Guardians of the State, enemies of freedom
By Owei Lakemfa
IN the heady days of the Babangida and Abacha military regimes, the State Security Services, SSS, frequently invaded the Imaria Street, Anthony Village, Lagos office and home of Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, BRK, leader of the pro-democracy movement in the country.
They would arrive in the street, tyres screeching, jump down in commando style and barge into the premises. In the process, they often destroyed or brought down doors before arresting him. After they would have left, we would get carpenters to repair or replace the locks and doors.
On one occasion, I approached the SSS team leader and told him there must be a better way of carrying out what has become a routine operation. I told him rather than fuel vehicles, carry arms around and generally enact the same drama whenever they came, he could simply send a message or letter and BRK will report at the SSS office.
I said he should by now know that neither the doctor nor any of us in the movement will leave the country for the bullies from the barracks. As for death, we had demonstrated in the streets that we were prepared to lay down our lives for the country, so we will not go into hiding or flee because we were wanted by the SSS. He promised to consider my suggestion and drove off with his trophy.
Subsequently, we received messages from the Shangisha SSS office whenever BRK or any of us was wanted, and would honour the invitation. One day a message came for BRK, but he had travelled. Given our mutual understanding, I thought the SSS should be informed. So I sent one of our leaders, Shina Loremikan to explain why BRK could not immediately honour the invitation.
To my surprise, the SSS detained Loremikan. That to me was the end of the gentlemanly agreement. We rejected subsequent invitations. One day, they invaded Imaria to arrest BRK. The operative I had the understanding with, led them. With guns drawn, I turned to him and gave him a lecture about civility and an African saying that when a slave is sent on an errand, he should deliver the message with the civility of a free man.
I told him henceforth, whenever the SSS come to arrest any of us, we would not even grant them the courtesy of walking down to their vehicles, they would have to carry us. The operative ignored me and turned to BRK signaling he should follow his squad. BRK refused saying I had made our position clear; the agents henceforth would have to carry or drag us to their vehicles. That day, the SSS had to carry BRK from his first floor office down to their vehicles on the street.
One day, BRK wanted to see the SSS Director in Shangisha and asked me to accompany him. When we were ushered into his office, he motioned we sit and asked BRK who I was. When BRK mentioned my name, the man sprang up. He told me I was quite daring and stupid not just for coming to the detention facility, but right into his office and even sitting on a chair.
I told him it was a public office and that the funds for building the centre and furnishing it did not come from his private pocket. BRK had to come between us, as the man wanted to physically attack me. Doctor asked me to leave the premises and I explained that the director could set his boys on me, so it was better I sat in the adjacent waiting room.
On another occasion in 1997, I was holding a training programme for journalists in Oyo Town when two police officers in mufti came in claiming we were holding an illegal gathering. I explained what we were doing and showed them the training manual. They asked that I accompany them to the Area Police Command and explain to the area commander. I picked one of the course participants and we went in the officers car.
I explained to the commander and asked why the Police which has training colleges in the country would be opposed to journalists being trained. He seemed pained and told me the police had more sense than disrupting a journalist training programme; that it was the SSS that had arrested me. He lamented that the image of the Nigeria Police Force was being dented by the SSS who impersonate the police.
The SSS had acquired a notoriety in 1984/85 when it became the terror arm of the Buhari-Idiagbon junta. It had various detention centres, the most notorious being the Intercentre built into the Ikoyi Cemetery in Lagos.
The agents referred to it as ‘Information’ perhaps because the Information Ministry had its office near the area or it could be accessed through a non-descript gate near the Federal Radio Corporation.
Intercentre was hell on earth. It had cells, some quite small or tiny with little or no ventilation. Some of them were dark with no light penetrating. It also contained the punishment cell in which an inmate could only stand; it was too tiny for a person even to sit. The toilet and bath were out in the open. It was like a gulag, and a detainee could disappear without trace. As for scenery, all you had was the cemetery. In your quiet moments or when in solitary, you could hear people wailing as they came to bury their dead. Interestingly, the SSS used to call the detainees in Intercentre ‘guests’ as if it were some hotel.
It was a secret detention centre. That was until the Babangida coup of August 27, 1985 when soldiers attacked the SSS facilities and exposed Intercentre and other detention centres in which the SSS had packed human beings like sardines. Some of the detainees had been dehumanized and some were just in rags.
There was outrage in the land that a public agency can so dehumanize Nigerian citizens and run horror cells with public funds. But the Babangida regime soon populated those cells with its own political detainees including alleged coup plotters. The Abacha regime built on that legacy. As I write this, I remember some of my friends who are graduates of that infamous SSS Intercentre detention camp.
Dr. Osagie Obayuwana was dumped there by the Babangida regime for daring to organize an alternative to SAP seminar. He was lucky because when subsequently, the SSS kidnapped him at a motor park in Ilorin, he was almost battered to death. Sylvester Odion Akhaine, now a political science professor, was a ‘guest’ as was Dr. Frederick Fasehun. Femi Aborishade, now a human rights lawyer, was detained at Intercentre for so long that he became the president of all its detainees.