Having been arrested at exactly 3.30am by a truck load of soldiers who were surprised to see a “small boy” and had become sympathetic the moment they learnt I was a journalist; I did not appear before Colonel Frank Omenka until about 18 hours later.
And when I finally did, for about five minutes, he busied himself reading (or at least pretended to be reading) from a file.
Then he looked up and said: “You are a very lucky boy. You are here because my men defied my directive.
You were to be thrown underground for two months before you are brought before me but when I came in this morning and saw you asleep on the sofa, I realised you are still a small boy whose ways can still be mended.
If I fail in doing that, then I will destroy you.”
With that, Omenka, the Director of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), Apapa stood up, paced up and down for a while and sat down again.
“Now let me tell you two things”, he began, “I am already provoked by what I have read in your file and you know that I stammer.
“So, it is in your interest that you do not provoke me any further.”
The interrogation that followed was laced with curses, abuses, intimidation and threats.
At the end, Omenka said: “I am yet to make up my mind about what to do with you but I will allow you go home tonight.
“In fact, my men will drive you home.
“But tomorrow morning, you will come back here with all your articles and particularly that one where you compared General Abacha with Idi Amin.
“I want us to analyse them together.”
As I stood up and made to go, Omenka said: “When you get home, greet your wife for me”, to which I instantly replied, “I am not yet married”.
Laughing, Omenka retorted: “I also know that. Your girlfriend is doing her youth service in Shagamu, Ogun State”.
Seeing that I was startled, Omenka said, this time in a stern voice: “Young man, I know everything about you.
“Go and come back tomorrow. If you don’t, I will not only hunt you down, I will ensure that your mother weep over you.”
The foregoing experience occurred in 1996 at a period I was working at the defunct Concord Press, owned by the late Bashorun M.K.O Abiola but I have had to reflect on it in recent days, especially against the background that many people who confuse democracy with development have had to dismiss the last 17 years.
But it is important to also add that unlike many other journalists and pro-democracy activists, I was lucky to have found favour with Omenka throughout my five days of interrogation.
At that period, not many people survived DMI in Apapa to tell their stories while for some, the scars (physical and emotional) of that era will follow them to their graves.
It is therefore within that context that I feel worried about the state of the nation today and I am not talking about the price of tomato but rather about the shrinking of civil liberties and the rising profile of the military/security agencies in issues that ordinarily should be dealt with by the police under democratic dispensations.
What is particularly troubling is that those who should protect the people are acting in ways that remind many of us of those dark days under the late General Sani Abacha when impunity reigned supreme and the rights of citizens were whimsically trampled upon.
On Tuesday, some soldiers reportedly led by a Colonel and acting on some bizarre orders escorted five members of the Kogi State House of Assembly loyal to Governor Yahaya Bello to take over the chambers whereas 15 members who oppose the Governor’s coup are being sidelined.
Notwithstanding that, in line with the 1999 Constitution, the House of Representatives has passed a resolution to take over the activities of the state legislature after the crisis contrived by the Governor, soldiers are being used to aid illegality in Kogi State with five members now a majority and 15 members a minority!
Also on Monday, some members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) were killed in Onitsha and environs in the course of a protest to mark the “Biafra Day”.
Ordinarily, citizens are guaranteed the right of protest in a democracy but with the military taking over policing duties, such rights have practically been outlawed.
And because of that, issues that could be resolved with dialogue almost always end in bloodshed.
That Nigeria is today in a serious crisis is very much evident but this crisis can also be located in the structure of our country which no administration at the centre in Nigeria has been willing to address because of the implications on its own powers and authorities.
The point, however, is that some administrations are more adept at managing the contradictions than others while the agitations arising from the contending issues are not those that military might can resolve.
In fact, attempts to stifle civil liberties can only compound the problem and we have seen evidence of that lately.
There are two schools of thought to resolving what has become the Nigerian dilemma.
In the first school (to which I belong) are people like former Vice President Atiku Abubakar who see the need to restructure the country because that is the only way we can make meaningful progress.
Atiku, who has remained consistent on the issue, said on Tuesday:
“Nigeria is not working as well as it should and part of the reason is the way we have structured our country and governance, especially since the late 1960s.
“The federal government is too big, and too powerful relative to the federating states.
“That situation needs to change, and calling for that change is patriotic.”
According to Atiku, who spoke at the public presentation of the book, “We Are All Biafrans” by Chido Onumah, in Abuja, we must refrain from the habit of assuming that anyone calling for the restructuring of our federation is working for the breakup of the country.
“An excessively powerful centre does not equate with national unity.
“If anything, it has made our unity more fragile, our government more unstable and our country more unsafe.
“We must renegotiate our union in order to make it stronger.
“Greater autonomy, power and resources for states and local authorities will give the federating units greater freedom and flexibility to address local issues, priorities and peculiarities” argued Atiku whose powerful speech can be read on olusegunadeniyi.com along with other new offerings.
No doubt, a restructured Nigeria will be a better country for all of us.
However, there is another school whose raison d’être seems diabolical as aptly captured by the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) President and Archbishop of Jos, Ignatius Kaigama, who said:
“I just returned from Germany. Everywhere I went, I was asked about what the problem was with Nigeria?
“We are still struggling with Boko Haram, now we are talking about Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) and IPOB.
“The solution is not to intensify the crises…
“If a leader comes from the south, others will make his government difficult, when somebody from the north comes to power, others will target his government.
“It is so sad. Where is the rational behaviour in that?
“No matter how short-changed, no matter how marginalised you are, violence and resorting to crisis is not the best solution.”
What the above suggests is that while there are those who seek a restructured Nigeria so we can fulfil our potentials and will continue to advance their argument in a civil manner, there is also the second school comprising troublemakers who agitate for “restructuring” only when they lose their power of patronage.
While the first school is process driven, the second believes in violence and one should not be confused for the other.
“The problem is that the authorities are unwittingly allowing the second school to seize the narrative by the use of force in manners that not only endanger our democracy but also threaten our national cohesion.
What’s more, by rendering impotent the body set up by law to protect human rights in Nigeria, this administration is not helping the situation.
Since the governing council of the National Human Rights Commission (NCHR) was dissolved last year the body has not been able to call violators to order.
The dilemma is made worse by the disposition of the Attorney-General of the Federation and Justice Minister who cannot rise beyond partisan politics.
Instead of ensuring compliance with court orders to release criminal suspects admitted to bail or obey the Constitution (as in the case of Kogi), the AGF has been busy justifying contemptuous actions, thereby encouraging official impunity.
However, let me make it very clear here, the gradual erosion of our democracy did not start with this government and there is also a way in which it has been aided in part by the nature of the security challenge that we face which necessitated dragging in the military to fight militancy and oil theft in the South-South, insurgency in the North-east as well as kidnapping and armed robbery in virtually all the parts of the country.
By surrendering internal security to the military rather than empower the police to be alive to its responsibilities, it is no surprise that what we are dealing with today is the delicate balance between the exercise of civil liberties and the responsibility of the state to guarantee order in a peaceful environment.
It is an ancient balance that has since been resolved in most democracies in favour of the former while the burden of the state has also shifted to the use of responsible pressure to manage dissent informed by an alternative viewpoint.
Therefore, what the Nigerian authorities must know is that the reflex recourse to maximum force to restore order is the hallmark of the backward state.
It derives from the thesis that force is the ultimate guarantor of order in an unformed national environment.
That thesis unfortunately was only useful in the context of military rule.
In a democracy, maximum force, such as is currently being deployed casually in the management of routine civil disagreements, should only be a last resort.
It should be invited after all the instruments and avenues of civil democratic resolution have proved futile.
What makes the recent recourse to jackboot politics sad is that many of the problems on hand lend themselves to easier civil resolution.
Whether it is:
– the legislative rascality in Kogi; or,
– the right of IPOB/MASSOB members to remember a past many of them don’t even understand, as a constitutional right; or,
– the suicidal exuberance of Shiites members who would block the roads in Zaria and dare the Army Chief…
… there is nothing that warrants the level of force and bloodletting that we have witnessed in recent months.
It is either our managers of violence are out of control or they do not yet understand the meaning of democracy and its attendant rights.
Whatever may be the case, it is incumbent upon President Buhari to bring them to order while restoring a measure of sanity to the polity by encouraging a culture of dialogue across board.
The verdict By Olusegun Adeniyi: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org