When you have spent forty years doing nothing but reporting news, the most rewarding takeaway is the remarkable people you encounter in those years. One of the most remarkable newsmakers yours sincerely met in those forty odd years was Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the musical genius.
At the end of 1983, General Muhammadu Buhari rolled out his troops to sack the democratically elected government led by President Shehu Shagari. The new government then rolled out a long chain of martial decrees to take care of people who were considered trouble makers. Decree 2 to handle those who threatened the security of state; decree 4 to deal with journalist who wanted to poke nose; another decree on foreign currency abuses got Fela into trouble. He was jailed ten years.
But Buhari himself soon got into trouble. His army chief of staff, General Ibrahim Babangida mobilized his loyalists in the army to fire him and sack the government that tormented Fela. Soon the musician who was still in prison wrote a petition to President Babangida complaining that his conviction was unjust. He also made a rather disturbing allegation that the Judge who convicted him, Justice Okoro Idogu had travelled all the way to Maiduguri to tender an apology to him for the unjust conviction.
The Newswatch magazine got a copy of the petition and wrote a story which it proudly advertised as a “world exclusive” on its cover page. President Babangida reacted swiftly. Fela was set free from incarceration, Okoro Idogu lost his job as a judge of the High Court just like the man in charge of Maiduguri Prison, Mr. Ugorji who allegedly accompanied the judge to his “begging” mission was summarily dismissed from service.
At the Triumph newspaper in Kano where I worked at the time, we analyzed the Newswatch story. In our view it was defective, professionally. The magazine produced a one sided story, giving lavish space to Felas version of the story but virtually no space to Ukoro Idogu and Ugorji who were made to lose their jobs as a result of this one sided report.
I was assigned to get Ugorji whom we were informed was still licking his wounds in Maiduguri. I booked a Nigeria Airways flight from Kano to Maiduguri that afternoon. The first person I saw when I entered the aircraft was Fela. I counted myself lucky. My brief was to interview the unfortunate Ugorji but nothing stopped me from talking to Fela too so that we could merge my findings with the interview another reporter was working on with Okoro Idogu in southern Nigeria and then have a more rounded story. The first thing I did was to pass my call card to Fela.
I was shocked with his reaction on seeing my card. He became agitated and hostile to the person who sat next to him in the aircraft. I was even afraid that he was going to engage the man in a fist fight. He drove the man away from the seat and beckoned on me to come and seat next to him. I was happy he did that but was rather surprised like other passengers about his spontaneous hostility to the man. He read my disturbed mind correctly and said I should not worry. “The man is my PRO,” He explained.
I wanted to use Fela to get a good story for my newspaper. He had never been to Maiduguri before as a free man. He wanted to use me to secure a good hotel for himself and his entourage. As we got chatting, he asked me whether I have been to Maiduguri before. I said ‘yes’ and added a lie by telling him I was from the place. I wanted him to trust me completely so that my interview will be guaranteed. He did and wanted me to help him secure a good hotel. I promised.
We soon landed in Maiduguri and everything changed. Fela got out of the aircraft and stood on the platform giving out his popular black power salute. The whole airport went wild – “world Fela, world Fela” everybody screamed. The taxi drivers forgot about their business that day and lined up their cars. Everybody wanted to carry Fela free to wherever he wanted to go. He was carried shoulder high into a Mercedes Benz. By now, I had almost lost track of my man. I followed, becoming part of his entourage that developed into a convoy from the airport to Maideribe Hotel which I recommended to him.
At the hotel I wanted an interview instantly. Fela said no way; that he was tired and needed rest. I should come the following day. I booked a room in the same hotel and was at his door first thing the following morning. But the Fela I saw that morning did not look like a man who was tired the previous night. Immediately I left, he sneaked into a nightclub and came home with two girls. The three of them were in a relaxed mood that morning; all dressed in their under wears and smoking Indian hemp openly and endlessly. Was I going to have my interview this morning? No way, Fela again replied.
He said he was going to the Maiduguri prison that morning to see those prisoners he left there. He invited me to follow, an invitation I accepted. I got my colleagues on phone and extended the invitation to them. Some of them came over. At the Maiduguri prison we were given a hostile reception. Nobody wanted Fela at the facility. In fact, immediately they saw him approaching, all doors and even windows of the facility were securely locked.
After a fruitless attempt to get the attention of the officers, one courageous officer opened a window and shouted at us. “Fela go away. You caused enough problems for us. You even got our oga sacked by government. Go away. Nobody will attend to you here.”
We came back to the hotel disappointed. But good for me, Fela was ready for an interview. The two club girls were still there in pants – smoking ganja. They were not embarrassed that complete strangers were staring at them nude nor did they feel they were embarrassing us with their unusual posture. The ‘PRO’ kept wrapping rolls of the jumbo sized Indian hemp that were Felas trade mark.
The interview started in his hotel room which looked like a chimney of Indian hemp. I wanted Fela to provide evidence that the High Court Judge had apologized and begged him. He had no such evidence to give. He kept telling me “e don beg me. If no be beg, wetin e come do for hospital?”
We were not getting anywhere on that line of interrogation so I switched over to his politics. I wanted to know if he still had ambition to be president of Nigeria. He said he did not only have ambition; he was sure going to be Nigeria’s next president. That means he was going to contest the next presidential election. He said he was not going to waste his time contesting any election. In 1979 when he wanted to contest, a secret security report warned Obasanjo that he was going to win and Obasanjo banned Movement of the People, his political party from the contest, he argued.
So how was he going to become President? Stage a coup? He said he was not going to do any of the above. He was going to become president by acclamation.
“Nigerians are tired of poor leadership. Look at Shehu Shagari. The man was blind and did not see that his party men in the NPN were stealing Nigeria’s money. Then came Buhari and Idiagbon – the deaf duo. Because they were deaf, they never heard the cries of Nigerians,” he told me. They jailed him when he did no wrong.
I asked him about Babangida who gave him back his freedom. “Na craze man be dat”, he replied sharply.
He said Nigerians will soon be tired of bad governance and come out with one voice to say “dis tin na only Fela go fit do am.” They will then install him President of Nigeria.
After the interview, I staggered out of the ‘chimney’ heavily stoned even though I did not take part in the Indian hemp smoking festival.
Meanwhile, Mr Ugorji had heard the news that Fela was going about in Maiduguri with some journalists and went into hiding. Try as hard as I did, I could not get him for an interview.