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Seyi Martins: How I stopped a ‘big coup’ in 1980

Seyi Maritns (Photographs by Adedeji Olalekan)

By Charles Kalu

Senior Broadcaster and lawyer Seyi Martins was in the studio on the evening of 24 May 1980, when gun-wielding soldiers barged into the studios of Radio Nigeria in Ikoyi. His actions – and deliberate inaction – crippled the coup attempt and saved the lives of several high-profile politicians who had been marked for assassination. He narrated the experience of that fateful evening to The Daily Report team when he was guest on the Candid Conversations series

I was working with late Gabriel Otaru on a Saturday morning shift at the Broadcasting House, Ikoyi. Two of us, Iyke Aig Imoukhuede and myself were, ‘double banking’ with him. It was exactly two minutes past six and I was reading the news on a story about the Vice President, Dr Alex Ekwueme. I just saw the door flung open and there were two soldiers sweating fiercely and causing pandemonium in the live studio. Iyke was rehearsing the newspaper editorial with a newsman known as ABC (Afolabi B. Christopher).

A soldier came straight at me. The next thing I saw was the butt of the gun hitting my shoulder and that broke my collar bone. As I was falling, instinctively I switched off the ‘override’ while that of the live studio was still on. We had two buttons in the studio–one red and the other black. The black is the live microphone and the red is the override. The ‘override’ cuts off the transmitting station at Sogunle. You can hear everything going on in the studio but it doesn’t out on air.

I was trying to pick myself from the ground while Iyke had gone to a corner. We didn’t know where ABC went but I didn’t see him go through the door and till I die I will keep saying that ABC never went through the door. He just disappeared.

So I heard the soldier say; “We the junior officers of the Nigerian army and the armed forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria decided….” I said it’s a ‘coup’. Iyke just disappeared from the studio. I was alone with them. We’ve always heard of this and the only thing they tell you is: “Keep calm, listen to instructions, and do what they say”. The one word that was there was, ‘exactly what they say’.

I pride myself as a ‘barracks boy’ and I always say that on air. I looked at the soldiers and I could see panic.

“Where is your martial music?” they asked.

“We don’t keep martial music in the studio,” I responded.

“Go and get them.”

“The martial music is in the library and it’s locked,” I said. “We need to go to the Control Room to get it.”

This is an opportunity for me to run away from these people. I thought. By that time, everybody had gone into the cemetery [Across the fence]. People dived into the graveyard to avoid bullets coming at them. So many people usually die when there is a coup like that as bullet flies all over the place.

The Daily Report’s Charles Kalu, Ify Onyegbule and Pelu Awofeso with Seyi Martins, after the ”Candid Conversations interview

So I went into the Control Room to pick up the key to the library and I remembered the telephone there — the unbelievably red telephone there that nobody dared touch except in an emergency like that. It doesn’t dial out. We were told then in training that once you pick up the telephone you will hear a voice. And this day, a voice asked: ‘Where are the soldiers?’

We were told rightly or falsely that that telephone goes to the State House and the other to the DG’s house. The Director-General then was Bishop George Bako.

“Just make yourself safe. What have they asked you to do?” I heard his voice saying.

“They asked me to get a martial music.”

“Do you know where they are?” Dr Bako asked.

I said the soldiers were on the corridor. I took the key to the library and I saw martial music but something in me said: ‘take a classical music’, and I put it on and they gave me the statement for the coup to read.

I didn’t know how I got the courage and told them that:”They won’t hear us”. I knew the ‘override’ was not on. I was so afraid because if you mess up they will shoot you. It’s instant execution. On that day, 24th May 1980, the progressive governors were meeting in Yola (13 of them with Chief Obafemi Awolowo). If that announcement had gone out they would all have been slaughtered.

Somebody said among the soldiers that: “The President would have been taken care of” with that announcement that went out after I had read it but it did not go out.

I put the classical music back on. The guy said, “Yes, we can be rest assured that things are going on as we wanted”. And I wondered how they didn’t know the difference between classical and martial music.

Meanwhile, there was Dead Air for 12 minutes. In our day, the minimum you’re allowed to have a DEAD AIR was 20 seconds. If there’s nothing on air by the 30th second, you’re suspended. They demanded to know where the Control Room was; the moment I went out, I saw a back-up of soldiers from Dodan barracks disguised arresting the soldiers. If there had been crossfire I would have been a goner. These people were arrested quietly and I heaved a sigh of relief.

The classical music played until five minutes to seven in the morning. By this time the DG came in with some directors and said ‘well done’. After some discussion he asked: ‘What level (grade) are you?

“Level 5, sir.”  I said.

I was promoted to civil service, Level 8. The next thing was a call to the DG that they wanted to see me. The NSO (Nigerian Security Organisation) had arrived. So Mrs Marie Irikefe took me to Soni Irabor’s house and hid me in his kitchen. And I was crouching in the kitchen cabinet under the sink for about four hours while the NSO was looking for me.

Later I was released to them for normal questioning, after which I ended up spending 30 days in detention. I wrote one million and one statements. They will wake me up in the dead of the night to continue the statement from where I stopped the last time.

It was the very first coup against the civilian government of President Shehu Shagari’s government that was inaugurated in 1979. It was about the same time that they were talking about 2.8billion Naira missing from an account that was found in Midland Bank in London, because part of the statement of the soldiers that didn’t go on air had in it about “the corrupt government of the NPN and the show of shame of 2.8 billion naira celebration” and all that was the grouse why they wanted to take over.

It was actually a big coup. No coup succeeds in Nigeria without a broadcaster showing them how it’s done in the studio. That’s my story of how I became Senior Service and got a presidential handshake. I foiled a coup single-handedly which had never been done.

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