INTERVIEW: How I Escaped Abacha’s Plan To Kill Me –Nosa Igiebor

Veteran journalist and Co-founder of Tell Magazine, Nosa Igiebor, speaks to ALEXANDER OKERE about his torturous career during the military era, including his arrest and detention by brutish regimes and how it affected his family

You clocked 70 December last year and many consider that a milestone, considering the risks you faced during the military era. Having been born before independence what kind of childhood did you have?

I had a very good, quiet life. I am from Edo State. I was born in Benin and I grew up there. Growing up, life was exciting. I was in primary school when Nigeria attained independence and I remember vividly that on that day (October 1, 1960), we lined up with the green-white-green flag in our hands. Benin City then was serene. People knew one another, depending on the quarters of the city they were living in. I think I grew up with the right values. Virtually everybody in my family was a Catholic.

You practised hardcore journalism in trying times. Was it your aspiration to become a journalist? Or could it have been something else?

In the course of my life, I have reflected on that again and again. My first love is engineering but in the secondary school that I attended, I never had the chance to study science subjects and even if I did, I think my obstacle would have been mathematics; I was never interested in mathematics. That is the irony of my life but one thing I learnt as a child was developing a passion for reading; that has been a life-long vocation. So, I won’t call myself an accidental journalist. As I said, I would have loved to be an engineer. After leaving secondary school, I wanted to study Economics but again, I could not discipline myself to sit down and learn maths, which was a requirement for studying Economics.

I was also interested in writing. I used to write short stories that were published in the Sunday Observer, which was owned by the (former) Mid-West Region, (the defunct) Bendel State, and subsequently Edo State. It was a classmate of mine, Dr Michael Ehima, who advised me to study Journalism since I had a problem with mathematics. I thought about it and that was how I got into the profession.

You worked in different media outfits, including the Nigerian Television Authority and Newswatch magazine, before co-founding Tell. In retrospect, will you say your career panned out the way you wanted?

To a large extent, I will say yes. I started my career in broadcast journalism at NTA Benin. But, again, I attended the Ghana Institute of Journalism and graduated in July 1976. While there, I had also developed an interest in cinematography. I wanted to be a cinematographer. When I returned from Ghana, I actually got a job at the Daily Sketch in Ibadan (Oyo State). I also got a public relations job but I was not interested in that; that was the same time I got a job at NTA Benin, so I opted for NTA Benin. I said being in broadcast (journalism), which is close to cinematography, I would go there (NTA Benin) and learn. Later, I was offered admission to study cinematography in the UK and I applied for the then Mid-West State Government Scholarship but unfortunately, I didn’t get it, so I closed that chapter (cinematography).

I spent about three years at the NTA and remembered that it was government-owned and the scope of journalism one could do there was limited and if I wanted to pursue a career in journalism, I didn’t see the NTA as the platform for me to achieve the height I wanted to aim at. When the late Chief MKO Abiola established Concord Newspapers in the early 1980s, I saw that as an opportunity; they were recruiting people, so I was one of the pioneer staff members.

You had, perhaps, the most challenging time as the publisher of Tell during the military regime of the late General Sani Abacha. What was it like operating in that era?

I am someone who applies himself fully to whatever he does. I took journalism seriously and I was also lucky to have worked with colleagues who shared a similar passion for good journalism. When we left Newswatch to establish Tell, that was the primary objective – doing that kind of journalism that will be impactful, one that was focused more on investigations, taking up issues that were germane to national development, and what Nigeria should represent for Nigerians. Before Abacha came, there was (General Ibrahim) Babangida’s (regime), the June 12 (1993) debacle, and the crisis it fostered. That was a moment that we thought we needed to rise up to the challenge and we were not the only ones; we had The PUNCH, The Guardian, and a good number of other private media outlets that rose to the occasion. We needed to confront the military dictatorship that was taking the people for a ride. So, we felt that was the opportunity to actualise the objective we set out when we established Tell magazine.

Also, the circumstances were such that we were compelled to do so; it was not a challenge we were, for any reason, prepared to be deterred from.

You were arrested by operatives of the Department of State Services in December 1995 and imprisoned for several months. What did the DSS tell you when they arrested you?

They never told anyone they arrested what the offence was but without telling one anything, one knew exactly why they were picked up once one was labelled by the state as an enemy and with the omnibus term that one constituted a threat to national security. It was only when the person arrested arrived at the place they were taking them to that they were told that they did a story critical of the government. So, it was clear to us that what we were doing was risky in the sense that we were challenging a military dictatorship that was ruthless and not prepared to accept any challenge from anywhere. They even saw criticism that was well-meaning as a threat. So, we knew the risk, and weighed the cost but we were not deterred.

How did you cope with being away from your family for that long?

The first time I was arrested along with three of my colleagues was after General Abacha sacked the Chief (Ernest) Shonekan interim government in 1993. When Babangida left, he put up the contraption called the Interim National Government, which was headed by the hand-picked Shonekan. Of course, in the eyes of Nigerians, including us (at Tell), that government was illegitimate because we had had a valid election but the outcome was aborted through the annulment of the election. Of course, there was no argument about whether MKO Abiola won the election or not. So, that hardened our position about the regime – that we would not allow it to stand. Luckily for us, we were not the only ones that took that stand. For instance, The PUNCH was one of the media organisations that were shut down repeatedly and their editors were harassed and detained.

So, my colleagues and I were arrested and detained for about a week pending when Babangida finally exited and Shonekan came in. When we were taken to Abuja, we were kept at DSS headquarters and later to their substation and thereafter transferred to a police station in Asokoro. We were just there. Nobody took us to court or told us why we were arrested. One important thing I would like to recall is that the Deputy Superintendent of Police who was in charge of our case told us to be patient, that he didn’t really see what they (the government) were going to do with us, in terms of taking us to court and what the case against us would be. He told us that he was very certain that once Babangida left (power) in the next few days, we would be released, and that was exactly what happened. No formal charges were filed against us, so we left. But after that, we were invited by the police for publishing certain stories.

By that time, most of the editors no longer slept in their homes because they were under constant watch. On December 23, 1995, I went home to see my family. Unfortunately, before I could leave, a group of DSS officers showed up in front of my gate and I was picked up and taken to their office in Shangisha in Lagos where I spent Christmas and New Year until they said the paper ordering my detention was signed in Abuja, so I was taken to the DSS office in Minna, Niger State, and later transferred to the Minna Correctional Centre where I was detained for months and released in June 1996. I was one of the lucky political detainees who were released through the intervention of the late Pope John Paul II when he visited Nigeria.

What went through your mind when you were released to reunite with your family?

Oh, my major concern was my family – my wife, children and my mother, who was old at that time. At that time, I was her only surviving son. I wasn’t really concerned about myself. My first few weeks in detention were tough but I adjusted to the condition there and ensured that I took care of myself. I didn’t fall into self-lamentation or depression. Fortunately, my wife was given access to visit me monthly and she brought books for me to read. I spent my time just reading and that helped me to take my mind away from worrying about my family. Seeing my wife every month was also very reassuring; at least, I got feedback about the situation at home, that my children, wife, and mother were okay.

One of your children, Obosa, told Sunday PUNCH, that if there was any time she wished you were not a journalist, it was probably during the Abacha’s regime because she would not have been held at gunpoint and you would not have gone to prison. Did you at any point at that time think it would have been better if you did not have a wife or children whose lives would be in danger because of the risk involved in the kind of journalism you practised?

She was three years old at that time. It was in 1997 that the incident she was referring to happened. Tell had written a story that Abacha was very ill, which was true, but the military government didn’t like it. The reason they didn’t like it was because at an African summit he (Abacha) attended with some African heads of state, one of the heads of state advised him to take care of his health because he was not looking good. So, we published that inside information and they (the military government) didn’t like it. The DSS, again, came to my residence but I was lucky to escape before they had access to my apartment and of course, the commotion woke everybody up.

My daughter, who you referred to, is my last child, and was just three years old. They barked and searched everywhere, including the ceiling. From the account I got, one of the soldiers,who was apparently drunk, pointed his rifle at my daughter’s head and shouted, “Where’s your daddy? Where’s your daddy?” Of course, the poor girl started crying; she didn’t know what was happening. I managed to escape and went into hiding for about two weeks before I went into exile. It was later that I learnt that I was lucky because if I had been caught that night, I would have been ‘wasted’.

What did security agents do when they could not get you?

They arrested my wife. As they were taking her to Shangisha, they got in touch with one of their officers and informed him that they arrested my wife since they couldn’t get me. But the officer told them to return her to the house to avoid embarrassing headlines in the media the next day. Did I, at any point, wish I was not a journalist? No, despite the difficulties I put my family through and all the inconveniences I suffered, I never regretted being a journalist because I was driven by the force of our moral conviction that Nigeria could be better and that it was time Nigerians stood up to the military dictatorship and enthrone democracy in the country. The essence of the objective overruled whatever personal concern we had.

Did you not feel sorry for your wife and kids who did not bargain for the intimidation and harassment they faced because of your occupation?

In war, there is collateral damage; when a bomb is dropped somewhere, people are killed. I regard what happened to my family as collateral damage from the high-risk job of journalism at that time but we all survived because of the tremendous support people extended to us. Many people believed in what we were doing; every edition Tell produced was a sell-out, despite the fact that security agents went to Academic Press in Ilupeju to seize the print run of different editions, sometimes 100,000, 200,000, or 150,000. But we were determined; when they seized them, we came out in a different way.

Generally, did practising journalism in the military era destroy any part of your personal or family life?

Sure! My long absence made my children live in constant fear that something could happen to their father – that I could be arrested or detained or killed. Naturally, they went through that emotion of fear and concern about what could happen to me. It also strengthened them. I can say without any fear of contradiction that one of the lessons all my children learnt from the experiences they had with me as a journalist is that it is a noble thing to fight for justice and stand for what is right.

Let’s talk a bit more about Tell and its operation. The magazine was founded by five veteran journalists who formerly worked at Newswatch magazine. Why did the other co-founders leave and how did the company handle its internal crisis?

We never had a crisis at Tell. I don’t know where the speculation that we had a crisis came from. Of course, we are human beings. We do have disagreements as to what direction we should go, what we should do, and how we should do it. The crisis I will say we had at Tell is that the company fell into hard times. The economic situation in the past 10 years impacted us. Again, one cannot ignore the global phenomenon of the digital platform adversely affecting legacy traditional media. In many parts of the world, traditional media organisations have been able to effect a successful transition to digital platforms and their businesses are thriving. In developing countries like Nigeria, due to a lack of investment, making that transition is always difficult.

We are trying to build a digital platform for Tell now because the print edition is no longer viable traditionally. The clear option for us is to go completely digital, which we are working on. Hopefully, we should be running on a digital platform in June this year. So, there was never a crisis (among the managers) at Tell.

But why did the other editors leave?

They retired. It was their decision to leave. We had five founding editors and out of the five, only two remain. The first one left in 2002; he said he was interested in a political career and wanted to go to the Senate. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it. The second one left in 2010; again, he was interested in a political career and wanted to contest a governorship seat. The third person is still with us but has been battling some health challenges for some time, so he is in the US. Two of us are left; that is Onome Osifo-Whiskey and me. After the first two founding editors left, two other editors joined us at the editorial management level. They too opted to retire; they were pioneer staff members of Tell. They didn’t leave because there was a crisis.

Let me also say this and I think it is very important. One of the challenges we had, and I’m sure we are not the first to have that challenge, was that we were very committed, passionate, and professional journalists but none of us had business experience. Yes, we did good journalism and created a very powerful brand at Tell but we needed to create a model that will make it sustainable in the far future. Because we lacked that business acumen, we suffered and that is one of the bane of the media industry, especially when journalists start a company with little or no entrepreneurial skills. However, over time, we learnt from such a mistake and learnt to balance the two. For me, all I am trying to do is bring Tell back on its feet on a digital platform, and maybe after a year or two, I will step back.

In 2021, you scored the regime of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) low. With less than five months to the end of that regime, has your assessment changed?

I think my assessment in 2021 is even more valid today than ever before. In my opinion, the Muhammadu Buhari interregnum has been a complete disaster for the country. It is a tragedy. This is not just making mere statements. The facts are unassailable. The question you can ask anybody is: are we better or worse off than we were in 2015? The answer is clear and categorical – every Nigeria is worse off than how we were in 2015. This administration failed woefully, no matter the indices you want to look at to measure the quality of life. If you want to be charitable, you can narrow them to the three areas the President said were going to be his focus – rejuvenating the economy, ending insecurity, and fighting corruption. Remember nobody is even talking about fighting corruption anymore in the last three or four years because it was clear to everybody from the beginning that the fight against corruption was mere sloganeering, media trials, and all that. I don’t want to go into that but that is not to say they have not had some successes.

In the economy and insecurity, scoring them an F is charitable. They never get tired of blaming previous administrations for their failure. In 2015 when Buhari’s tenure started, there was a global oil crisis which, of course, affected Nigeria badly. It was clear that many economies, including Nigeria, in the world would go into a recession. Ours was because we are a mono-cultural economy. Our economy depends majorly on exporting crude oil and earning dollars to run the economy. But what did this government do in 2015? They did nothing. They went to sleep. It was clear that there was a crisis coming and they did nothing to stop it. For six months, there was no government. If you recall, he didn’t form his cabinet until December 2015, and by that time, the recession had come. There was nobody in charge of the economy, and no policies to try and preempt the recession from coming.

If the first time, maybe out of inexperience or not knowing what to do, they failed, one would have expected that they would have learnt a vital lesson but as you know, we had another recession and the economy has been struggling ever since. Today, all Nigerians are impoverished; even the richest among us will tell you they are struggling because they worry whether their business will survive. What many are baffled by is the government’s lack of appreciation of the link between security and economic development. In a largely insecure environment, the economy will not thrive. There are investments people ought to have made but they are holding back because the environment is not secure.

What are your expectations from the forthcoming presidential election? Is there Uhuru in the offing for the masses?

I am not really excited by all the candidates running. We elect people but once they are sworn in, they put all the promises they made aside and they are not accountable to anyone. Has any state or National Assembly since 1999 been able to hold any governor or president, respectively to account?

The Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, and his counterpart in the House of Representatives, the Speaker, (Femi) Gbajabiamila, told us a couple of years ago that they don’t believe in confrontation but in cooperation with the executive and, therefore, whatever the President puts before them, they would approve it and they have operated on that principle – that the President is always right and can’t be questioned. To that extent, the National Assembly has failed this country woefully, the same way the state assemblies have failed the state woefully because the governors are little emperors in their states.