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Conquering fear – Owei Lakemfa

Guilty as perceived - By Owei Lakemfa
By Owei Lakemfa
The Babangida  military regime which shot itself into power on August 27, 1985 was a deceptive one. Early in its life, it asked Nigerians to debate whether to take or reject  an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan and its enslaving conditions.
Nigerians overwhelmingly rejected the loan. General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida in a nationwide broadcast, acknowledged the  decision of the populace. But he  went on to get into bed with the IMF.
Given its long litany of deceptive actions, when the regime  decreed it  was going to hand over power back to civilians in 1990, many  did not believe it.
The regime was like a chronic debtor who swears to pay his debts at month end thinking it is a far off date, only to renege; when 1990 approached, Babangida reneged.
The regime fixed a new date of 1992. Nigerians knew Babangida was deceiving them, so they nicknamed him ‘Maradona’ after the skillful Argentine footballer.
A  leading lawyer and former President of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) Alao Aka-Bashorun  told Nigerians that Babangida and his gang had a “Hidden  agenda” and  had no intention of   handing  over power.
Early in 1990, a group of elites led by retired technocrats, began to campaign for a Conference of 100  Eminent Nigerians to decide the way forward for the country.
The group pushed for a form of French cohabitation with a President who will be ‘above’ partisan politics and a Prime Minister  who will form and run government and can be sacked by the President.
Aka-Bashorun said Babangida was behind the  plan which he said is part of the his hidden agenda to transform himself into a  dictatorial ‘civilian’ President.
He rallied round a group of patriots who put out a counter advert which called for a representative conference in which all major segments of the country will be represented.
While  the Technocrats saw their  proposed conference as advisory,  the Aka-Bashorun group which crystalized into the National Consultative Forum (ACF) decided that the conference it was championing will be  sovereign.
As the ACF proposals gained popularity, the pro-government group withdrew.  But following the April 22, 1990  aborted ‘Orkar Coup’ which raised some of the issues the ACF was campaigning on, the pro-regime group resurfaced and asked to jointly hold the National Conference.
It took a lot of responsibilities including claims that it would provide the needed funds. But as the Conference idea began to crystalize, it suddenly withdrew, hoping that the whole programme  would collapse.
However, the ACF had envisaged this and had been working on its own independent plans; so the  Conference was on course.
Some groups, particularly the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) then led by Comrade Paschal Bafyau which felt left out of the preparations, protested and were incorporated into the Conference Planning Committee.
The Chair was Aka-Bashorun supported by  pre-independence nationalists  like Chiefs RBK Okafor and Kola Balogun, a Minister in the First Republic, and Senator Mahmud Waziri who provided the  venue for the meetings in Victoria Island.
The Secretary was Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti  with Babafemi Ojudu, later a Senator of the Federal Republic, as Assistant Secretary. Radical journalist and publisher,  Uche Chukwumerije was Publicity Secretary while I was Assistant Publicity Secretary.
The regime got worried and began dual tactics of intimidation and appeasement.  A few days before the September 1990 Conference, Comrade Bafyau appeared at the Dodan Barracks State House  where he met  General Babangida and disassociated the trade unions from the Conference.
Meanwhile Chukwumerije had fallen off the radar screen only to emerge as the regime’s new Minister of Information.
The regime’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Prince Bola Ajibola   repeatedly made broadcasts on national radio and television that the regime had banned the Conference and anybody caught promoting it or who dares to attend it will go to jail for five years.
We persisted and on Conference day we gathered at the National Arts Theatre, Iganmu-Lagos  venue insisting  on holding the Conference and risk jail or whatever brutality the regime would unleash.
The crowds gathered and I particularly recall discussions with Conference Chairman, Professor Adeoye Lambo, famous Psychiatrist, former Vice Chancellor, University of Ibadan and retired Deputy Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Rather than carry out its threats, the regime shut the venue and aborted the Conference.
When 1992 approached, the regime again reneged on the promised handover, pushed the date  to January 1993, then August 1993. It cancelled the Presidential primaries, banned all  aspirants and fixed June 12, 1993 as the new election date.
The elections  held and as results tumbled in indicating  Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola had won the elections, the regime annulled the elections.
While politicians were still wondering what to do, the ACF which had metamorphosed into the Campaign for Democracy (CD) with Dr. Kuti  as Chair, called out Nigerians for mass street protests from July 5-7,1993.
A few days before the protests, the BBC called Dr. Kuti  to ask how many people he hoped to get into Lagos streets. He asked the radio to call back. He called and  asked me how many protesters  I thought we could get into Lagos streets.
I made a calculation based on the six zones  we had  mapped Lagos and told him, a minimum of 50,000 persons. “Comrade!” he exclaimed, ”’Where are we going to get that number?” When the BBC called back, he told them 5,000.
On the first day of the protests, the mega city of Lagos emptied into the streets with millions of protesters. We never imagined the level of response not just in Lagos, but across the country.
Babangida  responded that we wanted to unseat the government and ordered General  Sani Abacha to retake Lagos by any means. On Day Two of the protests, Army columns led by Abacha began the massacre of protesters from the Toyota/Apakun area near the international airport.
I led the team that went about picking corpses from the streets. With the help of the Nigeria Medical Association, we counted 118 corpses, almost all, shot in the back indicating  that they were running away when shot. Mass arrests were carried out including of Dr. Kuti, Gani Fawehinmi and Femi Falana.
That day, I had the duty to address the press.  I told Nigerians not to be deterred by the massacres and that they must come out the following day to confront the murderers in uniform.
The next day was July 7. As I made to leave  at about 5am, I took a last look of my home and told myself  that by that evening, I may be a corpse, be hospitalized, be in detention or  be hunted by the regime. Whatever the case, I must go. When I shut the gate and stepped out into the street, I knew I had conquered fear.

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