How did you get involved in the armed struggle for Nigeria’s democracy?
I am an academician. But a lot of people make mistakes; they think academicians are people who just stay in their laboratories. I am a scientist, we feel everything they do and we are conscious of what is going on in our country.
As young chaps in the university, we all had ambition. Mine was to be a medical doctor and scientist. But I was politically conscious because I attended Ibadan Grammar School which was in the seat of (Chief Obafemi) Awolowo’s government. Thus, we saw everything and were aware of everything. I was aware of the arrest of about 31 members of the Action Group. I was aware of the “Operation wetie” and all the fight with the Yoruba. It was at that time that I thought that one day, we might have to fight the northerners who the British government handed power to. I believe in one Nigeria because I realise that the greater a nation is, the more powerful. Small nations have no power; they have to align themselves with bigger countries to be powerful. And that is why in those days, the Western powers decided that Africa must not be developed. In the 60’s when African nations were clamouring for independence, the West made a declaration that Asia and African nations would remain raw-material producing countries and receptors of finished products. But China developed. India, Pakistan, Malaysia have all developed. So only Africa has failed to develop. Nigeria is the key to African development. If Nigeria develops, Africa develops.
I was aware of all these. I also attended Oxford University where I learnt about British manoeuvring, their foreign policies towards Africa. I was the first Nigerian to get in the Elite Class of 14 in medical school.
Then came June 12, 1993 when the freest and fairest election held in Nigeria was won by Chif MKO Abiola . The election was later annulled. But before this, my friends in America had told me that Abiola would not be allowed to be the president. I asked why and they explained that though he won the election, the Hausa Fulani rule would continue. I told them that things had changed but they insisted that the election would be annulled. And true to what they said, the election was annulled. And there was no good reason given. It was only that the neo-colonialists never wanted a Westerner to be at the helms of affair. They wanted a continuation of the Hausa Fulani feudal rule which is similar to neo-colonialism. Feudalism does not want the people to develop and neo-colonialism does not want countries to develop.
And in 1993, people were agitating and there were protests as people rose up in the South. Then one day, I was Ojuelegba in Lagos, people were protesting and the people were stoning the soldiers. Suddenly, the soldiers opened fire on the protesters and people fell. The soldiers stood afar giggling and pointing at the people who were on the ground bleeding dying and dead. Of course, I too went flat on the ground because that was the way to avoid gunshots.
And I thought in my mind, these people were shooting human beings and were laughing as if they were shooting games. I was terribly disturbed by that incident. Then I made a determination to fight. I realised that talking would not remove Abacha; we had to fight him with weapons. I asked myself the question, ‘will all these soldiers still continue to laugh if they were faced with weapons? And will they still continue to fight?’ From time immemorial, when people are faced with death, they ask themselves, what am I dying for?
I told myself that 90 per cent of these people shooting unarmed people down will run if faced by an armed group with equal or superior weapons. I doubt they did it because is Abacha worth dying for?
After this, I returned to the States where I was teaching and doing research. Around the early part of 1994, at a conference about writing-off the loans of poor countries, every one was leading for theirs to be written off, a certain man who turned out to be an adviser to President Bill Clinton on economy stood up and said if all loans were to be forgiven, Nigeria’s should not because Nigeria’s money was outside and only one Nigerian could pay off their country’s debt. As this was going on, I argued that still it was a debt that could be written off. But the man said that Nigeria was so rich and that her problem was her ruling class which should be changed. And that if she did that, she might not even have to owe again because she was a very rich country. Then one fellow, a northerner, stood up and said, ‘We have ruled Nigeria since independence when the British that saw the rulership in us handed over to us. And we will continue to rule Nigeria because we are born to rule and to hand over to the South is to commit suicide.’ He said it with glee. I sat there boiling.
I got home that night and could not sleep. I then reviewed the history of Nigeria from 1914 till that time.
There and then, I decided that something drastic must be done. I decided that I was going to organise an armed struggle.
What did you do after?
I abandoned my research. I started buying and reading books about dictators, revolution and guerrilla warfare. I read so many books about arms struggle; various types of armed struggle: urban, guerrilla, and jungle; about Hitler and Genaral Franco. I knew Idi Amin personally. I also read about South American countries that were poor as ours. I studied all them and I noticed something common in all of them.
What is that?
It is the insatiable lust for power. One of the members of our organisation worked in the Aso Rock. He sat at every meeting and he told us a lot of things which could not be relayed. I read about the human psychology of arm struggle and how to sell arm struggle. I also read about weapons and came to the conclusion that the best weapon for guerrilla warfare is the Russian AK47 assault rifle. You can drop it in a mud, pick it up and it will still fire. It is very easy to dismantle and reassemble. You don’t need to clean it as often as you must clean others. Another good gun is the Israeli uzi. These were the ones I chose and of course the berretta as handgun.
Also, I raised some money because I knew we needed money.
How much did you raise?
I raised about $60m. Some of it was mine. In fact, a major part of it was my life savings. Let’s look at it this way. To arm one guerrilla soldier adequately, one needs at least $10,000. He must have a gun, a pistol, bullet proof vest, bushdators, steel reinforced boots, a small camp pack. And since you are not going to buy these things officially, you buy in the black market which would be more expensive. I planned an army of 3,000 which is like $30m. Then, logistics, medicines, anti-snake venom serum, dressing, transport, communication equipment at least within the range of 10 miles and so on.
How did you raise this fund? Did you have external collaborators, and so on?
I never raised a kobo from Nigeria. I won’t be able to tell you in details how I raised the money. But some of it was my own money.
You can see the enormous money one had to spend. And I needed an army of about 3,000 people. I could not do it alone so, I had to inform some people. They were Yoruba. I needed a core group which could be only about 50 to 100 people. When you look at it, Fidel Catro started with 90 people but they were betrayed. Only seven of them escaped. They included Fidel, his brother who is now ruling, Raul; Che Guevara and a few others. In Uganda, it was started by five people, three of them died leaving Musseveni and another person. So you don’t need a high number of people to start. I planned to only get 50 highly trained and bring them to Nigeria to train others. We were fighting for the people so we didn’t have to kill them; we only needed to fight and kill those working for Abacha. We knew we had to fight the army but in a guerrilla warfare in that type of sceme, you hit and run away.
What now happened?
I had got 25 people. Surprisingly, the people I had recruited dropped out one after the other remaining three of us: a doctor friend of mine, my wife and I. It was the three of us that underwent the intense training by ex-American GIs I hired at a training camp I rented.
How old were you then?
I think I was 55 years old then.
Where did you recruit your people from?
We were all Yoruba living in the US. We were all discussing Abacha together and contemplating the arm struggle.
The fact that I had a family history helped me to raise funds. Many of them knew my late brother, the late Col. Victor Banjo. They were quizzical about the intention of some Nigerians who had come to raise money for that purpose and spent it on something else. In fact, I knew one who after raising funds to raise an arm struggle used the money to buy a house and a Rolls-Royce.
If this had not been so, I would have raised more.
How many people did you eventually raise?
I planned to raise funds to arm 3,000 but at the end of the day, the money I raised was able to arm more than that number. In fact, there was an organisation that eventually got through to me. After talks with them, they were able to supply arms that could arm half a million people.
How did you get to know this organisation?
I was in my lab one day when the phone rang and on picking up the receiver, a voice asked if I was Dr. Banjo. I answered in the affirmative. He now said, ‘we know what you are doing.’ I quickly dropped the receiver. He called back and assured me of the confidentiality of our discussion. He said if I was interested, I should come to a train station dressed in red. Exactly midday on the appointed day, I was there. A man got in touch with me and after some manuouvering, took me to a car which took me to their office. But I had a hood over my head.
At their office, I was informed that they were an oil company with interests in many other things. To cut a long story, short after offering to help my course, i asked what they wanted. Their simple answer was oil. They said if I eventually won, I would sell Nigerian oil to them. I told them that it was sold in an open market. But they said, no, that our oil was sold to some particular countries and people. It was the first time I got to know that oil was not just sold anyhow. I agreed.
What were your terms?
They introduced someone to me and asked me to draw a list. I thought I was having fun with them so I drew a list which contained all sorts of things like tanks, fighter helicopters, 5000 AKs or similar categories, 2,000 berretta, 3,000 uzis, armoured vehicles, Surface to Air Missiles and all sorts. I was just having fun. But do you know they got them?
How did you take delivery?
No, I did not take delivery. But the ship got to the high seas in Lagos. I was taken to the ship in a motor boat. And I was shocked. Twenty tanks, five helicopter gunboats and when I saw the racks of guns I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Was that the shipment that was seized?
No, it was not. It was the one I routed through Cotonou, Republic of Benin that was seized. Thirty people came with the ship to train us. I was glad and a little scared. But I was arrested shortly after.
What became of the shipment?
When I was arrested, two of them came to the Cotonou prison to see me. I told them to wait for two weeks that I would soon be out.
However, when I realised that I was not going to be released as I thought, I sent word to Yoruba leaders to send some of our retired generals to come and see me in prison. I wanted to introduce them to these people so that they could take delivery of the consignment. Nobody came. After six weeks, they had to leave.
How were you captured?
I should not have come forward. I should have sent somebody else. My principle is that what I can’t do, I can’t send others.
What were the things inside the shipment that was seized?
A lot of things were there. They even included a bullet manufacturing machine. It could produce bullets for four types of guns: AK47, SKS, berretta pistol 9mm and double or single barrel shot guns. I also bought raw materials that could produce up to 500,000 bullets and 5,000 boxes of bullets, jungle camouflage, bulletproof vests, and ballistic helmets apart from guns.
How were you discovered?
It was the shipping company that sort of slowed us down. I routed it through Cotonou sea port.
Ordinarily they were not supposed to open the trailer that carried these arms, I paid N1.5m as bribe. On the day of the delivery, the agent of the sgipping company, a Denmark firm, said Nigerians didn’t usually return containers and that I should pay $5,000 for the container since it was a special one. I would have paid him but for the short time notice. So, I decided to get a trailer and offload the consignment into it. We got some dock workers and we started offloading. Unfortunately, unknown to us, one of the persons hired to join us was a security agent for the Republic of Benin. While offloading, he found the stock of a gun and he alerted the port’s security. It was not the gun itself but the stock. I bought some stock so that it could be folded and put under agbada. I didn’t know how he passed across the information to the Beninese Ports Authority. Suddenly, they pounced on us and seized the container. But I left when they seized the container. I should not have come back. I should have asked somebody else to come back.
Why did you come back?
I allowed myself to be persuaded that if they saw me, the commander would release the consignment. And he wanted to but for their president who insisted that I must not be released. We were not taken into custody until later in the evening. The thing happened in the morning. And I went away after. I told them I was coming back. That was my greatest undoing. Being a guerrilla leader entails a lot of responsibilities and if anything happens to him, that is the end of the struggle. That was the mistake I made. I allowed myself to be captured. But when they were offloading in the night, they found so many other things.
They had an executive meeting which before he left (head of the ports) to attend, he was hopeful for our release. But when he came back, he was looking gloomy. He said every other person voted that we should be released but President Sogolo (President of the Republic of Benin) insisted that we should be detained.
Why did he (Sogolo) do that?
We did not know. It was later that we learnt that President Sogolo allegedly received $100m from Abacha. Our existence was initially denied for 10 days. Then, we were taken to prison. And the torture started.
Were you tortured?
You think they didn’t torture us? I was tortured. I was beaten mercilessly and all sorts of unprintable things were done to us. Finally, they took me to Wida to kill me. Come and look at this. (He showed the correspondent a detailed diagram of the Wida Prisons and where he was kept).
What is the significance of the cell?
The cell was specially built for me. There was only a wall between my room and the huge prison septic tank. Faeces, fluid, maggots seeped through and covered everywhere. They pushed me there. Immediately, they pushed me in that night, I was stepping on maggots – millions of them. What a significant and ingenious way to kill a person! There was no window, only some small slates. The gas that came in displaced the oxygen; hence there was no oxygen but putrid gas in the cell.
They pushed me into the place at night and within minutes I was losing consciousness. I was breathing but I realised that there was no air and that I was only breathing in putrefying gases. I quickly went to the slits, I pushed in my nose and took some six puffs and my head cleared. Then I knew I would live. They pushed me there every night for four and a half months. And for those four and a half months, I never slept in the night.
When the guards came back the following morning of my first night there, as they opened the door one of the three pulled his gun and wanted to shoot me. I quickly cried out that I was not a ghost. They could not believe that I could still be alive.
He told his fellows that, ‘this man was supposed to die overnight.’ They knew they had brought me there to die. And it was true, if I had not discovered those slits, I would have died. It was a gas chamber. I would have suffocated.
They would push me there at 7pm and open the door at 7am every day for four and a half months.
Did you suffer any health issue while you were there?
Yes, I did. I had a stroke when I was there. I was rightist (right handed). Now, I write with my left hand. I am one of those lucky few who have bilateral cerebral dominance ; that both hemispheres of my brain can perform. If one goes, the other can take up its functions. I was unable to speak at first but now I can speak. My right hand shakes.
For how long were you detained?
We were detained for 14 months.
Were you tried?
Yes, we were tried thrice and freed but we were not released. But before our eventual released, we tried a number of escapes.
How many times did you try to escape?
I planned about 12 escapes.
Within those 14 months?
Yes. One was almost successful until we were betrayed at the last moment. I had a Swiss Army knife that had 28 functions, two of which was to cut steel and wood. I cut the iron in our cell, cut the wood and got to the wall that had broken glasses over it. We had to use our mattress and cardboard to cover the broken bottles on the 10-feet wall. My wife was on the wall and as I was passing our stuffs to her, some people raised the alarm outside and we had to quickly jump back. We heard shootings. They eventually discovered that it was us as our mattress was still on top of the fence.
How many of you were offloading and how many of you were arrested?
We were many but I claimed responsibility. So they asked the others to go.
How come your wife was with you in prison?
She was also asked to go but she refused. She wrote a statement and implicated herself. She didn’t want me to be there alone.
Were you sharing the same room?
No. She was in the female section and I in the male. Did you know that in the prison, our meal was a cup of garri per day? Yes, only garri with nothing else. We would soak it in the morning, take some and finish the rest in the evening. That was what we took for 14 months.
Was that what they were giving other prisoners?
Yes, but they allowed their relatives to bring them food. As we had nobody to bring us food, we were stuck with the garri.
Do you have children?
Yes, I have children
How old were they then and where were they?
I have a daughter who was already a medical doctor then. My first son died in 1994.
Was it during the struggle?
Was he also involved in the arm struggle?
Yes. He died of bullet wounds during training. It was a shooting accident. A gun went off in his hands and he was mortally wounded.
How many of you were trained?
We had a system of training. The system adopted was this. We trained the first 10. Each of those 10 would also train 10 other people each. As so it would go on. In that way, if there was a betrayal, you could only betray the 10 people you trained with.
Did your son train with you?
Yes, he trained with us.
How did your wife take it?
The person I call my wife now is not my first wife. She is my second wife. She became my wife later. She was a member of my team. It was in prison that we signed ourselves as husband and wife. My first wife was the mother of the boy that died. She did not train with us because she never believed in the struggle.
Where is she now?
She is dead. She died when Abacha was hunting them. They had to run. I couldn’t see them. I had sent all of them abroad. She died in America.
But my son died here in Nigeria. I was the one training him and others because I had been highly trained.
How would you quantify your loss to the struggle?
I lost everything. I lost my money. I lost my health. I lost all.
When were you released eventually?
I was released after 14 months.