A Diplomatic Standoff
It was the turn of the British security forces to go to work. The Nigerian Airways 707 was detained by the police and was not permitted to take off. 17 people were also arrested on suspicion of complicity in Dikko’s kidnap. The 17 suspects included the 707 crew, Abithol, Barak and Yusufu. Nigeria retaliated swiftly. Forty-five minutes after a British Caledonian Boeing 747 flight took off from Lagos it was ordered back ”for security reasons”. The plane’s 222 passengers were allowed to disembark and leave the airport, but the plane was held. This led to a days long standoff between Britain and Nigeria until Britain released the Nigerian 707 plane, and Nigeria eventually released the British Caledonian plane. However the damage had already been done and diplomatic relations between the two countries became badly strained. It was the worst diplomatic crisis between them since Nigeria expelled the British High Commissioner in Nigeria Sir Martin Le Quesne in the aftermath of the February 1976 coup, and Britain’s refusal to extradite General Gowon to Nigeria in connection with it.
Originally, the Dikko kidnap attempt was suspected to be the work of mercenaries. Foreign intelligence involvement became apparent only when the sophistication and daring of the plan was revealed. The role of Mossad, the Nigerian government and the NSO was never admitted by either of the Nigerian and Israeli governments. With the presence of Nigerian diplomatic passports and cars, the British police expanded the scope of their investigation and asked Nigeria to waive diplomatic immunity for its High Commission staff so they could be interrogated. Two members of Nigeria’s High Commission staff” Peter Oyedele and Okon Edet were also arrested, and there was talk of calling in High Commissioner Hannaniya for questioning. Outraged at the treatment of its officials, the Nigerian government recalled Hannaniya to Lagos for consultations. The British government was pleased with the development, and as far as it was concerned, Hannaniya could stay there. It announced that Hannaniya would not be welcome back. The British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe went a step further and ordered the expulsion of Oyedele and Edet (the two Nigerian High Commission staff that were arrested as part of the investigation).
Trial and Punishment
Of the original 17 suspects, 4 were tried. The legendary defence barrister George Carman QC represented the defendants. Sticking to the traditional Mossad response of denying involvement, the defendants argued that they were mercenaries acting on behalf of Nigerian businessmen. The judge did not believe them and was convinced that Mossad was involved. The judge told the jury that “The finger of involvement almost certainly points to Mossad”. Even Carman’s famed legal skills could not prevent the defendants’ conviction. The convicts were sentenced to the following prison sentences:
- Alexander Barak – 14 years
- Mohammed Yusufu – 12 years
- Levi-Arie Shapiro – 10 years
- Felix Abithol – 10 years
All the other convicts have subsequently been freed. Barak was freed after serving 8 and half years of his 14 year sentence. Yusufu was freed in 1991 after serving 7 years of his 12 year sentence. Abithol and Shapiro were freed after serving 6 years of their 10 year sentence. Abithol, Barak and Shapiro were quietly deported to Israel after their release. The dramatis personae have since refused to comment on the matter. Barak later told the Israeli magazine Haaretz that “All those involved in this old story have embarked on new lives or have returned to their Maker, and I do not see any point in recycling the affair.”
The diplomatic fall out from the crisis led to a two year suspension of diplomatic relations between Nigeria and Britain. The controversy also weakened Nigeria’s war on corruption by hardening British attitudes, and creating a pretext for Britain to refuse cooperation in Nigerian attempts to extradite and prosecute corrupt officials. After the kidnap, Nigeria submitted a formal request to Britain for Dikko’s extradition. The request was refused and Britain also refused to extradite other Nigerian fugitive politicians in the UK who Nigeria sought to prosecute for massive corruption (such as Richard Akinjide and Adisa Akinloye). It also complicated Nigeria’s economic relations at a time of falling oil prices and worsening economic conditions. The British government led by Margaret Thatcher responded to Nigerian government requests for debt rescheduling by threatening to publish the names of prominent Nigerians with bank accounts in the UK whose account balances were sufficient to pay off Nigeria’s national debt. This would probably have compromised the legitimacy of highly placed officials past and present. Full diplomatic relations between the countries were not restored until February 1986 when the government of Major-General Ibrahim Babangida came to power.
After recovering Dikko remained in London for another 12 years. He was confined at home under police guard for a year. In exile he fulfilled a childhood ambition by qualifying as a barrister. Dikko was eventually invited back to Nigeria in 1995 by the military regime of General Sani Abacha (who was a member of the government which tried to kidnap and forcefully repatriate him in 1984). On his return he formed a political party called the United Democratic Party (UDP). Cynical Nigerians dubbed the party the “Umaru Dikko Party”. Dikko remained bitter and in 2001 took his claim to the Justice Chukwudifu Oputa chaired Human Rights Violations Investigations Commission. Dikko accused the following of complicity in his abduction: air force officer Bernard Banfa (ex Nigeria Airways), Alhaji Lawal Rafindadi (former Director-General of Nigeria’s National Security Organization), Nigeria’s High Commissioner in London Major-General Haladu Anthony Hannaniya and Lt-General T.Y. Danjuma. All the accused except Danjuma refused to appear before the Commission. Danjuma denied involvement in Dikko’s kidnap and he and Dikko reconciled during the Commission’s proceedings. Dikko is still alive. He was a founding member of the Arewa Consultative Forum and remains a prominent spokesman and non-governmental political figure.
4 Held in London Deny Nigerian Role in Plot, Time Magazine, July 27, 1984
An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Conflict and Conflict Resolution, 1945-1996, by John E. Jessup, Greenwood Publishing (1998).
Britain Convicts 4 of Kidnapping Nigerian, Time Magazine – February 13, 1985
British Custom Officials Open a Pandora’s Crate, New York Times – July 8, 1984
Development: Critical Concepts in the Social Sciences by Stuart Corbridge. Routledge (1999)
Diplomatic Baggage: Mossad & Nigeria, The Dikko Story, by Kayode Soyinka. Newswatch Books Limited, Lagos (1994)
Life Is an Excellent Adventure: An Irreverent Personal Odyssey, by Jerry Funk
Nigerian Foreign Policy Under Military Rule, 1966-1999 By Olayiwola Abegunrin. Greenwood Publishing (2003)
The Light That Failed, Time Magazine – Monday, Jan. 16, 1984