Pa Yemi Ogunderu is the father of Richard Ogunderu, one of the teenagers who hijacked a Nigerian Airways plane in 1993 in protest against the annulment of the 1993 presidential widely believed to have been won by the late MKO Abiola. Ogunderu recounts the incident in this interview with TEMITOPE ADETUNJI
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Yemi Ogunderu. I am a man living a quiet life. I am a lover of people; I love meeting people. (I am) a father and a grandfather.
Your son, Richard, along with three other youths, became a public sensation in 1993 after hijacking a plane in protest against the annulment of that year’s presidential election. How old was Richard at the time and was he a student then?
Richard was 19 years old at that time. He was born in August 1974. He is about 48 years now. As of then, he was nursing the ambition of becoming an aeronautic engineer.
Did he ever discuss the plan to hijack a plane with you?
In fact, up to this moment, it is still shocking to me; I had no idea whatsoever.
How did you hear about the incident and what was your immediate reaction?
It was the rudest shock of my life because Richard was never a violent child and I could not have expected such from a child like that. He is an easygoing person; he is a lover of good things.
That means you never knew he was capable of such a daring thing as hijacking a plane.
No. Like I said earlier, he is an easy-going being; he doesn’t fight, he loves to dress fine, he is intelligent and brilliant. But what I can also say about him is that he is strong-willed; he is a person of his mind. He is the kind of person that when he holds to a position, you can hardly make him shift except you come up with a superior argument.
What is Richard’s position among your children?
Richard is the second of my five children and he is the only male. We used to relate like brothers, the bond of the father and son was really strong; I love him so much. I never believed he could engage in anything that he could keep away from me. Except the hijack of a thing, he was always very open to me.
Did he discuss his future ambition or plan with you?
Yes, he discussed with me that he wanted to be an aeronautic engineer. I did my search at that time and I discovered that no tertiary institution in Nigeria offered that course; so I discussed with him on the alternatives, such as joining the Nigerian Air Force. I told him he could use that as leverage and push forward from there. I thought then that he could even be trained as a navigator at the Nigerian Air Force but he turned down the idea; he said he didn’t want to have anything to do with the military.
So, as of the time of the incident, we were actually thinking about or looking for how to get an admission for him in a foreign institution.
Did you know his three other friends prior to the incident?
I never really met any of them except that I had seen one of them, Kabiru Adenuga. I had met him like on one or two occasions before the incident, but there was no interaction at all.
Your son and the other boys were later arrested and jailed for nine years in Niger Republic. How soon after the incident did you set eyes on him?
I came to know about the hijack after I, myself, was arrested. I heard about the incident in the news but I didn’t know my son was involved. I was following the news and heard about the release of the passengers, including women, children and non-government officials by the hijackers. I was following everything until that very day when I heard on the radio that the hijackers had been identified and arrested. It was that very evening that I was picked up.
Who picked you up?
I was actually arrested by the Directorate of Military Intelligence, but I didn’t immediately know the identity of those who arrested me. I was picked up not very far from my residence at Surulere, off Adelabu Street (Lagos) and detained. I didn’t know where I was taken to until after 18 days. I spent a total of 70 days in detention. All I knew was that where I was being detained was near the ocean. I couldn’t see outside but I could feel the impact of the ocean waves behind the window of the room where I was locked up. It was about 18 days later that I discovered that I was being detained on the premises of Bonny Camp and that I was actually arrested by the Directorate of Military Intelligence. I spent about 67 or 68 days at Bonny Camp from where I was moved to Alagbon Close, where I spent another two or three days before I was eventually released.
My only offence was that I am Richard’s father, even though I didn’t do anything wrong. But their investigation later showed that I knew nothing about the incident and they themselves mentioned it that they were convinced that I knew nothing about it.
Were you allowed to communicate with your family after you were arrested?
When I was picked up, no one knew anything about my arrest immediately but they became aware later. You should imagine what the family would have suffered. While in detention, sometimes they would call out me to face a panel for interrogation.
At what point did they tell you the reason for your arrest?
I wasn’t immediately told why I was arrested until much later. I didn’t see my son until January 1994. I visited Niger Republic, and I was the only parent who visited. Other parents knew I was going to visit the guys, but they didn’t come with me. But before I visited the boys, one man, Comrade Shina Odugbemi, had visited them earlier.
What kind of conversation did you have with your son during the visit?
Going to Benin Republic to see the boys was like an adventure for me because I had never been to the Republic of Niger for anything before. I actually went there by road because of the fear of being picked up at the airport. I went through Sokoto and when I eventually got to Niger Republic, the first thing I did was to look for human rights organisations there. It is a French-speaking country and that presented me with another challenge, because communication wasn’t really easy. But at the end of the day, I was able to find a human rights organization and met the president of the organisation.
One of the top men in the human right organisation was assigned to accompany me to the places I was supposed to visit in Niger Republic concerning the case. The man served as an interpreter between me and the Nigerien authorities; he even took me to the office of the Attorney General of Niger Republic. The journey began from there and I was able to visit Niamey Prison where the young men were kept. The human rights organisation gave me all the support I needed.
What was your meeting with Richard like?
You yourself would be able to imagine what my feelings were immediately I set my eyes on him. Well, I was so happy to see all the boys alive, including Richard. When my son hugged me, you can imagine how emotional that moment would be. I was highly emotional but he told me not to feel too bad, that it was fair for them to pay a price for what they did.
Did he regret his action?
Even up till now, he never regretted. His only regret is that he felt he could have stayed back in Niger Republic, where he had become a household name, because he did a lot of things there – he established a library and a mini school in the prison. He got awards.
Can you recall what the trial leading to their incarceration was? Did you witness it?
I am not the type that gives in so easily; no matter the amount of pressure, I hold my head up. Right from the point of my release, I didn’t rest; I was making contacts both in Nigeria and outside to ensure that the young men were not mistreated. And I must commend the authorities in Niger Republic; they were quite civil with the boys. They recognised them not as common criminals but as prisoners of conscience and they accorded them that respect, but, you know, prison is prison.
I visited Niger Republic twice. Their trial didn’t happen early. For years, they were treated like political detainees and the court trial, to the best of my knowledge, came up to avoid international criticism over their long detention. So, they just had to carry out the trial to justify keeping them for so long in prison. The trial came at the tail end of the whole saga when they were about to be released. They had to carry out the trial to justify keeping them for so long. The sentence that was passed on them was just few months short of their release.
One thing I can say is that they wouldn’t have been released if (the late General Sani) Abacha were to still be in government at the time. Abacha saw them as (the late MKO) Abiola’s boys and bringing them to Nigeria would have been too dangerous for them. So, with the help of some important personalities and the international community, we were able to prevail on the Niger Republic authorities not to release the boys to the Nigerian government; the Nigerian authorities were actually demanding their incarceration. So, we thank God that influential voices were able to help; so they were not released to the Nigerian authorities, perhaps they would have been killed.
Can you recall your reunion with him after he finished serving his jail term in the Republic of Niger?
It was so great and it was the same with the families of the other young men but the only regret they might have now is not staying back in Niger Republic because they said they ought to have stayed back. Richard was already relating well with them and some of them even offered him scholarships. Richard came to Nigeria because he was missing home. When he got to Nigeria what he met wasn’t encouraging, the situation of the country was bad, and it was really unfortunate.
What has he been up to after regaining his freedom?
Well, he actually worked with PRONACO, a pan-Nigerian movement initiated under the leadership of the late Chief Anthony Enahoro and Professor Wole Soyinka.
An online report has it that he’s currently ill after being attacked in Badagry. What actually happened to him?
Yes, that is true; his kneecap was broken by the attackers – soldiers. They were not in uniform. I think they misinterpreted his message because that activism attitude is still part of Richard.
Richard’s condition is critical right now. The first surgery we did on Victoria Island was badly done, making one leg to be longer than the other. We’ve been told to go for a major surgery, which will cost about N4.5m.
Richard has also suffered depression because of the way things turned out for him. Medical experts have also advised that Richard should go for a comprehensive rehabilitation programme. He needs the assistance of anyone that can be of help to get better treatment; his kneecap was broken by the attackers.
It’s about 29 years after the plane hijack in defence of democracy. Looking at the current state of the nation, do you think what your son and his friends did was worth it?
You will agree with me that what the young men did at that time was a suicide mission. They were not armed with weapons; what they had on them were actually plastic shotguns. If there had been a kind of reaction from the military men on board, they would have died. Who says the Niger Republic authorities wouldn’t have killed them if they had their way?
Well, I think we, as Nigerians, we all have an answer to the question. We should ask ourselves if it is worth it.