On December 15, 2013, veteran journalist and publisher of Africa Today magazine, Mr. Kayode Soyinka, clocked 55 years. It was a milestone he almost did not live to witness let alone celebrate. This is considering the fact that he could have died 27 years ago if he had not survived the parcel bomb incident of October 19, 1986, which sadly claimed the life of Dele Giwa, the founding editor-in-chief of Newswatch with whom he was having breakfast when the letter bomb was delivered. With the announcement of Dele Giwa’s mother’s death a few days ago, we caught up with the famous international journalist and publisher, who incidentally had contested on three consecutive occasions to be governor of Ogun State but failed to get the ticket. In this interview with NNEKA NWANERI, the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) stalwart speaks on a wide-range of national issues from the parcel bomb incident and the merger talks among opposition parties to the controversial sale of Newswatch last year, among other issues.
What would you say about the mother of your former boss Dele Giwa, who died early this month?
Yes, the Dele Giwa issue has become part of my life; it’s like a cross I carry because of my involvement with the parcel bomb incident of almost 27 years ago. Remember, I only survived it by the grace of God. You are asking me this question again because of the death of Dele’s mother just announced. I got a telephone call very early that morning when she died. It was Mr. Soji Akinrinade that called me from London to break the news to me – barely an hour after she died. She was a strong willed woman and I had known her over the years. Sometimes, in those days, when we were still at Concord newspapers, long before the advent of Newswatch, and I was visiting Nigeria and staying with Dele at his house in Ikeja (not where the bomb took place), it was either I would meet his mother there at home with him, or she had just left back to the village a day or so before my arrival.
Dele was very close to his mother. He did not joke with her at all. It was an honour for me to have met her. The last time I saw her was at Dele’s burial in their village near Auchi, in Edo State. I was there live with my wife contrary to the erroneous story of Babangida’s government’s mischief makers who tried to deceive the Nigerian people in order to exonerate the government from the assassination of Dele Giwa, saying that I had fled the country. They deliberately spread all kinds of falsehood, ignoring even newspaper reports and pictures of myself and my wife in attendance at the burial. And mind you, how could I have fled the country? My wife and children were not in Nigeria with me when the bomb exploded, they had to take the next available flight to Nigeria to join me. Yet, Babangida’s men said I fled the country. And my family and I remained in the country throughout the whole period of the controversy and burial arrangement. We returned to London together through the former British Caledonian Airways, through Muritala Mohammed Airport.
There was no way we could have left quietly. We were accompanied to and seen off at the airport by friends, including the Newswatch editors, and family. The airline people recognised us. Our two children were still small then. The air hostesses took them from us, played with them, and they were asking me if I was feeling better – knowing the trauma one must have been through in the past weeks, and took us straight and right inside the aircraft, even before checking in other passengers. Yet the Babangida men kept saying, even till today, that I fled the country. Can you imagine?
So how did the parcel bomb explode?
Save me the agony of going through all this again. I don’t like narrating the story. I have said enough about it over the years. But there is somebody I must use this opportunity to respond to. I have been deliberately keeping quiet all these years that he has been writing about me, accusing me of being a suspect and even insinuated that I was the one who brought the bomb. That was the former Deputy Inspector-General of Police, Christopher Omeben, who investigated the horrific incident, and who I understand is now a pastor. He did not believe that I could survive the bomb. He was unfair to me severally in the book that he wrote on Dele Giwa, and in an interview he granted The Sun Newspaper last year or so. He said in that interview that I ran to the toilet when the parcel bomb was delivered. That is not true. It’s a blatant lie. He got wrong information.
This man, who was not there when the bomb exploded. Whatever information he collected after the explosion was from some third, fourth or even tenth party, but he would stop at nothing trying to rope me in. But every time he tried to do that, he always failed because no one is listening to him and such accusations can never stick. My survival was simply God’s miracle. And I will forever be grateful to Him while I pray that He continues to bless Dele’s soul. But the Pastor Omeben does not believe that such miracles can happen. He has never heard about a plane crash where hundreds of passengers have perished but small children, babies, survived. Isn’t that a miracle? Our Pastor Omeben has never heard about an earthquake that has brought down many buildings, turning a whole community into rubble and still over a month or so after, when all rescuers have left, abandoning the search for survivors, people are still being dragged out alive from the rubble.
Yet Pastor Omeben still keeps wondering how I could have survived such a dreadful bombing without a scratch on my body. He forgot the terrible damage done to my eardrums and the continuous noise or echo in my both ears I had to carry everyday for about five years after the incident before they were healed. And even then, till today, I hear better from my right ear, while the left one which was nearer to the blast is weaker. Well, my answer to him is that he should keep asking. Those who sent the bomb to us are still here and walking about the streets freely. But Dele is not here and his mother has now gone to join him without getting justice. I am here only by the grace of the Almighty God. Definitely, God will deliver the ultimate judgment. If not here, at the great beyond when we all meet at His feet.
Do you sometimes feel threatened?
Why should I feel threatened when I don’t have an excuse to be here anymore? I should have gone that day 27 years ago. That was death I came face to face with. It was like I had died and I came back. May be you don’t know that I held the letter bomb in my hand before I gave it back to Dele. If I had decided to open it when Dele gave it to me, it would have been a totally different story. It wasn’t my time to go! It’s been traumatic living with that experience for many years. I have lived with the psychological trauma of it so much so that one gets used to it, and as I said earlier, it is now part of my life and I have moved on since. Even up till now, when I make appearances, especially in Nigeria and I am introduced and people hear the name, Kayode Soyinka, you will naturally hear the comments, “the parcel bomb survivor”.
I went through a lot in those days, most especially the pressure from the Nigerian security service. They placed my name into their computer system at all the points of entry to and departure from Nigeria. That made me look like a wanted person. So I could not come back to Nigeria while Babangida was still in power. You won’t believe it, they chased me all the way to London because they never thought anyone could survive the parcel bomb and be able to tell the story of how it happened. They were so amateurish, they didn’t even know how to disguise. The SSS operatives, through the Nigeria High Commission, would come to our house in London. They would park their cars right in front of our house and be watching my movement. What they did not know was that even the UK authorities knew what happened to me in Nigeria and had already placed their own surveillances over the Nigerian SSS. I was under the protection of Her Majesty’s government throughout the time because they knew what I went through in Nigeria.
So why should I feel threatened? I am just an ordinary mortal and I’m doing the only job I am known for, and have done all my life, and like doing best; the job that I have passion for, and has given me everything that I have today both nationally and internationally, which is journalism – being a newspaper man. Nothing will threaten me because I have lived a fulfilled life. I have my family; my two children are now both grown up. I have been privileged to send them to some of the best educational institutions in the world. My son for example was educated at Harrow. I am sure you know what that means. They finished their university education with two degrees each four/five years ago and are working in London. So I am done. I am more or less in retirement as a newspaper man. So when I see young journalists and reporters like you, I see a bit of myself in you because that was how I started, did so well in this Nigeria everyone is talking so badly about now.
I was posted out by Daily Sketch in 1978 as London Correspondent , a key position in the newspaper industry, and I made a career out of being a foreign correspondent and out of journalism as a whole. That is my pride and joy as a Nigerian journalist. I’m only now trying to spend more time back home in Nigeria having spent over 30 years doing my work abroad, and it is not easy. I have spent 37 years in the newsroom doing my work. So if I die tomorrow, you cannot know me for any other thing but journalism, and they should just simply put on my tombstone: Kayode Soyinka – Newspaper reporter. I hope I live a long life like my father and see my grandchildren and great grandchildren.
But in case I suddenly die, it does not matter anymore. I am not afraid of death having had a close shave with one already; everyone will die one day and go six feet under the ground. No matter what wealth one may have accumulated, things like that don’t bother me anymore. And by the way, we can’t take them to the grave. I have seen a lot and been in important places and related with influential people around the world – and still do. But I like and enjoy living an ordinary life. I hate attention. I am usually public shy despite being a media person.
Have we learnt anything in Nigeria from the Dele Giwa episode?
Certainly not from the letter-bombing of Dele Giwa. There are so many criminals in Nigeria today and people have become too fraudulent, the corruption is mind-boggling and life means nothing in Nigeria. It is so sad. Everyone seems so desperate for money and power! It’s a real shame. People who are really nobody feel very important, pompous and arrogant. I stear clear of such people. When the parcel bomb was delivered, I was saying at that time that it was very important for the authorities to get those who did it because if they didn’t, it would encourage similar occurrences in future. Now, see what has happened since Dele Giwa was killed by letter bomb. See the number of unresolved murders and assassinations we have had in Nigeria. In fact, things have gone even worse. Look at Chief Bola Ige. A whole Attorney-General and Minister of Justice of Nigeria was assassinated and up till now, the killers have not been found. Ditto Baba Rewane, Funso Williams, and so on and so forth. So many of those who have been killed without a trace of who did it have encouraged others to do the same because they were not brought to book. Now high level kidnapping is taking place – a totally new dimension – and so are the Boko Haram bombings. It’s gone out of control. So I don’t believe Nigeria has improved since the Dele Giwa assassination.
Is that what motivated you to go into politics?
No, not necessarily. Genuinely, I wanted to serve having had personal fulfillment in my career. As a political journalist, I have always interacted with people in politics both locally and internationally. I have reached a stage in my life and career when I thought I should put something back to the community that made me. I didn’t want to do it nationally at first but chose to go back home to the grassroots level. So I went to my state, Ogun State, where I put my name forward and campaigned in three general elections to be elected as governor. I do not know who has done it before me consecutively for three times. And I don’t know why they didn’t give me the ticket.
What is your view on the merger talks going on by the opposition parties?
I think it is a good thing. It is long overdue. But we have to be careful how we tread on this. I am obviously concerned about the interest of my own party, ACN, in the merger. We should be the senior partner in the merger because we are the party with control over the largest number of states. And it should be spelt out clearly for us and our people what we are getting: is it wholesale merger, or an alliance or a coalition? These are different things and it must be made clear to us what it is we are doing and getting. It will be good for Nigeria if the three largest opposition parties in the country can come together as one party. That will create a more viable option for the electorate who are fed up with of the bad, visionless and clueless government of the PDP. The good thing about this one is that the merger process started early before the 2015 election. So we will know soon if this one will work or not.
How have you maintained your independence as a politician and a publisher?
I have been in the journalism profession for 37 years. You cannot be a newspaperman of my pedigree and not be forthright when it comes to taking editorial decisions, especially on crucial issues. I am from the old school. When I was a reporter, I didn’t have political ambitions. I went into partisan politics after I had put in about 30 years continuously on the job. Today, I can gladly say my profession is newspaper reporting and not politics. Look at my track record, I have been a reporter here in Nigeria, I have been a foreign correspondent reporting from overseas for over 18 years – a record in Nigeria. I have been an editor and I have been a publisher of my own international news magazine, Africa Today, one of the most influential pan-African news magazines in the world, for another 18 years. That is the highest I can go in my profession. So my politics and publishing or journalism is like oil and water, they don’t mix. I am a politician with a reporter’s notebook in hand!
What is your reaction to the transition of Newswatch?
I am sad that Newswatch isn’t on the newsstands now and I gathered that it is the first time in 27 years, apart from when we were proscribed by the Babangida administration after the letter bomb incident. I want to commend the former Newswatch Executives, Dan Agbese, Ray Ekpu, Yakubu Mohammed and Soji Akinrinade who survived Dele Giwa. I commend them because the public will not understand the kind of difficulties they went through after surviving the death of their close colleague in such fatal manner. Remember, Dele Giwa’s death was so horrific; it could put iron into the soul. Then, the magazine was proscribed twice. There are not many newspapers or businesses anywhere in the world that could go through all that and survive. So they should be commended and our people should appreciate that.
Secondly, they are working in the most difficult business environment. It is not a child’s play to run a newspaper in this country. The business environment is very difficult for a newspaper or newsmagazine like Newswatch that depends on advertising to survive. If the business environment is difficult, the advertising market will be the first to be affected instantly. They went through all that and had to look for other ways to sustainthe iconic magazine by getting investors. I had the opportunity in November last year, when the former Newswatch executives launched a book at the NIIA and I was invited. There I made my position very clear. I told them to take a firm position because they should not let Newswatch die. I reminded them that Newswatch is now part of Nigeria’s history because Dele Giwa lost his life for Newswatch. I also made it clear to them that the issue is no longer theirs alone. It is by far bigger than them (the executives) now because Nigerians themselves have now owned Newswatch. It is in the consciousness of the Nigerian people.
You know this when you go to the social networks, like Facebook, you see how Nigerians are discussing the issue of Newswatch with so much passion. The magazine has become part and parcel of our daily life. It is now a bigger issue than the former executives. None should forget the supreme price Dele Giwa paid. I therefore appealed for some external intervention in the matter. Except we don’t want to have regard for history, we should know that Newswatch is now part of Nigerian history and it should not be allowed to die. I pray that it won’t be too long before it gets back on the newsstands.
Are you planning to contest the governorship again in 2015?
People keep telling me not to give up. Some would go on to remind me that Abraham Lincoln contested several times before he was elected president of the United States. I don’t want to be the Abraham Lincoln of Ogun State. But I am a staunch Baptist and deeply religious person. I therefore believe in God’s own plan for me in life. His grace and glory have already been manifested in me. I have seen them in my life. Or can’t you see them, or feel them, with all the stories I have been telling you? And I have contentment. His time is always the best.