By Owei Lakemfa
Femi Soyinka, Professor of Medicine, may not be known much outside the medical field or outside the university system where he taught for thirty years. Certainly, he was known in the world of HIV/AIDS where he worked tirelessly to bring succour to the victims. He is of course far less known than his famous elder brother and Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka. But like his brother, he was a humanist and advocate of social justice.
Many of us who were in the University of Ife, UNIFE, now Obafemi Awolowo University in the 1980s knew Femi Soyinka quite well because he was a dependable ally of students and workers on campus who stood by the truth.
I recall an incident. On May 31, 1981, a 23-year-old Part II History student, Bukola Arogundade, of Room 200, Awolowo Hall was abducted in Ile-Ife town and his head severed.
On June 7, 1981, the students populace decided to organise a procession to participate in his funeral. But the police led by Chief Superintendent of Police, Francis Osenweneiwe Ogbechie, who had ruled the procession illegal, laid ambush for the students at the intersection of the town and Ondo Road, near the Mayfair Hotel. They attacked the peaceful procession and, in the process, four students, Miss Wemimo Akinbolu, Part III, Arts, Miss Fatimo Adebimpe, Part II, Education, Miss Dorcas Olubukola Ojewole, Part I, Arts, and Mr. Paul Adetunji Alonge, Associate Student, Education, were killed.
Government immediately announced that they did not die from the police attack, but through electrocution. It produced a Police Constable No 63591, Peter Ighotegha Ofrukama, who claimed that when his team got to the dead students, he touched the head of Miss Ojewole and received an “electric shock.”
The student populace and the university community would not buy this, arguing that if the four students were electrocuted when they touched each other, why was Ofrukama who pursued the students and claimed to have also received the electric shock alive and well?
They felt the government would seek to work to the given answer; that the students were electrocuted.
The Police turned to Dr. William Olufemi Odesanmi, a pathologist in the university who also worked for the police, to perform post-mortem on the four students. His verdict was electrocution. Professor Femi Soyinka, who was the University’s Medical Director and Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences decided to bring all possible evidence to light. This was in accordance with the Vice Chancellor’s appeal that the Government Tribunal of Inquiry into the deaths, should be assisted in all ways.
One of the steps he took was to get the Senior Mortuary Attendant, Mr. Lamidi Adediwura available to give evidence. But Dr. Odesanmi became panicky. He petitioned the Vice Chancellor alleging that Soyinka was trying to get the tribunal to obtain: “medical evidence from an illiterate attendant.”
He claimed that Soyinka’s action in sending the Mortuary Attendant to the Tribunal amounted to: “depriving a citizen of his right to liberty and right to earn a living.” He said the action also amounted to a threat on his life adding that: “Prof Femi Soyinka, my dean, will have a case to answer should anything happen to me.”
But Soyinka was not deterred and insisted that all witnesses must be brought to the tribunal even if their evidence contradicted claims by other witnesses. Later, there were questions on the forensic report, but the clearly partisan Tribunal Chairman, Justice Salihu Moddibo Alfa Belgore rejected the appeal to recall Dr Odesanmi.
With the advent of HIV/AIDS, Soyinka turned to fighting the pandemic, mitigating its impact in the country, vigorously researching into it, fighting stigmatisation, participating in prevention of mother-to-child transmission and encouraging Voluntary Counselling and Testing, VCT. On Tuesday, June 14, 2022, at his residence in Kukumada Village, Ibadan, Prof Femi Soyinka left.
That same day he departed, a conscientious journalist, social mobiliser, gender activist and Head of Human Security and Civil Society at the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, Raheemat Momodu, attended a meeting. We had worked as journalists and championed a brand of journalism under a radical group, the New Trend Movement. She went on to become the Chairperson of the National Association of Women Journalists, NAWOJ in Lagos State.
Then I moved to the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC to become a full-time trade unionist and she moved to the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, FES, as its Gender Equity Programme Officer.
Both organisations moved to Abuja, but FES, a socially conscious German organisation did not then have an office in the city. So, it was accommodated in the Labour House headquarters of the NLC. So, we ended up working in the same premises and became closer.
She had a colleague, Juliana Anosike, with whom she struck a close relationship, and I teased them as ‘Siamese Twins.’
Then I moved on to become the Secretary General of African Workers which made me the workers’ representative in the African Union, AU. In 2013, I was surprised to find Raheemat at the AU African Heads of State Summit in Addis Ababa. It was a happy reunion. She was at the AU as the ECOWAS Liaison Officer. Then I returned to Nigeria, and she was also moved back to the ECOWAS Secretariat in Abuja.
I sent her messages promising to visit. Then this Tuesday, June 14, 2022, there were messages that she might have passed on. I called her ‘twin’ Ms Anosike who said they spoke the previous day but had slumped while attending a meeting and was brought into the hospital dead.
So, a country in dire need of heroes, lost two in one day. But Nigeria is blessed because we throw up heroes, sometimes from unexpected sources. That was the case of Ejiro Otarigho a fuel tanker driver. He was driving his fuel-laden tanker in a crowded part of the East-West Road, Agbarho, Ughelli, Delta State when his assistant alerted him the truck was on fire.
He glanced back and saw “a scary ball of fire.” The instinct of most would be to jump off a burning fuel tanker. But he was in a crowded area with residential houses and knew the flame would engulf the area burning people and property. He did the unthinkable. He asked his assistant to jump down while he drove the burning tanker for four kilometres out of the town towards the river.
He could not make it to the river, but when he got to an open space, he dived out before the entire vehicle became a huge fireball. Fortunately, he was unhurt. His selfless example, taught Nigerians that although our leaders cannot secure lives and property and many would try to rationalise criminality in ethno-religious garbs, we will never lack heroes.
Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), is a human rights activist, journalist, and author.