(Another exclusive by The Crest)
By Shola Oshunkeye, Ben Memuletiwon and Mike Ojoobanikan
It was exactly 33 years ago, Saturday, October 19, 2019, that Dele Giwa, co-founder and pioneer Editor-in-Chief of Newswatch magazine, was murdered at his breakfast table via a letter bomb.
The bomb, widely suspected to have the imprimatur of then military government of General Ibrahim Babangida, was delivered to the swashbuckling journalist on Sunday, October 19, 1986, at his 24, Talabi Street residence in Ikeja, Lagos. He was having breakfast with the magazine’s London Bureau Chief, Kayode Soyinka, when the explosive devise went off. The tragedy was the first of its kind in Nigeria.
Thirty three years since that gruesome murder, and many fruitless investigations after, the puzzles remained as they were when it happened-unresolved, fresh as ever. As it was in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the question, Who Killed Dele Giwa?, still begs for answer till date. The story, like the proverbial cat with nine lives, has refused to die. Rather, each time it appears to die, it rises with fresh vigour from its ashes; like the phoenix.
For the first time since that monumental catastrophe, Ray Ekpu, Giwa’s friend, neighbour and colleague, has revisited that extremely sorrowful day and revealed what he had not told any media organisation, local or foreign. He told a top management team of The Crest that he was living in the same building with Giwa when the disaster occurred. And after seeing the gory spectacle, he was so shattered that he became instantly weak and disoriented. Then, he suffered memory loss for nine solid months! One of the extreme symptoms of post-traumatic event disorder, you’re tempted to say.
Before the incident, Ekpu, a world acclaimed journalist, and former chief executive officer of Newswatch Communications Limited, further disclosed, he “could sit down with you and talk sensibly for two hours.” But after the cataclysmic event, a void crept in, and everything became blank; “everything just goes”.
“That’s where we lived,” Ekpu, who turned 71 on August 6, continued, referring to 24, Talabi Street; “and when he (Dele Giwa) died, I lost 10 kilogrammes within three weeks without doing anything. I wasn’t eating well but that wasn’t the issue. I just went down. I lost my memory for about nine months. I had to gradually recover my memory. That was an unusual kind of relationship. I never had one like that before and after.”
In this interview, conducted two weeks before his 70th birthday, last year, but which is being published now because of its evergreen relevance, the Ukanafun, Akwa Ibom State-born top journalist also relived the sequence of events that culminated in the gruesome assassination of Dele Giwa; the frustrating search for justice; the killing of Newswatch magazine, Nigeria’s first wave-making weekly news magazine; its contentious sale to balky billionaire, Jimoh Ibrahim; and other matters arising from the state of our journalism and nation.
Lasting the whole of four hours, the interview drained Ekpu, not physically but emotionally. Twice in the encounter, Ekpu wept like a baby as emotions swept over him like a freakish tidal flood, especially when he discussed his life with his lost friend, and wondered why such a great man of unlimited capabilities should be so cruelly plucked at his prime. For when death came through that “envelope from the Presidency,” as ebullient Dele said before opening the ‘letter’, he was just 39. And he had defined, and indeed, become the face of investigative journalism in Nigeria.
However, it was not tears all the way. There were also moments of joyful recollections during the encounter with Ekpu. Recollections of how their paths crossed, recollections of how men tried to be men, and all the appurtenances that go with same as lawyers often say; and so on, and so forth.
To run the interview in one fell swoop would amount to asking you, our dear readers, to read a 75-page book at a go. We have, therefore, simplified the matter by deciding to serialise the encounter, starting from this edition. As you will soon discover, the interview is un-put-down-able, and no portion of it could be yanked off, no matter the pressure.
So, why not sit back, relax and savour all of it?
BUILD-UP TO DELE GIWA’S DEATH
How did the build-up to Dele Giwa’s death begin? There were a lot of suggestions. The most prominent hypothesis was that Newswatch was investigating one Gloria Okon, a supposed drug courier who was arrested in Kano and was purported to have a relationship with the then First Lady, the late Dr. Maryam Babangida; and so on and so forth.
We had the episode on our schedule; to investigate the Gloria Okon’s story. It was Dan Agbese who chaired the editorial meeting of that day. It wasn’t even Dele. We said if we have some information that warranted some more staff, we would go ahead and investigate. There wasn’t anything of consequence. There wasn’t a kind of lead (a smoking gun) you would need to be able to pour a lot of staff to investigate a story like that.
What was the exact lead you had on Gloria Okon?
I said it was not exclusive to Newswatch. It was everybody’s story. It was there in the public domain. People were talking about it. People were saying there was an alleged link with Mrs. Babangida; and we said, let’s exploit it, if we have something that we can follow. But we tried for a few weeks and there was nothing. So, we didn’t follow it beyond that point.
When you said everybody was talking about it, who was the Gloria Okon?
Like I said, it was in the papers. It was a public thing. Several papers had published it. There a lot of speculations and all that: Gloria Okon was arrested and she was killed in Kano; no, she wasn’t killed, she was spirited out of the country. Those were the speculations. Some people said Dele Giwa met Gloria Okon in London. That never happened. Nothing like that happened
He never met her?
No. If he did, I would know now. I take what I say seriously. I make a living with words. I would not come and lie in the public space. I would rather keep quiet and bottle it up in my heart.
Because of the widespread reports about the alleged connection of Gloria Okon with Maryam Babangida, what efforts did Newswatch make to speak with Maryam?
But we denied it several times, and we are consistent about it. We are not politicians dancing around. We had nothing against Babangida. We couldn’t just be accusing Babangida and co for the fun of it. It has nothing to do with Gloria Okon. We did not investigate Gloria Okon. If we had investigated her, you will all know.
So what were you doing at that point that warranted Dele Giwa being summoned by DMI?
I don’t know. I don’t know. There was no story but we still did some soul searching within ourselves. We were invited by the SSS on a Friday (October 17, 1986), and I said to Dele: they just gave a verbal invitation. Tell them to send a letter so that we have it on record. But Dele said ‘No, it doesn’t matter.’ And I said: Okay, I will accompany you to the place. But before we got to the SSS, we stopped at Gani Fawehinmi’s Chambers to tell him the invitation that Dele got. He said: ‘Okay. But when you come back, stop by and tell me how it went.’
We got there and they took him inside. I waited. I waited for something like two hours. Then, he came out. He was fuming. He said to me: ‘Ray, this people think the worst of me.’ I said: what happened? He got inside the car and told me that they framed four charges against him. One was that we were planning a second cover story on Ebitu Ukiwe who was Babangida’s second in command (Chief of General Staff) who had been removed. Two, that he was importing guns (gun running). Three: that he wanted to start a social revolution; and four, that he wanted to employ a police officer called Alozie Ogugbuaja, who was having a problem with the police, his employers.
The guy was the police PRO who said that the army people were idle; that all they normally did was to gather to drink pepper soup and beer; then, go ahead and plan coup. He was queried by the police and the army people went haywire and so on. And Dele said he was going to employ him if the government fired him. Those were the four charges.
So, we got to Gani’s office and told him what happened at the SSS. He (Gani Fawehinmi) said: go to your office, put it in writing, and bring it to me. I will deal with it on Monday (October 20, 1986). So, we went to the office, wrote it, and sent it to Gani’s office. Before we actually left Gani’s office, I suggested that we should leak it to the press. It has always been my view that journalists being invited by the police, by the security people, even it is one minute invitation, is an infringement on press freedom. And it is something that must be fought and be exposed. That has always been my view throughout my career. Even if it is an innocent invitation, even if it is one minute, once you invite a journalist, it is different from just inviting anybody. Inviting a journalist, not a criminal, is an infringement of press freedom. And Dele said, let’s leave it to the lawyer.
‘It has always been my view that journalists being invited by the police, by the security people, even it is one minute invitation, is an infringement on press freedom. And it is something that must be fought and be exposed.’
I regret not doing it. Maybe, I should have pressed it further. Maybe, if I had pressed it further, what happened two days later would not have happened. I am not saying it would have happened or not have happened if the press had published it. But but we didn’t publish it, and there was no Monday. Dele was killed on a Sunday (October 19, 1986).
Lawyer couldn’t go to court on Monday to press the case, and then, the day after our SS visit, a Saturday (October 18, 1086), we attended Wole Adeosun’s 60 or 70 birthday party with Dele. From there, we went to Aikhomu’s function and Tony Momoh (who was the Minister of Information) was there. Dele reported the matter to him, and Aikhomu said he will look at it because Dele said he was worried.
Did Aikhomu say he was aware of it?
Of course. He was aware of the invitation by the SSS.
Did he tell you he was aware of it?
He told us now.
That he was aware…
Yes, and that he was going to look into it. So, we left the party and Dele was still worried about it.
(That same Saturday), Colonel Halilu Akilu (of the Directorate of Military Intelligence, DMI) called Dele’s place to ask the direction of the place. And Funmi (Dele Giwa’s wife who answered the call) asked him, ‘why do you want the address of the place?’ He said ‘oh, I think the President’s press secretary is sending something, an invitation’. Besides, he also told Funmi that he planned to stop by the house on his way to Kano and see him. So, Funmi gave him the address and the direction.
On Sunday morning, I went with my wife to Surulere. I called him (Dele) at about 9a.m. and told him I was going, with my wife, to see some relations in Surulere. They had been complaining we weren’t coming to see them. And he said to me: ‘Do you remember we have a meeting by 1p.m. in the office?’ I said ‘yes, I will come back before then.’ Then, we left.
At about 11a.m., the parcel man came, and gave it to one of the security men who handed it over to Dele’s son, who brought it in. Dele and Kayode Soyinka were having breakfast in Dele’s study. The boy brought it and gave it to his father. He was sitting like this (demonstrates the position), trying to open it; then, it exploded. He was mangled completely. I wasn’t there. Funmi dragged him into a van and took him to First Foundation Hospital owned by a friend of Dosumu Ajayi. When I came back, on the way I saw Kayode Soyinka in night wear, a long night gown with blood splattered on it. I said ‘what’s the matter? Where are you going to? You look shabby.’ He said ‘Dele has been bombed.’ I said ‘what are you talking? I don’t understand.’ He said again, ‘Dele has been bombed.’ I told him to enter the car. We drove back to Talabi Street, and I saw a huge crowd. I asked, which hospital they took him. I said ‘ok, let me go there.’
I was trying to start my car and I hit somebody’s car. I did it again and hit another person’s car. One lady came to me and said ‘Mr. Ekpu, I am sure you can’t drive yourself in this situation. Tell me where you want to go, I will drive you there.’ I said First Foundation Hospital. So, she drove me there. Dosumu Ajayi took me in. He (Dele Giwa) was already covered with white cloth. I saw the body. His eyes were open. I started hitting him, screaming: ‘Dele, I am here. Look at me. I am here. Dosumu Ajayi said ‘he is already dead. We certified him dead.’
I broke down. I said, where is Funmi? He said, she is in one of the rooms. I went, saw her, and she said to me: what’s the situation? I said, bad! She said, how bad? I said, very bad. She said, is he dead? I said, yes. This was the conversation we had and that was how I put it because I didn’t know how to dance around. They had removed the TV from the room where she was so that she won’t pick it in the news. She was just there and she said, I should light a cigarette for her. I was smoking myself that time. So, I lit one and gave her. She is a strong woman. Please, let’s stop here. Please … (Mr. Ekpu begins to cry).
How was it walking out of that hospital?
No, I didn’t walk out. I just sat down and started calling the directors of Newswatch, my colleagues. Yakubu (Mohammed) came and we started doing a press release, giving the sequence of what had happened over the few days. I didn’t walk around. I didn’t know where I got the strength from. I wrote a press release, my colleagues looked at it, we signed it, and it was released. I don’t know where I got the strength from.
How did you cope planning the burial of your best friend?
That’s another story entirely. From then on, it developed a life of its own-press conferences, government’s response, etc. Tony Momoh said the government will investigate it. The government did not investigate it. The government called, Aikhomu called people to a press conference and the press were not allowed to ask questions. It went on like that.
We got an agreement with the family to bury the corpse here in Lagos. We signed the agreement with the family to bury him in Lagos. But the government thought we wanted to cause mischief, cause riot. They used Tony Momoh to write a letter to me saying that in their (Edo) tradition, they don’t bury their people in foreign land. But I said, it is not a matter of your tradition. The family has agreed that he should be buried here.
The letter that Tony Momoh wrote, did he write it in his personal capacity or as Minister of Information?
As Minister of Information. He signed as Minister of Information.
On the Ministry’s letterhead?
Yes! I am telling you. He addressed it to me. I showed it to my colleagues, they said we should just ignore him. We should go ahead with our plans. But, of course, other people started talking to us. They were saying; Look, Dele is dead. Don’t cause more problems for your company and staff. So, we put it across to the family and they said, okay, bring the corpse home.
The politics of it was tough, but we got a lot of public support for the burial. I think the Lagos University Teaching Hospital refused collecting money from us. That’s where they did the embalmment; that was where the body was. Chief Igbinedion’s Okada airline gave us two aircraft, drinks and so on. People were generally donating things to make the trip to his home town easy for us. A lot of people came on their own.
The next problem after the burial was what?
It was collecting the pieces. When you have that kind of situation, the problem is how do you have your staff believe in your project; how do you convince them that they are not doing a dangerous job, that their lives will not be in danger? How do you generally rebuild the confidence of the staff, and of the patrons, the advertisers? Some of them actually said ‘no, I don’t want to give them my advert. If I do, government will fight me. They will say I am supporting rebels.’
They said all kinds of things but we managed to brave them all. There were a lot of hypocrisy too, but we carried on until seven months later when Newswatch was proscribed. We knew it was a way of punishing us because we kept carrying the copy: Who Killed Dele Giwa? And they were threatening newspapers which carry the copy: Who Killed Dele Giwa? We suspected that was what they wanted to achieve by shutting down the magazine over the reports of the committee that Babangida set up – which was actually the snippets that we published in various newspapers. The only thing was that we got the entire report and we published it. So, they used that as an excuse to kill the magazine.
And from the proscription, the fortunes of Newswatch began to nosedive…
Yes, it did. If a magazine is shut for six months, you lose the advertisers, you lose the readership. We were just lucky that we kept the staff for those six months. We were paying the staff. We had some money in our fixed deposit. We also registered a new company called Ultimate Publications Limited and we used that to publish a human interest magazine called Quality.
With the late May Ellen Ezekiel, MEE, editing…
That’s right. We all wrote for the magazine and the public patronized it because they saw that we needed to survive. Then, the government people started phoning our people. They said, you people think you are smart. The magazine has been shut down and you have started a new one. We told them you shut down Newswatch Communications Limited but this is Ultimate Publications Limited. Of course, they knew if they went to court, they will not succeed. So, they let us alone. And then we did another one, a publication on Awo, when he died. It was just Awo, and it sold very well. These were the creative ways that we came out with to survive the period of the ban.
(Next: Tears that never dried)