Since 1993, June 12 has become the hottest political potato in town. The date means different things to different people. To some, it was the day of the freest and fairest election in Nigeria – the birthday of her democracy. To others, it was the day democracy was murdered with the annulment of the presidential election.
Some people stood on June 12; others sat on it. Some stood by and watched the drama, others actively participated in it. Some ate on June 12, others vomited gibberish about it. It is a day of endless contradictions in our political history.
The contradictions have refused to go away. On June 6 2018, President Muhammadu Buhari issued a statement, the substance of which centered on the June 12 controversy. The proclamation which sought to right the wrongs of June 12 has kicked off a hail of dust. The spirit of June 12 was there right in the first paragraph of the statement which said the first inauguration of a president under Nigeria’s presidential system was done on 21st October 1979. The fact is that our first executive President Alhaji Shehu Shagari was sworn in on October 1 1979. The June 12 devils spirit never dies.
As a news reporter, I had my June 12 experience in 1999, twenty years after Shehu Shagari – the President I love and whom I feel Nigeria has treated most shabbily – took office as President.
Early in 1999, I was contracted to start a new International monthly news Magazine called the Crystal. The first edition came out at the end of May 1999 with the swearing in of President Olusegun Obasanjo as cover story. It was crystal clear, all gloss with on the spot color pictures of the historic international event. As an old school reporter, I did not intend to be on the desk waiting the whole of one month for reporters to dispatch their stories. I hit the road.
By the combined accidents of my birth, education and work experience, I have a comprehensive view of Nigeria. Born of Northern Nigeria extraction, I can plot my family tree from the Kanuri ethnic group in Borno to Taraba, the state of my controversial origin, through Benue and then to Buguma in Rivers and Odi in Bayelsa states. In all these places, I have mothers, fathers, cousins, uncles – you name it. When I visit them, I am always welcome as a home boy. I started my education in Benue and picked my celebrated meal ticket which keeps me ticking from the first and best university in Nigeria at Ibadan, Oyo state. Then I came back north and worked in all of its geo political regions.
As a reporter, this exposure is a great advantage. My ear is always to the ground. I covered the first Maitatsine outbreak in Kano 1980, the second one in Bulunkutu Maiduguri 1982 and the third one in Jimeta Yola 1984. When in 1983 General Muhammadu Buhari, GOC of the 3rd Mechanised Division in Jos went on hot pursuit of Chadian renegades who invaded Nigeria, killing some civilians and soldiers, I tip toed behind the rampaging general, the only Nigerian news reporter on his trail as he marched his all-conquering fighting men close to Ndjamena. I have always remained proud of the report of that adventure which was lavishly used by the New Nigerian Newspapers and the BBC.
As we returned to democracy in 1999, I could sense that the big story would come from the Niger Delta. Any time I went home to Niger Delta, I could sense an impending violent outburst somewhere in that horizon. The mindless exploitation of the rich resources of the region, the destruction of its environment, the extreme poverty of the people that stared you in the face wherever you went – all ingredients of violent revolution in the making.
After the successful outing of my first edition of Crystal in May 1999, I set out on June 12 to go to Warri where a ferocious ethnic war had broken out between the natives there. I took a meal at Ore and decided to drive on to Benin, spend the night there and proceed to Warri the next day. At about 8pm, I came to a place they call Okada Junction. There was a road block with heavy logs of wood, the type I have never seen the police mount before. Something within me told me this was not a police road block.
I engaged the reverse gear. The criminals who mounted the road block anticipated my reflex action so a hit man was stationed in the right place and I reversed right into his bosom. I saw him clearly with his jeans trousers, a tee shirt and lawn tennis shoes. He opened fire on me point blank. But I did not know that I was hit with a bullet right in my head. I only saw the windscreen of my car coming down in pebbles. I continued to reverse my car which was no longer going back in a straight line but wobbling all over the road.
A passenger bus coming behind me on top speed soon run into me, tumbled repeatedly and crashed in a terrible accident. That was my saving grace. The criminals had more customers to attend to in that bus and did not worry about the lone driver whom they had shot at close range in the head. They all rushed to the bus and I dashed out of my car and took a dive into the gutter. It was only then I knew I was shot in the head and was drenched in blood.
Crawling in the gutter, I saw the sign of a church. I got out and went there. By then I had lost so much blood that I thought I was going to die. It was better to die in a church and go to heaven than die in the hands of criminals who may force me to go to hell with them.
I refused to die.
The Church took me to the police. The police took me back to Okada junction and had a hot exchange of gun battle with the criminals and got me through to a local hospital. The following day they took me back to the scene of crime. There were dead bodies all over. My car was there intact. Even the windscreen which I thought was shattered was intact. The bullet in my head had given me a shattered view of the whole world.
I drove to Benin only to discover that my closest friends were from Delta and had moved to Asaba after the creation of Delta and Edo states. I drove on to Asaba. Austin Iyashere, a Kaduna old boy, was the Chief Press Secretary to Governor Ibori. He gave me wonderful hospitality. Willie Bozimo my boss in the News Agency of Nigeria was the General Manger of the Delta State Newspaper. He helped a lot. There was also Chief Edwin Igbokwe, formerly of the Punch and an old family friend. They all helped.
Through Austin Iyashere, the personal physician to the Governor attended to me. He did an ex ray and there was a bullet in my head and one on my shoulder.
Incredibly, I drove back to Abuja in that condition. The doctors at the Specialist hospital Gwagwalda removed the bullet in my head. The one on my shoulder will follow me to my grave because any attempt to remove it will paralyze my left hand, the doctors say. I have kept the bullet from my head and the x ray as part of my family archival material. My children have seen it. My grandchildren will see it. My great, great, great, great, great, grandchildren will see it.
The bullet on my shoulder remains there as my epaulette. When Nigerian journalists are to be ranked, I will go there too and proudly display it. It is the insignia of my June 12 experience.