I visited Shaki today. Just in case you don’t know, Shaki is a prominent town in the Oke Ogun area of Oyo State. I last visited the town 29 years ago as a journalist working under a repressive system.
My trip today was occasioned by more auspicious circumstances. My trip of 1990 was actually a dangerous mission, one that became necessary only because a coup had just taken place.
In the morning of 22 April 1990, Nigerians once again woke up to the now familiar tune of martial music. But this particular coup d’etat was like none before it. On the network service of Radio Nigeria, the plotters announced the dismembering of Nigeria. Quite unlike before, the names of the coup leaders were not only strange, they were unknown faces, almost anonymous. Civilians too were involved. The name that first got into the reckoning of the nation was Major Gideon Orkar. Other than his colleagues, friends and in his community, no one knew who Orkar was. No one had his photograph. He was just a mystery man who suddenly surfaced on the national stage .
By afternoon of coup day, we had gathered in the newsroom of African Concord trying to think up the best angle from which we would report the earth-shaking story. In the course of our meeting the only useful pieces of information we could put together in the mystery soldier were that Orkar was from Benue State and he last served at the army base in Shaki.
I was then an Assistant Editor while my friend and brother, Mr Bayo Onanuga, was Editor. We decided to send a reporter to Makurdi to dig up Orkar’s background while the onus fell on Onanuga, Seye Kehinde and I to proceed that afternoon to Shaki to dig up a few things about Orkar and if possible lay our hands on his photograph.
We set out about 2.00 pm in Onanuga’s car and drove several hours on a bad road to Shaki. We got to Shaki very late, I think about 9.00 pm. We immediately embarked on a suicidal mission to enter into the barracks. Under normal circumstances, this itself was dangerous not to talk of a time like this when everyone was cautious about where they went and who they associated with. The military was busy hunting down both civilian and military accomplices of the coup.
In Lagos, one of our staff had already been picked up in one of the barracks where he had spent the night. It so turned out that while he slept, his friend had left him in bed to participate in the coup. Our colleague was still snoozing away in the morning when the jack boots came knocking , roused him from sleep and took him away. He spent several months in detention. Upon his release, he fled Nigeria.
It was under this circumstance we chose to go into a military barrack the night after a coup.
We saw it as a duty, in spite of the risk. Journalism was our calling and we had to keep the people informed. Our first port of call was the Mammy Market, the joint where soldiers visit in the night to unwind. There you get enough company of wine and women.
This particular night the market was deserted. Everyone kept to his room. The man who Commandas the unit had been arrested and held for participating in the coup. No one was sure what will come next and how Doddan Barracks was going to react to the coup.
It was dark when we arrived at the market. There was no one to talk to. We put heads together and decided we should leave before our presence was noticed and we are arrested.
We went back to town. Now the question was where to rest our heads. No hotel of note in town. We made a number of enquiries and we were directed to a six-room guest house somewhere in town. We made for the place and were checked in into the place that was more of a brothel than a hotel. We managed to rest our heads for the night.
Early the morning we converged in Onanuga’s room to plan our strategy for the day. We concluded that someone somewhere must know this fellow who had thrown Nigeria into a political crisis.
As we stepped out of the hotel, we had a run of good luck. We chanced upon a guy who immediately recognized Seye Kehinde as a fellow student at the then University of Ife. We told him of our mission. He immediately volunteered that he was a lawn tennis pal of Gideon Orkar. He gave us a few insight into his person. Taciturn, strict, not socializing, married to an Ijesa woman were the few hints we picked from him about our subject.
But the big challenge remained: how do we get Orkar’s photograph?
It occurred to us that such an important man in the community must have at one time or the other had a relationship with the commercial photographer in the town. At that time, apart from the king of the town the most important persons were the manager of the Bank in town and the Commander of the military unit there.
We got to the studio where we met a young girl in her late teens, apparently an apprentice photographer. “Where is your boss?” we asked. “He travelled,”she told us. We told her we were there to take photographs but we would love to see the ones they had taken before to decide if we were going to do business with her.
Meanwhile we asked her if they ever got invited to military functions by the army. She replied in the affirmative. “Oh do you have some photographs of soldiers taken at such functions?” She said yes. She brought out a bunch. We looked at them and saw that of an officer laying a wreath possibly on Armed Forces Remembrance Day. I told my colleagues that must be what we were looking for but how then do we get her to release the photographs to us?
We told her we were thirsty and wanted her to buy us Coca Cola somewhere around. She agreed and we quickly stole as many as we could from her album of the military photographs. She came back with three bottles of hot Coca Cola drink. We pretended to drink , dropped the bottles and gave her a tip and disappeared from town before her boss returned and met us.
To Lagos we returned.
We got in touch with one or two persons who could identify Orkar. They affirmed the photograph we had was his. We quickly called our sister publication, National Concord, to run it the following day. That photograph was the first that helped Nigerians to put a face to the name Orkar. They never had opportunity to see any other till Orkar and his fellow coup plotters were arraigned before a military tribunal. Of course, the week after, African Concord came up with a comprehensive profile of Orkar detailing his birth, growing up, his military career and his arrest as well snippets about his wife and her background.
Those were the days.
Senator Babafemi Ojudu is the Special Adviser on Political Matters to the President