Just like in his previous outings, the ghost of Decree 4 of 1984 is haunting General Muhammadu Buhari(rtd), presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), as he once again takes another shot at the presidency. The infamous decree which made the duo of Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor of The Guardian newspaper the first victims of military law, has in recent weeks gained currency with political rivals using it as a weapon against the former military head of state.
But Tunde Thompson believes Buhari’s opponents are deliberately confusing and misleading Nigerians . In this interview, he lays bare the issues surrounding their detention as well as unmasked those behind their ordeal. Excerpts:
Who is Tunde Thompson?
I am a journalist and I’ve been a journalist since 1971 when I joined the Daily Times as a trainee sub-editor. I was there till 1972 when I left for the University of Ibadan to read Political Science. I was in UI till 1975 but during my vacations I worked with Daily Times and I didn’t need to apply. Daily Times was at its apogee then. By 1975 when I tried to return, Daily Times had deteriorated and I couldn’t even find my way back. Tony Momoh, who was the editor, confided in me that he couldn’t employ me directly, that my application had to go through the board and all that. So, in the end, I went back just to say hello and then I was with Dr. Olu Onagoruwa who said to me “Somebody was asking to see you and Felix Adenaike called from Ibadan saying Jemibewon had given himself and Tola Adeniyi a job , to run Daily Sketch and that I was needed. He said Felix told him that they had been looking for me all over the place”, but I was in Calabar for my youth service between 1975 and 1976. That he said “Wherever I was, they were ready to increase my pay.” So, I became the features editor and later political editor at the Daily Sketch. I was there till the 80s or so when Daily Times improved a little and I went back to the Editorial Board as a senior lead writer but for a short while as the firm became worse by 1983 and many of us had to leave. That was when The Guardian started and I joined The Guardian later when it become a daily newspaper as a senior diplomatic correspondent. That was what I was doing before I ran into trouble.
How did your trouble start?
It all started when I became deeply interested in the people at the Ministry of External Affairs who had been retired. Some people came to me and said they had retired so and so person. Even some of the affected diplomats complained to me as the senior diplomatic correspondent. My child was ill at that time, so I was away for some time, but subsequently, I discovered that embassies and consulates had been closed down and all that, so, I wrote about it. The authorities came for me when I wrote an Op-ed in The Guardian entitled, ‘The Mysteries of External Affairs.’ I questioned why people who had been doing a great job suddenly lost their jobs in so short a time. I went to Nigeria’s mission in Lebanon, as they said Nigeria should re-open its mission in Lebanon. Then I told them government had the right to close down any mission if it was not generating returns. I was defending my country, but I was seen as a security threat. So, that was the beginning of the fire. When the report was out, security people came, asking for the writer of the story. It was an Op-ed page and it was obvious that the name of the writer would be there. When the paper told them that we stood by our story they retreated, but by the time I wrote about some ambassadors being retired and military officers sent to diplomatic missions there was trouble.
Was it a joint effort between you and Irabor ?
No it wasn’t. My grandmother died in Edo State and I had to attend the burial. So, I gave him my manuscript, being an assistant news editor. When I was in Benin that Sunday, I sent for the paper and when I saw the report I shouted. I knew something had gone wrong because somebody I did not talk to was quoted in the story. So, on February 11, 1984 somebody from Nigeria Security Organisation, NSO, Awolowo Road, came to pick me up at The Guardian premises and the receptionist said to me “your friend from Ibadan wants to see you .” To cut the story short, he insisted that I should follow him. I went to the editor and the legal adviser and they asked me to comply. At the end of the day, I ended up at Ikoyi, Off Awolowo Road and that was the beginning of a hell of experience.
What did NSO ask you?
They came on a Friday knowing that weekend was the best time to subject you to an ordeal with mosquitoes since nobody could bail you on a weekend. They didn’t question me till the following Monday. We were kept in 10 x 10 room and we were about 10 . If you wanted to pee, they told you to knock from inside and they would open from outside. During questioning, they wanted to know who told me what I wrote. As I was writing they told me I had to tell them who told me this and that point. That was the problem. Even at the point of death, a journalist is not expected to disclose his source. I told them I wouldn’t oblige them adding if I wrote something they liked, they should applaud me but conversely they could send a rejoinder and I would publish it. Another questioning session took place about two days later and they took me to the head of security at that time, Alhaji Rafindadi. He it was, who really asked me who told me what I wrote. I told him he was a security man and if I told him that a man in my neigbourhood does not go to work, that he’s at home from morning till about 9pm or 10pm and by 10 pm he’s gone and by 6am he is back and he lives big. You investigated and discovered him to be the kingpin of the underworld. Would he disclose his source ? We are supposed to obey the same rules about professional ethics. If you won’t tell him why should you expect me to tell you who told me what I wrote? As I told your men, if you like what we write, clap for us but if you don’t, send a rejoinder we will publish it. That was the beginning of it. So, what led to another person being called was when the man asked me about another story that was written and that had been embellished. I don’t mean embellishment in an offensive way but I think the person that did it was doing his job, by adding additional paragraphs as an assistant editor and that was the source of the problem. So, I had to confess that I did not work on the story alone that they would need to call him to confirm or verify what happened.
Was that when they went for Irabor?
Yes, something happened after I said that. They decided to go for him and they went for him at a very interesting time. It was the day Offodile promulgated Decree 4 of 1984, The Protection of Public Officers against False Accusations Decree at a world press conference. Incidentally, Nduka Irabor was coming from that conference with the report when they arrested him and brought him to Ikoyi. He became the second victim of the decree.
You must have been detained under Decree 2 ….(cuts in)
There was no Decree No.4 at the time we committed the so-called offence and there was no basis for prosecuting us. They could have watched developments and see who would be caught because the “offences” for which we were prosecuted was committed before the decree.
That means they made the decree retroactive?
But that is unacceptable professionally. They made it retroactive and nobody called them to order. Instead there were theatrics in court that if you see a secretary having sex with a Permanent Secretary and a journalist wrote about it, would you arrest the journalist? That was irrelevant to me. But the strategy adopted by The Guardian in court was that we won’t even say a word. So, Nduka and myself did not utter a word because if we uttered a word they could ask us who told us what we said and then if we failed to name our source(s), it would mean that we were subverting the process, that we were trying to sabotage government’s efforts at getting the truth. But you don’t get the truth by forcing people to divulge who told them what they were told. I think that is where the problem arose. What I find interesting now is that people are still talking about this Decree 4 like somebody wanting to know what I felt.
For how long were you in detention before you were taken to court?
Policemen can be very good. They know when there is truth on the side of their master and on the side of the accused. What happened was that I told them to put me on the corridor when Nduka was coming in so that I could alert him about what questions I was being asked. They put me on the corridor and I whispered to him that they had been asking me about foreign missions that had been closed down and then about those that had been appointed as ambassadors or high commissioners and they wanted to know who told me but I refused to tell them. At that point, somebody saw us and raised the alarm that we were talking and I replied that we were not talking but only greeting each other. So, they took Nduka away immediately to another detention room and I was taken back to where I was with about eight to ten others with the air-conditioner making noise to disturb my sleep and mosquitoes viciously attacking us . By the following day or two days after he was taken in for questioning and he was already alerted. We later met when they said they were arranging for us to meet lawyers from Rotimi Williams chambers.
For how long were you there before you were taken to court?
From February 11 when I was arrested and within a week or two, Nduka came in and then we were there till May when the trial started and up till July 4.
Were you granted bail?
For where? We were moved in a very dramatic away from Awolowo Road, to the Maximum Security Prisons at Kirikiri . They moved both of us into a cell meant for those awaiting trial . At that time we discovered those who were awaiting trial were even more than prisoners. There were so many of us and some could not have their bath for days. So, they depended on us for food, soap and all that.
Can you recall your day in court?
That was a very dramatic day I can’t forget. We were whisked out of the premises of the Kirikiri Maximum Security Prisons between 7am and 7.30 am . Imagine going from Kirikiri to Ikoyi in Lagos Island ? Consider the distance then with all the traffic one had to contend with. We got there with policemen on standby. Then I saw my wife and one of my children and we went in there. In the defence we prepared overnight, the most important thing there was that the decree was promulgated after we had been arrested and that it should not have been retroactive. But our lawyer didn’t raise that point at all. So, I was very unhappy about that and because we were not allowed to speak from the dock. If we had been allowed to speak, I could have made the point that we didn’t commit any offence. I had gone to the Federal Government Press to look for a copy of the decree to buy after Mr. Omerua who was the Minister of Information said there would be a decree soon. The decree wasn’t ready when I went there. I wanted to study it but I didn’t know I would be a victim of it later. I cannot begin to paint the picture of the whole drama but on that day, everywhere was tense and it was obvious that freedom was far from us.
Who was the judge?
It was Justice Ayinde. I understood that there was nothing we could do to convince him. Even if we had said that the decree was promulgated after the offence it wouldn’t have made any difference.
How did you feel when you were convicted and sentenced?
Oh, I felt sorry for Nigeria. I felt the government had been misled into turning a patriotic journalist who slept in his office many times to write stories at the Daily Times and Daily Sketch into a criminal. When Chief Obafemi Awolowo said he did not agree with the presidential system that was recommended by the Constituent Assembly in 1975, I was in Daily Sketch then. I told the editor of Sunday Sketch, Sola Odunfa that I would give him an article. That was on a Thursday. I did not sleep, I wrote on why the presidential system is superior to the Westminster model contrary to what Chief Awolowo said. I was at the Constituency Assembly in 1978 and we told them that the idea of keeping journalists out and asking them to be briefed by members was wrong. We wondered why they didn’t do something more acceptable professionally and eventually they decided they would give us a chance to meet the deputy chairman around lunch time for briefing and then they would break up by 5 pm or 6pm after the afternoon session and would have another round of briefing.
Otherwise we would have to meet each member of the assembly for comments. It means that was unofficial, it could be tainted with personal opinions. So, it’s now time for me to say that Decree 4 was just meant to ensure that no professional can step out of line, that no professional brought the government to ridicule or embarrassed the government in any way. But when you now say Protection of Public Officers against False Accusation Decree, what was my offence in saying an embassy or a mission had been closed? Or that somebody had been retired? In fact, they were not even quarreling about the retirements because all the reports were authentic. So, what is the embarrassment there? There was no accusation in that. That is why government is a wonderful institution, let’s put it that way. I discovered later that government did not like what happened because we had in my report about those who were posted, which was also embellished, names of certain people who were not career diplomats, most of them were military officers. I think whatever might have irritated or annoyed the military top brass was that people were phoning them to tell them that this all-embracing unity government they wanted to form had six out of eight people from the northern part of the country as ambassadors or high commissioners. Was that the kind of country they envisaged? I think that must have embarrassed the government. But that wasn’t false accusation but they were not analyzing grammar. They just felt embarrassed that people asked them that question. That was why they asked who gave us information. So, I would say the drama of that day was something I would never like to be repeated.
How long were you in jail?
The jail term was one year, but then one prison year is eight calendar months. So, we were in jail for eight months. Interestingly, the weekend before we were to be released, prison inmates organized a football competition and all sorts of competitions for us. Then something happened. At about 3am they came for us in our cell and took us to the administrative block of the prison service. When we asked them what was happening, they said they were taking us to the United Kingdom, and that I was going to the United States. I asked how possible was that because we didn’t have visas, we didn’t have passports? They answered that it was possible because the government could perform wonders. What happened was that they knew Nigerians , the civil society, had prepared a welcome rally. They were to stand from Kirikiri and follow us down to our homes. So, they pre-empted them. By that arrangement, they decided to take us from the prison and dumped us in our houses before the day we were to be released so that by Monday, if any civil organisation came to Kirikiri they would find the place empty. It was like the case of Jesus and the empty tomb.
Where did you live then?
I lived at Mende, Okupe Estate on Sumaila Street. Let me tell you the joke. My wife and my children had just moved from Shogunle to the place. I gave her a cheque for her to relocate to Maryland but I didn’t know the house. So, when we were released, they took us in a common vehicle through Isolo because Nduka lived around that area. They searched for his house until they got it. As for me, I told them I lived at Sumaila Street so they took me to the street and we saw No.5 but they didn’t believe a journalist could live in that kind of house , because it was too good to them. So, they didn’t bother to knock but instead drove down to the end of the street before they concluded that my house had to be at beginning of the street. So, we went back and behold that was the place.
What time was it when you got home?
It was around 4 am. It was like an armed robbery operation. We went in and it was a blissful transformation.
Did they count the number of days you had spent in detention before you were actually sentenced?
They were not interested in doing that. The sentencing was in July and we were released the following year.
So, how did you feel?
In prison? I wrote a book, Power of the Press, and it’s based on the experience and all the points that were made by the late Chief Rotimi Williams that I could recollect. The arguments of the prosecution and defense counsels were presented from my point of view and the analysis of the ethical issues involved and the publication of the statement I made and questions they asked me. I had to respond to an article that claimed some journalists asked for something but when they were not given they started making accusations against some leaders claiming that they didn’t keep their promises. I had to respond to that article about two years ago in The Sun on the comment by General Buhari, because I believed he was misled into thinking that those of us, The Guardian staff, who were involved in the Decree 4 matter wanted something from the government but because we were not obliged, we decided to write stories. That is not possible.
I responded that the journalists involved didn’t do that kind of thing; they were not thinking about material promises made by anybody. As a matter of fact, nobody made such promises. What happened was that stories were written and sources were demanded and were denied because it was not ethical. But when you look at it now, this is 2015, about 31 years later, I have also reflected on the matter especially when I wanted to do that rejoinder to the comment made by General Buhari that some journalists made some demands, that the demands were not honored and they started blackmailing them.
I have seen that time is a healer of certain wounds because people are still asking that the man who jailed you wants to become the president that what do I feel about it? They asked if I would vote for such a man. I want to say categorically that Buhari as the head of state at the time, didn’t order the detention of Mr. Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor.
He never did. Even Idiagbon did not. It was the head of NSO that ordered our arrest. That was the file my colleague saw when he was brought in to see Rafindadi after I had briefed him. And that was an order that they complied with. Buhari was not responsible for our arrest, so I do not see why at this time, people are trying to make political capital out of what happened in 1984. Apart from that, it was an issue in 2011 election. Between 2010 and 2011 people kept saying this over and over again. I think it’s now over 30 years, people should learn to be charitable; they should learn to forgive and let bygones be bygones especially when we know the truth about who did what. I will like to say that Buhari didn’t order my arrest, so I bear no grudge against him.
Are you saying if there was any hurt he’s been forgiven?
Left to me, the hurt was inadvertent; it was aimed at protecting the government. I know it was not for journalists alone, there were other professional groups other than journalists that the decree was targeted at. I am very happy that we faced the bullet and the bullet was deadened at our end. The press and the government are rivals in the search for information. They are also rivals in secrecy matters. The government wants to keep its secrets secret and we want to make the secrets open because we want to inform our audience. That’s why we always quarrel and that’s why I believe the government and the media need more fora to understand themselves. There are hostilities because we don’t understand ourselves.
Are you saying you wish General Buhari well as he aspires to rule Nigeria?
Yes, as far I am concerned now and considering the fact that there is an order that the Minister of Petroleum should not appear before the National Assembly to defend her conduct and considering the fact that the Naira had been further devalued. Now listen, in Ghana the Cedi we used to mock, the Rupee we used mock and the Yen. The Naira is just not there again. We say revalue the Naira but they said they cannot because we only have one commodity. The government has been saying a lot about agriculture. Cocoa provided the mainstay of the defunct western region under Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Groundnuts provided the mainstay of the defunct northern economy under Sir Ahmadu Bello. Have our farmlands suddenly become infertile? We have solid minerals; we have gold in Ilesa. What I am trying to say is that if we look critically, we have other commodities and if they are harnessed we will be able to say we have more than oil. I appreciate what the Minister of Agriculture, Akinwunmi Adesina is doing now. Rice is being produced on massive scale but the problem is mechanization. They are trying to see if we can grow wheat here. I believe enough efforts have not been made to find alternative income-generating activities.
Some even seem to be too powerful. They are sacred cows and they cannot be tamed. Is that not dangerous? I believe that a person like Buhari at this time can call anybody to order and some people are afraid of that.
The fear of a few people who have plundered the treasuries of this country should not be allowed to hinder our economic progress and political transformation. I think Buhari is humble. How many times did Abraham Lincoln run for presidency of United States? Was it not about 11 times? But Buhari is running for about three, four times and people are saying he is too old. He is not too old. Let them go to India, let them go to other places there are examples. I will not like people to use Decree 4 as an excuse to deny somebody, who can help bring discipline through democratic means, to Nigeria, another opportunity of getting to the position of president of this country. I think God is getting tired of the injustice in this country.
That is why some of us are seeing the reason to rally round the man and support him. The Sun is not a newspaper for any candidate, it is a national newspaper. I am very happy that you raised the issue about what my position is on somebody who put me in jail. I think 30 years is long enough, we should forgive and forget and let there be progress. Those who are ready to continue confusing issues out of their ignorance should be pushed aside and let us do what our conscience dictates. Except we want to suffer for another four or eight years, it will be costly to make a wrong decision again.