“…During that regime, people died, they just died without an idea of what caused their death.” – Major Debo Bashorun, former Press Secretary to General Ibrahim Babangida
He is one man who can be said to have devoted his entire adult life to the cause of fighting injustice. To start with, even his foray into the Nigerian Army was borne out of the need to fight injustice. It all started from a most unexpected event. As a young man, struggling to make ends meet in Lagos, Debo Bashorun had just been promoted to what he described as an enviable position of a receiving clerk in a factory where he was working. To celebrate his new status that would see him being able to dress in a suit to work, Bashorun decided to host his friends to a party in a nearby hotel. Then the unexpected but life-changing event happened. A young soldier decided to gatecrash into the party. If he had stopped at that, he probably would not have made a life-changing impression on Bashorun. The young soldier, after having his fill, decided to forcefully leave the party with Bashorun’s girlfriend.
Expectedly, the celebrant resisted such brazen act of ingratitude. And it soon led to a struggle between Bashorun and the soldier. Sensing defeat, the soldier retreated and minutes after returned with a truckload of his colleagues. They went on to attack anyone within the vicinity while the celebrant and his friends could only scamper for safety in the face of the rampaging soldiers. That experience and the need to put a stop to such acts of impunity propelled Bashorun, whose studies had been truncated midway through secondary school due to his father’s demise, to join the military.
As fate would have it, he joined the army during the Nigerian civil war and went on to serve eagerly in combatant positions convinced that this was a way to rise through the ranks and get to a level where he could sufficiently influence the type of change he wanted within the army.
But he was soon confronted with the same factor that motivated him to join the army in the first place: Injustice. After sustaining injuries on the war front, Bashorun was sent to the Armed Forces Rehabilitation Centre, AFRC, Oshodi, Lagos, to recuperate. There, he observed that wounded soldiers from a particular section of the country were being forcefully sent back to the war fronts while their fully recuperated colleagues from some other sections of the country were left behind and allowed to roam the streets of Lagos terrorising civilians.
Again, this was unacceptable to Bashorun who took it upon himself to challenge such acts of discrimination and injustice. “Unknown to the Nigerian public however was that the Army which was being touted as the catalyst for national unity was actually the culprit for condoning and aiding such abominable practices,” he said. Soon, he talked himself into trouble as he was redeployed to the war front even while still recuperating. As it turned out, the return to the trenches proved both risky and rewarding, leading to his promotions and eventual emergence at the Army headquarters in Lagos.
His foray into the Army public relations later saw him emerging as the first and only public relations officer, PRO, to serve two consecutive Nigerian chiefs of army staff – Generals Muhammed Inuwa Wushishi and Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, IBB. While serving IBB as PRO to the chief of army staff, Bashorun’s quest for justice and equity also showed up, bringing him into a direct confrontation with the powers that be. “I knew there was no plausible excuse to justify the Arabic inscriptions which adorned virtually all Army paraphernalia twenty-one years after becoming a republic, especially when the official national language was English,” he wrote in his yet to be released book titled, Honour for Sale: An Insider Account of the Murder of Dele Giwa. Although he was born to Muslim parents, Bashorun thought it was only proper that he raise a memo on the need to change the Arabic inscriptions on Army paraphernalia, which he sent to IBB who was then the chief of army staff. As it turned out, that suggestion never saw the light of the day but only earned him the reprimand of Lieutenant Colonel Haliru Akilu, then director of military intelligence, DMI.
Although he was constantly courting trouble by seeking to fight injustice, Bashorun was still able to reach the enviable height of the spokesperson for the country’s number one citizen when he was appointed press and public affairs officer (military press secretary) to Babangida, who adopted the title of Military President in 1985. Bashorun was later to enjoy his newfound role in the Presidency until the dastardly murder of Dele Giwa, founding editor-in-chief of Newswatch magazine, on October 19, 1986 with a parcel bomb.
In an interview he granted a TELL team of Ademola Oyinlola, executive editor; Adejuwon Soyinka, associate editor; and Eunice Nze-Peters, staff writer, Bashorun said his dogged resolve to see justice done in the case of the assassination of Giwa was one thing that eventually strained his relationship with IBB. “It was my nosiness about Dele Giwa’s issue. It got to a point whereby the Nigerian people were assailing us from all angles. I had the courage to ask him (IBB) in the presence of everybody to bring back the issue because it was an issue that would not go away,” he said.
As far as Bashorun is concerned, the administration he served had questions to answer in the murder of Giwa and what he described as the destruction of the Nigerian economy. His conviction in this regard and the troubles it brought him soon led to his decision to call it quits from the military. His resignation from the Army and government in 1988 caused quite a stir and brought him into a direct collision course with the military government. At a point, he had to flee into exile in the United States where he resided for 18 years before returning to Nigeria.
In spite of all the troubles he has gone through in the pursuit of justice, Bashorun says he is not afraid of further courting trouble as he attempts through the book, Honour for Sale, to examine the lurid circumstances of the controversial murder of Giwa while unearthing the web of intrigues and treachery, clannishness and base humanity of some of the country’s military leaders. The interview will sure whet your appetite for a copy of the book which is certain to open fresh can of worms. Excerpts:
What led to your resignation from the Nigerian Army, which caught people unawares at that time?
In a nutshell, my life was on the line, the government of General Ibrahim Babangida wanted to get rid of me because of certain privileged information I had about the murder of Dele Giwa.
Were you first detained?
I was detained; before that, I was sent to the US to do a dirty job, laundering the (image of the) military administration then, being an aftermath of the killing of Dele Giwa. Me being who I am, I was not willing to be part of the group of people with blood on their hands.
What exactly is the nature of this job you were given?
I was supposed to meet a group of people who are eggheads in the public relations industry and they were to supposedly prepare a programme to launder the image of Nigeria.
Who sent you on this assignment?
It was IBB. He called me and briefed me that I was going to represent the government at the investiture of Ray Ekpu who had succeeded Dele Giwa as editor-in-chief of Newswatch then in May 1988. It was an assignment that had several undertones.
In other words, the fact that you were going to represent the government was a decoy, right?
Yes and I know I wasn’t safe myself, because of several incidents that happened before then. I was also instructed to keep tabs on some other Nigerians who were at the ceremony too. I was given a name and a phone number to contact a man who was to link me with these people. They did not even tell me their name. So I couldn’t afford to take that chance of calling the man. Knowing the US for what it is, people like to mind their own businesses. I could just call on the man and someone might just appear with arms and God knows what they could do to you. In a nutshell, I felt it was a plan to get me off the radar.
You already had your suspicion that you were not safe?
There were incidents that led me to believe that. Our relationship had degenerated and I felt they were trying to get rid of me when they were asking me to do things that were not part of my job. IBB swore to me that he didn’t have a hand in Dele Giwa’s death, and I went to the press with it. He was supposed to constitute a panel to unravel the death of Dele Giwa but that was not the case.
Were you in the military intelligence as at that time?
No, I was a PR guy, after I joined the military; I had been trained and I went for several courses on public relations. When you are given an assignment to do a dirty job, I can perceive it. So when they started giving me an assignment that was outside my professional calling as a PR person, I smelt a rat. Meeting PR people was understandable, but keeping tabs on people was out of it.
Had you ever been sent on such [keep tabs] assignment before?
Before then, I had never undertaken such assignment.
So what exactly are these pieces of privileged information that you said you had on Dele Giwa’s murder?
I was supposed to meet some PR people to launder the tarnished image of the country, which happened as a result of Giwa’s death in the first place. I was given gadgets to wear and tapes to record the conversation of some Nigerians without their knowledge. The Nigerians I was supposed to keep tabs on were Wole Soyinka, Biodun Shobanjo, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Ray Ekpu, Yakubu Mohammed, Dan Agbese and one or two others who went with them during the celebration of Ray Ekpu’s installation as international editor of the year. For those who are very conversant with Dele Giwa’s death, they would notice that I was the only military officer with a black band present at all the activities after his death. I was there because after Giwa’s death, I went to meet IBB and he virtually swore to me that he had nothing to do with it and I believed him because that was the IBB I knew then. So I took it as the gospel truth and went to press with it. He constituted a panel that would look into the arbitrary killing of Dele Giwa. The panel comprised Alhaji Gambo and the suspects themselves – (Halilu) Akilu and Kunle Togun. After constituting that panel, I believed that we were on the right track and that we were going to unravel that mystery, but that was not to be the case.
So, the same government that felicitated with Ray (Ekpu) on his investiture as the International Editor of the Year sent you to keep tabs on these people?
Yes. Akilu told me that they wanted to take over the company and that was why they killed Dele Giwa, their colleague. I could remember that before their departure for the event, IBB asked me to call them and ask for a way we could help. So I thought to myself if they had done this, why should we help them by making funds available to them? Then I suggested that we apprehend them, since Nigerians are on the government’s throat about the death of Giwa, why can’t we arrest and try them? But they said they were waiting for the right time and that what I was expected to do was to gather enough evidence against them during prosecution.
Why, and at what point did your relationship with IBB turn sour?
It was my nosiness about Dele Giwa’s issue. It got to a point whereby the Nigerian people were assailing us from all angles. I had the courage to ask him in the presence of everybody to bring back the issue because it was an issue that would not go away. Out of impulse – I am sure he did not think it through – he told me to go and meet Muhammadu Gambo (the then inspector general of police) for the report of the committee so that I would be able to brief the public about it. I am sure he did not think it through.
I went to see Gambo in his house, and I even ate dinner there. I was told that the preliminary report of the committee had been sent to IBB. I became confused. By the time I got to the office the following morning, it was a fuming Babangida I met and it was unlike him. He asked me who ordered me to go to Gambo’s house and I had to remind him that he was the one that asked me to see the man. That was why I said it was a spontaneous statement he made out of annoyance. Since then, I knew I was in trouble. After that time, at a staff meeting, I suggested that we send a congratulatory message to Ray Ekpu, having it in mind that in the history of journalism in Nigeria, nobody had won that award before and it was a war between me and some establishment personnel in the presidency. Eventually, I won and the president instructed Tunji Olagunju, an adviser, to write the letter which he did.
But between IBB’s office and the State House press centre, the letter disappeared. It is one of those things that used to happen then in the presidency. The whole presidency was filled with yes-men who were not there when the IBB coup was being hatched or implemented. What did they have to offer? They were there because of their tribe, where they came from. They came in through government patronage and they made them our bosses and so they were loyal to them. I did not get in through that passage, I was always the underdog, but I was unfazed. I knew what I was doing and I was somebody you would consider to be highly intelligent and so I asked a lot of questions.
After much investigation, I was told that the letter was handed to pressmen so that they could use it in their reports but an embargo was placed on it not to publish it. The order must be from either the office of the CGS, or the President himself. Further investigation to know who placed the embargo was futile. I met with IBB again to do something about it and he asked me to go and wait, that they would do something about it but nothing came out of it. In fact, one of the reasons the trio of Ray, Dan and Yakubu initially refused the President’s offer to assist them when they were going to the US for Ekpu’s investiture was because the letter of congratulations that was supposed to come to them never came out.
Did they have prior knowledge that the letter was coming?
Yes, they knew because I told them.
When you got to America, you did not contact the persons you were supposed to make contact with, but did you keep a tab on the Nigerians you were asked to keep tabs on?
No. I never did. What astonished me was that I was paid all my entitlements as an army officer right before I left the country. When I got to the US, I was chauffer driven to one of the best hotels in Western Manhattan, a hotel I cannot even afford as a senior officer in the military, and it was fully paid for. I was on edge on what could happen to me. As soon as I settled, I realised the place was too cozy for even a civilian and that further raised my suspicion. I checked and sniffed everywhere for bugs but nothing seemed to be unusual. I became very uneasy but pretended to be normal. Then I got in touch with the duo of Yakubu and Yemi Ogunbiyi, because they told me where they would be before their departure. When I told them I wanted to leave the hotel to join them, they thought I was crazy. They didn’t understand what was happening. I told Yemi to reserve a room next to him and I left to be with him where people could see me.
What was the consequence of not keeping the said tab?
It was a hullaballoo. After the ceremony, I called IBB and briefed him that the guy he asked me to meet was not reachable. I told him that I couldn’t reach the person I was asked to call. IBB then asked me to talk to Akilu, the director of military intelligence, but Akilu said he had information that I did not even try the person’s number. Then he argued and he banged the phone on me. When I tried his number again on three occasions, he would cut me off. Another thing is that, even though there was a policy that we should all fly by Nigerian Airways, I was given a ticket of Air Afrique that would take me to Francophone countries before arriving in New York. All these things summed up together fuelled my suspicion that they were after me.
What then gave you the confidence to come back to Nigeria?
Well, I had nowhere to go, I couldn’t have stayed longer because my visa would eventually expire, and I was a serving military officer in Nigeria, I had to come home. I knew what I was coming to face but I was thinking that I could defend my decision. I didn’t know that they would take it to the level they did.
So what did they do to you?
I was thrown in jail and subjected to mental torture for four days and was accused of trying to topple the government. I was interrogated by different kinds of people and the crux of it was that I should give them the names of the people I contacted and those who are financing my plan to topple the government during my stay in the US. None of them was asking me about the assignment I was asked to do.
Who bailed you out of that problem?
I am always grateful to God and to the Nigerian press that brought me out of it because I managed to pass information out to the Nigerian press and it came out the next day. When the press would not stop reporting it, they became jittery and then released me. I decided to meet with the President who told me not to worry that things would be sorted out and that was a promise he never kept.
Was it specifically stated in your brief that the bad image the country was receiving was a result of Dele Giwa’s murder, because it is in the nature of governments to launder their image from time to time?
Not in this wise. This is a different case. It was specifically because of Dele Giwa’s death that I was given this assignment to go and meet some people in the US to carve out an image for Nigeria.
Few days to Dele Giwa’s death, he was interrogated and accused of collaborating with some other people to topple the government, and you were asked to keep tabs on some people who were also accused of planning to topple the government as well as allegedly killing their colleague. As a military person, do you think that there was an iota of truth in what you were told at that time?
Well, I can only speak for myself; I wasn’t involved in anything. I never even dreamt of toppling the government; that was the government that I was a part of from inception. I was very loyal to General IBB, to the government and to the army. It was a charge they wanted to hang around my neck, knowing too well that I would be spilling the beans and so they wanted to prevent me from doing that.
What gave you the idea that they were trying to kill you?
Few days to Dele Giwa’s death, he delivered a lecture in a university and so was interrogated and accused of trying to topple the government and gunrunning. I was told that the Newswatch people killed their colleague and when I came back from the US, I was accused of also planning to topple the government too. My suspicion was that I might go exactly the way Dele Giwa went if I was not careful. You know during that regime, people died; they just died without an idea of what caused their death and that would be it.
Can you give instances?
There was this colonel, he was an engineer. I don’t know how Akilu got to know that the man made a deal with some expatriates in foreign exchange and he was asked to hand over the money he made from it or be court-martialled. The man refused and threatened to spill the beans if he was court-martialled. So what they did was to post him to an engineering training school in Makurdi. The normal procedure is that even if you are married, the first few months you will be single. In that process, after work hours, the man would just go and relax somewhere. It was the same place that they killed him. These military intelligence people arranged a truckload of cement driven by the military intelligence people that rammed into his car and killed him outright. The police tried to intervene but an order came from above and they stepped down, and that was it. To the public, it was an accident; but to those of us who knew what was happening, it was a deliberate incident.
At what point did you decide to write a book?
As soon as I was released, Akilu announced to us that the life of the President was no longer secure and that there would be need for some changes. As soon as he said that, I knew where the smoke was coming from and that I was the target. By the next staff meeting, U. K. Bello (then ADC to the President) announced that sequel to the threat on the life of the President, my office was being moved from inside the compound to the perimeter near the clinic and I was the only person whose office was moved; and myself and all my staff were banned from going to the presidency and no files were sent to me. Initially, I kept my cool and was watching. I just kept to myself, (and) then I got wind of plans to phase me out. So when I was posted to a brigade in Makurdi, I refused to go on that posting because of the particular place I was posted to.
At that time that I was persona non grata to the presidency, I met Major Inyang, a Christian, a very straightforward person, the only person, apart from me, who used to tell the story the way it was. Every other person in the presidency was just yes sir people. He was the one that advised me to meet late (Vice Admiral Augustus) Aikhomu, and tell him about the incident and that he should tell me what he wanted to do about it. I didn’t have much confidence in Aikhomu because he too was a yes sir officer. I make bold to say that and those of us who served with him will tell you that. He was unlike Commodore Ukiwe who was disciplined and would tell you things as they were. These are the reasons he was removed.
I went to Aikhomu and he listened to me, and he was in a similar situation. These intelligence people were hounding him like an ordinary person. So he arranged a meeting with IBB and me and I was even surprised that on the appointed day, nobody stopped me from going to the gymnasium where the President was “engrossed” in the game of tennis. He did not attend to me until U. K. Bello appeared, charging at me that I was not supposed to be there. I resisted and there was a fight and that was when IBB intervened. Everybody blamed me for fighting a superior and I was not ready to hear it because my life was on the line. The instruction was that I should not be seen anywhere near his office but that was the gym and not his office and that was why I engaged him. When I got the attention of the President for the first time, I told him to his face that I was going to leave no matter what happened. And then he started to placate me, that he would resolve the matter and he would make sure that I wasn’t killed. We agreed that I shouldn’t leave unceremoniously, not with all the years I had put into serving the nation. Knowing him for who he is, he can sweet-talk you to death.
About three days later, he called me that he had arranged a course for me at ASCON (Administrative Staff College of Nigeria) and that I should go there and after that I would retire. When I got there, I realised that it was Akilu that invoked the name of the President to get me there. At the end of the course, I went to the State House to report back and discuss my retirement as agreed, only to discover that I couldn’t go in when the intelligence people told me that I was not allowed to see him. I stayed in the anteroom, hoping that the President would escort someone out and see me but he stayed put. Few minutes later, Akilu stormed in and asked me why I was there and I told him that the C-in-C asked me to come and his order overrides his own. I was ready for him, so he backed off and passed instruction to the guys in Hausa language not to let me in. After about 30 minutes and he wouldn’t come out, I had to go home.
I decided to take it the other way round and I went to Alao Aka-Basorun, a lawyer and former NBA president, who was initially hesitant because he too had been a victim of our over-zealousness. But I eventually convinced him and he took up my case. They didn’t believe I could take them that far. They thought it would be a weak thing but I proved them wrong. They offered me N30,000 through Colonel Inyang; I took it and still went on with the case. It is a pity that the man is dead now but people knew that we were close.
What was the money meant for?
It was meant for me to stop the case. Remember I was the first serving officer to take them to court.
So what was your prayer during the case?
My prayer was that they should allow me to get out of the army with my entitlements so that I would not be subject to military laws again. If they did not have an ulterior motive, why won’t they retire me or even dismiss me like I suggested earlier.
What is your reaction to Dan Agbese’s book on IBB?
I have not read the book, I have been looking for it and I don’t know what the contents are.
So, in this book that you are about to launch, are there things about Dele Giwa’s murder that have not been put in the public domain?
It’s about how a cabal was running the country and how the economy was being bastardised, and how the people were being deceived and then how we were running a repressive government. These are the things you are going to find in the book.
How did you come about the title of your book, Honour for Sale?
In Yoruba folklore, honour is everything. Here you have a president that would do anything to bastardise honour. Corruption, the killing of Dele Giwa and others are deaths to honour. Military service is about honour before everything and that is why they call them honourables because they must have been patriots, been gallant and courageous and must have served the country. However, all these attributes were lost in the government when we were serving.
How did you manage to keep your family during your travails?
My family was disorganised. My wife and children were smuggled to me in the United States with the help of some good people and foreigners but when my children attained marriageable age, I asked them to come home.
Are you not afraid for your life?
If I say I’m not afraid for my life, then I’m lying. But I am not afraid to get killed. All I want is that you guys will be alive to carry on from where I stopped and get those who killed me.
How tedious was it putting this book together?
When I was about to flee the country, I knew I needed to write a book, so I fled with all the materials I could gather with me. You know that Wole Soyinka would not just write for anybody but he wrote the prologue. The book had over 1,000 typewritten pages initially before the professionals reduced it to 345 pages.