had to use the entire Tuesday and Wednesday to plan it . That was how it came out on Thursday. People were surprised that the TEMPO that the regime claimed to have banned still came out on the streets. That was the beginning of our guerrilla journalism.
Jakande was our first printer. But later, when we saw that he could not cope because the press was a small press, we now started looking for a bigger facility and the person that I went to meet was Chief Jim Nwobodo. He had run a newspaper called “The Satellite” in Ikeja, at that time and the paper had stopped coming out. I approached him and he agreed to print for us. We moved our printing to Satellite Press.

While all those stories were going round that we were printing underground somewhere, It was Jim Nwobodo and his Satellite Press that were printing for TEMPO. We were very careful not to go there during daytime; we only went there at night and before morning, we had finished printing.
That was how the guerrilla thing started. Well, we were guerrillas in the sense that we were not operating in the normal mode of other newspapers. We had secret locations where we held editorial meetings. We only told our reporters to drop their handwritten stories at some designated places. Our typesetting was done then in central Lagos at a friend’s computer centre. He carved a small space for us to operate. That was how we ran it until Babangida left and Ernest Shonekan’s Interim National government took over , giving us a respite. Abacha came in a few months after and all the repression began all over again .

There were stories about how endangered pro-democracy activists sneaked out into exile through what is now known as the ‘NADECO Route’. Tell us about your journey into exile during that period .

In my own case I eventually had to leave Nigeria in December 1997. Before that, I first went into hibernation in my hometown in Ijebu-Ode for about a month and it was the Americans that now finally gave me a visa.

On a particular Sunday, some fellows from the DMI came to our office at Ijaiye Road in Ogba, Lagos. According to what I learnt later, they stood outside waiting for me. They did not see anybody like me. When they found out that workers had thinned out from the office, they went inside and picked one of the phones to call one of the numbers listed in one of our magazines. Someone picked the call at our secret printing press. They asked the man: ‘We are looking for Mr Onanuga’ and the man said, “It’s 8pm, Mr Onanuga has gone home”. They asked how they could get me and that man replied that he did not know where I was staying.

We had warned all staff not to give out anybody’s address.

The caller then asked the receiver at the press: “Where are you speaking from?”. The man said he was speaking from where those people were, at 26 Ijaiye Road.

“But we are there and we can’t see you”, the caller said.

The receiver replied: “I am in that office”.

That was how they left Ijaiye office in anger.
The next place they went was Concord Press – Abiola Bookshop Press where the office of African Concord used to be. It was a Sunday evening and they met the gateman and asked again, about how they could reach me and they were told that I left Concord six years before then, that they didn’t know where I was staying.

So they left and they now went to Mr Dapo Olorunyomi’s house where they met his wife, Ladi.

She had been arrested several times. Anytime they were looking for Dapo and they could not get him they arrested his wife. They went to her and said: “This man is your husband’s colleague, we need his address”. And she said: “Yes, he is my husband’s colleague but I don’t know where he stays”. They accused her of lying. She insisted she didn’t know my house, that anytime she wanted to see me, she met me at the office. So when Ladi did not reveal anything, they said they were going to arrest her. I suspected Ladi was not well dressed for the arrest, so she asked to be allowed to change before following them. They agreed and Ladi went into her bedroom where she had a phone and called a friend of mine. She said: Look, there are some people here and they said they wanted to arrest me,” that the person should get in touch with me very quickly so I could disappear from my house. That person called me. The person that was called was Abdul Oroh who raced to my house that night and told me what Ladi just said.
Ladi was taken away and she spent about four to five months with them. In my own case, after Abdul’s message, very early in the morning of Monday, I took a few things and disappeared into my home town.

Later, I got a message from someone very high up in government who told our intermediary I should disappear from Nigeria immediately. When that message was delivered and it was from a source that I could not just disregard, I decided to leave Nigeria. The message was that they were not just coming to arrest me but that they actually wanted to kill me. If you go by what had happened before then, how they had killed Kudirat Abiola, Alfred Rewane and others, that was a grave warning indeed.

I left through the usual ‘NADECO route. Before I left Nigeria, I had to go and shave. I used to have some Afro hair on my head. I dressed like a farmer and bought some eye-glasses. I dressed more like an old school teacher and just carried a few things and headed towards Ghana.

The Americans were very helpful; they issued me a visa without having to appear at their embassy, they just asked me to send my passport and they issued the visa. I had to pass through the border to Republic of Benin, then Togo. I made sure that I didn’t stay or wait anywhere until I got to Accra, Ghana that night. Being in Accra, I was safe. Then I moved to America few days after. That was what happened at that time and it was so scary that when I got to America, I had nightmares for weeks about being pursued in Nigeria.

Also, don’t forget by that time, many of my colleagues had been arrested. Ojudu was already in. He was arrested at the border; he was coming back to Nigeria. I think he went to attend a conference in Kenya and he was on his way home when he was picked up. Kunle Ajibade was already jailed for life. Dapo Olorunyomi was on exile. Seye Kehinde, for personal reasons, had floated City People. Jenkins Alumona, our editor was in detention. So many other people had been arrested at that time.

In a sordid way, those were very interesting times.

Yes. Very interesting. The result was that after most of us had disappeared, they now came in and shut down all our operations in one day but they were surprised that after shutting down everything and arresting thirteen of our staff; the following day PM News came out again and TEMPO, “The News” came out the following week. They didn’t know how it happened. It was an interesting time.

What I learnt from it all is that many of us were not afraid because there was nothing to be afraid of. My own thinking was that the soldiers like us bloody civilians, were also human beings. Even though they had the guns, we have the pen. We wanted to prove to them that our pen is mightier than the sword. We showed them that with the pen, we could really defeat them.

Did you ever meet General Babangida after he left office and what is your reading of his disposition afterwards?

After he left office, I met Babangida several times. I can tell you that from my reading of him and from what he said, he very much regretted the June 12 annulment.

One day, he told me that he believed that time is a healer and that over time, people will forgive him and so on. Well, I don’t know whether he has been proven right or wrong but the same time that he said is a healer has really been a healer if you note that twenty-five years after, another government decided to atone for what happened twenty-five years earlier. I believe that on June 12, 2018 wherever he was, Babangida would have felt ashamed of himself that while he was there, he did the wrong thing and it took another leader twenty-five years after, to correct what was obviously a grave error of judgment, a grave error of history.