Last Friday, July 12, brought an end to one of the most celebrated and longest running murder cases in the country. On that day, Justice Rita Pemu, reading the unanimous decision of the three-woman panel of the Appeal Court sitting in Lagos, discharged and acquitted Major Hamza al-Mustapha of the charge that he conspired to murder Alhaja Kudirat Abiola in Lagos on June 4, 1996. Kudirat was the wife of Chief M. K. O. Abiola, the putative winner of the annulled 1993 presidential election.
Predictably, the verdict has divided Nigerians right down the middle along regional, if not sectarian, lines; whereas most Northerners seemed to see the verdict as the vindication of a long persecuted hero, most South-Westerners seemed to see it as the untenable exoneration of a certified villain.
This division was clearly reflected, on the one hand, by the hero’s welcome the major received in Kano, his adopted state – he is originally from Yobe – and, on the other hand, by the rejection of the verdict by Afenifere, the Yoruba umbrella cultural organisation and by the Gani Adams faction of the Odua Peoples Congress, the leading Yoruba militia. (It must be noted here that Dr. Fredrick Fasehun who leads the other faction, and who indeed claims to be its original founder, has not only consistently said he believed in the innocence of al-Mustapha. He has vigorously campaigned for his release from prison.)
al-Mustapha’s plight started on October 21, 1998, when he and several other officers were arrested on suspicion that they were in illegal possession of arms, among other allegations. This was barely four months after the sudden and mysterious death in June of Head of State, General Sani Abacha, whose chief security officer he was. He was to remain in jail for nearly 15 years charged, along with others, with various crimes, including complicity in the murder of Kudirat and Chief Alfred Rewane, a chieftain of the anti-Abacha crusaders who was killed in October 1995, and of Major-General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua who died in prison in 1997, accused of attempting to overthrow Abacha.
The major was also charged, again along with others, with the attempted murder of Mr Alex Ibru, the late publisher of The Guardian and Abacha’s internal affairs minister, and the attempted murder of Senator Abraham Adesanya, the leader of Afenifere. In time he was also charged in 2004 with an attempt to overthrow the elected government of President Olusegun Obasanjo even while still in detention.
If all this looked like too much to charge one man with it was mainly because the man ingeniously painted himself in the image of an officer whose only crime was to have carried out his duties to his principal to the best of his ability and in the process to have secured the integrity and security of the country.
For one year after he was first picked up, al-Mustapha remained in detention without trial. In October 1999, five months after Obasanjo was sworn in as civilian president, he sued the government for the violation of his human rights. The courts agreed and said he should be released. The government ignored the order. Instead al-Mustapha was charged with several murders and attempted murders including, ironically, that of Senator Adesanya who, along with several Afenifere chieftains, including Chiefs Ganiyu Dawodu and Ayo Adebanjo had been charged by the Abacha regime for the murder of Kudirat!
The clever intelligence officer that he was, al-Mustapha chose to blame his predicament not on the government that chose to prosecute him. Instead he chose to blame the government of General Abubakar Abdulsalami that first detained him. The former head of state, he said, wanted him out of circulation because the general knew he knew both Abacha and Abiola did not die naturally but were murdered and he also knew how allegedly complicit the general was in the deaths of the two, the first in June and the second the following month.
If his choice of who to blame for his predicament and of the platform to make the allegation – the Oputa panel set up by Obasanjo in 1999 but which began its hearing in 2000 on abuses of human rights in the country since 1979 – was to create a diversion from the charges he was facing, he succeeded beyond his wildest imagination. Suddenly public attention shifted from his many alleged abuses of power, as probably the most powerful chief security officer of a head of state Nigeria has ever seen, to the alleged crimes of General Abubakar.
One newspaper that seemed to have captured the shift in public mood was the defunct The Comet. In an editorial on December 4, 2000 aptly entitled “al-Mustapha: Let the ‘canary’ sing publicly,” following al-Mustapha testimony before Oputa, the newspaper said “Nigerians deserve to hear everything from al-Mustapha since he has himself, under oath promised to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. He should be allowed to tell his version of the events and if he incriminates anybody or groups of persons, they too should have their days at the Oputa Commission.”
It then concluded that al-Mustapha must be given maximum protection to tell his story in public. It took the major about 12 years to retell his story in public. This was in August 2011 when himself and his co-defendant, Lateef Sofolahan, said to be an aide to Kudirat, testified before a Lagos State High Court sitting in Igbosere to their innocence in her murder. On this occasion not only did he repeat his allegation of being persecuted for what he knew, he also added a new claim that the chieftains of Afenifere had been heavily bribed into silence by General Abubakar over the death of Abiola.
Predictably the same media that had hailed him over his accusation against General Abubakar turned completely round to condemn him as an inveterate liar.
In between Oputa in 2000 and the Igboshere High Court, himself and his co-defendants in other murder cases, namely General Ishaya Bamaiyi, a former army chief, James Danbaba, a former commissioner of police, Colonel Jibril Bala Yakubu, a former Zamfara State military administrator and Rabo Lawal, head of the Aso Rock Villa anti-riot squad, were cleared of all the other charges. He and Sofolahan were, however, left to face the charge of murdering Kudirat. Their case was re-opened in July 2011.
Following their August testimonies, the trial judge, Justice Mojisola Dada, adjourned the case to November for counsels to both sides to submit their written addresses after she had rejected their position that they had no case to answer. At the November hearing she fixed January 30 for judgment. On that day she found them both guilty and sentenced them to death by hanging. To rub it in even more she had very unkind words to say to each of them. al-Mustapha, she said in effect, was a ruthless enforcer for his principal who “felt obliged to silence any voice against the government of his boss” and felt he was “untouchable.” As for Sofolahan he was, she said, “a gold digger, a Judas Iscariot, who sold his master.”
Predictably there was much rejoicing in the Southwest and much gloom in the North.
Equally predictably al-Mustapha appealed. Last Friday, the Appeal Court overturned Justice Dada’s verdict. “There is no evidence,” Justice Pemu reading the court’s judgement said, “that the appellants conspired to murder Kudirat…There is even nothing to show that the appellants had the intention to murder the deceased.”
The court’s grounds for overturning the Lagos State High Court’s verdicts seemed unassailable. First, the prosecution said it would bring a dozen witnesses against the accused. It brought only four. Second, the testimonies of the two key witnesses were not only contradictory, the two were to later recant their statements because they said they had been bribed and threatened at the same time to testify against the accused. Third, the bullet the prosecution claimed had been extracted from Kudirat’s head was never tendered as exhibit as the prosecution had promised.
Predictably last Friday’s judgement saw a reversal of roles between al-Mustapha’s sympathisers and those who disliked him. It also left many questions unanswered not least of which is, so who killed Kudirat?
We may never know the answer. However, what we do know for certain is that vindication or not, al-Mustapha will remain a hero for some and a villain for others. In between there are probably many more who don’t give a damn either way right now.
It is the opinion of these that al-Mustapha should worry about as he begins a new life after so many years in prison. If, as he said in a BBC Hausa interview last Saturday, he has truly learnt his lesson about “how some people use the judiciary and power against the poor” – a charge he knows all too well he cannot escape as the most powerful chief security officer of a head of state this country has seen – and if, as he also said, he had come to understand his religion well, he is likely to get the sympathy of such people.
One can only hope that he will not, like many a born-again Muslim or Christian, revert true to type as soon as he gets another opportunity to be in power- something which is not unlikely, especially in a country like ours where public memory is ever so short.
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