In his new book, One Day & A Story: Reminiscences of An African Journalist, veteran journalist and Editor, Dare Babarinsa revealed how late Newswatch Editor-in-Chief, Dele Giwa died. At the time of Dele Giwa’s death in 1986, Babarinsa was one of Newswatch’s senior editors.
Babarinsa who is one of the founders of TELL magazine where he served for 15 years as an Executive Director is now into book publishing. He is the Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of Gaskia Media Ltd. Below is his account of how his late boss spent his last minutes.
I had the intention of seeing my boss, Dele Giwa, on Sunday October 19, 1986. A day before, one of our reporters had met me in my residence at Ire-Akari Estate in Isolo, one of the middle-class suburbs of Lagos, then the Nigeria’s capital city. He had problems with Giwa, the pioneer Editor-In-Chief of Newswatch, Nigeria’s leading weekly news magazine, and wanted me to put in a word for him. He was the Doddan Barracks State House correspondent of Newswatch and had bungled a sensitive assignment. Angrily, Giwa placed him on suspension. On Saturday, October 18, he knocked on my door, full of remorse for his mistake. I promised to see Giwa the following day to plead his case.
What got the reporter into trouble was the story of Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe, the Chief of General Staff, CGS, who was the number two man in the new military junta headed by Major-General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida. We were holding the usual editorial board meeting in Giwa’s office on October 6, 1986, when the phone rang. We could not hear what the man on the other end was saying, but by the startled expression on Giwa’s face, it was something shocking and important.
“Ukiwe had been fired!” he declared flatly as he replaced the handset. It was decided immediately that we should get to the bottom of the story and Dele Olojede, a truly enterprising reporter whom Giwa once described as a “24-carat gold” journalist, was assigned to write the story. (Olojede was to prove his mettle later when he became the first African to win the Pultizer Prize for journalism as a practising journalist in the United States) He was to co-ordinate the reports from Doddan Barracks, the seat of the Babangida junta and tap other sources as usual in Newswatch. The meeting ended and we all dispersed. At about 3 p.m., the Doddan Barracks correspondent strolled in casually and peeped into the Editor-In-Chiefs office.
“What happened at your beat today?” Giwa asked him, waiting expectantly to get more details about Ukiwe’s sack.
“Nothing really,” replied the reporter. “Just the usual meetings.”
Apparently, he had not heard the news which was already now on the airwaves. Giwa was convinced that the correspondent had not been to Doddan Barracks that morning. For lying and for absconding from duty, Giwa decided to place him on suspension. It was his case therefore that I felt obliged to carry to Giwa that Sunday for the reporter was an enterprising and promising young man. I decided not to go in the morning, promising that I would go after the church service.
Sunday was a special day for us at Newswatch. That was when we got fresh copies of our magazine, which would be on sale throughout the country the next day. After lunch, I decided to drive to the office, pick my copy, and after that head straight to Giwa’s house. My friend, Paul Okomayin, a banker and accountant, who was also my neighbour at Isolo, was spending his Sunday afternoon with me. I drove my Volkswagen beetle car in a high mood to the office, accompanied by Okomayin who was an avid reader of Newswatch.
Immediately our office came into view, I knew something had happened, but could not fathom what it could be. Maybe, the security agents, irked by some of the critical writings in the magazine, had decided to seal up the premises. Cars were parked on both sides of the road. There were many journalists and photographers. The atmosphere was eerily quiet and people seemed to be walking on tiptoes. My heart was literally in my mouth.
“What happened?” I asked a lady from Newbreed, another magazine.
“Giwa had been bombed!”
I could not fathom what she was saying. Bombed? What is the meaning of that? Is that a slang?
“What do you mean?” I was desperate.
“Giwa had been bombed!” She repeated. “He is dead!” I staggered up into the office. Many of my colleagues were there.
Most of them were sobbing quietly. Olojede, who was very close to Giwa, was among the reporters in Giwa’s office, which had now been converted into something like the Situation Room. Olojede was unusually calm. He was working on the telephone, contacting all the country newspaper houses, the directors of Newswatch and top members of the Nigerian society. I was told that Giwa’s corpse, mashed and mangled by the bomb, was lying at First Foundation Hospital, Opebi Road, Ikeja, one of the high-class private clinics in Lagos. Funmi, his wife, had carried him there.
Early that morning, Giwa was in his study with Kayode Soyinka, Newswatch London Correspondent. Soyinka had spent the night with the Giwas. It was usual for several journalists, especially some of those who worked with Giwa at the Daily Times and Concord, to come over for early morning chat. It would also provide the opportunity to get the fresh copies of the magazine. But that morning, only Soyinka was around with Giwa. At about 11.30. Funmi brought breakfast for the duo in the study. It was usual for Giwa to have meal with Aishat, his young daughter on his lap. But Aishat, was busy that morning in another part of the house. Giwa and Soyinka were busy with their meal when the security man at the gate gave Billy, Giwa’s 19-year old son; a parcel which he said was brought to the gate by a dispatch rider on a motorbike. Giwa examined the parcel. It bore the inscription, “From the office of the C-in-C” which he quickly interpreted to mean the Commander-in-Chief. The big envelope also had the Seal of the President.
“It must be from the President,” Giwa remarked. He examined the envelope, which was addressed to “Chief Dele Giwa,” though Giwa was not a chief. Giwa was not apparently surprised that the Presidency had sent him an envelope. The Presidency had done that before, often envelopes containing documents, which the junta felt the press ought to be informed about. An old Olympia typewriter was sitting on Giwa’s working desk while Soyinka sat on the other side. Suspending his meal, Giwa decided to open the parcel with a penknife. He placed the parcel on his lap, drawing slightly back from the table. He never completed that task. A thunderous explosion filled the room. The table disappeared. The typewriter was mangled as if by a giant cosmic beast.
Soyinka was flung at the wall. The whole neighbourhood shook. The iron burglary proof on the study window was mangled and the books that lined the shelves started burning. Giwa, frontiersman of Nigeria’s new journalism, had become the first Nigerian victim of a parcel bomb attack.
Funmi, busy in the kitchen, did not immediately comprehend the origin of the explosion. She thought one of the air conditioners in the house had exploded, an altogether not unusual happening in Nigeria with its erratic public power supply. She rushed to the sitting room and realised that smoke was coming from the study. She rushed there only to be confronted with a scene from hell. She screamed. As she was entering the room, Soyinka, reeling from shock, was staggering out of the room. The thick smoke did not allow her to see her husband immediately. After 20 seconds that seem to last eternity, she was able to see her husband crouched in a corner.
“Won ti pami,” Giwa whispered in agony. “They have killed me!” From his thigh down to his feet he had been mashed and mangled as if he was run over by a 24-ton truck. Funmi was overwhelmed by the smell of burning flesh; her husband’s flesh. She made an attempt to carry him. Realising that was impossible; she decided to drag him to the sitting room. As he was being dragged, his path was crimson with blood and littered with broken flesh. Some neighbours, not really sure what had happened, had moved into Giwa’s household. They helped Funmi and Billy to lift him on top of the dinning table. One of the neighbours came in with a Volkswagen Kombi delivery van. Giwa was taken into the back of the van with Funmi at his side and driven to First Foundation Hospital. Giwa was still conscious when he got to the hospital.
“They got me,” he told Doctor Tosin Ajayi, the proprietor of the hospital. The medical team realised that he had lost too much blood and was in acute shock. They gave him several injections to control the outflow of blood. But Giwa was on his way out. He died at 12.27 P.M, barely one hour after he received the parcel bomb.
This tragic news was to change the course of our lives forever. I was shocked beyond words, seeing many of my colleagues wailing and in total distress. The atmosphere in the office confirmed that the news was true. Giwa was dead. Dead!
He was so full of life and vitality. Terror came to him in the innocent garb of expectation. Everyone looked eagerly at a letter or an envelope. Who could ever believe that a letter delivered to someone in the sanctuary of his own home could bring terror and death? That is the reality of modern living.
Newswatch office was situated at 62, Oregun Road (now renamed Kudirat Abiola Way in honour of the heroine who was assassinated by suspected agents of the General Sani Abacha dictatorship), in the Ikeja area of Lagos. The building is a 5-story office complex and Newswatch occupied the first three floors and a part of the fifth floor, which it used as Board Room and partly for the Advert Department.
The ground floor was for the photo, the lithography and the marketing departments. The library, the accounts and the audit departments occupied the second floor. Dan Agbese, the managing editor, also had his office on the second floor. But the centre of action really was the first floor where Giwa and the three other top editors had their offices.
That was also where the newsroom, the production department and the computer department were situated. It was on this floor that you could feel the profound sorrow and bewilderment that enveloped everyone.
I met Chief Gani Fawehinmi, the famous Lagos lawyer, in the passage by the newsroom on the first floor. He wore a black trouser and a printed cotton short-sleeve shirt. He looked grim.
“The government killed him,” he said. “We will get to the bottom of this! How can anyone be so callous?”
Fawehinmi was determined to let everyone know the extent of the horror. He said everyone who wanted, should be allowed to see Giwa’s mangled corpse. It was on display at First Foundation and photographers were clicking away at the body. I heard the tale of horror, but I could never pick up the courage to go to the hospital.