Radical Activists Have Abandoned Nigerians At the Political Sea, Says ‘Maradona’ (Part 1)
His name sent jitters into the mind of vice-chancellors and the security establishment in those days. Even radical politicians approached to help intervene in getting him out of travails were not too enthusiastic. Obviously, the secret service had spread damaging words about him enough to dissuade such people from assisting. So, he had only God to take up his case. And God did. The judge of the court he was taken to as a student union leader refused to convict him for criminal infraction which was what the state security wanted. The Judge said he too had a child and that he could not do such a thing to somebody with a future. He equally hinted the activist extraordinaire how he had more enemies than he thought. Today too, Steve Aluko Daniel, more popularly known as Maradona can say “I am happily married by the grace of God”. The SSS at that time almost succeeded in making the wedding impossible because their security report told them that it was not going to be any wedding but a pretext to organise a mass protest. God, the media and comrades made it impossible for security to burst the marriage. In this interview with Intervention, Maradona, now the Regional Director of the Civil Liberties Organisation, (CLO) relieves those ugly days when he was haunted, how he eventually got a first degree in Public Administration and a Masters in Law and Diplomacy. In the second part of this interview tomorrow, Maradona tells us his worries about NANS of today, about his shift to becoming a pastor, the challenge before Christian leaders in Nigeria, etc.
For over two years in the early 1990s, your travails in the hands of the authorities was at the centre of student unionism throughout Nigeria. How do you understand what was going on then?
Several things and forces were at work but you can summarise it by saying it was attempt by state security to deradicalise student unionism at ABU, Zaria. Their belief at that time was that if you succeeded in taming student unionism in ABU, Zaria, then you have got the rest of the campuses. The larger goal was to cripple radical student movement. The state agents carried a report that I was heading to become NANS President in 1992 and they figured that if that happened, they were going to have escalation of radical agitation across the campuses. The element of fear and the unknown made them to think that if you were the president of NANS, you could just generate agitation at will. It was either they did not know how NANS worked or they were looking for a cheap way out. But there were also elements who felt that I was a southern agent on a mission of destabilising the north through ABU, Zaria. All these tied up to another security report which said that we were accomplices to a coup in which our role was to cause confusion and then provide ground for a coup against Babangida.
Was that true?
It was a figment of their own imagination. Those people have a way of concocting or framing things to suit their real agenda. But they got us by chance. There was a protest that erupted on something else which tended to confirm what they were writing. But it was nothing but coincidence because the protest was not even on the type of issues over which NANS would call for action. It was an ordinary protest driven by larger student interest but people in government didn’t make such distinctions.
How did all start? I mean, how did you come by ABU and then entry into student unionism?
Coming to ABU, Zaria was a deliberate choice. I had been expelled from Kwara Poly where I was studying for Advanced level papers. It was called IJMB then and it was administered by ABU, Zaria. But, ideologically, ABU, Zaria had its own attraction and I said it was the next place to go, very much against my parent’s wishes. And after the 100 level, I was already a student leader.
You were expelled from Kwara Poly. What happened there?
I was a one man riot squad in the school. Anything that happened against the interests of students would attract my attention and I could even carry it up to the Rector. At a point, there was a water crisis. I was not even involved because I was not on campus that week. And it was a spontaneous thing. Even though they knew I was not involved, they said it was my handwork. So, they expelled me and detained me for two days at the Central Police Station, Ilorin until my father came to bail me out with an undertaking not to let me out of the house unless I was going out to fulfil the bail condition of reporting daily.
How did you get to ABU then?
After the expulsion, I wrote Advanced level papers but if I brought it out, my father would have used it to get me admission into the University of Ilorin because that was what he wanted. Since I did not want to go anywhere but ABU, I hid that result and wrote JAMB. At that point, he had no choice than to let me go to Zaria. He made me sign an undertaking not to get involved in student unionism but even before the end of my first year in Zaria, I was already involved. I had become a member of the Youth Solidarity on South Africa and so on. I had no option to going by my conviction.
Your father was doing what?
He was an instructor at Kwara Poly. He is dead now.
How did the state security service report end up?
We survived it but the stigma became attached to the student movement. That provided a convergence of common interest for all our enemies – the military establishment, the northern elements and the university authority.
What were the issues involved?
They alleged that I was not even a student, that I did not register. They said I had been expelled from another institution previously and that I was an enemy of the state.
Did they believe these because issue of registration cannot come up after one year!
Well, I think they did. They carried it to the logical conclusion. That showed to me that they believed themselves. Even when I was in detention, the allegations were well circulated. They even said I was an armed robber. In 1992, they finally took me to court with three charges. The first one was that I stole a Walkie-talkie and N45 belonging to the university security staff who arrested me. That time, the ABU, Zaria security was funded by the Presidency. So, they could afford many things which were not common elsewhere. The second was that I trespassed into ABU and the third was incitement and public disturbance. But it was not a one-off thing. I was taken to different courts different times, from the Area Court, the Magistrate Court and the High Court with different charges. These were happening between 1992 and 1994. At the end of the day, the Judge said there was pressure on him to convict me on criminal grounds. That way, my future would have been closed. He said he could not do that because he also had children and would not want unjust conviction for him. So, he convicted me for incitement and public disturbance and the jail term was to run concurrently. There was option of fine which the students, to their greatest surprise, paid immediately. The problem came when the judge changed the judgment from running concurrently to running respectively but by then, I already had the original judgment which had the concurrency pronouncement. Well, he did say at a point that I had more enemies than I thought, stressing how ‘they’ wanted me criminalised so that I could never be a factor in future.
Did you serve the jail term?
As I told you earlier, the case lasted from 1992 to August 1994. By the time the judgment was given, I had only 20 days to complete two prison years in Zaria prison. But after the conviction, the students paid. Technically, I did not serve the jail term but, in truth, I had served the term because I had been in and out of the jail house. At a point, the information I had was that any policeman who could identify me was obliged to pick me up and dump me in detention. In the end that was what happened. This time, after the conviction, I moved straight into ABU campus. That was the only way to deny the SSS the opportunity to be able to grab me. I was actually advised to go underground. But even that lasted only a few months before I was re-arrested on the charge that I wanted to bomb Abacha. They said I was the one who planted the bomb in Ilorin Stadium and Durbar Hotel in Kaduna. So, I must be the first person to be arrested for bomb planting in this country.
What did you make of that?
I suspect they were unhappy that the Judge had his own independent mind and hadn’t done what they wanted. But, in other to avoid scandal, they left him alone and began to find other ways. That is what I thought and still thinks. Otherwise, I was not anywhere near Ilorin. I was in Zaria.
And how did that end?
I was detained by the SSS for over a month. According to them, they were under Al-Mustapha’s instructions to take me to Abuja. The following day, they said I was now to be dealt with in Kaduna. I probably might not have come out alive if I were taken to Abuja.
What then happened?
They asked me questions, they traced me to whatever contacts I had, they conducted searches.
What did they find?
They found nothing. They searched everywhere I was connected to. In fact, at a point, they volunteered the report for me to read. At another time, they told me I had two minutes to sign that I planned to bomb the president and his wife or be blasted out of existence. The gun was there and it was for real. I got out of SSS only by divine intervention. It was God because some people there were determined to do me in. Even when I was released, the director said I was not to grant any interview. But I did exactly the opposite because that was the only way I could tell the world that these people were telling lies about me.
Did they come for you again?
I think they had to mellow because it looked to me that some of them began to think they were over doing the thing. They would tell me, why do you travel a lot and getting involved in student movement and pro-democracy activities again?
How did the romance finally end?
I started working with the Civil Liberties Organisation, (CLO) and what it stands for has been my line since then. But during the launch of the Democratic Alternative, (DA) in Jos, they came for everybody and got me along with the late Alao Aka-Bashorun, the former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, (NBA) and some two others. After two days, the NBA Chairperson for Plateau, it was a lady then, came to bail us after signing an undertaking that we were not returning to Jos again.
Was this the point you decided to settle down?
It was at the peak of being on the wanted list of Abacha that I found my wife. But the SSS would not allow it. Their security report was that there was not going to be any wedding. They said it was a fake marriage, a pretext to organise a mass protest. They were at the marriage. People from the Directorate of Military Intelligence were also there. Their pressure was so powerful that the original pastor scheduled to conduct the wedding locked his church and ran away. But God protected us. Nobody could arrest us. I will always be grateful to God and the media and our comrades. Baba Omojola was physically there. Mrs Ola Oni was the Chairperson. The late Barrister Bamidele Aturu was there. We were ready to be arrested. That day remains fresh in my memory.
All these took place over a decade ago. Have you reflected on everything?
The issues we were warning against, the issues we were fighting for are still there. But they said we were troublesome people. Now, nobody knows the way forward. They have no answers to the problems we were warning them. They destroyed the student movement and as nature abhors a vacuum, terrorists and cultists have taken up the space they created. Can you imagine terrorists and terrorism in Nigeria when NANS was NANS? It is not possible. So, our leaders have carried political blindness too far. What was there in NANS that the government didn’t want? You were the Secretary-General of NANS and later, you were in government. Tell me what was in NANS that the government was afraid of. These are questions we need to resolve and build consensus on. I have had to contest election but the powers that be would not allow me. At the 2014 Political Conference called by Jonathan, I was a civil society representative from the North Central and we found the issues to be the same issues we were fighting for; issues of misgovernance, corruption, lack of academic atmosphere, funding and freedom. You need to fund your universities if you don’t want terrorism. If the majority of the citizens are properly educated, they can irritate leaders with newspaper criticisms but they will never become terrorists and agents of horror. These are issues begging for resolution but we are trying to sweep them under the carpet.
Do you have any regrets in going through what happened to you?
My only regret is that the activists didn’t take advantage of our fight. Our activists should apologise to the Nigerian people for leading them to the sea and abandoning then when our services were most needed. Activists are simply guilty of taking two steps forward and four backward. If we took the lead, we won’t have what we are experiencing today whereby corrupt people are leading us into further corruption.