The Hamza al-Mustapha story which began some 14 years ago may have got to its climax with the landmark judgment of the Court of Appeal (Lagos Division) which held last Friday that the Chief Security Officer to the late Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha, has no hand in the murder of Kudirat Abiola.
Al-Mustapha was discharged and acquitted alongside Lateef Shofolahan, protocol officer to the late M.K.O. Abiola. Both men had, in January last year, been sentenced to death by Justice Mojisola Dada of the Lagos High Court for the murder of Kudirat Abiola. But the appellate court in a unanimous judgment, delivered by Justice Rita Pemu held that the prosecution failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt, and that there was no nexus between the appellants and the murder of Kudirat. With this judgment, al-Mustapha who had spent 14 years in detention, and later, in jail, is free to go home.
This development appeals to different people in different ways. Those who have sympathy for al-Mustapha’s cause have been jubilating. They have hailed the justices of the Court of Appeal for doing a good job. But there are those who are asking why. These are people who believe that al-Mustapha is guilty as charged. They are lambasting the justices for setting free a man who, in their judgment, should be held down for murder.
Reactions such as these are normal in circumstances like this. I did not expect anything to the contrary. But the matter appeals to me for a different reason. I am, by the judgment, constrained to look back in time and recollect the issues that constitute the essence of the al-Mustapha story. One of the earliest things that happened when Olusegun Obasanjo assumed office in 1999 was the arrest and detention of al-Muatapha for sundry acts of murder, including those of Kudirat Abiola and the Publisher of the Guardian Newspapers, Mr. Alex Ibru. Obasanjo, as we know, was one of the highly placed Nigerians who got a raw deal from Abacha during his reign as Nigeria’s Head of State. But the curious turn of history relaunched Obasanjo into relevance. Abacha was dead and those who played one role or the other in his undoing felt it was time to hold their heads high in triumph.
But there was an albatross in the air. Major Hamza al-Mustapha was still very much around. We were told that Oladipo Diya, a Lieutenant-General and Abacha’s second-in-command, prostrated before this Major when he (Diya) was implicated in what commentators have chosen to call “phantom coup”. In military circles, it is considered sacrilegious for a senior officer to kneel, bow, and humble himself before a junior colleague. Diya did it for al- Mustapha so that he could live. Diya may be living today, but it is believed that his psyche has been permanently battered by al-Mustapha’s over-lordship. That was how powerful this man was under Abacha. This being the case, those who experienced the raw side of Abacha considered al-Mustapha their implacable enemy .This was the beginning of al-Mustapha‘s incarceration. But unlike many who would be subdued in the face of adversity, al-Mustapha turned out to be a stormy petrel. He made the establishment uncomfortable, even in the face of incarceration. This onslaught against the establishment began early enough. By November 2000, al- Mustapha had already blurted out. He told Nigerians then, contrary to popular sentiments, that Abiola was murdered by Generals in the Armed Forces in the days of Abacha’s reign. He pointed accusing finger at the then Head of State, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar and implored the Oputa Commission on Human Rights Violations which was sitting then to invite him over to testify. In fact, al-Mustapha threatened that he would “say everything” he knew about Abiola’s death if the Oputa Panel gave him an opportunity to testify.
As should be expected, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar dismissed al-Mustapha’s claims as deriving from a bent frame of mind. Unfortunately, the Oputa Panel never gave the Major the opportunity to say anything, how much more saying everything he knew about Abiola’s death.
But if we missed whatever al-Mustapha had to say then, we even missed a lot more considering the fact that the findings of the Oputa Panel died with it. The report was never made public. We did not know anymore what the entire charade was all about.
But al-Mustapha did not go to sleep. He continued to gnaw at the feet of the establishment. It was so serious that in March 2004, the military establishment came up with rumours of coup. We were told then that al-Mustapha was plotting to overthrow the government from Kirikiri Prisons. Soldiers were detailed to storm Kirikiri prisons at an unholy hour of the morning to arrest al-Mustapha. He was taken away and interrogated over allegations of coup-plotting. That was how powerful the man was considered to be. He was even feared while in detention. He was believed to be capable of overthrowing the government even from prison. But the matter blew away. We were never told whether al-Mustapha was guilty or not.
The man was not deterred by all this. While his trial was going on, he used the opportunity as a principal witness to tell his story. Each time he did, many seemed to say that the man was trying to drag others into his supposedly bad case. Many did not give him an opportunity for fair hearing. It was so much so that I had cause in this Column in 2011 to caution that there was need to suspend disbelief over al-Mustapha. The gist of my argument was that we should not throw away the baby with the bathwater; that the contrary needed to be proved before we can dismiss al-Muatapha’s testimonies as those of a drowning man. All of that continued until he was sentenced to death on January 30, 2012.
Now a reversal has come. Al-Muatapha, in spite of whatever doubt anybody had about his claims, is now a free man. The court said he was not guilty as charged. For me, this development is cheery because of the burden it will place on the man. For 13 years, he has been threatening to speak out. But he did not have the opportunity and the right audience. Now, the man is finally free.
Significantly, the man said in 2000 that he was prepared to name names. He said, as we earlier pointed out, that he was prepared to “say everything”. Now the hour has come. We do not know what al-Mustapha knows. He now has an unfettered opportunity to tell us everything. Even much more significant is the fact that Gen. Abdulsalami is still alive. So are some others who al-Mustapha may have had in mind. What does he have to say now? What is it that he has been struggling to divulge about Abiola’s death? Who killed him? Who played what role? Al-Mustapha, where are you? We cannot wait anymore to have the answers to these questions.
The man should not even stop with Abiola. What about Abacha, his boss? Who killed him? What was all the talk about apple? Was it the same apple in the Garden of Eden which condemned Adam, and his better half, Eve, to eternal damnation and suffering? What does this whole thing mean in Abacha’s case?
Indeed, no one can seek to explain Abiola’s death without doing the same for Abacha’s. One is a consequence of the other. It could not have been sheer coincidence. We welcome al-Mustapha to a new and fuller life . But at least he owes himself and the entire humanity something. Let him lead us into his world of “everything”. It will enrich Nigeria’s modern history.