Richard Ogunderu: The Legend and the Man Whose Actions Informed Okpaleke’s ‘Hijack 93’
The name Richard Ajibola Ogunderu might not ring a bell to most people in contemporary Nigeria save for a few history enthusiasts. As a result, his life is but an invisible ink on a blank paper until the pages of time are burnt by the heat of curiosity and creativity to reveal what laid in the past.
One of such attempts is by ace filmmaker, Charles Okpaleke, who, some three years ago, embarked on a quest to tell the story of Richard Ogunderu and his friends, thereby immortalizing and blazing them on the psyche of today’s Nigerian people.
To bring us up to speed, before delving into the legend and the man that is Richard Ajibola Ogunderu, here’s the story, summarily:
In the cause of democracy, on a seemingly normal day on Oct. 25, 1993, four young men – including Richard Ogunderu – hijacked a Nigerian plane and held the passengers hostage.
What did they want?
For the will of the people at the polls on June 12 of the same year to be upheld, which will usher in an era of liberation for Nigeria from the military junta.
In pursuance of my piqued interest at the cinematic project, I sought out Ogunderu and his group of friends, otherwise known as the MAD (Movement for the Actualization of Democracy) men for their thoughts. My search turned out results quite below my expectation, with the exception of one very response: I had struck gold by way of a response from Ogunderu, the leader of the operation himself.
Suffice it to say that we scheduled an interview, somewhere in the suburbs of Lagos State.
Richard Ogunderu, on a first meet, is remarkable and well-spoken such as to leave no doubts about his intelligence. He was chatty and some of his beliefs seemed larger-than-life. He has a peculiar sense of fashion, walks with an uneven gait (supported by a stick), and his eyes have a subdued kindness about them.
Oh, and he most certainly did retain his handsome looks.
In all, it was an enlightening meeting with him, and the experience felt like sitting through a biopic documentary as he took me through the trails of his life.
Find a relaxing spot and read on for the narration of an event that can arguably be described only as stuff of legend.
Can you introduce yourself to me?
My name is Richard Ajibola Ogunderu. I was born on Aug. 2, 1974, as an only son amongst five girls. My dad, Yemisi Ogunderu, was a banker with the IMB and my mom was a journalist. She’s late now. I studied French at the Nigeria French Language Village, Badagry, and also at Alliance Française in Yaba where I met my fiancée, Maria Marello. I attended both Government Science School in Kuru, Plateau, and Igbo Elerin Grammar School in Ilaje, Ondo State.
What were your dreams as a kid? Did you have any aspirations of becoming anything? I mean, before the whole hijack business.
I wanted to become a marine engineer because, when I was young, I was quite inventive. I made a little boat out of a battery, a rotor, and a foam takeaway. I placed it on water, and it worked. So that was my ambition right from time, and I mostly went to science schools for that reason.
That is interesting. You also talk about being a president. Is that an ambition you still hold?
Well, it was something I always dreamt of, as a young boy of six. I wanted Nigeria to be better, and I admired Obafemi Awolowo for his political actions towards that.
So how did you come into contact with Jerry Yusuf, the founder of M.A.D, and what were the events leading up to your meeting him?
Hmm…Jerry and me. He’s dead now, though, and it was really painful. He was partly the reason I could not pursue my dreams anymore. I had the intention of traveling to Canada to further my education because Nigeria had no higher institution offering marine engineering at the time.
So, I met Jerry at Kingsland Hotel in Surulere. It was owned by a Senator Ladega of Iperu Remo who served under Shagari at the time. My dad was the manager of the hotel, and I came to bid him farewell as regards to my academic travelling. He became a hotel manager after quitting his banking job.
On the day Jerry and I met, I went to open the gate for him. I was woken up from sleep at midnight; the gate man was not available.
So, while Jerry was going in, I called to him and said, “come, won’t you give me money, ni? Since you’ve woken me up from sleep, I want to go and have a beer.”
He replied, “Ehn, okay. I will see you tomorrow.”
When we met the next day, all talks about money were completely forgotten. Matters of the state of the nation dominated our conversation. We felt a sense of urgency about the military rule and dwindling economic prospects as a consequence. We resolved that we had to send a strong message of our dissatisfaction with, and rejection of, their government. That was when the hijack plan came into motion and that was solely what it was about. We had zero business with any politician nor their affiliated party. Our motivation has been highly misrepresented in the media, and I feel the need to correct that. We were fighting in the name of democracy, just as our party alludes, and the winner of the June 12 presidential election could have been anybody, and we’d still have done what we did. Democracy is about the will of the people, and it doesn’t matter if you know or like the person in the seat of power so long as the majority of people wishes it. We even faulted the flagbearer of SDP himself because he flouted an electoral rule by wearing a horse-imprinted shirt on the day of election. So, we really had nothing to do with him.
So, Jerry brought you on board. . .
Yes. He was a wanted man, and he came to hide at the hotel. He made a declaration in a newspaper to Babangida: he told him “they” were going to attack the government with its own property, and that was how he settled on the hijack plan, and it was set in motion amongst his party members. I was a last-minute consideration as he had assembled the other boys. I was also the youngest at 19, fresh out of secondary school. Bennet Oluwadaisi Ososanya was the oldest; he was 24, from Ijebu Ode. Kehinde Hassan Razak-Lawal and Kabiru Adenuga – a Baptist boy – were 23, respectively.
So, I bought into Jerry’s mission because a country is more than a man, and for him to have solicited me, I thought it a divine call.
We began rehearsal, and along the way, the headship of the group fell on me after a disagreement between Jerry and Kabiru, who was the captain of the MAD boys.
How did the hijack play out?
It happened on an early Monday morning. We boarded the plane – I completed our flight tickets’ money sef – like any normal citizen, along with some dignitaries and economy passengers.
Our course of action was to approach the pilot and make him fly the Nigerian Airways air jet to Germany instead of Abuja as was its destination. I also had a parcel with me containing flyers indicting the political actors of the day, which we were to share to the passengers, so they are aware of our purpose.
Our demands as listed in it were:
- Embezzled money by the military government should be returned to the state.
- Submission of the interim national government to the senate over its illegality.
- Trial of the fund looters.
- A probe of Dele Giwa’s death.
- Reopening of a closed newspaper company.
- Reopening of closed universities.
- Reinstatement of sacked NNPC workers.
We had petrol, lighters, jackknives and, of course, our toy guns. I had a cannister of tear-gas as well.
When I’d first approached the cockpit, I was stopped by an air hostess who asked what I wanted to see the pilot for. I told her I have a message for him from a sister of ours and showed her the parcel. She said I could not see him, so I went back to sit down.
I was already feeling a little wary at the thought of being caught in Abuja with incriminating materials in our hands, and without having fulfilled our aim, but I stayed calm.
Then sixteen minutes into our landing time, the hostess gave me the go-ahead. Kabiru was with me the whole time and we went in and subdued the pilots. We made them communicate the plane’s situation to the control tower at Abuja, the capital. We also commanded them to land at Niger since the fuel could not cover the distance to Germany.
When we touched down, I took over the negotiating talks while the other boys watched the passengers and fed them. I spoke to the Minister of Aviation for Niger Republic, who connected me to a BBC journalist. I told the world our message and our intention through him: I said we were going to burn the plane within 78 hours if our requests were not met.
Of course, that was just a scare tactic. We’ve decided to let the pleading passengers go the next day (Wednesday) if at all we’d do anything.
After that, we heard nothing further from the authorities even when some Nigerian delegates were sent over. They didn’t want to come to the hostage site but chose rather to remain at their hotel, dining and everything. I knew this through some Nigerien boys who came to deliver food to us, but this turned out to be a ploy. We were attacked on my way back to the plane and that was how I sustained this injury on my leg. It was from a bullet wound.
It was reported that someone died. Is that true?
Yes, that’s correct: a steward died. A young man: he was shot.
And how do you feel about that? About the whole hijack, as well. What was your state of mind while it was going on?
I am deeply sorry about his death, and that in itself was one of the reasons we were clamoring for democracy. The military government was notorious for wanton killings and abuse of human rights. That should never have happened. Over what? Our freedom? Or the freewill to air our grievances? It’s so sad.
As to my state of mind, I was more or less dead. That was how I felt like. The country was hard, and my life would not have made any significant difference in any way. The kind of suffering we experienced is best witnessed once. I may have been going for studies overseas, but that is no long-term solution. And besides, I’ll be leaving a family behind. So, it was do-or-die for me. I was ready to pay any price; Moreso like Mandela. You take back with force what the devil has collected from you with force.
If democracy has brought prosperity to many countries in the West, why not us?
So, you do not have any regrets about it?
None whatsoever. In fact, I am quite happy. We may not be there yet, but I believe we will achieve democracy in its full maturation.
And what do you say to your critics? Some fault what you people did and called it reckless. . .
Well, I don’t have much to say to them except add to what I’ve said before. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Toppling wicked people in high places is not a conventional tussle and, nevertheless, democracy was our focus. We can evidently see some of the dividends of democracy, even though our leaders keep trying to sabotage it. My point is, our action was in good faith, and we were pressed to send a powerful message to the blood-guzzling people, which is what they will understand. Something has to give. It’s all thanks to the progress of democracy that we’re able to enjoy technology, however little or advanced, today.
How about your family? How did they take the news of your action?
My father was quite proud of me; I believe he did in his heart of heart. Although, he has some reservations about active, ‘dismembering’ type of politics, as a Jehovah’s Witness, and he has implored me to be careful. Otherwise, he held the sentiment that our adverse condition would only worsen if we continued under the brute generals.
Oh, he spent six months in jail for my action. Abacha arrested him. Same as the Senator Ladega for ‘aiding’ us with a location for our plot. He was jubilant when I was released nine years after.
Wow. Can you tell me about your life in prison?
I wouldn’t say it was good or bad…it was just livable. We chose to serve [our prison term] in Niger same as Jerry, whom the other three gave up. I made friends and got dedicated to Christ. I was a preacher even and had to learn basic French to interact. It was like a close-knitted community. It was there I started my African Youth Organization with some Liberian freedom fighters, an Igbo, and a Yoruba guy. I am still running the organization ’till now and mobilizing many youths in my community. I hope to make a resurgence into public space.
That’s…something to look forward to. Is this organization the only thing on your plate or do you have other engagements?
I do. Another of my scheme in the works is Provalue Enterprise, a technology company that specializes in electricity generation through batteries.
Electricity through batteries? Please, tell me more.
Yes. For now, we only have a ‘working name’ for it – Cell Plant. The technique produces electricity with the use of cell phone batteries: the ones we all know. I am the inventor and I have some of those youth from my organization on board with me. It is really going to be a life-changing and a one-of-a-kind innovation. I am already in discussion with some research brands from Italy who are looking to partner with us, and I am open to more collaborations. Investors, governmental sponsorships. Anything.
That really could turn Nigeria’s electricity issue around. Even make us a pioneering nation for this novel technology.
That’s right. I have always had it in me to be something different. To change the world, and that’s why I try to be better in every way. I continue to develop myself mentally and to keep healthy. Save for this leg I’m recovering from. Anyway, I just desire to see Nigeria excel and stand shoulder to shoulder with her peers of the Western world. I appreciate modernity a lot, and I see the finest things of life really as a way to making living easy.
I sought you out because of the movie Hijack ’93 which Charles Okpaleke is making, and I’m so enamored with your story to the extent that I almost forgot my primary goal! Anyway, what do you think about that attempt? At the possibility that your name will be getting engraved on a plaque of…timelessness?
About that, I am honored, and I am totally fine with it, even though I had no idea something like that was in the making. It’s cool, really, that others get to hear of our story and pick one or two things from it so long as it is told accurately. I mean as realistically as possible. That is my only demand, and it is important. We fought purely for democracy to take root and thrive. I am not inclined towards any politician: not then, not now. I only stand for my ideals and principles.
So…what is your judgment on the realities of the country presently? It’s been thirty years. Do you have anything to say Nigerians?
As you probably can tell by now, I am someone who values growth and development a lot. Things cannot change for the better overnight. Everything worthwhile tows a gradual process, and while we may be far from a working country, we’re not where we used to be. What matters is that a process is started and keeps on.
I urge the youth to get involved in politics. That is how change begins. They should get into positions of power and quit waiting for it to be handed to them. God, especially, will not come down to fight for and defend us. Elections are sacrosanct, and political participation is not evil or dirty as people believe. We should also take privatization seriously. Our individual and collective successes lie therein. Education is also another path that leads there, and this would generally lead to more quality thinking and decision-making that’ll reflect in our nation.