Mr. Kunle Ajibade, a veteran journalist and author, tells how surviving a life sentence by the military regime of late Gen. Sani Abacha changed his story.
What does life feel like at 60?
It is a thing of the mind. It all depends on the way you feel in your mind. I am grateful to God for the unmerited favour which I have enjoyed over these years. Each time I look back at His grace upon my life, I count my blessings.
Are you still able to do the things you did maybe 10 years ago?
I still engage in a lot of activities like I used to especially things that revitilise my body and soul. I thank God that I don’t suffer from any ailment. I am able to do exercises regularly and also eat well.
Our work as journalists is a life-long thing. You cannot stop once the passion is in you. So, age has not slowed me down as far as journalism is concerned.
What was growing up like for you?
It was normal. I was fortunate to have great parents who took good care of me. My father was a big fan of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, so he imbibed the philosophy and principles in us quite from a very young age. I remain grateful to God for that luck.
The upbringing from my father has tremendously influenced the man that I am today. I attended St. Stephens Primary School in a village called Ajebamidele, close to Ile-Ife in Osun State. By the time I got to primary four, the headmaster as a result of my academic prowess, practically turned me into a teacher. Even at times when he was not around, he would give instructions that I should be allowed to teach primary one.
It was a similar experience in the secondary school. There was a particular occasion I was invited to solve some arithmetic questions in a class higher than I was. After I successfully solved it, I was asked to beat my seniors in that class who didn’t know it.
Did this development create enmity between you and fellow students?
It did not. I later left for Muslim Grammar School i n Ibadan. At the school, I developed special in literature and the arts generally.
Later I returned to Ife to attend the Oyo State College of Arts and Science for my A Levels. As a result of the closeness of that school then to the Obafemi Awolowo University, many of the teachers and their wives were lecturing us. I took History, Literature and Government in A Levels, so many people thought that I was going to become a lawyer especially because I was argumentative.
But I was more interested in Literature and the reason for that was because of Prof. Wole Soyinka. In secondary school, I had read a lot of books written by him, so the interest in his works and in fact literature grew so strong in me.
During your stay at the OAU, did you ever get the chance to meet Wole Soyinka and what was the experience like?
One day in my very first semester at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), I called one of my colleagues, Yomi Ogunnowo, and said to him that I was going to see Prof. Wole Soyinka even though there was no prior appointment with him. I told him excitedly of my plan and he immediately said that he would love to come with me. We got a photographer to follow us and we took a photograph with the literary icon.
When I met Soyinka, I told him that I had been longing to meet him and would like to have a conversation with him. He looked at me amusingly and asked me to come back to see him later when he would have been less busy. Immediately I left there, I announced the feat to more of our friends. It was a great experience for me.
Apart from your meeting with Soyinka, what other interesting experiences did you have at OAU?
There were so many other interesting experiences throughout my stay at Ife. As a matter of fact, I went back there for my Master’s in Literature-in-English not too long after my first degree. It was quite tough I must confess. I met so many wonderful people on campus. It is a memory I still hold dear.
Considering your interest in books while on campus, did you ever have the time to engage in social activities?
How could I have met my wife if I didn’t do that? It was a thing for us on campus back then. You would go to Oduduwa Hall for movies then. Ile-Ife then was a bit remote but because the university was a community of its own, we had everything needed to make life interesting.
So, how did you meet your wife?
One of her friends was a friend of mine, so one day, we went visiting at one of the female halls named Moremi. Here was this gentle lady just sitting down and before long, we started talking. Our friendship developed from there and in no time, we became man and wife.
You were quite outspoken while on campus, didn’t this put you into trouble with the school authorities then?
No, it didn’t. I wasn’t in the students union; I was a member of the campus press. Though, I was outspoken, I hardly ever had any issues with the school authorities for my articles and activities as a whole while on campus.
At what point did you begin your journalism career and what was the initial experience like?
When I finished my Master’s in Literature-in-English, and with all sense of humility, I wrote the best thesis during my time. The expectation then was that I should proceed to do my doctorate. But I wanted to surprise everybody, so I came to Lagos and started work as a copywriter with Grant Advertising. Chief J.K Randle, the accountant, was the chairman of the company then.
I was expected to always wear suit and tie but as an arts person, I wasn’t comfortable with that. I wasn’t comfortable sitting in the office while the anti-SAP protest was going on in Lagos. I felt I should be one of them out there. The freedom I didn’t have in advertising, I started valuing it when I delved into journalism.
That was how it all started. I began seeing some of my friends who were already in journalism covering important national events. On one of those occasions, I saw some of them interviewing Gani Fawehinmi when he was brought to court during one of his trials and the next day, their reports were all over the papers. This fascinated me a lot and further sparked that interest in me. So, I made up my mind to go after this profession that matched with the type of political consciousness that I had developed in Ife.
More importantly, when I was at Grant Advertising, Mr. Emeka Izeze, who I remain grateful to, sent someone to me to find out if I could be doing a weekly book review for them in Sunday Guardian. He reached out to me after being recommended by Odia Ofeimun who knew about my background in Literature.
I started enjoying that and on Sundays, I’d be at Ojuelegba in Lagos to check the papers with pride for my reviews. That was the real start of my journalism journey. That was around 1987.
After my first degree, I didn’t work. I returned straight for Master’s after my National Youth Service. One day, I just left Grant Advertising for the African Concord where I met the Editor-in-Chief that time, Mr. Louis Obi. I said to him that I wanted to be a journalist. He asked me why I wanted to come to journalism when many bright writers were moving into advertising agencies. But I insisted that it was what I wanted to do. He asked me how much I was earning at Grant and when I told him, he exclaimed and said that they couldn’t pay that. He however, gave me the job and told me to resume the following Monday and be ready to go to Kaduna for an assignment. It was the kind of freedom I had been looking for, it just fell on my laps. Since then, I have been in the profession enjoying every bit of it.
That assignment at Kaduna was your first as a journalist, how did it turn out?
It wasn’t very difficult for me because it was a familiar subject. The Association of Nigerian Authors was meeting then and since I had got enough knowledge of the group and their activities, it was quite easy for me to handle.
That was how it all started. Then we had problems in the course of doing the African Concord. The publication did a story that was very critical of Ibrahim Babangida and his military regime shut down the company. It was an event that led to the founding of The News.
You were a strong voice during the 1993 Presidential election that was annulled and that resulted in you being jailed by the military regime of General Sani Abacha, what was that experience like?
I was initially sentenced to life imprisonment but it was later commuted to 15 years in prison. If Abacha had not died, I probably would have spent 15 years at the Makurdi Prison in Benue State. I have documented my entire experience in one of my books titled ‘Jailed for life: A reporter’s prison notes’.
The experience in prison was quite excruciating. Many of us were tried in chains by ‘kangaroo’ courts. We had a son at the time of my arrest while my wife was pregnant with another child. The baby was born while I was in jail and that was why the Nigerian press celebrated his birth particularly Weekend Concord under Mr. Mike Awoyinfa. He slammed my son, Folarin, on the front page whom he called ‘Coup baby’. Interestingly, Folarin, who is 22 now only recently met Mr. Awoyinfa during my 60th birthday. It was a great meeting between the two of them.
In all those periods you were in prison, did you ever think that you were going to come out alive?
The thoughts of my loved ones while in prison actually kept me alive. I wanted to see them again and I always asked God to make that possible for me. I am happy He answered my prayer.
A lot of people died while we were in prison. One of my cell mates in Kirikiri where we were first taken to, Gen. Shehu Musa Yar’adua, was injected and died there. They could have done that to me as well but God never allowed it to cross their mind.
Each time I remember my loved ones, I prayed to God to allow me see them again. I never really thought that I could leave that place alive.
On the day you were finally released, there must have been a great joy in the family, wasn’t that the case?
The joy and excitement wasn’t just for my family members, it was for the entire people of Nigeria. People celebrated the death of Abacha as if it was the birth of a long awaited child. So, other individuals who think that power belongs to them should learn from that.
A few weeks ago, President Muhammadu Buhari celebrated Abacha, how do you feel about this considering the suffering you went through in the hands of the late dictator?
When you defend a rogue the way President Buhari has defended Abacha, you cannot in all honesty describe yourself as an anti-corruption crusader.
However, we should not allow President Buhari to get away with falsifying our recent history. Abacha was not only a murderer; he was a proven looter of our national treasury. Even if Buhari benefitted from Abacha, he shouldn’t have said those things.
What were some of the initial challenges faced in the aftermath of the setting up of The News?
Undercapitalisation was perhaps our biggest problem. Asking people to put down money wasn’t easy and that is why we will always praise those who did. Even at that, the money wasn’t really enough. We struggled so much to get to where we are today.
There are those who believe that investigative journalism is dying in Nigeria, do you agree with this and how can this trend be reversed?
I have heard that being said on a number of times but I think the issue is that about investigative journalism dying, it’s about the sloppiness of many journalists today. A lot of them don’t do thorough jobs.
But we cannot isolate this from the larger problem of the Nigerian society. Most of our tertiary institutions and in fact other critical sectors are in a mess. As long as we don’t address these issues, the effects will continue to spiral to other areas of which journalism is one.
If our politicians were responsible, would the country be in such a mess now? So, we should call people out, we should not let those responsible for the rot in our society to shift the blame to a few persons.
What are some of the biggest lessons you’d say life has taught you at 60?
The obsessive quest for materialism is madness, it is needless. That is one of the biggest lessons I have learnt in life. People don’t have to steal to be comfortable. They don’t need to be greedy to be happy. There is nothing we brought to this life and nothing we are going away with.
I have learnt not to use the prosperity of others to judge myself. For as long as you are hard working, continue to count your blessings. That is the principle I live by.
Any major regret so far?
For the fact that I count my blessings, I have no regret whatsoever. I cannot deny the favours of God over my life. My being alive today is a big testimony, so I have no reason to regret anything. – Culled from Punch.