Al-Mustapha, Abiola, And a Nation’s Shame

by Okey Ndibe

It is easy to forget that Hamza Al-Mustapha, Chief Security Officer to the late General Sani Abacha, is standing trial for allegedly ordering the assassination of Kudirat Abiola, one of the wives of former President-elect Moshood Kashimawo Abiola. Last week, that murder trial was all but eclipsed by a series of startling claims by Mr. Al-Mustapha.

First, the former CSO accused a few prominent Yoruba personalities of complicity in Mr. Abiola’s “murder.” He alleged that Bola Ige, a former Minister of Justice who himself was assassinated, as well as Abraham Adesanya, also deceased, were part of a group of Yoruba leaders who were inadvertently complicit in Mr. Abiola’s murder.

Mr. Al-Mustapha had earlier claimed that, shortly after Mr. Abiola’s mystifying death on July 7, 1998, the General Abubakar Abdulsalami regime had withdrawn huge sums from the Central Bank of Nigeria to buy the silence of some Yoruba figures. According to him, the hush funds included $200 million and £74 million as well as a stash of naira.

Thanks in part to their astonishing quality, the former CSO’s “bombshells” have riveted Nigerians. Make no mistake, worse things – more macabre, more absurd and more unbelievable – have happened (and happen) in Nigeria. During the Abacha years, Nigerians saw a steady parade of so-called royal fathers, political leaders as well as corporate heavyweights to Aso Rock to pledge loyalty. Some of these shameless pilgrims were erstwhile friends of Mr. Abiola’s, many direct beneficiaries of his legendary philanthropy. In rhetoric that conferred shame on the speakers without bestowing any graces on Mr. Abacha, the visitors often described the rather dull Abacha as “a dynamic leader,” and egged him on to retain the presidential seat. It was an open secret that these round-tripping praise singers received handsome financial rewards for their self-debasing, nation-wrecking missions to a depraved dictator.

Still, I have the hunch that Mr. Al-Mustapha’s bazaar of claims was sheer theatre, carefully packaged in order to deflect attention away from the central question of his trial: did he, or did he not order a hit squad to ambush Mrs. Abiola and kill her?

Mrs. Kudirat Abiola’s murder was one of the cruelest and most cowardly acts in the saga that followed former General Ibrahim Babangida’s annulment of Mr. Abiola’s election as president in the June, 1993 elections. Following the Abacha regime’s detention of her husband, Kudirat stepped up as an intrepid voice both for Mr. Abiola’s release and assumption of his mandate. Those who killed her seemed out to send a chilling message – that they would brook no resistance.

In death, Mrs. Kudirat Abiola became a much larger symbol of the June 12 struggle. In fact, she became larger than life, and her voice seemed to ring even more resonantly from beyond the grave. In Nigeria and elsewhere, she came to embody the spirit of a certain chapter of Nigeria’s long-running, Sisyphean journey to a vitalizing democracy.

The Kudirat Abiola case demands painstaking rigor to unmask her killers – and her killers’ sponsors. Yet, that particular imperative has, over the last decade, been seriously imperiled. And the theatricalities that recently replaced Mr. Al-Mustapha’s trial further threaten to derail the process of discovering the chain of culpability in this brave woman’s murder.

That Abacha’s former CSO has been permitted to turn his trial into the most sordid brand of circus show is an indictment of Nigeria’s judicial process. It is not only Mr. Al-Mustapha who is guilty of orchestrating this ludicrous drama. There are, to be clear, a variety of other authors and many victims.

I’d say that grave injustice has been done to the Abiola family, and especially to Mrs. Kudirat Abiola progeny. The former CSO’s trial has been plodding along in the courts for some twelve years. Any system that permits a prosecution – and in such a high-profile one – to languish in the courts for so long has gone beyond inept. It is abjectly rotten.

When a loved one is murdered as coldly as was the case with Kudirat Abiola, the trauma is bound to stay with the victim’s family for a long time. One thing that helps the healing process is to realize that the perpetrators of the gruesome act have been arrested, their guilt established beyond reasonable doubt in a courtroom, and punishment meted out.

The Abiola family deserves that manner of closure, a full determination of the who, why and what that led to the extinguishing of Mrs. Kudirat Abiola’s life. My sneaking suspicion is that, for the family, the dragging pace of the CSO’s trial amounts to indefinite postponement of the moment when they can finally exhale – satisfied that justice has been done to those who murdered their loved one.

Instead, the murder trial has been in a state of limbo for more than twelve years. That’s unacceptable. The interminableness of the Al-Mustapha trial, with its all-too-frequent interludes of soap opera-ish levity, mocks the concept of justice. Nigerians ought to be outraged. Twelve years and counting – and the entire machinery of our justice system can’t still figure out whether the former CSO was the mastermind of Kudirat’s death in a blaze of gunfire? Is it a case of the prosecution not putting together an airtight case before hastening to trial? Or has the judge been too indulgent of the defendant, permitting him flights of fancy, offering him the stage and latitude to cheapen his trial (as well as the judicial process as a whole) by turning the courtroom into a kind of Hyde Park, an arena where Mr. Al-Mustapha’s mischievous speculations and wild claims freely rain and reign? Who benefits from this trial’s deployment of every delay tactic in the rulebook?

If this is a case of prosecutorial laxity – if, in other words the prosecution does not have the facts to get Mr. Al-Mustapha convicted – then the government should so acknowledge. In that event, the present case against the former CSO should be conditionally withdrawn. And, since this case is not one to be easily swept underneath the rug, investigators should be asked to get cracking to uncover who killed Mrs. Abiola, and who asked them to do it. If the new investigation points to Mr. Al-Mustapha, he should then be charged afresh on the basis of scrupulously gathered evidence.

There’s one more principle that demands stipulation. And it is this: the possibility, in the end, that Mr. Al-Mustapha might be found not guilty. No question, the man’s reputation as an over-zealous acolyte of Mr. Abacha’s, as a mindless enforcer of that regime’s brutal repression, earned him near-universal spite. Yet, regardless of what we think of the man – and I, for one, hold him in utter contempt – we must realize the real possibility of his eventual acquittal.

On the whole, there’s something profoundly unseemly about watching the wheels of Nigerian justice grind so slowly. This is, so far, a lose-lose proposition. Whether Mr. Al-Mustapha is guilty or not, the tenets of justice dictate that his trial be concluded in more decent time and – in the event of guilt – his punishment pronounced to the full extent allowed by the law. Guilty or not, he should not be allowed to seize the platform of the courtroom to regale a captivated nation with fantastic accounts of events that preceded as well as followed the killing of Mrs. Abiola.

It should not take twelve years to determine whether Mr. Abacha’s handyman gave instructions for Kudirat Abiola to be snuffed out.

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