Dateline: Saturday, March 29, 1997. Ebun Olojede Street, off Festac 1st Gate, Amuwo, Lagos. The mood at the traditional wedding/introduction ceremony just got upbeat as the bride after the usual motions of customary courtesies and bestowal of blessings by her family and the groom’s, smilingly took her seat beside me on the special nuptial chairs placed at a corner of the middle space partitioning the seated guests into four sides -the groom’s family to the south, the bride’s –north and the couple’s friends taking up the eastern and western flanks under the pavilions.
We were awaiting the next line of instructions from the “Alagas”, two women whose portfolios involved officiating as comperes and registrars at the wedlock, when I overheard my sister, Busola Odubawo, having an agitated conversation with Mrs Tolulope Baker, my favourite cousin, who sat a row behind me. I looked back to behold a frightened Busola, almost in tears nervously telling Baker: “Sister mi, the police are here looking for Yinka. What do we do?”
This information obviously jolted Baker. But the fear only registered on her face for a few seconds, as she rose defiantly and demanded: “Where are they?”
“Over there,” my sister gestured at a policeman slowly making his way through the crowd behind us, and apparently still anxious, she added: “I’ve asked to be allowed to come fetch him. Do we tell him (me)?”
At this point, Sister Tolu leaned towards me and trying hard, albeit unsuccessfully to disguise her own worry, she asked: “Yinka, are you expecting any policemen?”
I have heard enough of their discussion to be intrigued by the subject.
Police? I couldn’t remember inviting any police- friend to the wedding. So the only probable reason the law enforcers could be looking for me was that I’d crossed the red line in my duty as a journalist, as drawn by the despotic regime of the day, of course.
It was at the height of the tyrannical rule of the despised dark goggled General Sani Abacha, when many perceived enemies of the government of which pro-democracy activists and journalists ranked prominently either mysteriously went missing or were killed, arrested, detained or tortured by the goons of the maximum ruler on the flimsiest excuse.
I wrote for The Guardian, a newspaper, which had suffered closures along with others like Punch and Ibadan -based Sketch, for its perceived sympathy and advocacy for the validation of the June 12, 1993 electoral win of Bashorun MKO Abiola, which was annulled by the military. As the Oyo State correspondent of the influential newspaper, I was not much involved in opinion writing, as in reporting unfolding events as objectively as possible and in keeping with other ethical canons of journalism.
Even so, I must admit, one couldn’t entirely run away from being part of the crusade waged by the Nigerian press and the civil society to salvage democracy from the stiff jaws of the military usurpers. Thus, although I did not openly associate with the community of intrepid pro-democracy ideologues and activists, I generously gave vent to their campaign in my reports. Many of their leaders and critics of the regime including late Chief Bola Ige, Gbenga Awosode, Lam Adesina, Comrade Ola Oni, Moshood Erubami, Dr. Israel Agbon and Jimi Adesina (UI ASUU Chairman and Secretary), as well as even Chief Lekan Balogun, who later became a Senator on return of civil rule, were not only my news sources, but have their critical opinions amplified in stories I filed.
But this fact apparently did not escape the notice of security agents. I was puzzled when a colleague’s girlfriend, who happened to be an operative of the SSS, smilingly claimed to know me quite well when we were introduced, whereas I knew I’d never met her until then. The lady later cleared the mystery when we became more familiar. I, like a few reporters, she confided, were on the watch radar of the secret police. In fact, my writings, she disclosed, were monitored, essentially to determine my political leaning, among other security concerns!
She also told me that some of her male colleagues, pretending to be rights activists, had visited my office on several occasions, ostensibly to discuss the national situation or ask my help in publishing apparently seditious articles or press statements often critical of government, but actually only to audit political views for bias and extent of collusion with dissidents and perceived subversive elements.
But, the female security agent ended assuring me I had nothing to fear, as their investigations had established I was just a ‘naive’ professional passionate with my job. I felt both shock and a queer sense of importance at these incredible disclosures!
Understandably though, I couldn’t hide my thoughts and feelings about developments in the polity from close circle of my family and friends. And hearing the strong views I often expressed about the authorities, mother would plead: “Ma ko nkankan nipa Abacha o, mi o ran e lo ba Abacha o!”, which literally translates: “Please steer clear of Abacha, don’t write anything negative about him!”
I fought a long inward battle not to capitulate to the tempting albeit, cowardly option of saving self and family first, which, this admonition was. I simply could not think of shirking my social responsibility. Better to quit the job than a mere quisling, I often retorted to my mum’s shock. But, realising that should there be any untoward consequence of my obduracy, such as arrest or detention, which was quite possible during the unpredictable dark era, the thought of it alone could kill the old woman, the only one I had ever truly loved and who meant so much to me, I began to take good caution in discharging my duties. So, what was this about police at my wedding?
While still trying to shoot the fog, the uniformed policeman had drawn closer and I recognised him to be the police orderly to Iku Baba Yeye, the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi III!
I smiled in relief and told my sisters to relax, that he’s a friend. Both the uniformed man and I greeted as he informed me the revered monarch had sent him to accompany a royal deputation comprising an Olori (Queen) and two palace chiefs to represent him at the ceremony he regretted he couldn’t make as planned. The policeman then took excuse to go fetch the rest of the delegation, who were waiting in the car.
Twenty-two years after, I could imagine what the headlines would have been, were I really to have been arrested at my own wedding: A news reporter turning a news maker! But, however chilling such might be, they certainly could not have compared to the morbid titles that announced the deaths of the Bagauda Kalthos and other colleagues we lost to that bloody era!
O ja sope!