He is a Professor of Anatomy, practised medicine and worked in some of the world’s best hospitals and universities. In 1995, Prof Adesegun Adebanjo, younger brother to the late Col. Victor Banjo, bought arms worth millions of dollars with his entire life savings. He was shipping them to Nigeria with the hope of starting a war of liberation for the Yoruba and Itsekiri nations, when his dream was cut short by Beninoise gendarmes. Adebanjo now lives in extremely poor conditions. Worse still, he is battling with cancer without succour. He speaks with Adewale Adeoye in an exclusive interview.
It is now 20 years since your arrest in Benin Republic over the June 12 annulled election. How do you see Nigeria’s democratic experience since your return?
Our major problem is rooted in our differences and the futile attempt to build a nation out of many nations. For a long time right from independence, the ethnic groups have always had different agenda. This is why we hardly can develop given the structure and superstructure of Nigeria. Since independence, the fundamental problems are the same. You need to see what is going on all over the world, while Nigeria continues to squelch in the mud with an illusion of development. Nothing fundamental has changed since 1999. For me, what I saw in 1962 on the streets in the South West convinced me that there is a section of the country that has the agenda to bring the whole country under its domination. Imagine, we had to fight 38 years of military rule and nothing fundamental has changed.
What propelled you to take such deadly risk of arms struggle during the June 12 crisis?
Before then, I had witnessed series of events during the operation wetie in the South West. I saw how soldiers of Northern origin shot and killed my people with glee. I was living witness. I saw people shot and the soldiers were laughing. During the June 12 crisis, I was in the United States and a friend told me that they had a good intelligence report that the June 12 election result would be annulled. I came back into the country. One day on the streets of Lagos, people came out in large numbers to protest. Suddenly, I again saw these same non-Yoruba soldiers open fire on innocent people. A lot of people fell and there was a stream of blood. The soldiers were excited. They were so happy. It happened around the Yaba area. I was a witness. Then I told myself that this had to stop. It was that day I said that the Yoruba people must fight back.
How did you organise the armed resistance?
Throughout that week, I was ill. It was sickening. I had depression due to the killings of the people that I saw on the streets of Lagos. I went back to the US. Then at a conference on poor nations that I attended in Philadelphia, there was a debate on whether Nigeria’s debt should be written off. I spoke and said that the debts should be written off. Then one adviser to President Bill Clinton stood up and said that Nigeria is one of the richest countries in the world and that one person can write off the debt. He said the solution was for Nigerians to change their leaders. Then one Fulani man stood up and said his people were born to rule and that there was no point changing the leaders. He said handing over power to the South was like committing suicide. I got up again and said that we were going to resist the hegemony and fight. He thought it was a joke. I put aside my medical research. I started reading books about dictators, about wars, about guerilla warfare. I read about Adolf Hitler, about the revolutions across the world. In the past, I had personal contact with some of the dictators like Idi Amin. I knew him. I was a lecturer at Makerere University. I also knew Museveni who was my junior in the school. I started reading about different types of arms, how to procure and ship them. I read about training guerilla and the theory and practice of combat. I pushed away all the medical books. The question then was: Will the average Yoruba person fight? So, I came back to Nigeria and started scientific research on whether or not the Yoruba would fight. I was amazed to discover that many Yoruba people were ready to carry guns and fight for their liberation. I discovered that 90 percent of people I interviewed were ready to fight if armed. I discovered that even old women and people above 70 years were ready to fight if armed.
How did you raise the money?
It was my entire savings in the US, about 4million dollars. It’s really not about money, but about determination. Museveni started with only five people. He had only one pistol. All you need is a core group of committed people. So I invited some people in Nigeria, they were enthusiastic, but when the issue of arms came, slowly, slowly, they backed down. I decided to lie low for months, then started with another group. In planning, you train ten people; the ten will train another ten people. In guerilla army, you don’t train too many people. You train them on how to access and recruit more people. So, I spent my savings on buying the arms. I bought rifles, AK-47, which is a very good rifle. If you put it in water, it would stay there for years. I bought SKS; with that you could shoot from long distance of about 1000 meters, equipped with laser beam, telescope and silencer. I bought Uzi, the Israeli weapon you could keep under your Agbada. We had machines that could cut arms too and several medical utility. I was bringing the weapons, when I was arrested in Benin Republic.
What happened, how were you arrested?
At Cotonoue, we were asked to deposit 5,000 dollars. The other option was to off-load and bring them by trailers. One custom rating saw the stub of a gun in the carton and decided to pull it out. He sent it to the gendarmes. They pounced on the containers. I was not there then. I was in Nigeria. My comrades said I should not show up in Cotononue, that they would go there and take responsibility. That was an error. One mistake I made was to go there. I came forward, with my wife, Ngozi. They ransacked the containers throughout the night. We had bullets that could penetrate armoured tanks or steel. The Benin Republic soldiers saw the weapons, but they had no such weapons in their own armoury. They actually did not know how to use the weapons. I was later arrested and detained with my comrade wife.
How did they treat you in detention?
It was traumatic. We were given gari to eat for the over one year.
Did the Sani Abacha regime get to know about your plans and what did he do?
Immediately Abacha heard, the Beninoise authorities told us Abacha was scared. He sent Col Frank Omenka of the Directorate of Military Intelligence, (DMI). The first thing they did was to arrest members of my household, including my younger brother. We were informed that Abacha could no longer sleep. He sent emissaries to me, offering 100 million dollars to the government of the Republic of Benin, to bring me back to Nigeria. The military high command in Benin Republic held a meeting and said ‘Let this man go.” But the then President of Benin Republic, said “No, we won’t allow him to go.” A top military officer came to relay everything to us that Abacha had given them 100m dollars to bring me back into Nigeria and for me to give up arms struggle. I was about to be brought to Nigeria; it was President Bill Clinton who intervened and asked Benin Republic not to deport me to Nigeria on human right grounds. The top military officer then told us that Abacha was planning to invade Benin Republic. He said this prompted the US government to send two war ships into Benin Republic, though it was said that the Clinton administration was so worried over how someone could have taken so much arms out of the US without the knowledge of the FBI or the CIA. The US intelligence community felt it was an extraordinary venture. Clinton called President Neociphoe Soglo on phone, telling him not to send us back, that if he did, he would be sending us to death. I was then taken to Wida, in the North of Benin Republic. I was begged not to escape since “you are bringing money to our country.” Each time Benin was broke, they would ask Abacha for funds, which he gladly released.
How did you secure your release?
We were not registered as prisoners, because under the ECOWAS rule, what we had were goods in transit; they could only be accompanied to the border, not opened or seized. Benin Republic had no right to inspect the goods. So, the detention was illegal. We were taken to court later and charged for attempt to overthrow the government of Benin Republic, but they had no evidence. The judge, a Yoruba woman later released us. But the Beninoise President, Soglo called the judge and asked her to order our detention. It was Abacha at work. I said this was wrong. She said it was political. We stayed for several extra months. Mathew Kerekou had become the President and the country could not pay salaries of its soldiers and police. Using us as blackmail bait, they rushed to Abacha for money again. After the third adjournment, we were released. It was Moshood Fayemiwo, a Nigerian journalist, then Publisher of Razor Magazine and former Students’ Union President of the University of Lagos that assisted me in escaping to Ghana and later to Uganda and then to Zimbabwe. It was in Ghana that I met other exiles like Dr Bunmi Aborisade who now lectures at the Afe Babalola University. He was declared wanted by Abacha regime, and many others that took refuge in Ghana at the time. In Benin Republic, there were lots of traitors. One of them was an official of the United Nations who took money from Abacha and promised he would ensure our capture.
Did Abacha stop pursuing you after your escape to Ghana?
No. As soon as we escaped to Ghana, Abacha was after us. A meeting was facilitated between me and Abacha’s aides. The meeting was held in Ghana, where Abacha’s agents offered me 50million dollars to call off the arms struggle. They asked for my account number and that the money would be paid in days. The Abacha agent said everybody has a price and that I should take the 50million dollars. He said “I have permission to offer you even a billion naira if you can give up arms struggle.”
Your arms were seized. You had no money. Why didn’t you take the 50m dollars offer?
No. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself, with my conscience. I just told him, no deal. At the negotiating table, the Fulani man said something I will never forget. He said “I’m Hausa-Fulani, for the first time I have met a Nigerian who cannot be bought.” I was contented. The game was not over. Abacha continued his witch-hunt. He sacked over 200 soldiers of Yoruba extraction. He took the Yoruba as his enemy. I had to flee to Uganda.
When did you return to Nigeria?
I came back in June 1999.
How have you been coping?
It’s been really tough. I’m now suffering from a type of leukemia. It is a kind of cancer that affects parts of the blood cells when it goes crazy. They displace some cells in the marrow.
What happened? How did you discover that you had cancer?
It happened some years ago when I travelled to the United States. It was through a routine check that the physician discovered that I had this kind of blood cancer.
How have you been treating the disease?
It requires a costly treatment like all cancers and I don’t have any money. The drugs are expensive. You need Ritusimah or Ritusin or Bendamusin. One vile is 10,000 dollars. I will need about six vile. It is a specially prepared drug which kills the cancer cells that contain CB 20. I need series of treatments over a period of six months. The experts have said that I need between six to eight million naira, going by the various drugs and the tests. There are so many cancers of the blood. This is just one variety of the blood cancer.
Does it mean that no help has been forthcoming from any one?
Well, I have not told many people. I thought I could raise money from friends but they are not forthcoming.
One would expect you to have had some savings, having worked for so many years as a Professor of Human Anatomy?
I worked at the Obafemi Awolowo University as a lecturer until the early 1990s. But I didn’t get my gratuity. I worked at a private university; I also was not paid my entitlements. I have worked all my years without entitlements. The one I got in the US was what I plunged into the liberation struggle.
You are the immediate younger brother of the late Col Victor Banjo. What do you think of his place in history?
There have been a lot of distortions about Nigerian history. For instance, Prof Grace Alele Williams, when the Federal Government gave her an award, was listed as the first Nigerian woman professor. This is not correct. My elder sister who is still alive, Prof Adetoun, is the first woman Professor in Nigeria and in Africa. My eldest brother, Dr Ademola Adebanjo, was the first General Manager of the old Electricity Commission of Nigeria, the precursor of National Electricity Power Authority, NEPA. He was the best student in the world among those who sat for the London GCE in 1948. My immediate elder brother, Col Victor Banjo, was a brilliant engineer and soldier. He was the first Nigerian military engineer. He was arrested and detained by Gen Aguiyi Ironsi. He found himself on the side of Odumegwu Ojukwu. I can tell you that Col Banjo was responsible for the design of all the locally made military weapons of Biafra. He did the design and construction: the bunker, the armoured tanks and all the ingenuity. He was an engineer and was responsible for converting tractors and other equipment into military equipment in Biafra. He was instrumental to the building of Ojukwu bunker as an engineer. Biafra has failed to acknowledge his skill and inventions and in fact consciously subverted it. He was one of the best graduating students of his set in England.
Why did he lead the campaign to invade his own fatherland?
The Yoruba had very few people in the then Nigerian fighting force. This is the first time I’m releasing this information. The first Nigerian Engineering Ordinance was to be established in Ibadan, Col Banjo was to be the head. The idea was to manufacture military weapons locally in Ibadan. During the war before he came to Ore, my brother had plans to defend and protect the Yoruba people, even as Northern soldiers were stationed across Yorubaland. Col Banjo made secret arrangement to ship arms into Yorubaland from one of the Nordic countries. The arms were actually on board. He was working on establishing the first military ordinance in Yorubaland. He had also started to train about 200 members of a core group that would defend Yorubaland under his command. I think at a point……..(breaks the conversation)”
When was the last time you saw Col Banjo before his unfortunate execution?
He was executed by Col Odumegwu Ojukwu. I saw him some months before he was detained. But we were communicating with him throughout the time of his detention until he was murdered by Biafra.
Did you ever find out where he was buried?
We did our own private investigation. He was buried in Enugu. We know.
As it is now, what is your dream of a greater Nigeria?
For development to make any meaning in Nigeria, we must go back to the old regions. We need a loose federation. The emergence of any decent or honest man as president is not the issue. There is something fundamentally wrong with the foundation. We need to rebuild the foundation for any meaningful development to take place. The world has left us behind. For instance, scientists have just discovered the gene that is responsible for aging and they want to tamper with it to be able to increase the lifespan of man. Here, we are still talking about basic needs like light, water; what kind of development is that? What we have are people looting the country dry and blind without sanctions. For me, I’m most concerned with the Yoruba people and their leaders. We must realise that freedom is not free. People who desire freedom must be able to make sacrifices. We cannot get the best without fighting for the best, without suffering, without sweat, without making sacrifices, if possible, death. If we want good life without any effort, it is like expecting to harvest without planting and tilling the soil. There is nothing more difficult to handle today, nor more daunting, nor more inevitable than to establish a new order in Nigeria, through restructuring for regional autonomy.