By Iliyasu Gadu
It happened during the unlamented days of General Sani Abacha’s military regime, a publisher, now President Buhari’s factotum was then in charge of the defunct Democrat newspapers and the president’s right hand man was Editor in Chief of the paper.
On Friday February 7, 1997 after predawn prayers, I had retired to my apartment to prepare for the activities of the day when I heard a tap on my door. As I was not expecting any visitors at that early hour of the day, I ignored it. It sounded again this time louder and more urgently and a voice I recognised as that of my younger brother called out in Hausa ‘’ Please IG come out. Old man wants you urgently. You have some visitors.” On hearing that I hastened to my father’s side of the sprawling compound and on the way I was thinking what it was that my dad wanted to see me about that he could not mention to me after the congregational prayers we just had.
Upon entering my dad’s living room, one look at his face told me something was amiss and when I shifted my gaze to the strange men standing in the room I instantly knew why. With a pained expression, he waved at them and without preambles, said to me “they are here for you”. The man who apparently was their leader stepped forward and reaching into his pocket brought out what looked like an identity card. It had only his photo and the rest was blank. He asked if I was Iliyasu Gadu and I answered in the affirmative. He said he was from the Department of State Services (DSS) and that he had orders to take me with him to their office in Jos. I glanced at his two companions; they were burly and wearing long overcoats. They were not merely wearing the overcoats against the Jos weather. They were wearing them to conceal the firearms which bulged under the overcoats.
Thus I was taken to the DSS headquarters opposite ‘C’ division police office in Jos. After initial formalities I was taken to a room to await the arrival of the State Director. Upon the Director’s arrival I was taken to his office and he told me the orders to arrest me came from the National Security Adviser to General Abacha, Ismaila Gwarzo and effected by the Chief Security Officer to General Abacha, Major Hamza Al-Mustapha. He opened a file before him and extracted from it a copy of a paper which he held up to me; ‘’Do you recognise this’’? He asked. I looked at the paper and indeed recognised it as mine which I had written to several newspapers cautioning on the self-succession agenda of General Abacha and the consequences to the nation.
The Director leaned back in his chair and said ‘’Well you seem to have upset some people in the presidency with this article of yours and they have asked us to arrest and send you to Abuja for questioning.’’ Fortuitously, the Director was a school mate of mine at Bayero University Kano a year ahead of me and that factor may have swayed him into treating me with a bit of respect. He volunteered to me that the article in question was forwarded to the NSA’s office by the publisher of the Democrat newspapers and the presidency took offence at it believing that it was part of the plot sponsored by politicians opposed to General Abacha.
It was at this point that the puzzle of how the Jos Bureau Chief of the Democrat newspapers kept visiting me at home seeking ostensibly to discuss the raging political issues of the time, registered to me. I recalled that on each occasion he used to come with a gentleman who would stay quiet throughout the discussions. But I could sense that his eyes were assessing me and he was making mental notes of the answers I was giving to the tendentious questions asked by the bureau chief. And he did not look to me like a journalist or a politician. I figured that he probably was a secret policeman and must have been the one who provided the lowdown on me to the DSS.
Taking all that in, I wondered why the publisher, whom I knew then to be the President of the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria, a supposed pressure group set up to protect the interest of journalism practitioners would want to literarily throw me into the jaws of the lion to be devoured. I reckoned that if he did not want his paper to carry the article seeing how sensitive it was at the time, the best he could do was to decline publishing it just like the other papers to which I had sent the article did. But why send it to the presidency? It was later after my ordeal that I got to know the answer.
My session with the Director over, I was taken to a dank, underground cell rectangular in shape. As half of it was covered in filth (urine and excrement mostly), I could not stretch my legs, I had to hang them on the wall. On the third day of my incarceration I was brought out and taken to a waiting car, a Peugeot 505 station wagon. I was asked to sit at the back alone. My companions for the journey were four in number including the driver. I noticed that two of them were armed with Israeli-made Uzi machine pistols and before we set out one of them fired off a burst into the air. The other one who appeared to be their leader was armed with American made Colt .45 automatic. He made a great show of feeding the gun with a magazine of bullets after which he came over and had me handcuffed. Almost apologetically he told me it was standard procedure when transporting suspects.
Watching all this I thought whether this was my execution party or as deterrent to those who will think to hijack us on the way to Abuja.
I was driven to the DSS headquarters Abuja on Aso Drive and there I was again taken to a basement cell. Afterwards I was taken upstairs to another cell at the extreme end in the northern wing of the building. More interrogations followed which centred on whether I was being sponsored by politicians opposed to General Abacha. Specifically my interrogators wanted to know if I had any connections to the late Chief Solomon Lar and businessman, Isyaku Ibrahim and whether they were my sponsors. I kept reiterating that I was writing as a public spirited journalist to warn General Abacha of the dangers of his self-succession caper to both himself and the nation. And just as there were people canvassing for his self-succession, there should also be room for contrary views.
I was kept at the DSS headquarters for two weeks while my captors were deciding what to do with me. After two weeks stay I was taken to another DSS facility this time at Asokoro where again I was told that I was to be handed over to the police for prosecution on charges of seditious publication and incitement. I was thus handed over to the police who detained me at the Wuse Police station in a crowded cell originally meant to hold 50 persons but had over a hundred persons in it. Inside the cell I was welcomed with a barrage of slaps from the cell “president” and the other inmates took turns slapping, punching and kicking me to the darkest and dirtiest part of the cell which oozed with an overpowering stench of unwashed bodies and overflowing excrement.
The Divisional Crime Officer of the station on learning that I was not a criminal like a good many of the inmates arranged to have me brought to counter after a couple of days. And he was kind enough to ask me to provide an address of any relations of mine in the city of Abuja. I had been incommunicado from the moment I was first arrested in Jos up until that time. It was through this rare Nigerian policeman who was literarily putting his career and life on the line helping me that my family got know for the first time where I was.
My family arranged to have a very brilliant lawyer who prepared a very solid defence such that the Judge had no choice but to dismiss and acquit the case for lack of merit.
I was thus freed and my dad, knowing that the government could still re-arrest me as happened with cases similar to mine, arranged to have me spirited away and encamped somewhere in a remote Fulani settlement out of the reach of General Abacha’s goons. The wizened old Ardo (chief) of the Fulani settlement where I was encamped when he heard my story assured me that in no distant time those responsible for my ordeal will get comeuppance. ‘’Lasu dingel Allah’’ he said using my nickname in the Fulfulde language ‘’I will pray by the grace of Allah that the people who did this to you will sooner or later regret it’’. I thought none of it at the time preferring to savour my freedom.
After the danger had died down and I had returned back home to Jos, I got a surprise visit from the Jos Bureau chief of Democrat newspapers. He told me he had come to apologise as a Muslim for what happened. I was naturally suspicious but he told me further that he had left the newspaper because of several untoward happenings; unpaid salaries, lack of motivation and above all in my case a deep sense of remorse for having played a part in my ordeal. He proceeded to tell me that it was indeed the publisher of the paper who forwarded my article to the presidency and this decision was arrived at between the publisher and the Editor in Chief. The reason was that the publisher was then to be arraigned before Abacha’s failed contracts tribunal for projects not executed by his construction company. And in order to stave off that threat and to ingratiate himself with the Abacha regime he decided to ‘alert’ the Abacha presidency of a “plot’’ he had discovered against the regime.
He told me that as my article originated from Jos, he was detailed to make contact with the writer and gather as much background information on me as possible. He said this was done in conjunction with the DSS who supplied one of their operatives to be accompanying him on his visit to me. He said chillingly that on one occasion when he invited me to their office at Zololo junction in Jos I was to be kidnapped and killed in the manner that my friend and colleague Bagauda Kaltho was wasted.
I tried to reach ‘failed contractor’ several times to ‘’ thank’’ him for his ‘’goodwill’’ to no avail. I wrote several letters to tell him I was alive but no reply came.
But the greatest irony of it all was to see him take centre stage at the Oputa panel following the demise of Abacha waxing sanctimonious about the need to protect human rights and freedom of the press in Nigeria.
Following Abacha’s demise, Major Hamza Al-Mustapha, his CSO, was arrested and he spent 14 years in incarceration before being freed. He too has been waxing lyrical about his supposed finer qualities when he worked under Abacha as the feared, all powerful CSO. Ismaila Gwarzo the NSA was retired with ignominy to Gwarzo his village in Kano state into oblivion and away from the limelight and power he basked in during his days under Abacha.
Owing to his filial connections to President Buhari, one of the men responsible for my ordeals, has bounced back from near bankruptcy to being a billionaire. He is one of those who call the shots discreetly in the Buhari presidential roost. And his ‘partner Editor-in-Chief’ and protégé is of course the most powerful Chief to President Buhari.
And to the glory of God I am still alive and writing twenty-two years on since the two of them plotted to have me killed.
▪ Gadu sent this piece via Ilgad2009@gmail.com