OGBOMOSO'S DAY OF 1.000 GUNS
The headline may not be exactly correct, for I did not see a thousand guns. But, I saw much I could not count, that I feel safe to assume would number a thousand. And it was not at a gun fair, or a military parade either. The guns I saw were on cheap display on the streets of Ogbomoso, hometown of the Oyo State Governor Adebayo Alao-Akala and the second largest town in the state after Ibadan.
The deadly weapons came in various shapes, sizes and looks. From the ugly looking assault riffles, hunting shot guns, to the menacing AK 47, double barrel revolvers, pump guns, machine guns, barretta pistols and the sophisticated ones cuddle like toys by State Security Service (SSS) operatives for which I have no names for.
For several hours, terrifying staccato of shots sporadically issued from these guns as their handlers- political touts, thugs, policemen and SSS agents, who filled the streets ensured they were not idle. Ogbomoso was under siege, seized by contending political forces alligned on one side of the governor and on the other the factional leaders of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the state led by former governor, Senator Rashidi Ladoja, Senator Lekan Balogun and Senate Leader Teslim Folarin.
Dateline was Friday, November 4, 2010. It was a political rally organized by the PDP factional leaders in collaboration with the Ogbomoso Stakeholders Forum (OSF), a coalition of political bigwigs in the town that cuts across party lines, but all united in their opposition to the second term bid of the governor. Similar rallies had been successfully held in Ibadan and Oyo town in the past weeks campaigning for Akala's rejection.
There was reason to suspect the Ogbomoso edition would not be as an omellete-making affair for the group. Besides being in his home-base, Ogunlola (Town) Hall, appointed as venue for the occasion, falls within Ogbomoso North Local Government, Akala's stronghold, where he, in fact, began his political career as council chairman. Surely, it was to be expected that the governor's camp would resist this apparent attempt at spiting and portraying him as lacking home support. Many of my colleagues covering the state were reluctant to travel to Ogbomoso to cover the rally, citing possible violent clash between supporters of the two groups as an excuse.
In the morning of the fateful day, I boarded an Ogbomoso-bound vehicle at Ojoo Motor Park, Ibadan, having taken the precaution not to go in private or official car for fear of molestation. There was no sign of any trouble as I rode into town, until I reached Takie, the bus terminus. There, the entire area was in pandemonium as fierce-looking youths and hoodlums armed with guns, machetes, battle axes, daggers and other dangerous weapons, paraded the streets shooting sporadically.
Many of them, wearing charms and amulets stopped motorists and checked their passengers. Others stoked bonfires which smoke billowed skywards. Similar scenarios were playing out at Apake, Isale Ora and Ojagbo, where the organizers of the rally were to pay homage to the town's paramount ruler, the Soun of Ogbomoso, Oba Jimoh Ajagungbade II.
Akala's henchmen were at work to abort the rally. The streets were partially deserted, with few opened shops, whose owners appeared ready to close at the slightest excuse. The programme was billed to start at 11.00am. It was past 10 o'clock in the morning. I quickly disembarked, and put a good distance between me and the scene. I was confused where to go as I learnt that the rioting was hotter near the venue.
I concluded the rally could not hold again and decided to leave the town after safely watching developments for a while.
To be sure, however, I phoned one of the political heavy weights expected from Ibadan , intimated him with the situation on ground and inquired if Ladoja and company would still be coming, Defiantly, he answered in affirmative, assuring that they were even already on their way.
A chance meeting with a resident led me to the house of one of the OSF stalwarts, Temilola Adibi, some meters away from Takie. There was a large crowd of supporters in the expansive compound. Adibi said they were waiting for the police and other security agents to restore order before leaving for the rally.
He informed that the rally had been shifted to the country home of prominent leader of the group, Chief Ayo Adeseun, in Onipanu Village , Iresadu, Surulere Local Government, due to the last minute denial of permission to use the original venue, Ogunmlola (town) hall, by the Ogbomoso North Local Government authorities. According to a letter signed by one Mrs. S.O. Giwa on behalf of the council chairman, a copy produced by Adibi, the council disapproved the use of the hall, on the ground that the 'organization has not registered with the local government council.'
It advised the organizers to find an alternative venue for the programme.
Adibi said the excuse was a smokescreen to stop the rally, noting that the letter was only served on them on the eve of the rally, although they had applied several days before. The former Alliance for Democracy (AD) House of Representatives member, who defected to the PDP and the secretary to the OSF, Comrade Dokun Alamu, accused the council area leadership of the PDP fomenting trouble in order to thwart the programme.
Alamu revealed that the SSS and police high command in the state had held series of meetings, with the two factions during the week to broker peace, following adverse security reports.
He wondered why the rival group would not give peace a chance.
To a remark that they and their followers were sitting targets, camped as they were in the compound should the rioters decide to invade the place, Adibi said boastfully: 'They won't dare. They know this place very well. Why have they not come since about seven o'clock when they began their nonsense? Nobody has a monopoly of violence and the police too recognize citizens' right to self-defence. We have just resolved not to fight anybody because we're all brothers, we know ourselves and used to be together before. But, should they try, we'll defend ourselves.'
Having ascertained the new venue of the rally, I took my leave, afraid to be caught in a possible crossfire. As I stepped out of the compound, I ran into a convoy of vehicles loaded with the rioters all fully armed, approaching the house. I escaped using an adjacent street. It was later learnt that the armed men attacked the occupants, shooting indiscriminately shortly after my departure. However, there was no casualty. I put another call to a source in the Ibadan contingent. He confirmed to us that they were about entering Ogbomoso and that they were heading towards the palace first for a courtesy call on the Soun.
I took a commercial bike and headed for the palace, avoiding Takie, which, otherwise, is the direct and quickest route. I was forced off the road by a long convoy of buses and vans which overtook us from behind. The buses were loaded with men and women, apparently the advanced party of the Ibadan contigent. They were escorted by armed youths, who stopped to control the traffic to make way for them, while also shooting intermittently in the air.
About this time, Lola , my wife, rang to tell me to be careful, because the security reports reaching Ibadan were unfavourable. She must have sensed or heard the thundering roar of the guns, as she stayed on the line and asked what the noise she heard in the background was all about. I told her it was nothing, thanked her and ended the call. There was no point raising the woman's anxiety. If she could prevent the trip, she would have done so in the first place.
I remembered her protests on arriving from office the previous evening and announcing my intent to cover the assignment. Amid the turmoil, the question I kept asking was where was the law? Were there no police in town to intervene since over five hours that the madness has been going on? Yet, I learnt there was a police Area Command in the town.
At last, I was able to move on, only to notice with great relief that the streets which had been partially deserted have regained life as mobile policemen in battle gear took control of the situation. It was obvious the police responded only after the situation has become embarrassing for them, their tardiness tended to lend credence to the opposition's charge of bias and claim that the police leadership in the state had been compromised.
The time was crawling to 1.00pm, when I arrived the palace. The entire place was swarming with gun-totting security agents anti-riot policemen and henchmen of the politicians, who equally openly flaunted their weapons, without fear of censure. At the square in front of the palace, there was a large crowd of men and women swaying to the beats of bandsets and traditional drummers and singing derogatory songs against Akala 'A o le jade o. (2ce) Akala ti ko fun teacher lowo, a o le ja de' meaning 'we'll chase him away (2ce). Akala who refuses to pay teachers' wages we'll chase him away', they chorused with gusto.
It was a canival-like atmosphere as they burst into other songs:
'Like play, like play, Akala sinks politically'; 'Eni ba dibo f'Akala o, ofo ni o se (Anyone who votes for Akala courts misfortune)'. It was a big dare. Two Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) and police trunks were used to blocade the entry points to the square, as the political leaders arrived in batches to rousing welcome and cheers from the crowd.
The big 'masquerades'- Ladoja and Balogun finally made a grand entry with their entourage amid tight security by SSS agents and policemen at about 2.00pm. They were received by the monarch.
Departing the royal court, the train moved into the town hall, which was just a stone throw to the palace, on the insistence of some of the townfolk, who forced open the gates that the rally be held there. Some men began destroying billboards of Akala dotting he streets, ignoring some of their leaders' admonition to stop. The grounds were jampacked with the crowd surging, jubilating and cheering the leaders who addressed them one after the other. The political leaders' speeches were interspersed with songs by the audience.
There was traffic bedlam at the end of the rally as the dignitaries and crowd tried to make their way out of the grounds to Adeseun's residence where a press was scheduled. For the first time since morning, I sighted some of our colleagues who had initially declined to come on the trip. Without vehicles of our own, some of us clambered onto the back of an open van in the convoy, only to realize it belonged to the armed 'warriors' escorting the VIPs.
Although, they initially barked at us to come down, they later let us be after pleading that we were journalists. I did not enjoy the journey out of town. Surrounded by guns, guns and guns. I spent the time wondering what if we were ambushed on the way by the rival gang. Already, I was still chewing a piece of information that filtered to us at the rally grounds that two persons were killed in a clash between the two contending factions somewhere on the outskirt of town.
Perhaps, I needed not worry as some of their comrades in arms in the pilot vehicles ahead heralded our movement by firing continuously, evidently to scare anyone with such dark thought to perish it.
It was unbelievable the large crowd that still followed the leaders to Adeseun's residence, a palatial affair that reminded one of the late strongman of Ibadan politics, Chief Lamidi Adedibu's Molete's castle. There, the people were entertained with food and drinks. It was a moment for the leaders to savour what is obviously a major victory. Perhaps, they had not imagined to achieve this level of success and would probably not have scored so high, had the governor's faction not made an issue of the rally, with the ill-advised desperate bid to frustrate it.
But, as I reflect on the events of the way home, I could not help but think that we have just been treated to a dress and technical rehearsal of what the politicians have in store for us in 2011.