Chris Anyanwu was released from prison in June 1998 after serving three years of a 15-year jail sentence for revealing an alleged coup plot in Nigeria. As editor of The Sunday Magazine, she had been arrested in 1995 along with three other journalists, on charges of 'publishing false information'.
Out of Prison - And Back to Face the Mountain
By Chris Anyanwu, Nigeria
The day came at last. It took three years in coming; three years waiting to regain what one ought not to have lost. Indeed, as new developments have firmly established, what happened ought not to have happened and had it not, then the need for a special day of liberation would not have arisen.
But it happened. Grave injustice happened in Nigeria. Nearly four years after, the men who executed it have confessed that the coup of 1995 was a hoax, a phantom event. It never happened. Rather, it was a cover for a massive program of elimination that was to pave the way for General Abacha's scheme to prolong his rule. Today, every word I published in March 1995 for which I was gagged has been vindicated.
It is now seven months since that day, when somewhat dazed by the unexpected, bizarre turn of national events, I walked out of Kaduna prison into the hazy sunlight of a rainy afternoon.
The angry despot had died. Another had taken over... Suddenly, I was free. The long ordeal was over. The journey had ended.
But the story did not end with freedom. What was at an end was only a stage of the struggle. Another one was unfolding.
Three years after I was abducted from my office on a hot, humid, exhausting production day, I returned to face the full weight of reality awaiting me and it was a harsh, daunting reality. General Abacha had smashed nearly all I had built with my life's resources and most vital energies. It was not enough for him to have imprisoned me in his rage over my audacity in publishing a truth too bitter for him to stomach, he had to try to inflict so much financial damage as to make recovery difficult.
By his specific instructions, the security agencies raided, towed away property, smashed equipment, and shredded records. Bank accounts - both personal and company- were frozen. The company was starved of funds. My family dependants were starved of funds. Checks I signed to take care of their immediate needs were seized by military security and kept till this day. Financial obligations mounted. Problems mounted.
I got out of prison to see I had no work to return to, no organization from where to relaunch my career. Our government had decimated everything, even going as far as to seize my personal land and reallocate it; seize my telephone lines and reallocate them.
I went to what used to be my office, a place that was so full of life and activity that merely approaching it quickened my heartbeat. It was dark, cold and silent. It was eerie. Cobwebs hung everywhere, low from the ceiling. Dust hung in the air, on the walls, on the floor and on the smashed up furniture. The dust of injustice had indeed settled there. On the floor, shredded bits of company papers had soaked moisture, dried, faded and gnarled. I looked at the papers and I saw the challenge of the whole act. Someone was daring me to pick up the pieces. I walked away from the scene with a promise to myself to return when I was ready with something better.
The story is not over. My odyssey has not ended. I face daunting challenges. I stand at the foot of a high mountain aiming to get to the top. I was once on my way with sure-footedness, but someone thought I had no business climbing the mountain of success and pulled me down.
I fully realize that my incarceration was a well-calculated plan by General Abacha and a certain misogynist clique in the ruling circle to force me out of the profession and by it send a strong signal to the female elite that there are limits for women in this society. The tragic demise of the only other female publisher and the gory murder of three outstanding and outspoken women in the country during this same period all fit into this pattern of behavior.
Without doubt, Abacha and his clique aimed to cause a reversal in the strides made by women in Nigerian society. He wanted to reshape woman according to his primitive mental picture of the world.
The extent to which he succeeded is becoming more evident in the dimished visibility of women and especially their low involvement in Nigeria's transition politics. Few women are running for elected office and even fewer are willing to get involved publicly in any form of assertive affair.
For me, real triumph lies in not just returning to a profession I love with passion, but doing something better and by it inspiring others. Certainly, my colleagues and I have paid a high price for freedom of expression and the press, as have many others around the world. However, what is essential now to the profession is to send the signal to professionals that when in the process of this worthy struggle they fall, they can be confident that it is not forever. The victory of the press over all forms of violent censorship lies not only in securing freedom, but also in the subsequent survival of professionals and member organizations who bear the brunt of repression.
I do not minimize the scale of the challenge I face, given the extensive damage and Nigeria's hyper-inflationary economy. I have to virtually rebuild from scratch and rebuilding means raising substantial funds, equipping completely anew, building a new organization and training staff in new technology applications. It is a challenge I approach with excitement, confident optimism and determination. God is able to rebuild.
There is another dimension to the story. It is legal and moral.
General Abubakar, the new head of state, released us but he did not give us full freedom. So long as the stain of conviction remains on our names, we cannot be considered truly free. By Nigeria's constitution we cannot run for nor hold public office and there are certain types of enterprises that we may have difficulty engaging in. Unrepudiated injustice essentially limits the future of innocent professionals who have no business with military politics. It is true that some former political prisoners in the past have been able to hold office despite their records of conviction. But who is to say that in a future democratic Nigeria such provisions of the Constitution will not be applied in their strictest sense?
General Abubakar is not unaware of this danger. He is also not unaware of the stream of confessions by Abacha's men, which have effectively underlined the illegality of what transpired. It was precisely for this reason that he wiped the conviction from General Obasanjo's record recently so that he could run in the up-coming federal presidential election.
His silence on the cases of all others, including journalists, underscores the dangers inherent in the nature of military dictatorships: Anything goes.
This is why the people of Nigeria want democracy with passion, despite its imperfections.