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04.04.2024 Featured INTERVIEW: Cuffed, Blindfolded… How Nigerian Editor Landed in Underground Military Cell Over Story Linking Gbajabiamila to $30b Loot

Published 4th Apr, 2024

By Opeyemi Lawal

On March 15, unidentified armed men arrested Segun Olatunji, the editor of FirstNews, from his home in Lagos. They held him for two weeks until his release on March 28. He describes his arrest, the people behind it, the reason and his experience in this interview with FIJ.

When and where were you arrested?

I was arrested on Friday, March 15, 2024, in my Alagbado, Lagos, residence.

Who arrested you?

I was arrested by a combined team of over 20 heavily armed military men, comprising the army, the air force, the strike force, the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) operatives and others in plain clothes.

How exactly did the arrest happen?

It was an ugly situation, a gestapo-like operation, which means using a combination of surveillance, intimidation, fear and torture against someone accused of state crimes.

On that Friday, March 15, well-armed military men, comprising Army, Air Force, Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) and Strike Force operatives, stormed my residence in Lagos a few minutes after 6 pm. I had just finished watching the popular television programme, Journalists Hangout, on TVC with my seven-year-old son.

The military men had earlier arrested my wife and our 16-month-old baby and another woman and her two young children who were found with them in her shop nearby, confiscated her two cell phones, bundled all of them into their van and forced them to lead the armed men to our residence.

Upon their arrival in my house, the armed men burst into our living room and their leader immediately confiscated my two phones and said, “We’re from the military. We’re here to arrest you!” When I asked him to identify himself and produce a warrant for my arrest, he just insisted they had orders to effect my arrest and they had no time to waste.

I then told them they should allow me to go into the bedroom to put on a shirt and trousers, as I was only in my boxer shots when they came in. Some of the armed soldiers then escorted me inside the bedroom, where I quickly dressed up and followed them. By the time we got outside the house, I saw more armed men in about three or four military vehicles and on power bikes. The armed men then quickly shoved me inside a van in the middle of their convoy.

Inside the van, two stern-looking armed men hemmed me on both sides. Attempts by my wife to ascertain from my abductors where they were taking me were rebuffed by the stern-looking men and their boss, who I later identified as Col. Lawal.

My wife and our two young children then started wailing as the armed men drove me away in their vehicles. At this point, I was overwhelmed by emotions seeing my wife and children crying, and I, too, broke into tears inside of me. It was a harrowing experience for me and my family because my wife and children had now become traumatised by this incident. They had never seen such a large number of armed men in their lives, not to talk of the situation where these men actually came and suddenly took away their breadwinner to an unknown destination in such a gestapo-like manner.

In fact, I felt dejected seeing my wife and children crying and begging the armed men not to take me away. It was more or less a commando operation against a defenceless and unarmed journalist. The show of force by the armed men numbering over 20 was not only frightening but also embarrassing to me because innocent residents of my neighbourhood were terrified seeing such a large number of armed men. Many of the people had to scamper to safety in order not to be caught up in any possible incident of accidental discharge from the guns of the heavily armed men in the course of my arrest.

READ ALSO: 15 Nigerian Soldiers Abduct First News Editor Segun Olatunji

I understand you were released in Abuja. Was that where you were first taken to?

None of the armed men who came to arrest me gave any hint about where I was being taken. They had no time for such niceties. They were stern and fierce-looking.

At first, I thought they were taking me to the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) in Apapa, Lagos, a military detention facility notorious for violating human rights and killing innocent citizens in the days of military rule in Nigeria. But when the convoy got to the Sam Ethan Base of the Nigerian Air Force in Ikeja, they entered the facility and drove straight to the front of the office of the National Air Defence Corps beside the base’s hangar, where I was handcuffed and held in the van for more than three hours with some of the armed men taking turns to watch over me. That was when it dawned on me that I was about to be flown to Abuja.

Afterwards, the journey began, and I was driven close to the hangar inside the Nigerian Air Force Base in Ikeja, where I was handcuffed. By then, the day had got dark, and shortly afterwards, a light military aircraft landed, and one of the armed men suddenly removed my eyeglasses and pulled a blindfold over my face. They then immediately dragged me into the military aircraft. I was handcuffed and blindfolded inside the aircraft and throughout the over one-hour fight to where I later learned was Abuja. I guess I was on that flight with only Col. Lawal, who led the operation for my abduction, and another soldier detailed to keep watch over me.

What were some of the unusual things you heard while in captivity?

I was in an underground military dungeon, so you could hardly hear anything at all. All I was concerned about was my family, my safety and my freedom.

Segun Olatunji, editor of FirstNews

What did they say your offence was?

Well, I was not interrogated until three days after my arrest and detention by the DIA in Abuja in an underground cell with hand and leg cuffs, which were not loosened until the right part of my body was becoming numb. Up until now, I still feel the numbness on my right hand and leg.

The three stern-looking DIA investigators who grilled me accused me, firstly, of abusing Major Gen. Emmanuel Undiandeye, the Chief of Defence Intelligence, in a story published on the website of FirstNews as personalising his office. Whatever they meant by that, I don’t know. But they later also questioned me about why we published a story in January about how Femi Gbajabiamila, the Chief of Staff to the President of Nigeria, attempted to corner the sum of $ 30 billion and 66 landed properties traced by Jim Obazee, President Tinubu’s special investigator, to one Tunde Sabiu Yusuf, a former aide to the immediate past President Muhammadu Buhari.

Interestingly, the DIA investigators didn’t contest the truth of the Gbajabiamila story but were mainly concerned about my sources for the story. They insisted I disclose to them my sources in Aso Rock for the story and even what FirstNews had done on the happenings in the nation’s highest corridors of power. They told me they were sure I had “insiders” in the Nigerian presidency who had been feeding us with information.

The DIA investigators also accused me of terrorism. This accusation I don’t understand because I can’t comprehend how it fits into the purview of their investigation of my published stories. I believe they were just trying to give a dog a bad name to hang it. However, before I was brought in for questioning, the DIA investigators had already ransacked my two phones that were seized from me on March 15, when the soldiers arrested me from my residence, in search of my sources for the Gbajabiamila story and others. It would interest you to know that my two cell phones seized from me on March 15 were not returned to me until that moment, when I was released from detention after 14 harrowing days! Earlier, they forced me to give them the passwords to my cell phones, which gave them access to the devices throughout my detention.

Why did they release you?

They must have released me mainly due to the pressures from my colleagues in the media, our professional bodies and, above all, God the Almighty.

What was the condition for your release?

The only condition in my bail bond signed by my friend, Yomi Odunuga, whom they released me to, was that I had to be made available in court whenever necessary.

READ ALSO: There Are ‘2 Or 3 Weighty Allegations’ Against Soyombo, Says Police Spokesman

What were some of the things they subjected you to in detention?

Immediately after the plane landed in Abuja, we hurriedly disembarked, and I was thrown into a military vehicle and now placed in the middle of about two armed soldiers, and then the journey to their office began. I was still handcuffed and blindfolded.

When we got to their office or barracks, I guess at about midnight or so, Col. Lawal immediately handed me over to an officer on duty, who quickly stripped me of my trousers and put cuffs on my legs, too. The officer then dragged me into a dark underground building, where I was thrown into a dark cell with the hand and leg cuffs still not loosened. My cell, Cell 6, was immediately locked up with big padlocks.

I was left in the dark cell, groaning from the pain from the hand and leg cuffs. Shortly after, an officer came and even tightened the cuffs on my right hand and leg, causing me very severe pain. They left me in that terrible, painful state for about three days.

After the officer left, I heard the other inmates discussing in low tones that for me to have been so chained, I must have been a hardened criminal or committed a heinous crime against the Nigerian Government. That threw great fear into me. By the time my hand and leg cuffs were loosened after three days, the right part of my body was already becoming numb due to the improper flow of blood in that part of my body. Till now, my right hand and leg are still numb from the pain, despite receiving medical treatment upon my release.

Some of the officers handling the inmates did threaten me a couple of times. For instance, when I first told them I would not want to be fed in detention with beans because of my ulcer, they said then I would not be given any food anytime beans was to be served to the inmates.

Inmates, including myself, most of the time, were not allowed to complain or report any inconvenience. The officers would often shun any inmate with complaints. After a few days in detention, my ulcer problem got worse, but my persistent demand to be taken to see the doctor was rebuffed by the officers in charge.

Honestly, my life is no longer safe! I said this at a world press conference jointly addressed in Abuja by the International Press Institute (IPI), the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) shortly after my release from detention by the DIA. My family, too, is not safe.

Before I was released, some of the soldiers warned me that I should know they had all my information and knew where I could be picked up again if I said anything after my freedom. Since the day of my arrest, my wife and children left our residence out of fear that the soldiers might come back or anything untoward might happen to them. And their fear is genuine. Since my release from detention, I have avoided the house, too. I now live like a refugee.

Currently, my family is scattered, as we all now live in separate places for fear of being harmed by those who sent the armed men to arrest me.

More so, given the warnings to me by the DIA investigators before I was set free from detention, I no longer feel secure as a citizen of the Nigerian state. I now frequently look behind my shoulders whenever I’m on the streets for fear of being abducted again by these armed men or their agents. In my case now, safety of my life is key. Of course, I’ve been advised by many of my colleagues, who fear for my safety, to immediately begin to consider my security as top priority, if I cherish my life.

My life is the most important to me and my family, and I have to be alive to cater to their needs. But my precarious situation now caused by my illegal arrest from my home on March 15 by some heavily armed men and the horrendous experience of my two-week detention in an underground military dungeon have seriously shaken my confidence in the Nigerian security system to guarantee the safety of my life.

As I said earlier, I have to be alive to serve my society as a journalist and also take care of my family. Just as I said earlier, my life is not safe anymore. I’ve become an endangered specie due to my recent ordeal at the hands of the military and their civilian/political masters, who – it’s now very clear from my recent detention experience – can order them to do and undo using even scarce state resources and machinery. My heart is no longer settled. I’m now haunted by the fear of being abducted again and detained or even eliminated outright by these armed state agents.

The manner the DIA released me to the representatives of the journalists’ associations has even created more fear in my heart. I was released to them like kidnappers would release their victim to their family members who have brought them ransom in exchange for the victim. I was released to the associations’ representatives, not in the DIA office or facility.

On Thursday, March 28, the DIA had earlier agreed to release me to my friend and brother, Yomi Odunuga, who is a senior journalist, around the ECOWAS secretariat in Abuja. He got to the agreed venue early in the company of Dr Iyorbosa Uwughiaren, the Secretary General of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), to await the arrival of the DIA agents, who were bringing me to them for my release. He called to inform them he was already at the agreed venue. At that point, I was immediately blindfolded by the DIA agents into a pickup van and placed in the middle of two of their officers in the back seat, while another officer sat in the front seat of the vehicle, which drove roughly through the morning traffic. After driving for a while, the DIA officers called Yomi and asked him to leave the ECOWAS secretariat area and now drive towards the DSS Abuja office, where he’ll find us. As he was doing that, the DIA officers called him again and asked him to change course and to now drive towards a particular road, where he would now see the van they were conveying me in.

A few minutes later, they called him again to change his movement towards a particular bridge. At this point, I was gripped with a fresh fear due to the manner they kept changing the spot where they would release me. Eventually, the van stopped and parked under a bridge along the lonely road. Shortly, Yomi’s car was ordered by the DIA officers to park behind their own van. It was at this point the DIA officers quickly pulled off the blindfold on my face to prevent those who had come to secure my release from seeing this. They, however, eventually released me to Yomi and the NGE Secretary General after they had signed my bail bond. This is still unnerving to me! Each time I recall this particular incident, I’m gripped with serious fears about these armed state agents. They can do and undo, especially with anyone in their custody.

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Published 4th Apr, 2024

By Opeyemi Lawal

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