The first story I wrote for Newswatch was torn into pieces and flung into the dust bin by Dele Giwa, my editor-in-chief. As I stood there before him, completely frozen by the force of his fury, he stormed out of his office into the deputy editor-in-chief’s office next door, shouting, “Ray, Ray, Ray, look at this boy. I sent him to do a story and he turned up here with PR stuff. He says he thought the man was my friend. Who cares whether anybody is my friend or not. Warn him o.”
My baptism of fire began three days earlier. Barely two hours after I assumed duties as Reporter/Researcher in March 1985, I was summoned to see the editor-in-chief. He had sent his messenger to fetch him any reporter at sight and I had the misfortune of being picked from the five pioneer reporters in the newsroom. As I walked into his office nervously, a tall and suave gentleman was in his company and they were chatting, laughing, and screaming like schoolboys over a pot of hot coffee. They were obviously very good friends, perhaps schoolmates, and as I later found out, from his part of the country in then Bendel State.
The boss simply turned a bit impetuously in my direction and said rather inattentively: “My friend, you go now and get some tour advance and proceed to Benin for this assignment. This gentleman is behind the exhibition. Okay!” As I took the invitation from his hands reverentially and motioned to step out, he called me back. “My friend, I hope you know that production is on Wednesday and that’s 48 hours from now.”
I had never traveled by air for an official assignment, although I had worked briefly for a major national daily before I was recruited (or should I say conscripted) by Newswatch. So, all the way to Benin and back in Okada Airline, the best private airline in the country at that time, I was smiling coyly and poised to impress my boss with lavish praise of his friend. That became my undoing. The story was unsalvageable. This is the painful saga of how I missed a byline in the maiden edition of the phenomenal magazine.
My pain, however, became my gain just a few months down the line. I learned the lesson of professional detachment the hard way, but via the fast lane. In four months I became the first staff member to be promoted. This was two months ahead of the prospective confirmation of my appointment. The boss suddenly became my friend and first nicknamed me R&D and later the Whiz Kid. In his own written words: “Anietie is exemplary”.
In 18 months, I was already on the Editorial Board of Newswatch, rubbing shoulders with celebrity editors like Ray Ekpu, Dan Agbese, Yakubu Mohammed, Soji Akirinade, Nosa Igiebor, Dele Olojede, Dare Babarinsa, Onome Osifo-whiskey, Chuks Ilogbulam, May Ellen Ezekiel, Dele Omotunde, to mention a few. In six or so years of professional escapades, I won virtually every local and national award insight; and became part of the incredible editorial crew that held Nigeria and the international readers spellbound for years. We were treated like folk heroes everywhere we arrived to investigate and write stories. Kings and queens sought our attention, sometimes in vain. Newswatch was read like a Bible across the nation. As the Holy Bible in China, some editions of the magazine were scarce commodities, often photocopied and circulated underground in many parts of Nigeria.
My arrival at Newswatch as a reporter/researcher was probably as dramatic as the saga of my first script. I had stopped over at 62 Oregun Road, Lagos, office of the new outfit, just to see a good friend, Nyaknno Osso, the celebrated newspaper librarian, who had moved from Nigerian Chronicle in Calabar, South-South Nigeria, to join the fledgling news magazine. At that time, only the preview edition of Newswatch had been published. Osso was seeing me off from his second-floor office when he suddenly said, “Oh! Ani, why don’t you say hello to Ray before you go?” I had never met Ray Ekpu face-to-face before that time. But I felt sufficiently familiar with him through his inimitable and must-read columns in the Nigerian Chronicle and later Sunday Times and Sunday Concord. A towering editor and respected national figure, he was a source of inspiration to youngsters in the profession and beyond. So, I quickly jumped at the offer by Osso. But on getting to his first-floor office, Ekpu’s secretary told us he was conducting an interview for new staff, in the company of Giwa. Osso then suggested I drop a note for the big man. The secretary readily provided a notepad on which I wrote something like: “Dear Ray, I stopped over to see and congratulate you on your latest venture. I would have loved to wait and meet you in person, but I have to hurry back to meet my deadline. See you another day. Anietie Usen, The Punch.”
Osso and I were on the ground floor moving towards the taxi that brought me; when someone ran downstairs to say Mr. Ekpu wanted to see me. Back to his office, a robust, fine-looking man stood halfway between the secretary’s office and the inner office, with the door half-opened. “Are you Anietie?” he asked irritably with a hoarse voice that sounded like the bellows of rolling waters. Before I could say yes, he flew into a fit of anger with a flurry of questions: “Am I your mate? How old are you? Who told you that you can call me Ray? Don’t I look old enough in your eyes to be addressed as Dear Sir or Dear Mr.Ekpu?” I was choking for words, and still struggling to say something, when someone obviously important inside the inner office said, “Ray, who is that?” “One small boy at The Punch that we talked about this morning,” Mr. Ekpu replied. “Let me see his face,” the man in the inner office said in a commanding tone.
Lo and behold, it was Dele Giwa, the editor-in-chief, whose face I had only ever seen in the newspapers. Four or five well-dressed and sober job seekers or new staff, in my age bracket, sat in front of the famous journalist. They were obviously being interviewed for employment or something. One of them, I can recollect, was Angela Aboderin, the scion of the famous Aboderin dynasty, who later rose to the apex of the advert department of Newswatch. Giwa turned his attention away from them and directed a battery of questions at me about the story I had done for The Punch in that day’s edition. It was on the serial demise of gerontocratic Soviet leaders, and I had accurately predicted the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev as the successor to Konstantin Chernenko. “How did you know he will be the next leader? Did you study in Russia? Do you write only on international issues?”
The big man was obviously thrilled by my answers and analysis of Soviet politics. While still answering one of his questions, he stopped me halfway and said sharply: “Come for your letter on Monday.” I thought he meant a letter of interview. But when I arrived that Monday, what I got was a letter of appointment as reporter/researcher on a salary of N4,500 per annum. The snag, however, was that I was on N4, 800 per annum at The Punch. But I decided to take the plunge as a small fish, in what I anticipated, would be a big river.
The newsroom was simple, Spartan, and almost bare. Small wooden tables coupled with stilted and stiff chairs, a typewriter, and a transistor radio were all that sat in a small austere hall on the first floor directly opposite the office of the editor-in-chief and his deputy. Only Akirinade, the general editor; Igiebor, the associate editor and perhaps Omotunde, also an associate editor, had what could perhaps be regarded as a table of their own. In those days, television was a luxury. Not even the Editor-in-Chief could indulge in such gadgets. In any case, the NTA, the major television station in Nigeria then, was only televised for perhaps six or so hours a day, mostly in the evenings. Even before 12 midnight, a national anthem was all you needed to know that the station was gone, till hopefully, the next evening. Telephone? Perish the thought. Later, however, we had one ebony black receiver initially in the editor-in-chief’s office. A parallel line was later connected to the newsroom. But the amount of time and energy it took to wind that black box into life would sometimes leave your index finger sore with pains.
What was lacking in luxury in the newsroom was well compensated for by the incredible enthusiasm and gusto of highly skilled reporters, who were trained and spurred to squeeze water out of stones. The newsroom comes alive every evening once newshounds, who had spent the day filtering their ways into secret deals of government and company officials, begin to drift back to base. The yelling and celebrations that greeted scoops were tonics for more scoops. Heaven help reporters who came back from their beats so often with excuses. You would be told in many ways, that “in Newswatch we do not publish excuses but stories.” Deadlines were nightmares. My friend and colleague Louisa Aguiyi-Ironsi, the first daughter of the first military leader of Nigeria, captured the terror of deadlines with a sticker on the newsroom wall that said: DEADLINE AMUSES ME.
My initial beat was Aviation with additional oversight on research institutions. To start with, I got permission to fly with Nigerian Airways to all 16 airports in Nigeria at that time. This was part of my orientation in that beat; Newswatch would not bargain for less. I remember when we did our first cover story on mismanaged Nigerian Airways in September 1986. Nosa Igiebor, who anchored the story, and Conrad Akwu, the staff photographer, had to fly with the FLYING ELEPHANT, as the Nigerian Airways was called, to London to observe first-hand the operation of the airline from the international end. I flew the local routes, including a day in the cockpit of an Airbus A310 with Captain Philip Machaunga and co-pilot Johnson Omodiagbe. We foretold Nigerians in that story that Nigerian Airways was becoming Nigerian Air-Waste and Err-ways. We warned that if urgent steps were not taken to sanitize the place, the overweight and sluggish FLYING ELEPHANT would simply drop dead on the bare floor. And, it came to pass.
Aviation was a sensitive beat, but not anyway as sensitive as the Dodan Barracks, the seat of Military Government in Nigeria. Tommy Edamina (not real name), a rugged and fast-talking professional, was our Dodan Barracks Correspondent. One afternoon, Tommy and I just returned to base, a few minutes before 4 o’clock; he from Ikoyi and I from Ikeja. The Newsroom was bustling as usual at about this time. Then the big man, Giwa, emerged from his office and joined us in the Newsroom. “How was your day,” he began to chat with some of us. Then he got to Tommy. “How was Dodan Barracks today, Tommy?” “No problem sir. Everywhere is calm,” Tommy answered with a smile. Just then, the prime time, 4 o’clock news on Radio Nigeria began. The first item on the news was a shock. The newsroom was brought to pin-drop silence. “The chief of general staff, Nigeria’s No.2 man, Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe, has been sacked, with immediate effect. In his place, the Chief of Naval Staff, Rear-Admiral Augustus Aikhomu, has been sworn in…” The newscaster had barely switched to the next news item when the boss turned, furiously, at Tommy and said: “Tommy Edamina, you are fired.” That was it.
For the next few minutes, the newsroom was motionless, even after the furious editor-in-chief had walked the short distance back into his office. Three or so minutes later, amidst the palpable tension that engulfed the newsroom, a messenger from Giwa’s office stepped into the newsroom and all eyes were on the usually unnoticeable fellow. Walking straight to where I stood, he said: “Anietie, Oga wants to see you.” I was scared to my marrows. My heart was literally in my hands when I walked carefully into Giwa’s office. “Anietie, you are the new Dodan Barracks Correspondent from today. Get a letter for Duro (Onabule), the chief press secretary to the president, tomorrow, before you go,” he said, still looking unhappy with the breaking news that caught us completely unawares.
If there was anything I knew about my new beat, it was simply the fact that it was, in Newswatch, a do or die assignment; the Waterloo for any ill-equipped reporter. For a Newswatch magazine reporter, the task was tricky and laden with boobytraps. The radio and the television reporters would be first with the breaking news. The newspapers would follow early the next morning. The news magazine that would be published sometimes one week later would have to be both ingenious and resourceful to still find something new and news-worthy for the reader on the same subject. My first assignment was to find out why the nation’s No.2 man was unceremoniously removed from office. Who were the dramatis personae in this saga of military politics? How was the power play played out? How did the military cabal arrive at the new No.2 man? Will the falcons hear the falconer and will things soon fall apart, if the falcons cannot hear the falconer?
It was no secret that Newswatch and Dodan Barracks were not the best of friends. The Newswatch correspondent in the seat of power must, of necessity, walk a tightrope every day. For me, the atmosphere was simultaneously hostile and unwelcoming, especially as I showed too much independence for the comfort of the State House. My kind of assignment had little or no respect for press releases. In fact, I held press releases in contempt and relied more on irregular but reliable sources, which often unsettled and ruffled a number of feathers in the seat of power. For the first one month, I had a running battle with a particular aide of the president who threatened virtually every Monday to withdraw my accreditation. Whenever I reported this back to Giwa, the Editor-in-Chief, he would say in his usually dismissive way: “Anietie, don’t worry yourself. The trouble with (name withheld) is that he didn’t go to school. Ignore him”. You couldn’t work with Giwa and failed to feel important. He wouldn’t hear that a government official invited you for an “empty lunch.” “Look, Anietie,” he would say, “you are the one who should invite that man for lunch, and not the other way round.”
I remember when Ekpu, the deputy editor-in-chief, wrote one of his masterpieces titled A HOLLOW RITUAL. It was a chart-buster. It got us, of course, into trouble, as usual. We were summoned to appear before the Justice Uwaifo Tribunal set up by the military government at the defunct National Assembly Complex in Tafawa Balewa Square, Lagos. The entire hall was jampacked with journalists and members of the public who came to show solidarity for Newswatch. Gani Fawehenmi was our lawyer; I was picked to cover the trial. I had never met Fawenhinmi in action. In an incredible display of legal erudition and oration, he held the tribunal spellbound as he punctured holes in the case against Ekpu and Newswatch. As he marshaled his arguments masterfully, I got so excited, jumped up in the sky, and screamed, clapping. I didn’t know it was an offense to do that in a tribunal. Then, a soldier with the rank of a major walked up to me and tapped on my shoulders in an attempt to take me out of the hall. Unfortunately for him, my boss, Dele Giwa was sitting right behind me. The moment the soldier tapped on my shoulder to stand up, Giwa sprang to his feet and almost wrestled the man in khaki to the floor. There was pandemonium in the place. “Who the hell do you think you guys are in this country,” he shouted. “Look, the way they are promoting you, if I were in the army I would be a General by now,” he said, his eyes bulging. Apparently, to avoid undue attention and distraction, Justice Uwaifo managed to bring some order to the place, but not without a scathing criticism of the column that brought us to his tribunal. We all walked out virtually free from the place, jubilating.
A go-getter, Giwa’s style as a newsman and manager of newsmen was many-sided, albeit directed at making his dream magazine a runaway success, as the TIME Magazine in the USA.
His blueprint for me as State House Correspondent was simple and subtle: while it was important to cultivate the company and relationship of the high and mighty in the State House, it was sinful to neglect a bond with the low and minor. Soon, I discovered that the boys who were staff officers, protocol assistants, confidential secretaries, typists, clerks, and messengers sometimes knew in black and white and first hand, what some top ranks scarcely got to know. I hardly missed their weddings, birthday parties or that of their wives and children. I learned to play squash and golf because some of my sources were addicted to the two sports. I was a scrabble buff and there was a staff officer of the rank of major who would drive all the way from Ikoyi to my house in the Ikeja Suburb of Ogba most weekends just to play scrabble with me; sometimes till daybreak.
As far as the State House was concerned, I took my briefing only from the executive editors, principally the editor-in-chief. We had regular briefing and debriefing sessions, formally and informally. Whatever tip or lead I picked up would be relayed immediately to the boss. “Delay is dangerous”, he would say. Often, he had more leads and would want me to crosscheck some and report back. Besides the office, I was often invited to his Talabi Street residence, mostly on Sundays for briefing and debriefing.
Then came the big bang. On Friday, October 17, 1986, Giwa invited me to see him at home on Sunday afternoon to “compare notes.” Dressed in my new cream shorts and T-shirt to match, and trekking leisurely from my Ogba, Ikeja residence to his house, just 30 minutes or so away, I was already at the entrance of Talabi Street, with the twin duplex he shared with Ray Ekpu just a few steps away when I heard the infamous explosion from a letter bomb that terminated his life. Horror-struck and unable to stand the gory site of his mutilated and burnt flesh, I was at once torn between escaping for safety and staying put to do a blow-by-blow account of the tragic Sunday.
There was no doubt in my mind that I had just walked into the epicenter of a momentous event, and that as the State House Correspondent I had a very unpleasant job on my hands. To begin with, the envelope that masked the letter bomb carried the official address and logo of my beat. When the messenger of death handed over the killer envelope to Billy, Giwa’s young son, who innocently passed it to his father, in his study, in the presence of Kayode Soyinka, our visiting London Bureau Chief, the remark my boss made just before he opened the envelope was “oh, this must be from the president.” The press statement we issued immediately after Giwa gave up the ghost pulled no punches but directly accused the presidency of murdering the legendary editor. The next morning, duty demanded that I go to work in the very office we had accused of killing my boss.
Of course, I was the cynosure of attention as I walked angrily into the place. State House was engulfed with tension. A pall of confusion and bewilderment hanged ominously over every office. Nigerians had never heard; talk less of witnessing a gruesome atrocity of that magnitude. As I walked into the press centre, two minutes walk to the president’s home and office, all eyes were on me. I was probably the most unwelcome Nigerian in the State House today. Reporters from other media houses across the country hovered around me to hear first-hand snippets of the dreadful event. While mystified junior State House staff huddled in small groups to grieve over the strange incident, equally baffled top civilian officials and military brass locked themselves behind closed doors to ponder on an appropriate response to the pointed accusations by Newswatch, which were already making headlines across the world.
Amidst the tension, a funny incident that signposted the mood of the nation took place right in the premises that hosted both the office and residence of the military president. Out of the blues, a deafening explosion seized the air. There was nobody left standing, including uniformed men. Everyone ran for cover. Few minutes later, we all emerged from hiding and peeped through the windows to discover it was not another military coup, which was in vogue those days, but a worn out car tyre of one of the reporters that gave up at last.
The first effort by the State House to wash its hands off the assassination of Giwa was panicky, hesitant and timid. The president did not want to speak directly to reporters. The idea of a press statement by the presidential spokesman was also jettisoned. Reporters waited for more than twelve hours after Giwa had been bombed before they were told that Rear-Admiral Aikhomu, the No.2 man would address a press conference. When eventually the press conference was confirmed, reporters were surprisingly taken away from the seat of power, the usual venue of press conferences, to the State House Annex, on Marina Road, Lagos, some 30 minutes drive away.
Security at the venue was on red alert. Gloom was written visibly on every face. With Aikhomu were two other top military brass, who curiously were in contact with Giwa in the last days and hours before the bomb. We in Newswatch had linked them, and in fact, identified the two officers as arrowheads in the horrific saga. Aikhomu said he had nothing to say to Nigerians but to present the alleged culprits to speak for themselves about their involvements with Giwa just before his demise. Tunde Togun, a top officer of the intelligence corps, managed to brave some complicated explanations. But Colonel Halilu Akhilu, the director of military intelligence, was a nervous wreck, blustering his way through a confusing tale of woes. I had never seen a soldier so lily-livered and faint-hearted. He was sobbing at one point. Aikhomu had to order all tape recorders and cameras shot down. Fierce-looking security operatives stamped their authority in the hall to ensure compliance. I simply removed my own tape recorder from the banquet table and placed it on my laps under the table, sufficiently concealed by the table cloth. I am not sure Newswatch was able to publish everything about Akhilu’s contradictory denials.
Barely 24 hours before the letter bomb that killed the famous editor, Akhilu had phoned Giwa to inquire about his house address. One of the questions that caught the military intelligence chief off-guard was why he made the curious inquiry. He said almost sobbing, that he was on his way to the Ikeja airport and wanted to stop over and see Giwa at home because in his Hausa/Fulani culture if you have a friend and do not visit him at home, you are not regarded as a true friend. When someone followed up with a question on whether he did visit Giwa after he got the address, he got stuck, gazing at the ceiling endlessly without an answer. The answer in the minds of most reporters was ‘yes, he visited the famous editor with a letter bomb’. Sensing more embarrassing questions, Aikhomu brought the drama to an end. The attempt by the government to exonerate itself fell flat on its face and raised more questions than answers.
Thereafter, Dodan Barracks became for me a veritable warfront. Reporting the Machiavellian operations of the military government, with the uncanny accuracy of an insider, became more or less my forte and the exclusive preserve of Newswatch. Some government blunders which often went unnoticed were dug out and placed in the public glare, all in an effort to make them sit up or ship out. In one incident, the State House had announced a rash of political appointments to constitute a Constitutional Review Committee. Overnight they put together an elaborate swearing-in ceremony in Abuja, the new capital city that was under construction. Unknown to the government and virtually all Nigerians watching the ceremony, one of the so-called ‘wise men’ sworn in with fanfare by the president was a local teacher who had identical names with the actual appointee. In the course of chatting with some of the appointees in their five-star hotel rooms, I stumbled into the blunder and quietly launched an investigation that took me to the villages, homes and offices of the two namesakes in far away southern tip of Nigeria.
Within a week, the incredible story was on the desk of Dan Agbese, now my deputy editor-in-chief. The moment he glanced through the story, he literally jumped at it, with the caption “Right Name, Wrong Person.” The newsroom was agog with laughter. Public reaction was amazing. Six newspapers culled the story from Newswatch the next morning. Many editorials on the subject were to follow.
As I bathed in the glow of the scoop, Newswatch decorated me with the Editor-in-Chief Prize for Professional Enterprise. In the citation, the editor-in-chief said: “It is a story that depicts in a rather poignant manner the festering sore in the Nigerian public administration system. It is a story that underlines our absent- mindedness as a nation and I am happy that you were sufficiently alert to notice it. The story is well told, with a little tinge of unintended humour, and we would have loved to laugh, if it were not such an unlaughable affair.” Guess what my prize money for the “magnificent” story was: N500 (about $3). That was good money in 1988 and big motivation for years to come.
Staff motivation played a key part in the runaway success Newswatch enjoyed for years. Good reporters such as Dele Olojede, May Ellen Ezekiel, Ajogu Eze, Ben Edokpayi, Nosa Igiebor and Dare Babarinsa were celebrated in-house and made to feel like superstars out there.
Yakubu Mohammed, the managing editor, almost blew my mind one day when he told the world in his Editorial Suite that I was the Irving Wallace of Newswatch, “a writer of thrillers, a risk taker, an adventurer, the right stuff.” As he put it: “If there is a difficult assignment, he (Anietie) will not hesitate to volunteer. He is a very calculating fellow, who is often lured by the sense of adventure and the desire to achieve. You may say he is of the right stuff.”
So many professional awards were to follow my stories, one of which came with an overseas scholarship and won me the fellowship of the Thompson Journalism Foundation in the UK.
While I grew famous in the media with the nickname of “Whiz kid,” I became a marked man and very infamous in the State House. Soon, Duro Onabule, the presidential spokesman, announced my expulsion and ban from the State House. It wasn’t the ridiculing of the absent-mindedness of the military regime that made me a persona non grata in the State House. It was a serious matter that shook Nigeria to its foundations.
I was in Benin, Midwest Nigeria one Sunday morning, when some young officers guarding the State House suddenly turned the nozzles of their armored tanks at the bedroom of President Babangida. They simply reduced the place into rubble. Major Gideon Orka, the mastermind of the coup, was a familiar face in Dodan Barracks and the young lieutenants who manned those armoured tanks were boys, I and other State House Correspondents met nearly everyday and sometimes interacted with.
Once I heard the marshal music and the coup speech by Orka announcing the overthrow of Babangida, I knew I would be ‘overthrown’ instantly if I were not in the State House immediately. With my new Peugeot 505, I took on the usually four-hour Benin-Lagos Express road in less than three hours. I parked my car at the Federal Ministry of Information on Awolowo Road, Ikoyi and found my way through shortcuts and side gates into Dodan Barracks.
The place was a ghost town. The main gate I had avoided was ajar. The walls of the first floor apartment hosting the living room and bedrooms of the first family were ripped open. Water from burst pipes was flowing and splashing freely everywhere. Some wall decorations and smashed picture frames were hanging precariously on their way down. A heap of debris covered the chairs, settees, and tables. Scared stiff that I might have walked into a firing squad, I ran back and hid myself in the toilet of the press centre, peeping constantly and nervously through the window overlooking the inner premises, not sure exactly what had become of the coup.
About an hour later, I heard the movement of vehicles. It turned out to be that of Yussuf Mamman, the influential press secretary to the vice-president. In his company was the NTA crew of two. The terrified landlord was to surface soon. Looking dazed, with unkempt hair and dusty uniform, he spoke only with the NTA, confirming that the rebellion had been crushed. Thanks to Sani Abacha, the chief of army staff and close friend of the president, who mobilized loyal troops to crush the uprising. All I did for Newswatch was capture the atmosphere of mayhem, painted a picture of bedlam and granted readers nationwide a graphic insight into the day of infamy. A fine gentleman and aide-de-camp of the President, Lt.Colonel U.K. Bello was killed in the coup. My bosom friend, Major Nuhu Bamali, who was a staff officer in the president’s office, was promoted to Lt.Colonel and appointed the new aide-de-camp of the President. But that was not sufficient to spare and keep me one day longer in the State House.
My ban from the State House made news and was played up by many media houses nationwide. It was high time I ventured elsewhere. As head, Foreign Affairs Desk, my first assignment was to cover the Soviet withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The trip from the onset was fraught with danger. I flew via Swiss Air from Zurich, Switzerland, into Karachi, Pakistan. Within minutes of touch down in Karachi, the commercial capital of Pakistan, I was arrested and quarantined. It took the efforts and intervention of American Embassy officials to secure my freedom two long days later.
Now freed, I headed to Peshawar, the highly inflammable border town between Afghanistan and Pakistan, aboard the Pakistan International Airline, PIA. The entire city of Peshawar was a minefield. You couldn’t step out anywhere on your own in a tempestuous city besieged by terror. The first day I stepped out on a guided mission to interview a Mujahideen commander, I returned to find a wing of my hotel in rubbles, courtesy of a bomb left in the saloon of the hotel. On my second night, I was smuggled into Afghanistan by some pro-American intelligence and diplomatic personnel, who were at that time the main backers of anti-Soviet Islamic fighters, now known as Taliban.
Meeting with these unsmiling medieval figures in their caves at night, presented for me an extreme dimension of professional hazard. I wished I was still under arrest in Karachi, rather than find myself in dark ominous caves. It was the first coming of Benizar Bhutto as prime minister of Pakistan. I was to return to Karachi and Islamabad to file stories of Bhutto’s battle against Islamic fundamentalists, which of course she lost, two decades later – along with her life.
It was however the civil war in Liberia that translated into a veritable nightmare for me and three other Nigerian reporters; with two of my colleagues killed in cold blood. I was just returning from Cotonou, capital of Benin Republic, to cover the country’s presidential elections when Ekpu, now my editor-in-chief, called me into his office and said: “Anietie, I think you have to proceed to Liberia immediately.” I had thought on my way back from Benin Republic that I would take a few days off to see my wife, Stella, and baby daughter, Edima, in my home State in far away Akwa Ibom State, near the Atlantic Ocean. But the urgency in Ekpu’s voice showed this was not a mere suggestion but an order.
With me in Benin Republic to cover the presidential elections was my bosom friend Krees Imodibe, the political editor of The Guardian. Together, Krees and I were the first journalists to interview the victorious Nicephore Soglo, in his house, after he defeated Matthieu Kerekou to end nineteen years of military rule in the small West African country. Krees was doing for The Guardian what I was doing for Newswatch and our paths crossed ever so often at various assignments. Besides, we shared a common humble background of grass-to-grace. We were both orphans and houseboys at a point in time, and we both managed to acquire university education via the help of kind-hearted people. We both gate-crashed into journalism, having initially studied courses not directly connected with the media. In the case of Krees, he was heading for a career in teaching and actually went first to a teachers training college famously known in Nigeria as College of Education. We both used to drive all the way from Lagos to Agenebode, his community in Edo State to eat bush meat and return to Benin to while away time in his sister’s restaurant.
Predictably, just as Newswatch ordered me to proceed to Liberia, The Guardian also dispatched Krees for the same assignment. Along with Krees and I, were Tayo Awotosin of the Daily Champion, and Frank Nwabueze of National Concord. The four of us were the first Nigerian reporters to cover the Liberian civil war from the onset, unprotected by any peacekeeping force, which was in any case not in existence at that time. I had known Frank casually in one or two assignments, but I had never met Tayo until that assignment in Liberia. He was a tall, lanky and gentle fellow, the direct opposite of my friend Krees who was short, robust and swift. While the three of them were lucky to fly directly into Monrovia, I got stuck in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, as Air Guinea, the only Airline that was still braving the Liberian air space, was no longer willing to risk the trip.
The only option left for me was to go to Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone by road and find my way to Monrovia via Kenema, the Sierra Leonean border town with Liberia. This was a 700-kilometers journey through tortuous and treacherous Nigerian-like roads, but I was determined to be in Liberia. My unscheduled trip to Sierra-Leone became a blessing. I turned up in Freetown about the same time peace talks between the Liberian warring factions were being hurriedly put together. I made contacts with both factions to the peace talks, checked into the same hotel with them and interviewed key delegates, including Samuel Doe’s minister of information and filed my reports back to Nigeria.
When the peace talks collapsed within 48 hours, I saw horror written on the faces of most delegates. They told me it was not safe for me to travel to Monrovia when virtually anyone who had the means was hurrying out of the country. But I was desperate to be in Monrovia. Newswatch must report this war from the theatre of war itself, I kept telling myself.
I found my way by taxis and buses to Kenema by night, and spent the night in a rebel-infested dingy hotel. Here, I began for the first time to feel and smell the danger lurking ahead. I couldn’t sleep at all that night because of rampant gunshots in the area and violent squabbles by the marijuana-smoking and drunken rebels. The thought of returning to Nigeria flooded my heart all night, but in the morning, I met a Liberian Muslim leader who was at the peace talks. He was desperate to go to Monrovia to evacuate his family and nothing would deter him. I was desperate to go into Monrovia for my professional family and nothing would deter me. With his driver and I in the front seat of a new car, we took off on one of the most dangerous journeys that I have ever undertaken.
The customs and immigrations posts between Sierra Leone and Liberia were deserted. The smooth 100-kilometer road between Kenema and Monrovia, tarred by the Nigerian government, had no other vehicle except our Peugeot 406. Alhaji opted for bush tracks and village routes, rather than the main road for the better part of the Liberian end. Even on the bush tracks, we drove at breakneck speed unmindful of tree stumps and ditches. Broken down vehicles, household items and sick aged people dumped by fleeing refugees littered the bush tracks and foretold the perilous terrain ahead of us. It was a race against time but no one could deter this man, for a second, from getting his wives and children out of harm’s way.
Monrovia itself was a ghost town when we arrived. Everybody was hiding either from marauding warriors or from flying bullets fired by the two sworn enemies. To worsen matters, it was on a day all the professionals in Monrovia (doctors, engineers, architects, journalists) had the temerity to take a peaceful protest to the Presidential Mansion, to beg their president to simply walk a few steps down the seaside and board an American luxury ship stationed behind the mansion to sail him to exile. President Doe’s response was a torrent of teargas and bullets.
The frantic man who brought me from Sierra Leone dropped me suddenly as we approached the city center and pointed hurriedly at a certain direction where I could possibly find a hotel, as he turned right obviously in the direction of his neighborhood. In the middle of nowhere I choked for divine help. Within minutes two soldiers emerged from their trenches and seized me. They were troops loyal to President Doe. One yanked my bag off me immediately while the other pushed and kicked me as he barked orders for me to move in the direction of a nearby storey building. A senior officer in mufti who sat partially hidden by the half-wall took over from his untamed boys and grilled me. Confirming that I was a Nigerian journalist just arriving from Sierra Leone, he kept me for safety and later detailed two other untamed soldiers to help me locate the nearest available hotel. The first two hotels we went to refused to open their gates. At the third hotel, they shot into the air in anger, forcing their way in. I was handed over to the panicking hotel manager, with a warning to ensure my safety, if he loved his life.
The next day when a bit of life returned slowly to some parts of the dying city, I ventured out to the ministry of information, where I met and reunited with Krees, Frank, Tayo and other foreign journalists, including Elizabeth Blunt of the BBC. That evening, I moved over to the small hotel where Krees, Frank and Tayo were staying right in the heart of Monrovia. The owners and workers in the hotel had virtually deserted the place. Electricity had since stopped. Water was in very short supply. Toilets were unsightly. Marijuana-puffing ruffians and other suspicious faces made up the bulk of the remaining guests. We hardly spent time in the hotel, until nightfall when we returned from the embassies, government and aid agencies to ferret and confirm information we picked from some sources including deserting soldiers.
After a fierce gun fight broke out on a Saturday night around our hotel, we became restless and decided that we should find our way home to Nigeria the next morning. I barely slept that night. It was clear the warfront was shifting dangerously nearer and a street by street fight to control Monrovia would have begun.
By six in the morning, I was banging on the doors of my Nigerian colleagues to dress up and flee with me to Sierra Leone. My first port of call was Krees’ room. He was already up, too, but surprisingly said he wanted to wait for a few more days. As I entered his room, he was writing a letter, hurriedly, which he said I should help deliver to his managing director, Mr. Lade Bonuale. I dashed to Franks’ room and he came out with me to Krees’ room where we argued again about the exact situation on ground and the right time to escape. I left Frank with Krees and rushed to Tayo’s room. He was brushing his teeth. We spoke hastily with the toothbrush in his mouth. He, too, said he would want to wait a bit more. That was the last time I saw him. Krees and Frank escorted me in a somewhat tense mood to the nearby waterfront that Sunday morning, where I boarded a Sierra-Leone bound bus laden with refugees. They stood back and waved at me as the clumsy old vehicle struggled to make its way to the main road. That was the last time I saw my bosom friend Krees. When I got to my Paramount Hotel room in Freetown that Sunday night and tuned to the BBC, I was shocked to hear that the road I had just passed had been captured and taken over by rebels, cutting off Monrovia from the rest of the world.
(Perhaps, this is the first time the following information would be made public). With Monrovia cut off and the city center besieged and bombarded by rebel forces, Krees, Tayo and Frank decided to find their way to the Nigerian embassy outside the city centre. The only trouble according to my subsequent investigations and interview with several refugees was that Frank was suddenly struck down with severe diarrhea and could not move one inch out of the hotel. Out of sympathy for Frank, Krees and Tayo could not flee the city centre in time in spite of the bombardments. Krees and Tayo did everything they could to help Frank take flight with them, but Frank was virtually dying in their hands. At a point, Krees and Tayo decided to carry Frank on their shoulders, with one of Frank’s hands hanged on Krees shoulder and the other hand on Tayo’s shoulder. It was an impossible task for the sick man more so because Krees was nearly half the height of Tayo. At a point, Frank himself, certain that he would die, encouraged Krees and Tayo to abandon him for their safety. That was the last time the dying Frank saw his ill-fated colleagues.
Frank was later picked up on the road by some Burkinabe soldiers, who fought on the sides of Charles Taylor’s rebels. His saving grace was his fluency in French language. Besides, Frank had only just returned from Burkina Faso to cover some events, before he was assigned to Liberia. When the Burkinabe soldiers verified he was a sick Nigerian journalist who had only recently visited their country, they had pity on him. Medical help soon came. He was later put in a refugee ship which brought him in the company of other refugees to Freetown.
But Krees and Tayo were not so lucky. They were seized directly by Charles Taylor’s invading troops, who were angry with the Nigerian government for backing the Samuel Doe’s Liberian army. Taylor, in retaliation, had handed down orders to his troops to deal ruthlessly with Nigerian refugees caught in the conflict. A British journalist working with the London Sunday Observer later told me in Paramount Hotel, Freetown, how my friends Krees and Tayo were killed along with many other Nigerian refugees, whom Taylor alleged were spies. “They were executed in front of reporters…The two Nigerian journalists were shot as spies.”
In all the reports I filed from Freetown, I played down the story of Krees and Tayo’s execution, and made scant reverence to it because I could not imagine it and did not for once think Taylor could so brutally execute some journalists, given his background as an American-trained man.
Why can’t I go and talk to the President, I said to myself, as I walked past a white, simple roadside storey building that was introduced as the Office of the President of Sierra Leone. I was not assigned to interview the famous man when I left Lagos but I knew for sure my editors would jump for joy, if I went the extra mile and sat down with a foreign head of state. Getting an exclusive interview with an African head of state is not a day’s job; it requires elaborate protocol. But Newswatch reporters were brought up to be audacious. I confess that at some point, some of us Newswatch reporters became overconfident and were seen as cocky even by colleagues from other media houses.
My overconfidence was on display that afternoon in Freetown as I walked in to see the Press Secretary to the President. “My name is Anietie Usen. I am the Associate Editor of Newswatch, Nigeria’s No.1 news magazine. I want to speak to Mr. President, possibly today.” The gamble paid off. Within an hour, I was driven in a black State House car up a winding, hilly road into a cul-de-sac that hosted the residence of President Joseph Momoh, a major-general. For another hour and a half, right inside the study of the president, next to his disheveled bedroom, I squared off with a man whose face was familiar across the continent and beyond. I converted his press secretary into my photographer. Newswatch made it a cover story.
One thing that struck me about the Sierra Leonean President’s home was the number of President Babangida’s portraits in his house, right down to his study. There were more portraits of the Nigerian leader on display than President Momoh himself. I couldn’t help but ask President Momoh why it was so. “Nigeria is our big brother. President Babaginda is my personal friend,” he said. It was one escapade that proved not just Nigeria’s influence in the West African sub-region, but the respect Newswatch enjoyed internationally.
Covering the political crises in Sierra Leone and Liberia, as well as in Pakistan and Afghanistan was the first audacious assignment I undertook in a profession I literally gate-crashed. The rest is contained in AUDACIOUS JOURNALISM, the book you must read, whether you are a journalist or not.
*CULLED FROM AUDACIOUS JOURNALISM [706 pages]
BY ANIETIE USEN