Dapo Olorunyomi: The courage and the struggle, By Jibrin Ibrahim

#TrackNigeria: Some people have been asking – who are the progressives? For those who do not know, the progressives are those who would turn up on Monday, 27th May for the celebration of the struggles engaged upon by Dapo Olorunyomi. The Occasion would be the presentation of the book of testimonies written by his comrades. The book entitled “Testimony to Courage” would be presented at an event chaired by Mallam Kabiru Yusuf and special guests would include the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo and mega godfather Bola Tinubu. Nuhu Ribadu would be the compere. A significant portion of Nigerian progressives contributed chapters to the book and they would be at the Yar’Adua Centre for the celebrations.

We would be celebrating three themes. The role played by Dapo in inventing new forms of journalistic struggles; secondly, the way in which journalism impacted on democratic struggles and thirdly and even more important, defining the contours of the democratic struggles of the future. We celebrate Dapo because as Odia Ofeimun the poet explains in the Preface to the book: “Dapo Olorunyomi comes across as a champion, exponent and icon of fresh and coverall perspectives in daring, moving to stage the next act before the full impact of a preceding performance hits home. It may well be understood why as a non-flamboyant operative of the traditional and social media, his indifference, almost reclusive turning away from self- promotion, invites reverent appreciation of his tall performances.”

Dapo Olorunyomi or Dapsy as we call him rose to fame, and even more important gained respect because of his fearless but effective political struggle against military authoritarianism and the rogue State they were seeking to construct in Nigeria. As he put it himself:

“In 1985, the military in Nigeria was already marking two decades of a legal monopoly of power, during which its main concern had been to centralize politics and the economy and to pave the way for the strengthening of executive power, so that a tiny technocratic elite, working in alliance with a political segment of the armed forces, could impose an authoritarian vision on the whole of Nigerian society.”

Dapsy has been well trained for the struggle. He had always been a voracious reader and was well groomed in the Ife school of progressive politics where he started activism in his youth. He has remained permanently committed to making Nigeria an open, democratic country with commitment to improving the lives of the people. His personal style is a quiet tone, self-effacement and for those who do not know him, the impression that he is too gentle to be the fiery one he has always been. Precisely because of his cool nature, he succeeds where more noisy advocates fail.

Dapsy was very conscious when he started his career in journalism in the 1980s that the development of a progressive Nigeria was contingent on maintaining the press as an edifice in the struggle for freedom and against authoritarianism. As he argued:

“It is partly because the press has always represented a vital matrix for (Nigerian) civil society, going back to the 19th century when Lagos newspapers argued for democracy and independence. In our own time, the press became one of the first institutions to wrestle for its freedom and engage the dictatorship in low-intensity internal warfare by reinventing dissent through a return to the investigative tradition.”

Dapsy used this understanding to develop a three-tier approach to using the media for progressive political struggle. The first is reliance on serious research through investigative journalism to build knowledge on what the ruling class was doing in various arenas such as corruption and violations of human rights. The second is to get this knowledge across to citizens through the media and thirdly mobilise citizens for action based on their improved understanding of economic exploitation and political oppression. It was based on this approach that he played a major role in the key magazines “whose struggles made the 10 years of 1985 to 1995 the most exciting phase of Nigerian journalism since those heroic days in the 19th century.”

In my discussions and engagements with Dapsy over the decades, he always showed a deep understanding of what the Ibrahim Babangida 1985 coup d’état had as its mission – to perpetuate military authoritarianism through a deceitful programme of transition to civilian rule. He understood that General Babangida was acting like an experienced trapeze artist determined to use his political skills to complete the patrimonialisation of Nigeria’s political culture to build a rogue State. Central to General Babangida’s mission was to ensure that only rapacious political entrepreneurs that have looted the nation’s wealth and have no commitment to the people’s welfare would exercise power. The method he used involved an elaborate process of political engineering in which the popular forces were successively excluded from his political transition programme through arbitrary and ever-changing rules.

Dapsy has always argued, worked for and demonstrated that the answer to authoritarianism was to be found in the “investigative tradition to Nigerian journalism (which) challenged the military’s sense of its own legitimacy.” His position has been that the media became the “presumptive parliament” of the nation and in that capacity took the position that military rule must end. In response, the junta increased its repression of the media especially in 1993 when they issued four decrees (Nos. 33, 35, 43 and 48) to control the independent press, and seven media houses suffered from an unprecedented clampdown in July, a move described at the time as the “Great Shutdown.” The junta had been pushed to the wall and was angry and responded with more oppression because:

The anger of the regime was based on the transformation of the key news magazines into guerrilla journalism so that they could continue to function in spite of heightened State terror as Dapsy explained:

“One of the profound ironies of the ’90s is that state brutality, as intense as it was, failed to completely drive the independent press under. Against all odds, the novelty of “defiant publishing” was inaugurated in 1993. An era of “defiant broadcasting” came into being in 1995 with a pirate radio, the Freedom Frequency Radio (F&F), emerging to challenge the state monopoly of the airwaves. A third dimension of the acts of defiance was the flurry of litigation brought against the regime to reveal its inherently lawless nature. Not surprisingly, in all the cases brought against the government, the court ruled in favor of the media. Nigeria has one of the most independent judiciaries in the Commonwealth. But the government disregarded the court’s decision.”

Dapsy’s elevated position in Nigerian history is based on his role in being one of the pioneers of defiant publishing, otherwise dubbed “guerrilla journalism.” When therefore in May 1993, the regime proscribed The News magazine, he and his comrades took a courageous decision to float an alternative paper, Tempo, to operate underground. It was an electrifying and dazzling act that rendered the security institutions dumb and helpless because they did not know the answer to the key questions – WHO, HOW, WHERE.

They had no answers because the notion of a newsroom was transformed from a regular static setting into a dynamic, on-the-wheel experience. Offices were abandoned. Editorial meetings were taking place in parks and stadia and the security agencies were completely lost on how magazines were produced and distributed without their knowledge. As Dapsy explains: “Between May and November 1993, week after week without fail, Tempo hit the streets. After a frustrating but futile attempt to halt the paper or apprehend its editors, the government declared that it could only have been published inside the American Embassy! The truth was that it was published in a private, nondescript office, a few blocks from Nigerian police headquarters!”

The security agencies tried and failed to find and arrest Dapsy so they arrested his wife and three-month-old in 1993. Undaunted, he continued the struggle. He went into a strict internal exile, and for about six months did not visit his home and family. He changed sleeping holes every night moving about during the day in crowded commuter buses to evade arrest.

Dapsy, we salute you. Many thanks to Chido Omunah and Frederick Adetiba for putting together this important story on how the progressives defeated the military and brought back democracy to Nigeria.