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Hello 20-10-2020? 1993 called, and it wants Richard Ogunderu back

Exactly a year ago, I sat pensively atop an empty gas cylinder.

In what was perhaps an omen, my cooking gas had run out unexpectedly, and I had to carry the empty cylinder from my flat inside a private estate at Chevron, to the junction where there was a local gas refiller. The operator however, was nowhere to be found, so there I sat under the scorching early afternoon sun, doom scrolling through Twitter and wiping sweat off my forehead. An announcement came in on an RSS feed: a 24-hour curfew had been declared by the Lagos state governor, effective 4PM.

My good friend Yemisi Gbelee from HiImpact TV called and we had a long and gloomy conversation. Neither of us wanted to say it, but no matter how we danced around it, the conversation kept coming back to it. People were going to die that day, and we knew it. The #EndSARS protests which I had unwittingly contributed to seeding with my critical review of the Police Act 2020, and which I had enthusiastically participated in, had reached critical mass. Several prominent Nigerians had quietly left the country aboard private and charter flights, fearing that it was a Tahrir Square moment, and the curfew was the start of a state fightback.

Yemisi pleaded with me to tell people to leave the Lekki Toll Plaza – the spiritual epicentre of the protest movement – so as not to get mowed down by police and military bullets. I responded, “There’s nothing I can do.” A video showing LCC employees removing security cameras at the toll plaza had started doing the rounds on social media, and it was clear that the stage was being set for a brutal crackdown. She knew it. I knew it. We all knew it. Even the air felt different. Eventually the gas refiller showed up and I got my cylinder filled. After getting home and pacing around for some time, I debated whether to go out to the Lekki Expressway with my newly-ordered Nigerian flag and observe from a safe distance. I decided against it and eventually took a nap instead. Just before 7PM, I jolted awake, and the nightmare began.

Richard Ogunderu in 1993

Almost exactly 17 years to this fateful day on Monday October 25, 1993, four teenagers stood up on a Nigeria Airways Lagos-Abuja flight and carried out one of the most stunning direct political actions in Nigeria’s history. Richard Ogunderu, Kabir Adenuga, Benneth Oluwadaisi and Kenny Rasaq-Lawal were all aged between 16 and 18, and they had something to say: “Ladies and gentlemen, this plane has been taken over by the Movement for the Advancement of Democracy. Remain calm, we will not harm you. You will be told where the plane will land you.”

These four teenagers thus became the first ever airline hijackers in Nigeria’s history. Led by 16 year-old Richard Ogunderu, they demanded that the plane divert course for Frankfurt, Germany. The plane however, needed to stopover for refueling in Niamey, Niger Republic, where their mission came to a premature end. After stalling for four days with the plane on the tarmac, Nigerien commandos stormed the plane and arrested the four activist hijackers. They were unceremoniously dumped in Niamey’s infamous Prison Civile, where they would spend the next 9 years.

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While they languished in Nigerien prison, Ernest Shonekan’s embattled interim government was replaced by General Sani Abacha’s brutal dictatorship. General Abacha almost successfully completed a personal rebrand as a civilian president before eating a real or metaphorical apple in 1998. General Abdulsalam Abubakar also came and went, and then finally – finally – the democracy that Richard Ogunderu and his co-travelers hijacked an Airbus A310 for, was restored. Finally in 2002, the quartet were released from prison – and then nothing happened.

Admittedly, their unbelievable actions in 1993 had led to the deaths of at least one of the passengers and crew they held hostage, so maybe the Obasanjo government was careful not to be seen as co signing them. Nonetheless, the Nigeria they returned to in 2002 was a completely different Nigeria to the one they picked up replica guns for in 1993. Nobody remembered that they existed. Only their immediate families took any note at all. Even the Nigerian media generally ignored the story of their release. I am willing to bet that at least half of those reading this column today are seeing the name “Richard Ogunderu” for the very first time. And so it was that within a few years, Kabir Adenuga and Kenny Rasaq-Lawal both returned to Niger to make a living. The country they had sacrificed everything for thus spat them out and completely forgot about them. And that was that.

Richard Ogunderu in 2021

When I woke up into the ongoing nightmare just before 7PM a year ago, I rapidly realised that my time in Nigeria was up. When a brittle authoritarian regime gets to the point of setting armed men on its unarmed citizens to brutally murder them, the next logical targets will be anyone with the ability, reach and willingness to speak out about such crimes – student activists, political activists, artists and journalists. Especially journalists. Before I finished watching the livestream of the massacre on DJ Switch’s Instagram page, I had already liquidated most of my naira holdings in preparation for what I knew would be a mad dash to Escape from Dodge.

A little over 2 weeks later, I was on the first leg of a time-honoured transatlantic voyage popularised during the infamous NADECO era. Crossing the Nigerian border on foot, I had in my backpack my most important documents, my 2 work laptops, a little over $3,200 in cash and one of only 12 hard copies of the Silent Slaughter genocide report, just a few weeks after it had been presented to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. That was the end of my entire life in Nigeria as I knew it. My possessions, my friends, my social network, my leisure hangout spots – all permanently consigned to history in the blink of an eye. I soon found myself filling out asylum application forms and learning a plethora of new terminology like “safe house,” “person under threat,” and “emergency extraction.” Overnight, my life as I knew it was over.

Still, I was one of the lucky ones. The unluckiest of all who were connected with the events of October 20, 2020 were of course those who died and suffered life-altering injuries after being shot by cowardly men of the Nigerian Army and the Nigeria Police Force at the Lekki Toll Plaza. Just as unfortunate were those who survived relatively unscathed, but were left with psychological trauma as hundreds of unarmed civilian protesters were mowed down in a hail of bullets, and had their bodies packed like huge slabs of meat into waiting military trucks for onward disposal, in the regular trademark of the Nigerian Army whenever it commits its latest war crime against civilian populations. Like Lekki, like Zaria 4 years before, like Uli 50 years before. Sorrow, tears and blood.

Soon these survivors found themselves hunted like game meat. Some of them disappeared suddenly, never to be heard from again. Others were threatened and intimidated into silence. Many followed me across the border, and soon there was a little community of #EndSARS exiles scattered around West and Central Africa, some of them waiting for the situation to cool down so they could return, and others making moves to relocate even further away from Nigeria. Careers were rudely interrupted or halted. Relationships were nuked. Settled lives were permanently disrupted. Accustomed comforts were lost. Injuries were sustained. Like our less law-abiding forebears in 1993, we lost absolutely everything to the fight for what we believed in.

If you have read this article to this point expecting an impassioned excoriation of the Nigerian Army and Muhammadu Buhari, you thought wrong. There have been many excoriations already. There will yet be many. Well deserved too. Today however, should only be about the dead and living victims of what was Nigeria’s most momentous national event in recent history. The #EndSARS protests and the Lekki and Obigbo Massacres afterward permanently took the mask off the faces of the murderers in Aso Rock and the Nigerian Army’s 81 Division. More importantly, it changed the lives of hundreds of people forever, and not in a good way. We very literally lost everything that night. We committed no crime, but we had everything taken away from us, up to and including our lives.

There will be days for anger. There will be days for recriminations. There will be days for justice. Definitely, Muhammadu Buhari will not escape the long arc of cosmic justice, even if he does escape the nonexistent arc of African justice. Tukur Buratai will likewise contemplate his eternal sentence someday. Every military and police officer who consented to take part in the murder of innocent young Nigerian men and women will face the full force of individual justice, one after the other. These things will happen inevitably.

Today however, I just want to wipe the real and metaphorical tears from our eyes and say “Ozoemena. It is well with us.”

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