As a reporter with the Guardian Newspaper, Tunde Thompson was arrested and detained for months under Decree 4. But in this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ regional editor, Ibanga Isine, Mr. Thompson said Muhammadu Buhari had no hand in his ordeal.
PT: During General Buhari’s military era, you were arrested and detained. What actually happened?
Thompson: Thank you for that question. I was senior diplomatic correspondent for the Guardian newspaper at the time and I covered his maiden press conference at the State House along Marina in Lagos. I was one of those who wished him well because the government they overthrew had gone bunkers.
PT: But why were you arrested if you had such tremendous respect and support for his junta?
Thompson: Oh that was another issue. You know the press conference was held one week after he took over or so. It was around February 11, 1984 that I was arrested. There were people in the system who because Northerners were in power who decimated the Nigerian foreign service and civil service, they were removing ambassadors and diplomats who had just recently got commendations and even promotion.
There were three key issues: people were removed as ambassadors and I reported it. People were appointed ambassadors to replace some of those who were earlier removed and I reported also. But there was a controversial issue I didn’t know (had) security implications. Out of the eight ambassadors that were picked by the administration, it turned out that six were from a particular part of the country. Maybe some persons in the government phoned Buhari about my report. They might have found the report embarrassing.
PT: You mean the government was embarrassed by your report on the removal and appointment of diplomats?
Thompson: There were seven diplomats but I didn’t remember the name of one of them and so I left it out because you don’t report without the first name. I am speaking about it in retrospect now. I didn’t know what could have irritated them about the report but I knew that they were more interested in knowing how I got the report.
I was taken to the National Security Organisation’s camp, off Awolowo Road, and asked to tell them how I got the names of those who were retired and those who appointed as replacements. I told their head, ‘you are a senior officer, if I tell you that a man on my street was always sleeping till 8 p.m. and between that time and 10 p.m. he will be out of his house and will not return till 7 a.m. and that we are getting worried about him and you investigated him and found him to be a kingpin of the underworld, would you tell him I told you?’ So if you cannot tell him I told you, why are you expecting me to tell you who told me? What you should do is to clap for us if we got it right or write a rejoinder so we could publish your own version. That’s what press ethics demanded and still demands till today. What I am talking about took place in 1984. The man asked that I should be taken back to my cell.
PT: Are you now saying that as the head of the military junta at the time, General Buhari was not aware of the retirement and appointment of Nigerian envoys?
Thompson: He was not a technocrat.
PT: But as the Head of State, the bulk stops on his table. Nobody can change an ambassador of a country without the knowledge of the country’s leader?
Thompson: The bulk does not start from his table but it can stop there. That’s what I am trying to say. Heads of States get to know about certain things after the ‘tails’ of state have taken action. They get reports that this and that has been done by that man or that woman and all that.
PT: When there was a diplomatic spat between Nigeria and Morocco and another between Nigeria and South Africa where a senior Foreign Affairs Ministry official recalled an envoy, Nigerians blamed Mr. Jonathan. Are you saying that General Buhari did not have a hand in the removal and appointment of the Nigerian envoys you reported about?
Thompson: What you are talking about now are different scenarios. In the case of South Africa, the youth of that country subjected Nigerians to what could be described as “un-diplomatic treatment.”
PT: I am talking about the withdrawal of the Nigerian Charge d’ Affaires from South African which sparked diplomatic row between Nigeria and that country.
Thompson: Ok then
PT: Are you telling me that seven ambassadors who got commendations where removed and new ones appointed from one part of the country as you said and General Buhari did not know about it?
Thompson: We were not fighting, mind you. It was not at the same time. It was weeks after. There was steady retirement of diplomats from the Foreign Service from a particular part of the country. Maybe, because they were too many compared to those who came from the area from where those who took the decision came from. You know what I mean.
PT: Please tell me, Sir?
Thompson: I think those who were removed where more in number in the Foreign Service than people from the area that removed them and they (those who sacked the envoys) didn’t like that. But the diplomats with whom I spoke told me his story freely. He said they had just been commended and promoted and these people came and removed us. You are not supposed to know who I spoke with. That is not your business. That’s exactly what I told the NSO man and he ordered that I should be taken back to my cell.
PT: What was the state of the cell you were kept and how long were you kept there?
Thompson: This hotel room (the room he lodged) is about 10 x12 or close to that. There were about 12 of us in the cell. There was an air conditioner that kept making noise and we couldn’t sleep. There were mosquitoes. You know the then managing director of NITEL was there. There were politicians from different political parties there too. I am not blaming anybody but I took a position that I was a journalist and was not going to be partisan. There is no point stressing the fact that I am supporting the leader of the government that detained me. Let’s put it that way. But I keep telling people that I was given free pardon. I was given a state pardon when Alhaji Ajibola was minister of justice and attorney general of the federation under General Ibrahim Babangida.
PT: Pardon for what?
Thompson: I was pardoned for the imprisonment of Nduka Irabor and I under Decree 4. I got a free pardon. After 31 years, some people are still referring to Decree 4 and saying that it was Buhari who put Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor in prison and questioned why he wants to be president of Nigeria. And I said, let’s face it, the bureaucrats can operate and the Head of State may have no idea of initial actions they take. But because people have acted in the interest of the state, so the leader becomes compliant.
You feel it was the civil servants and not General Buhari who initiated Decree 4?
As soon as the military took over, some people were already planning. Emeka Omerua had said they would soon put a law in place that would protect public officers from false accusations. I had gone to the federal ministry of information near the Methodists Boys High School along William Street at the time. I went to the Government Press to buy a copy of the new law. When I got there, it was not ready. It was at that time they were retiring diplomats. Over 113 were retired at a go and additional 37 others later and I reported it. After writing reports on the retirements, I also wrote an op-ed article titled, “The Mysteries of External Affairs.” In it, I indicated that some diplomats who were commended some weeks ago were retired. The NSO man came to Guardian and said they want to see the writer of the article but one of our editors said we have confidence in our reporter.
They went away just to put finishing touches to Decree 4 but they had Decree 2. Trouble again started when I wrote a story “Haruna Replaces Ananias,” and handed it over to Nduka Irabor who was assistant news editor before leaving for my grandmother’s burial in Ogbola, Edo State. When I got a copy of the paper before returning to Lagos, there were embellishments that I saw and I shouted that there will be trouble.
I believe that what was bound to happen, happened. Today, after 31 years, we are still talking about Buhari jailing Thompson when I knew that he didn’t give any order for me to be arrested. The system always does its work.
PT: Just as you have absolved Buhari, can also you say that President Jonathan should not have been blamed for the policies and decisions of his government that brought hardship to Nigerians?
(He refused to respond)
PT: What do you say about it Sir?
Thompson: It is like the subsidy issue. You know the Nigeria Labour Congress is threatening to go on strike over the withdrawal of oil subsidy. It is stupid.
PT: But if I recall well, you were one of those who kicked against the withdrawal of fuel subsidy and many of those now singing the subsidy removal song where on the streets against it when GEJ brought it up?
Thompson: Point of information; they were not on the streets because subsidy was removed. It was because the president increased the prices of oil as a New Year gift.
PT: But it was the withdrawal of subsidy that led to the increase in the cost of fuel?
Thompson: Well, that’s why people do research and we need to do more research. All I know is that I was against the increase in the fuel price.
PT: Do you now support the withdrawal of subsidy which will lead to an increase in the prices of products?
Thompson: I am not in support of subsidy withdrawal or retention. When I do enough research I will be able to take a position on that.
PT: Are you not worried about the plethora of promises the new administration made during the campaigns including that of making naira at par with the US dollar?
Thompson: My friend, that is the business of politicians. I am not going to stop anybody from making promises. But I am going to quote him and say at an appropriate time that he said he would do this and hasn’t done it and ask for the justification for giving us a false hope.
You see, I fear politicians who do not make promises and respect politicians who make promises and do their best to fulfil them and if they do not succeed, explain through the public communications channels; what the problems where. Our people are very observant. They would appreciate when you would have made an effort. It is when you appear to present yourself as a very affluent person and you forget that the majority of your people are suffering that they get angry. If a leader takes interest in the welfare of the people and in their problems, that he makes a promise is immaterial. When a promise is fulfilled, the people are happy but when it is not fulfilled, the people will complain. So let’s give people a chance to even complain. But I won’t begin to pity Buhari now until later. He has four years to prove his worth. I believe that he is genuinely saying what he believes to be in the public interest.
If he says he will give jobs to this number, it means he is expressing the concern of the people and it shows he is close to the people.
PT: Some people are saying that as a journalist, you had foreseen Buhari wining the poll because of the overwhelming public opinion against the Jonathan administration. You did not come out to say you forgave him when he contested and lost past elections. Is it right to say that you were merely trying to place yourself strategically to benefit from Mr. Buhari’s victory?
Thompson: Let me tell you, I am a politically active creature. I have been like that since I was in primary school. At the Kings College, I was the secretary of the Students’ Council. At the University of Ibadan, I ran for the president of the Students’ Union Government but when I didn’t win because of some stupid handling at that level, I became public relations officer of the National Union of Nigerian Students, NUNS between 1973-74. When I was in Daily Times, as a senior editorial writer, I was the chairman of the Daily Times Chapel and the people in management said what was Tunde doing. He is supposed to be in management. Being in the editorial board did not stop me from being a leader among journalists.
In this example you are giving now, I want to say clearly that I didn’t think about what I was going to get later. I just felt that people where maligning Buhari over Decree 4. If you saw the advert on the television and in the newspapers about that Decree 4, you find that a lot of the claims were inaccurate. They said that we (Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson) were arrested at the same time. I was arrested from the Guardian premises on February 11, 1984 and taken to NSO quarters off Awolowo Road. There was no was no Decree 4 at that time. But after the world press conference addressed by Ofodile which Nduka Irabor covered for the Guardian, the decree had become public property. But I was just detained. Not under Decree 4. So what offence did I commit?
PT: I don’t know but I know that your arrest and detention had generated a national furore and the media were awash with stories about the issue at that time. Are you still saying Buhari wasn’t aware of it?
Thompson: I have said there are heads of state and tails of states or mid parts of states. If the tail, the feet and the middle of state act, the head of state may not know what led to what. (laughs). He will only believe that the people were doing their best to maintain stability for his government and that this person (himself) may have been trying to create instability, one way or the other. But by the time the election kicked off this year, it became obvious to me that Buhari was the best candidate with the answers for Nigeria’s socio-political and economic problems than the man he was trying to replace and the other candidates. The mudslinging over Decree 4 was diversionary. That was the way I felt and so I just happened to be at the Sun newspaper because I am a columnist there. I was talking to Femi Adesina who was managing director about my feelings and he said “what? You feel that people should stop blackmailing him (Buhari) over Decree 4 because he didn’t give the order for your arrest?” I told him 31 years is long enough for people to face issues during the elections; that is, who are the best candidates that can take us to the Promised Land? I felt Decree 4 should not be used to deny a person who can help solve our problems a chance.
PT: Would you accept to work in the Buhari government if you are invited?
Thompson: Excuse me please. I have been running from government since I left the university in 1975. Firstly, I was supposed to be an ambassador. I was crime ambassador of my club at the University of Ibadan. We brought uncountable number of ambassadors to Ibadan. Before then, I was press attaché. We brought people to talk on global issues. I have been involved in public affairs at the student level. It was just a matter of choice. In 1975, when the Public Service Commission said I should come for interview for Foreign Service, I turned it down. I said I was one of those criticizing General Gowon’s government for one thing or the other and I couldn’t imagine being in the Foreign Service defending my head of state over some of the things I would quarrel with as a student.
I can tell you that I don’t see anything wrong with working with the Buhari government because although it does not apply, they say once bitten, twice shy. Once bitten, twice aware of the person you are dealing with. I knew he meant well for the country. If you read the speech he gave at that maiden world press conference after he took over government in early 1984, you will know that we do have patriots. He had a patriotic zeal. Even their treatment of late Umaru Dikko, kidnapping him from London and almost crating him (Dikko) out of Britain could only have come from a person who felt that the country had suffered and all the money that were stolen should be returned so it could be used for national development.