It was 1990. A bloody coup attempt had taken place on April 22. At a point, nineteen journalists were detained in connection with the coup but after negotiations with the Chief Intelligence Officer of the Babangida regime, Brigadier General Haliru Akilu, some had been released. However, the regime had made it known it would put some of them on trial. It was no empty threat. Back in 1976, following a similar coup attempt on February 13, a media worker, Mr. Abdul Karim Zakari of the Federal Radio Corporation had been tried, found guilty and executed along with 36 soldiers and two policemen.
The journalists negotiating team had been kept in a waiting room at the State Security Services (SSS) for hours. At a point, we thought we might have been detained. Finally we were ushered into a conference room filled with the security chiefs in the country including Defence Intelligence, SSS, Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) and Permanent Secretary, Security. Akilu had conducted previous negotiations with us, now we have an array. My analysis was that this was the most crucial, and he did not want to be seen taking fundamental decisions alone.
On our side, we were journalists not lawyers, but we knew we had to present a very good case if our colleagues were to be set free. For this, we began by making a strong argument that journalists are no coup plotters and carry no arms, so it is unfair for the military to drag them into the mess it has created. We told the panel that the military should sort itself out and not add to its burden by taking on the media which has a wide reach amongst the people as well as international connections and support.
The first major case we had to make was that of Mr. Willie Bozimo, the Deputy General Manager of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) The main evidence against him was that the cheque stub of the financier of the attempted coup, Mr. Great Ogboru had indicated that he paid Bozimo some money before the coup. We acknowledged this and explained that Bozimo had to move house following an attack by armed robbers and Ogboru had merely assisted him to do so.
Another cleared for trial, was Mr. Bassey Ekpo Bassey. The allegation against him was that after the coup leader, Major Gideon Orkar announced that five states were being excised from the country, he had moved around Calabar holding rallies and asking indigenes of those states to leave Cross Rivers State immediately. We argued that the security report was false as Bassey is a well-known nationalist and patriot with long years of political activism and liaison with all parts of the country. That he was a socialist who like Nkrumah, wants to unite all African countries. Therefore, he cannot support the dismemberment of the country.
We took more cases, but the most contentious was that of Mr. Chris Mammah, PUNCH Deputy Editor who was accused of writing the coup speech! We insisted Mammah did not write the speech. At a point, Akilu asked me “You said Mammah did not write the speech, that means you know who did” “No, I don’t, but I know Mammah did not” “How do you know?” “Because I have known Mammah since he was a student and President of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) Sir, call for his records. You will find that he fought for this country. He loves this country and will never advocate that a part be excised…” Akilu broke “So you trust him” “Yes I do” He reclined on his chair and said “When we told the C-in-C those behind the coup, he was surprised because they were people he trusted” “Yes, that happens in the military, but we as journalists don’t engage in that, we have no power we want to seize” “So you want me to disbelieve my boys who did the investigation?” “ No Sir, I don’t want you to disbelieve your boys; I want you to accept that your boys are human beings who can make errors” It became a battle of wits between Akilu and I. Finally, he asked that we moved to another case. One case we prepared for was that of Onoise Osunbor, the Concord Newspaper Group correspondent. It was a sticky one. From our brief, he had been correspondent in Benin and had been posted to Lagos where he took up temporary accommodation with a friend in the Ikeja Cantonment. On the eve of the coup, his friend had hosted some of his military colleagues and Onoise had participated, unaware that it was a coup gathering. Fortunately, the panel did not raise any issue about him.
At the end of the meeting, Akilu turned round and asked “Mr. Lakemfa, where do you come from?” “I am not a Nigerian” He seemed stunned “ You are not a Nigerian?” I nodded, smiled and added “I am South African” Then the DMI boss, Brigadier General Karmashi broke in “Don’t mind him Sir, he is Ijaw, his name is Ijaw” I was surprised “How do you know that?” “I have served in those Ijaw areas, so I know” Akilu shook his head, smiled and said we should go for lunch.
In the next few days, we continued to receive good news as our colleagues were freed; Bozimo, Mammah, Bassey, finally only Osunbor was left. One day, Akilu invited our team and complained that we almost got him to release a fraudulent businessman, Mr. Osunbor. We explained that this Osunbor was not the journalist. We were told that was the only Osunbor in government custody. A few days later, an Akilu assistant invited me and explained that the government can simply not find Onoise Osunbor. I told him I know where he was being kept. The official flew at me, pinning me to the ground and motioning I kept quiet. He got up and motioned I followed him. I did out of his office and Bony Camp to Ozumba Mbadiwe Street. There, he told me I was crazy “Don’t you know our offices may be bogged?” I apologized. “You say you know where a coup suspect is being held, how do I tell my bosses I know where he is?” He then asked where, and I told him ‘Tega Barracks’. He promised to lead investigations towards there.
Some days later, then Major I.D. Akinyemi, Military Assistant to Akilu called. As I sat in his office, a lean Onoise Osunbor was brought in. He shouted my name and Akinyemi asked him to shut up and prostrate. “You know why I ask you to prostrate for him?” “No Sir” “Because he saved your life”