Retired Nigerian photo-journalist Otunba Dipo Onabanjo in this interview with Gboyega Alaka speaks on his decades of experience in active journalism, his encounter covering the JJ Rawlings coup, Mathieu Kerekou of Benin Republic coup and years in the presidential media entourage. He clocked 77 yesterday.
YOU clocked 77 years on mother earth yesterday August 15 , can you tell us a bit of your exploits as a photo journalist back in your hay days?
I started work as a photo journalist at the age of 20 in 1964. I was already active during the January 1966 coup in which Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa was kidnapped and murdered. I’ve been around for a while and have seen enough to be able to comment on affairs in this country. We worked hard for this country and that is why I’m of the opinion that all these people stealing our collective wealth should be punished, like J.J. Rawlings did in Ghana. I covered Rawlings during the coup that brought him to power; I even met him personally and we became friends. I have so many photographs of me and him. Let them put these thieves in front of their family house and flog the hell out of them. It will serve as a deterrent and things will change like it did in Ghana.
You have spoken loftily of former Ghanaian president, John Jerry Rawlings; tell us about and your friendship with him.
On the day of the Rawlings coup in June 1979, I had gone to cover an assignment in Ikeja; but as I was heading back to the office, I got information that a molue bus had plunged into the lagoon on the Eko Bridge; so I went to cover that mishap. As soon as I got to the office, Segun Osoba, who was then Acting Editor of Daily times, summoned my senior editor to come and proceed to Ghana because there had been a coup there. Before then, Rawlings was in prison. He was detained by Acheampong; but he escaped to go and participate in the coup. But my editor was afraid to go because he heard that Rawlings was brutal and killing people. When I heard about it, I said I would go. I told them he was not a lion that would just pounce on anybody.
I left Lagos with my car, a Peugeot 504. On getting to Aflao Station, the border was blocked. Usually whenever there was a coup, the borders were shut; so I couldn’t go through. I toyed with the idea of leaving my car and walking through the footpath, and then I saw a guide; I told him of my mission to Accra and if he could help me. He said it would cost me 20 Cedis. Quickly, I agreed. It was nothing compared to the nearly one million cedis (N3,000) in my pocket. He led me through bush paths and we entered Accra. Along the way, we were stopped by security operatives. They asked where I was going and I told them I had been in Accra, wanted to go to Nigeria but couldn’t because the border was closed. If I had told them I was coming from Nigeria, I would have been in a big trouble, because they would have asked how I got through. Long story short, they allowed me passage into Accra. I entered Accra at about 11.30 in the night. I asked around and found a hotel in Osu, which was near the presidential lodge. Naturally, I filled a form, which was sent to the security. That way, they became aware that a certain Nigerian photo journalist was lodged in the hotel.
Unknown to me, Rawlings had sent a spy, a certain doctor, to keep an eye on me. I carried on with my activities and soon teamed up with some Ghanaian Times crew to cover events, which I sent to Lagos. The fact that I also had a car endeared me to them because most of them didn’t own one. I usually sent the films through the airport in Ghana to the airport in Lagos. We had an airport correspondent who’d pick it up at the Presidential Lounge and deliver at the office.
How did you meet Rawlings?
Every evening, I’d be at the bar, drinking beer, not knowing that the Rawlings spy was just beside me. Meanwhile, most of our discussions centred on Rawlings revolutionary activities, which I always praised to high heavens. I always said he was the kind of man we needed in Nigeria – at that time, Obasanjo was head of state. Aside that, most of my reports were sent to the high commission, and they ended up being sent to Rawlings in Accra. Reports got to Rawlings that I was his admirer and always praising him; so he invited me to the government house.
When the invitation came, I refused to go. I was afraid that he may kill me. He was very brutal at the time. I said I would not go until I heard from the Nigeria High Commissioner in Accra. It was when words came from the High Commission that there was no problem that I now went. When we got there, he embraced me and we discussed. I also took many photographs.
How many people did he kill to get into power?
I really can’t tell but his government later killed General Ignatius Kutu Acheampong. Actually, he did not want to kill anybody. He called on them to bring out the money they had stolen, which Acheampong refused. He even granted his request to speak to a world press, but when they got there, he denied that he had any money with him. He was executed at the beach by firing squad. Lieut. Gen Frederick W.K Akuffo was also executed. There was uproar that Rawlings was killing former heads of states; so Obasanjo intervened. He threatened to cut off the supply of oil to Ghana if he didn’t stop; so Rawlings was forced to stop.
Thereafter, they embarked on house to house search. Those who were found to have kept looted money in their freezers were brought out and publicly flogged 24 strokes in front of their house. When others saw what was happening, they started bringing out their loots.
Did Ghana become better?
In a sense, yes. He was able to stop the hoarding of money and other essential goods and prices then came down. When he now took over as a civilian government, things started looking up and Ghanaians who were on the streets in Nigeria doing odd jobs now gradually went back home.
You also covered the coup in Benin Republic.
Yes, that was earlier in 1972. There was a coup in Benin Republic; Mathieu Kerekou had overthrown the three heads of state in that country. Then, they had three heads of state in Benin. On that occasion again, they asked my photo editor to go but he excused himself. I stepped forward. Then, I didn’t have a car, so I went on my vespa, with a messenger. I asked the despatch rider to go with me, so that if I had any photographs to deliver, he would just cross the border to Nigeria and deliver it. However, when I got to Idiroko that night, the border too was closed. Some of my friends there with whom I sat to have a drink didn’t want me to go. They were afraid for me, so they tried to get me drunk by giving me bottle upon bottle. But I was not afraid. I was literally born with a lion heart. I had been like that since I was a kid.
Was it courage or passion?
I think it’s the two – courage and passion. I was never the press conference type. I liked to go where there was a problem or trouble and I can break the news. I was never afraid of death. And that was why I so enjoyed the job.
What was the role of Osoba in your life?
Osoba inspired me in life. Don’t forget, it was he who discovered the slain Tafawa Balewa’s corpse somewhere in Ota. He was one of the editors that would push you to go the extra mile and have your back. That gave us confidence. So I loved the job.
Clearly, you loved adventure. Did you have near death experiences?
Yes. There was a time when the mercenaries’ invaded Benin Republic to overthrow Kerekou. They came in through the airport. When I got there, I went to an uncompleted house on the way to the airport. Unknown to me, the mercenaries had overrun the airport and were targeting the state house. So where I was hiding to take photographs, the bullets were flying over my head. Literally, I was caught in between the mercenaries and the forces loyal to President Kerekou. I took photos of the bullets. That was in 1979.
You took that much risk? Did you have insurance cover?
There was no insurance. It was just the love for the job and adventure. Even the salary wasn’t big. I don’t think I earned up to N500 then at Daily Times. At a time, I was earning five pounds as salary at Daily Sketch. Besides, money wasn’t an issue then. We were satisfied with what we earned. I actually joined Daily Times because of because it was a bigger platform. Yusuf Oladele was our chief photographer during my time at Daily Times.
How did you develop such of passion?
As a student back then at Ade Odutola College, Ijebu Ode, I loved photography. There was a man; we called him Baba Shittu, who worked with Daily Express as a photojournalist. He had a peculiar way of carrying his camera bag, which endeared him to me; and the next day, I would see his name in the paper. So I said to myself, ‘I love this job.’ So I started taking photographs in school. Sometimes, I’d even be invited to follow some newspapers on assignments.
You could afford a camera back then?
My aunty made me a clerk at her textile shop, where I helped her record sales, those who owed her and stuff. One day, somebody came to pay some owed sum; but instead of delivering the money, I used it to buy a camera at Kingsway. Somehow I escape punishment because she didn’t know the person had paid back. However, when she saw the camera, she said: ‘Where did you get money to buy this kind of camera? You must have used my money.’ But that query ended when I took some photographs of her, developed them and handed them over to her. She was happy and that settled that matter.
It’s somewhere in your bio-data that you went to American School of photography?
No, it was a correspondence course. It was the certificate I used to join one international news agency in Nigeria. Thereafter, I joined Daily Sketch. I was based in Lagos. From Daily Sketch, I joined Daily times. It was London that I went. I attended Collie-MacMillan College, Aldermoston Court, Reading United Kingdom and Elephant and Castle Printing College, London, between 1974 and 1976. I also studied Mass Communication at the University of Lagos.
Tell us about the 1966 coup, your relationship with General Yakubu Gowon and events of that time.
The January 1966 coup is one coup I will never forget in my life. That night I went somewhere and I remember telling someone that it looks like something is going to happen, because I was seeing some unusual things. So I was not surprised when I heard that the prime minister and Okotie Eboh had been kidnapped. It was later that Segun Osoba got the information that Tafawa Balewa’s body had been dumped by a footpath at Ota. Osoba discovered the corpse after the Prime Minister had been declared wanted.
But that coup didn’t last before Ironsi was assassinated in July in Ibadan and Gowon now came in. Gowon now appointed Awolowo as Finance Commissioner and second in command to help him run the administration because he didn’t know how to save money. Gowon was a young, honest and easy-going gentleman Head of State. Where he failed was when he announced that the initial 1976 hand-over date to civil rule was no longer realistic. But he wasn’t really the one behind that decision; it was those who were with him. He was overthrown and Murtala Muhammed took over.
Why was General Murtala Muhammed assassinated? People said he was dealing with corruption and doing good things.
I believe Murtala should have been given the chance to rule; but he was assassinated by Colonel Dimka. You see, Nigerians are very funny people. When they love you, they don’t see your bad side. Nigerians love Murtala because of the way he died. Let’s ask ourselves what happened in Bendel. Let those in position of power who knew what happened tell us. Ejoor was administrators then. What happened to banks there? People see Murtala as a hero. But would those he sacked and their relatives see him as a hero? Was it not Murtala that gave Abiola the ITT contract that he did not do that made him a millionaire?
What kind of man was Dimka, who led the coup that assassinated Murtala?
Dimka was a sportsman. He was also a drunkard. He wasn’t the type that could have dabbled into a coup because he was inept. And that was why the coup failed.
Some said he was a front for some people – like Bissalla who was later indicted and executed with Dimka
Bisalla was executed because they thought he was helping Gowon to come back, alongside Gomwalk of Plateau state. They were all from Gowon’s area.
You don’t seem to believe that theory?
No. Gowon was a gentleman; utterly honest. He did not even have a house of his own when he was head of state. He was cheerful and had no airs. Gowon and I used to carry chairs to sit and discuss. He remains one of Nigeria’s freest heads of state.
A lot of people believe Awolowo was frustrated because he never became president
Awolowo was never frustrated. That he never ruled is why some people are regretting till today. See what he did in Western Region as Premier? If Zik had agreed to work with Awo whether as President of Vice President, Nigeria would have been among the greatest countries in the world today. I think their problem was that both, as masters, could not work together. Zik, in a way, disappointed Awolowo because Awolowo called on him to form a coalition; but Zik, seeing himself as the beautiful bride went with the Northern Progressive Congress (NPC) who offered him the position of Governor.
It seems Awo curried hatred of the Igbo with his role in cutting off food supplies to the zone, which ended the war.
Awo was doing his job. He didn’t want the country to disintegrate and he took that decision to end the war. It was a strategy and it worked. Awolowo loved the Igbos; he has many Igbo friends. I have an Igbo friend who told me that Awolowo saved his life and family. People see things differently. Besides, you cannot satisfy everybody. I believe Awolowo tried his best for the country.
How would you assess governance today?
I think Tinubu has done well. Current Lagos State governor, Sanwo-Olu is also doing well. They have transformed Lagos. Yoruba may not appreciate Tinubu until he passes on or become old. And he has done so much for the Yoruba race by nurturing lieutenants. He has given the Yoruba a voice in the affairs of things.
But some say he likes to have everything to himself.
Nooo. Tinubu is a man who can even give his eyes to people. I’m not a politician; neither am I trying to campaign for him. But I have met him personally and I know him well. If the Yoruba knows the value of Tinubu, they will rally round him.
What’s your opinion of Obasanjo
Obasanjo is a very intelligent man. He’s the type that would hardly talk at a meeting but what he will do is in his mind. If Obasanjo and Tinubu can work together, then Nigeria will be one of the greatest countries on the planet. Obasanjo knows Yoruba well, the same way he knows the Hausa and the Igbo.
But the Igbo are feeling like they are not getting their rightful placing in the affairs of Nigeria
Yes; the massacre of the Igbo back in the ’60s is still fresh in their mind. The Hausa do not trust Igbo. That is the problem we have and that may be why they have yet to produce a president. But everything is in the hand of God. Tomorrow an Igbo can become president. After all, we have had Igbo vice president. If you ask me, that boy, (Chukwuma) Nzeogu started the whole problem. Why did he kill Ahmadu Bello, Tafawa Balewa and others? He masterminded that January 1966 coup.
You’re saying the mass killing of the Igbo over 50 years ago is responsible for the bitterness among them?
It doesn’t matter. It’s not easy to forget such a thing, no matter the number of years.
Do you think that (January 1966) coup led to Nigeria’s problem?
Yes of course. That’s why we’ve not got to where we are going. Okay, what did we gain from that coup? Practically nothing.
Maybe we would have gained if the coup was successful
It was successful; after all, Ironsi became president. I think the mistake Ironsi made was to have surrounded himself with Hausa guides. He did not trust his Igbo compatriots. Of course you know how he was killed and how Fajuyi insisted on not allowing them take his guest away. That was a testimony that Yoruba are not traitors.
You’ve spoken well of Gowon, but it was the same Gowon who jailed Wole Soyinka.
My reply to that is: Was it Gowon who tried the case? What was Soyinka’s offence? Soyinka went to Western Region radio to make a broadcast. It was a treasonable offence. Besides, he was arrested in Ibadan, not Lagos
Talking about present day Nigeria, the same corruption that Nzeogwu cited is still very much with us 50 years after.
My brother, corruption cannot stop in Nigeria.
Why? How do you mean?
The government is not looking after the people. How can someone work 30/35 years and when he’s retiring, he has nothing guaranteed for him. No entitlement in three, four years. If government does not want corruption, then if I work in a place for 35 years and I’m about to retire, they should arrange a house for me, arrange my money; if I’m entitled to the car I’m using, give it to me. Then I will not look to steal. But if I work in a place for so long and I have nothing to show for it, even my son will abuse me. Your friends will abandon you. So unless we put these things right, we may just be deceiving ourselves. If you arrest somebody today for stealing in office and you put somebody else there, he will do the same thing – because he does not want to suffer.
But the kind of money some of people are stealing are the kind they cannot finish in their lifetime.
That one is greed. If a man can have even three, five million and a house, what else is he looking for? Do they want to go to heaven with the money? That is why I love Buhari. He made us know that people are stealing billions.
But none of them have been punished…
It is our judiciary. Some lawyers work for judges to dabaru cases. Aside that, when they jail them in court; the next thing, they’re in the hospital, relaxing, claiming some phantom illness.
How would you assess the Buhari government?
The Buhari government is not bad at all. The Nigerian situation is a case of something that has spoilt. It cannot be fixed overnight over-night. And he’s lucky to have people like Raji Fashola, Vice President Osinbajo and even Asiwaju’s backing.
But people are saying that he’s inactive; that so many killings are going on under him.
Was there any time there were no killings in Nigeria. If you ask me, the noise is political. It will be a gradual thing. You’ll recall that just a few years ago, you couldn’t drive your car in Lagos? Armed robbers would waylay you at gun point and snatch it, even kill you if you don’t behave yourself. They even attack and rob houses. For some time now, I’ve not heard of robbery of any kind. Yes, he promised to stop it but it has to be little by little. Rome was not built in a day.
Would Abiola have become a better president?
Yes but at the end of the day, he would have pandered to the North. Abiola won because he had done so many things in the North and they loved him. Tofa could not have won that election because he did not even register for the election. I was in Kano to cover Tofa and I can tell you authoritatively that he did not vote. So that tells you that he never planned to contest and was just packaged at the last minute. That may also imply that the stage was set for an Abiola victory unopposed. He just drove round in his car, gave us money and went back into his house. I came back to Lagos the same day.
Why do you think Babangida annulled that election?
Was he the one that annulled it? I’m sorry to say but most of the top Yoruba people at the time were behind the annulment. Most of the people that had meetings with Abiola were the same people who went to Babangida again to work against Abiola. They just used Babangida.
What’s your assessment of journalism today and back in your days?
Things have changed. You people are in the computer age and you can send your stories and photographs from anywhere in the world instantly. It was not so in our days.
Do you think the Nigerian media is playing its role well?
The Nigerian media is one of the best in the world. I’ve travelled to so many countries. We have courageous journalists who can go to any length to get news. I used to be in the presidential entourage and I’ve been to America, India, Europe; so I can speak authoritatively on this.