Great editors make great newspapers – Alhaji Nojeem Jimoh, the editor who recruited me into THE PUNCH, while congratulating me on the Supreme Court verdict of Friday, 14th June, 2019.
On Friday, 14th June, the Supreme Court drove the final nail into the coffin of vile dictators, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and Gen. Sani Abacha, in the historic case of the invasion of, and forceful but illegal closure of THE PUNCH newspapers and the similarly illegal seizure, harassment, intimidation, and detention of the newspaper’s editor, who is yours truly, Bola Bolawole. Those dastardly events took place on the night of June 11, 1994. The newspaper premises were invaded Gestapo-style and closed to business with the titles forced off the street. I was detained for three days in the most harrowing of circumstances within the deserted, sprawling office complex. I was eventually carted away to the SSS office, Ikoyi for interrogation. PUNCH and I went to court to challenge the illegal actions of the Federal Military Government. The case had been on since 1994. We won at the Federal High Court in the judgement delivered by Justice T. A. Odunowo on July 29, 1994. Going forward, we also floored the Federal Government at the Court of Appeal on March 18, 2004. The final nail on the FG’s futile effort to arrest the judgement entered in our favour ended on Friday, June 14 when the Supreme Court’s five-man panel headed by Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour upheld the judgements of the lower courts.
The apex court held that the violations of PUNCH’s as well as my own rights “cannot be justified on any of the grounds that the invasion was done in the interest of security, public safety, public order or public morality.” It added that “The invasion, search without warrant, forcible seizure and occupation of the 1stapplicant’s (i.e. PUNCH’s) business premises have been shown to be unlawful… Nothing had been put forward to justify the detention of the 2nd applicant (i.e. Bola Bolawole)”.
The import of the judgement is that IBB, Abacha and their cohorts were vile dictators. Their government was lawless, conscienceless and acted contrary to the common good, public safety, national interest and security despite their protestations to the contrary. The PUNCH and I were thus awarded costs.
I left the PUNCH premises a few minutes before the military stormed the place shouting “Where is Bola Bolawole?” “Who is Bola Bolawole?” Having put the SATURDAY PUNCH’s second edition to bed, with the Circulation department already loading the commodity into their vans, I left for home. The SUNDAY PUNCH crew led by Godwin Nzeakah were the unfortunate people the military guys met on ground. I left 1a.m. The goons came 10 minutes after. As was usually my practice, I came back 8a.m. to tidy up a few stories preparatory for the Monday edition of THE PUNCH. Getting to the petrol station, which was at the entrance of the road leading straight into THE PUNCH premises, I was alerted by neighbours that security men were on ground and that it could be dangerous for me to proceed further. I made phone calls on my Nokia 090 cellular phone to two “Ogas at the top”; one picked but the other did not. Initially, I thought of turning back and going into hiding but on second thought decided not to. I reasoned that as editor, I enjoyed privileges and wielded immense powers over the staff under me; those privileges and powers, however, necessarily also come with responsibilities and duties I should be man enough not to shirk. Moji, who was with me in the car, agreed with my stance and decided to stick with me.
The goons corked their guns and surrounded my car as I neared the gate. I didn’t know where the boldness came from but I ordered them to open the gate. “I am Bola Bolawole, the man you are looking for”, I told them. “Where is your Oga?” They said he had gone to eat. I scolded them. What kind of officers are these who left their duty post and went after food when they have not yet accomplished their task? They opened the gate and I drove in. Seeing the SUNDAY PUNCH staff on their knees, I asked “What are these ones doing here? They are not the ones you came for. Now that I am here, let them leave.” I ordered the staff to leave. Mercifully, they, too, summoned up courage to obey and scampered out of the gate into safety. The goons looked on in disbelief; as I made for my office, almost half of them ran after me. “Tell your Oga that Bola Bolawole is here. And let him meet me in my office.” I went into my office. Not long after, their Oga came, panting. He made radio calls and I also made calls on my cellular. They tried to stop me but I resisted. They threatened to shoot and I asked them to go ahead. They actually put their pistols to my head but stopped short of pulling the trigger.
When bigger goons came, they told me what they wanted: The invitation card inviting people to MKO Abiola’s declaration of himself as President at Epetedo on the Lagos Island, where did it come from? I told them it came like any other “Letter to the editor”. They were either posted or delivered by hand. They asked for evidence. Where was the envelope? Usually, the Secretary opened letters and trashed the envelopes. They told me envelopes ought to be stapled to letters. They asked me the elementary question: In WAEC exams, would your letter be complete without the envelope? I learnt a useful lesson from them that day. Henceforth, no envelope was shredded but was stapled to the letter. They said security report was that a top-notch at PUNCH was the brains behind the Abiola Invitation Card and presidential declaration; that he personally brought the IV to PUNCH and used his privileged position to get it published.
I told them that I had no such information – which is true. That IV was first-class news item by any standard and no editor worthy of the name would hesitate to slam it on the cover page.
They brought out a prepared statement for me to sign, stating that the IV was brought by the said PUNCH top-notch; I refused to sign. They put a pistol to my nose and threw screaming Moji out. The pistol’s nozzle was as cold as a dog’s nose. I closed my eyes and said my prayers but refused to sign. They threatened that the death meant for someone else could be mine. Still, I wouldn’t budge. Some of the goons eventually went away for further directives. Calm returned and Moji was allowed into the office. They had “spoken” to her to convince me to cooperate. While she relayed their discussion to me in our language, one of the goons’ countenances changed. Later, he took me aside and asked if I were from Owo. I said yes. He then told me he attended New Church Grammar School, Owo. He volunteered that I was lucky they did not meet me in the office when they came in the wee hours; that their instruction was to shoot me and say I was trying to escape.
Those were trying times. I abandoned my home at Kujore Street, Ojota and relocated to another at an estate behind Excellence Hotel, Ogba. When they found that out, I ran again. They closed and proscribed the PUNCH newspapers again and again. We went to court and floored them all the time but, like the present Muhammadu Buhari administration, they spurned court judgements. I remember going up and down court offices and court rooms with Gani Fawehinmi swearing to affidavits and signing court papers, with irrepressible Gani saluting my courage. We went underground and published TOPLIFE. Like the apostle Paul, I counted all of that – including the countless threats to my life – as gain. Therefore, my joy knew no bounds when the highest court in the land affirmed the justness of our cause and the arbitrariness of the actions of yesterday’s men of power. They must rue their ignoble actions and bury their head in shame. Far be it that this glory would be Bola Bolawole’s alone; it is for so many heroes of the struggle too numerous to mention. Even those who chickened out but who, today, sit at the head of the table also played a part! Let history continue to judge! I happened to have had the opportunity of leadership at that point in time – and I thank God who gave me the courage and strength of character to provide the required leadership. “Every generation out of relative obscurity must discover its mission, to betray or fulfil it”. I did not betray mine. I fulfilled it! But let the vile elements of today take a cue from the vile elements of yesteryears. “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeating its mistakes”
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