Reactions to the death penalty handed down to Hamza Al-Mustapha and Lateef Shofolahan over the killing of Kudirat Abiola suggest that the matter is being politicised to ensure the convicts escape the hangman’s noose
Finally, Monday January 30, 2012 was judgment day for Hamza Al-Mustapha, former chief security officer, CSO, to the late dictator, Sani Abacha, and Lateef Shofolahan, his accomplice in the brutal assassination of Kudirat Abiola. After a lengthy trial that spanned a period of 13 years, during which a lot of revelations came to light, the outcome was not much of a surprise to many Nigerians who had been following it. With the kind of overwhelming evidence that were stacked against them, many observers had actually expected that it would be a day of wailing and gnashing of teeth. But going by the twist of events towards the concluding part of the trial, others were equally worried that the outcome might not after all satisfy the yearnings of the people. That was the mood last Monday before Al-Mustapha and Shofolahan were found guilty in the murder of Kudirat by Justice Mojisola Dada of the Lagos High Court, and sentenced to death by hanging.
Justice Dada found them guilty of conspiracy and murder of the late Kudirat, who mounted a spirited opposition to the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election, adjudged Nigeria’s freest and fairest ever, which the late Mooshod Abiola won. In the judgment, which took Dada almost seven hours to read, the court held that the prosecution proved its case against the defendants beyond reasonable doubt. The judgment punctured all the evidence by the defendants, describing them as afterthought and an attempt to wriggle out of a difficult situation. The judge, who came down heavily on the defendants, described Al-Mustapha as a liar and an individual who thought he was untouchable. Similarly, she described Shofolahan as a ‘blood thirsty traitor’ who willingly betrayed his benefactor.
Judging from her pronouncement, Al-Mustapha and Shofolahan are as good as dead. But judging from the reactions of the people of Kano, and a number of other Nigerians from the southern part of the country, the condemned men may eventually escape the hangman’s noose. That is now left for the court of appeal and possibly the Supreme Court to decide. Against this background, indications are that Nigerians are going to wait for a longer period than usual to see the end of the matter. Kudirat’s murder is believed to be one of the cruelest and most cowardly acts in the saga that followed the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by Abiola. The motive was that Kudirat, who stepped out as an intrepid voice both for Abiola’s release and assumption of his mandate, was a threat to Abacha’s ambition to cling to power. This followed the Abacha regime’s detention of her husband.
The court had a mountain of evidence of atrocities of Al-Mustapha as CSO to the late Abacha (See boxes). He was given exceptional powers, considerably greater than other officers who were nominally his superior. Apart from the character of high-handedness for which military regimes are known, the regimes of Babangida and Abacha had a legendary record of intolerance to any form of opposition. Thus those who could not be tamed with detention without trial often got killed in some controversial circumstances. When Ken Saro-Wiwa, author and environmental activist, was convicted along with eight others in 1995, the verdict was executed under Abacha before the defence team could get a copy of the judgment that would have enabled them file an appeal. Al-Mustapha who served under the late dictator as CSO at that time must be surprised that his lawyers had access to the judgment enough for them to file an appeal within 24 hours after the verdict last week. If the description of his power and influence under Abacha is true, then he would be fully briefed on how that execution was carried out without allowing the nine Ogoni leaders the opportunity of exploring the law to its logical conclusion.
The way Al-Mustapha left the court that Monday afternoon after the judgment shows that the man is not sober. He appeared to be in a cheerful mood, as he waved triumphantly at some of his supporters in the crowd. As he stood at the top of the courthouse staircase, he shouted, Allah Akbar (God is great), smiled and waved to the crowd, as if he were a politician who had just won an election. Al-Mustapha’s conduct suggests that his confidence in the power and influence of those backing him remains unshakable.
Indeed, the former CSO must have regarded himself as being infallible. Not with the kind of power he had wielded while in office. Al-Mustapha reportedly ignored Ishaya Bamaiyi, then chief of army staff, when the latter asked him to undertake the required examination for his promotion. Not only that, a number of superior officers were said to have suffered under him when he was CSO. One of them was a general who then was the head of a popular federal agency. The general was walked out of the waiting room of the head of state, even though on appointment, by the powerful CSO. The general’s colleagues who witnessed the humiliation could not speak for him. It was also under his supervision that Oladipo Diya, Tajudeen Olanrewaju and Abdulkareem Adisa, all generals, were tortured for their alleged involvement in the phantom coup of 1995.
Now, how was he able to do this to members of the elite corps of the Nigerian military, an institution noted for its command discipline? The major was said to have been feared by his superiors because of the nature of the boss and because of their awareness that he had security outfits that were largely independent of the established set-up. The belief was that all the CSO needed to do was to tell the head of state that the person concerned was a security risk. He could then mete out whatever punishment approved using his squad. For instance, he established a number of small security outfits within the military and other security organisations, the members of which were answerable to him and over which even his superior officers could not ask questions. Rogers belonged to this privileged outfit from where members of the presidential Strike Force were recruited. They were given special training in Israel and North Korea.
Al-Mustapha is a master of the game. He was trained as intelligence operative and was involved in at least two investigations of coup attempts. His conduct of interrogations brought him to the attention of the late Abacha, with whom the former CSO enjoyed a chummy relationship. For instance, when Abacha was chief of army staff, August 1985 to August 1990, Al-Mustapha was his aide-de-camp. Subsequently, between November 1993 and June 1998, Al-Mustapha was the chief security officer to the head of state and head of the Special Strike Force attached to the Presidency during the Abacha era. Other security outfits at the time were the Office of the National Security Adviser under Ismaila Gwarzo, the Directorate of Military Intelligence, the State Security Service, SSS, and the National Intelligence Agency. All of these units were indicted for extrajudicial killings of people who were considered as threats to the Abacha regime. All these must have informed why the court arrived at its verdict.
If the kind of reaction to last week’s judgment is anything to go by, it is still a long way to justice. Indications last week were that tension had started to build up in parts of the North following the death sentence and the insistence from the Al-Mustapha family that the ruling is a miscarriage of justice and mockery of established process. Hadi Al-Mustapha, younger brother of the former CSO, was not expecting the kind of judgment his brother received last Monday. He is confident that it would be reversed at the appeal court. In his estimation, since two courts of law had earlier discredited the evidence of the star witnesses that was used to nail his brother as unreliable, the elder Al-Mustapha should have been set free. “It is a travesty of justice. The state witnesses, those whose so-called confessions were used to nail my brother, have themselves said they made the confessions under duress,” he lamented. But Hadi’s feelings about the fate of his brother are understandable.
Beyond the younger Al-Mustapha’s argument, certain developments last week suggest that the death sentence is being politicised in a way to whip up ethnic sentiments among Nigerians. Expectedly the dreaded Islamic sect, Boko Haram, last Tuesday pushed the matter to the extreme when it threatened to start attacking courts and killing judges if the judgment is carried out. Similarly, a Kano-based group that has been campaigning for Al-Mustapha’s release indicated that it would pull the necessary strings to ensure that the ex-CSO regains his freedom. Hussain Mairiga, public relations officer of the group, said that what the group had been expecting last week was the former CSO’s release. According to him, they were even planning a reception for him. Mairiga said he spoke to Al-Mustapha on the eve of the court ruling and he (Al-Mustapha) assured him that he was going to be released. His words: “The onus is now on the northern establishment to rise up to the occasion and secure Al-Mustapha’s release. We will do all that is legally possible to secure his release. Clearly, some powerful people do not want Al-Mustapha to be released.”
Indeed, this open display of love for the man throws light on his royal conduct in prison custody. It also brings to light the calibre of those behind the demand for his release, even when it was evident that he was the one stalling his trial by diverting attention with irrelevant evidences he belaboured the court with. In detention he lives like a lord in Kirikiri Maximum Prison, Lagos. Even though he is behind bars, he has all the comfort that befits royalty – flat-screen television set, specially prepared meals, cosmetics, and a string of assistants at his beck and call. He enjoyed all the privileges that exist only in the imagination of a common prisoner, such as attending court proceedings in well-ironed kaftans. He was also a special benefactor who won a lot of detainees and their relations. Some of them are today in the vanguard for his release.
With these developments, Al-Mustapha and Shofolahan may eventually escape from the hangman’s noose after all. They filed an appeal against the judgment at the court of appeal in Lagos barely 24 hours after the ruling. In line with the country’s law, the convicts’ case can still pass through two more layers of the judicial process: the court of appeal and the Supreme Court. In their appeal, Al-Mustapha and Shofolahan contended that Justice Dada erred in law by arriving at the conclusion that they conspired to kill Kudirat on June 4, 1996. The duo in their notices of appeal filed last Tuesday before the court of appeal sitting in Lagos described the judgment as “unreasonable, unwarranted and cannot be supported for having disregard to the totality of evidence before the trial court.” Raising five grounds on which they want to predicate their appeal, they urged the appellate court to set aside the lower court’s decision and quash the sentence against them. According to them, the trial judge erred in law by holding that the contradictions in the evidence by Barnabas Jabila Mshelia (Rogers), the second prosecution witness (PW2), and Mohammed Abdul (Katako), the third prosecution witness (PW3), were immaterial. Both convicts stated that the said contradiction in both witnesses’ evidence were actually relevant to their case and ought to have been admitted in evidence.
Their second ground of appeal was that the trial judge erred when she relied on the evidence of the first prosecution witness, Ore Falomo, a medical doctor, to the effect that the bullet extracted from the late Kudirat was a special one, not commonly seen. They queried the trial judge’s decision to rely on the information by Falomo, knowing that he (Falomo) is neither a ballistician nor an expert in that field of science. In ground three, the appellants accused the trial judge of exhibiting bias against them by allegedly rejecting portions of Rogers’ and Katako’s evidence that favoured them, but accepted and relied on the portions that were unfavourable to them (See box).
Most of the people the magazine spoke to in Kano think the judgment was too harsh and should be reviewed, especially when the other people charged along with him had been released. They are referring to Bamaiyi and Mohammed Abacha, son of the late dictator. Abacha junior, who admitted that his car was used for the crime, was released apparently for lack of evidence connecting him with the crime and perhaps due to much political pressure, while Bamaiyi opted to be tried alone and was subsequently discharged.
Rabiu Bako, state secretary, All Nigeria People’s Party, ANPP, Kano, does not believe that Al-Mustapha deserves to die. “I’m sure the judgment would be reviewed when it gets to the court of appeal. When the case goes to appeal, I want the judges to ensure that justice is done and seen to be done,” he told the magazine. He argued that the evidence on which the court based its judgment was not convincing beyond reasonable doubts. “I am not convinced that the judgment of the Lagos high court was thorough enough and I think the judgment did not serve the cause of justice. This is the opinion of most people in Kano,” he added for effect. Ghali Sadiq, a Kano-based politician, agrees. His words: “I do not agree with that judgment, and I think it is wrong. What is the evidence they are basing the judgment on?”
Tanko Yakassai, a Second Republic politician and former special adviser to Shehu Shagari, is of the view that the matter is far from being over, and that last week’s judgment stands the chance of being overturned at the upper level of the legal process. He told the magazine that the circumstances under which the case was handled left little room for the court to manoeuvre. His words: “It was delivered at a very trying period for our country. I never expected Mustapha to be discharged, given the curious circumstances of the case and the environment in which the case was handled. It would have taken an extraordinary courage on the part of the court to rule otherwise under the circumstances, so the ruling does not surprise me.” He reasons however that Al-Mustapha and his co-accused would get justice at the higher level of judiciary, since the court that delivered last Monday’s judgment is one of first instance. He explained: “Mustapha and his co-accused have other options to resort to, such as going to the court of appeal and if they are not satisfied, to the Supreme Court. I’m sure that the circumstances would be more conducive to justice and fair play at the court of appeal or the Supreme Court. I pray that he would be able to get justice at the higher level of the judiciary.”
Apart from Al-Mustapha’s northern compatriots, other interest groups are already voicing their opposition to the ruling. Mujahid Asari-Dokubo, a notable Ijaw, is one of such persons who do not want to see the former CSO hanged. He believes the timing of the judgment is a conspiracy to rubbish the Jonathan administration. But his position is not anchored on any perceived human rights violation or opposition to death penalty. He is seeing the matter purely from the ethnic angle. To him, the conviction of Al-Mustapha and Shofolahan under the presidency of Jonathan, a fellow Ijaw man, is a bad omen for the administration. Dokubo therefore joins the list of people who chose to forget that the case dragged for over 12 years because the defence counsel employed legal and extra legal methods to delay the trial.
Indeed, the death sentence handed to Al-Mustapha and Shofolahan jolted many Nigerians because of the personality (Al-Mustapha) involved. Many people with Al-Mustapha’s calibre and political connections regale in the culture of impunity and are hardly punished when they err. Notwithstanding the outcome of the matter, people are concerned that the man who terrorised the entire nation during the Abacha era would eventually evade justice by being set free or at worst have the sentence commuted to years of imprisonment. Al-Mustapha himself did not help matters. He left the court last week with his head held high; he did not show any remorse, as might have been the case if he acknowledged the fact that human lives were needlessly lost in the reign of terror that was unleashed on opponents of the military regime in which he was a highly placed official. “He won’t be hanged trust me; we all know how things operate in this nation,” a young Nigerian noted on a social network site last Tuesday, even before the duo filed an appeal against the ruling.
But Oladele Solanke, a legal practitioner and a consultant on transparency and corporate governance, noted that the evidence against the duo as established by the court is incontrovertible and that it would stand the test of time at the appeal level. “Ballistics report indicates that it was only the military that had access to that kind of weapons used in killing the defenceless woman in broad daylight,” he told the magazine. Besides, he said, “The person who pulled the trigger, Barnabas Jabila (Sergeant Rogers), who was under the control and command of Al-Mustapha, confessed with his fellow felon (Mohammed Abdul, better known as Katako), that the organisation, execution and logistics for the crime [were] masterminded by the former CSO to the late Abacha.” Solanke said the retraction of the state’s key witnesses later was an afterthought, “as ably reviewed by Justice Dada.” So as far as he is concerned, “it is one of the best judgments I’ve ever read anywhere; the review of the mass of evidence, the scholarship, and breath of justice is sui generis (of its own kind), justice according to law with apparent fear of God.”
Hafsat Abiola-Costello, daughter of the slain Kudirat, told the magazine that it was obvious all along that Nigerians were dealing with people who were trying to manipulate the judicial system. “From what I understand, a lot of the delays in the case were caused by the defendants themselves. Stalling the process,” she said. She added that those who put up a lot of antics to get them off the hook were extremists, and that at the other end are democrats, who believe in the rule of law and the rights of all human beings. In spite of the delay in bringing the culprits to book, Abiola-Costello believes the country has done justice to the matter. She added: “I was given to understand that there was so much pressure on the judge. And I could remember some few months ago, Al-Mustapha was saying so many things in court to distract the judgment. But it’s okay, if we understand that Nigeria is still a country undergoing reform.” She said the handling of the trial, particularly that of Mohammed Abacha, got her very disillusioned with the whole judicial process.
Be that as it may, other observers believe that Al-Mustapha did not have smart lawyers. One of such observers, who posted a comment on an Internet forum, noted that Al-Mustapha’s lawyers should have urged him, particularly when all his subordinates began to testify against him, to change his plea to ‘guilty’ and to blame it on the military hierarchy where he received orders from, and Abacha who is dead. “That way he would have gotten away with a much lighter sentence. Guess they weren’t reading the handwriting on the wall,” he explained. That would not have been in line with the obvious plan of the former CSO. This is because it was apparent that Al-Mustapha’s lawyers were actually working towards a situation where the man would escape being convicted for the charges. Perhaps they were hoping that somebody would come to government who would discharge the case.
Gabriel Ajayi, a retired military officer and consultant on security, is not happy that some people are politicising the case. His words: “I don’t know why Nigerians are trying to turn this murder case into a political one? There is nothing political about the murder. A murder is a murder because there is nothing political about the bullet used and the impact it made. The fact was that a human being was killed in the process.” Ajayi said Nigerians should let justice take its course and should not further trivialise the case because it has dragged on for a long time.”
In the meantime, the defendants will soon return to the courtroom, this time to argue that they were wrongly convicted. Should they fail at the court of appeal, they will proceed to the Supreme Court. In the event that the apex court upholds the ruling of the lower court, the convicts will then make a last appeal to the political leadership. That is when the option of presidential pardon can be explored.
Additional reports by TAJUDEEN SULEIMAN, STELLA SAWYERR and ARUKAINO UMUKORO