Major Hamza Al-Mustapha
By Davidson Iriekpen in Lagos and Ibrahim Shuaibu in Kano
After 13 years in detention and what could be described as the longest criminal case in Nigeria, a Lagos High Court in Igbosere yesterday convicted Major Hamza Al-Mustapha and a protocol officer in the Chief MKO Abiola Campaign Organisation, Alhaji Lateef Shofolahan.
Al-Mustapha was Chief Security Officer (CSO) to late General Sani Abacha.
The court, presided over by Justice Mojisola Dada found them guilty on the two-count charge of conspiracy and murder and consequently sentenced them to death by hanging.
The convicts, who had been in detention since 1999, were standing trial for the murder, on June 4, 1996, of Alhaja Kudirat Abiola.
The duo were prosecuted by the Lagos State Government.
In a judgment that lasted over seven hours, Justice Dada held that the evidence presented by the prosecution was manifestly reliable, showing that the defendants murdered Alhaja Abiola in cold blood.
She added that the former CSO admitted that he headed the Strike Force in the Presidential Villa which was mandated to protect the government of the day, stating that by the name of the group, it was obvious that they were set up to terrorise whoever they saw as a threat to the then military government
“Even by the name of the Strike Force and the anti-terrorism job, it is billed to strike with force any opposition to government of the day,” she held.
Justice Dada submitted that it was clear to the court that Al-Mustapha recruited Sgt Barnabas Jabilla (aka) Rogers, gave him gun and provided logistics for him and his team to travel from Abuja to Lagos in order to meet the 2nd defendant (Shofolahan) who provided information on the late Alhaja Abiola.
She held that the fact that Al-Mustapha, in his evidence in chief, admitted that he might have given his gun to Jabilla for cleaning, concurred with Roger’s testimony that Al-Mustapha provided a
special gun that was used in the assassination of Alhaja Abiola.
On the retraction of the statement made by the two key prosecution witnesses namely: Sgt Jabilla and Abdul Mohammed (aka Katako), the judge held that their earlier statements were too convincing to be brushed aside as mere fabrications.
“Apart from what the court saw, the verbatim recording also assisted the court; their retraction was not enough to invalidate their earlier statements made under oath. The fact that they were discharged and acquitted in the sister case by the Court of Appeal is not a magic-wand on the court because each case has its own peculiar nature,” she said.
She stated that Jabilla was not an ordinary witness, but rather a self-confessed killer who was ready to kill for the state hence he was surprised when he was arrested and interrogated by the Special Investigation Panel (SIP).
Justice Dada further observed that Al-Mustapha in his evidence showed that he was willing to do anything in order to protect the seat of power in Abuja even if it meant killing those who were seen as enemy of the government like Alhaja Abiola.
On the video tape displayed in court showing some leaders of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) at the Presidential Villa, the court stated that there was nothing in it to show that they were given money as alleged by the 1st defendant.
The court further held that the fact that no member of the SIP that investigated the matter was in court to lend a helping hand to the prosecution revealed that they (SIP) lost interest having concluded their investigation.
On the allegation by Al-Mustapha that he was a victim of persecution by powers that be, Justice Dada held that there was nothing to show that the confessional statement he made to the SIP was conjured by the panel, adding that the denial of the said statement by Al-Mustapha was an afterthought.
The court held that all the allegations of persecution as alleged by the defendants were diversionary.
On Shofolahan, the judge described him as a traitor who sold his boss at all cost for the purpose of achieving his personal ambition.
She said that the evidence-in-chief of the PW2 confirmed that he gave them information about the movement of Alhaja Abiola.
“Not long after the death of his boss, he began to romance with Abacha government and engaged in a two-million-man-match in Abuja in support of Abacha.
She submitted that both Al-Mustapha and Shofolahan lied under oath when they said in their evidence- in-chief that they never knew each other, adding that they both agreed to work together for the government of the day.
In an emotion-laden voice, the judge described Shofolahan as a greedy traitor, saying: “He was a willing tool; he was like Judas Iscariot who betrayed our Lord Jesus Christ. It was his greed that led him to Seriki Shasha who took him to the 1st defendant (Al-Mustapha) and that made him participate actively in the two-million-man march in favour of the government of the day.
“He is a blood-thirsty traitor; the fact that he made people to laugh in court while giving his evidence was a facade that he deliberately sacrificed Alhaja Kudirat Abiola.
“He was a viper whom his employers did not know while harbouring him in their house. He showed them the picture of Kudirat and quietly sneaked away. He deliberately sacrificed late Kudirat Abiola for the purpose of achieving his personal gains.”
The judge added that he attempted to trivialise the trial by acting and making people to laugh in order to divert attention.
She held that the evidence of the PW2 and PW3 were reliable and showed that the first and second defendants conspired to murder Alhaja Abiola and indeed killed her.
Reacting to the ruling, the Al-Mustapha family said: “We strongly believe in the judiciary as the last hope of the common man, but I must confess to you that we are shocked by this ruling. But in every situation, we shall give glory to Almighty Allah, the only thing I can tell you now is that we are going to appeal and we will be vindicated at last, I promise you.”
Younger brother to the convict, Alhaji Hadi Al-Mustapha, told THISDAY that the judgment was a temporary setback, promising to pursue the case to its logical conclusion.
He said: “Over 13 years, this man has been standing trial alongside many others, but today all of them have been discharged and acquitted and my brother has been sentenced to death by hanging. We still have fate in the judiciary; the highest court of the land will do justice on this matter.”
But celebrating the ruling, Kudirat's daughter, Hafsat Abiola-Costello, said: "Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. The death sentence handed down by Justice Mojisola Dada in the case against Major Hamza Al-Mustapha and Mr. Sofolahan may well be the beginning of the end of a sad story that began on the 4th of June 1996 when my mother, Alhaja Kudirat Abiola’s car was ambushed and she was gunned down on the streets of Lagos.
"The story had many twists and turns such that my six siblings and I often wondered if those that executed the assassination of our dear mother might not simply get away with it. "After all, the crime took place in Nigeria, where we often say ‘anything is possible.’ Yet, over 15 years later, when all hope had been lost, Justice Dada restored my faith in my country’s judicial system and in the integrity of the Nigerian people when she courageously chose to hear my mother’s cry from the grave for justice," she added.
During the trial, Al-Mustapha through his counsel, Olalekan Ojo, stated that the prosecution did not prove its case beyond reasonable doubt.
Adopting his 112-page written address dated September 16, 2011, the defence counsel said: “With regard to the totality of evidence before the court, it cannot be said that the case of the prosecution against the defendants has been proved beyond reasonable doubt.
“It is more that 13 years now when the defendants have been in custody and by prison calendar it is about 18 years. Even if some people wanted them punished, by now, they should be satisfied that they have been given enough punishment.”
Specifically, he argued that Al-Mustapha had told the court that he was a victim of persecution, detailing how he had been targeted by the powers that be and gave reasons why the animosity was so intense.
He told the court that there was nothing unlawful in what the former CSO did while in office, adding that when he (Al-Mustapha) learnt that the property of Gen. Abacha was to be burnt, he sent Rabo Lawal to find out and contact other security agencies in Lagos to protect the property.
In the case of the 2nd defendant, he said: “Even without the 2nd defendant requesting the investigating officer to either produce a person from the household of Chief MKO Abiola to confirm whether he had ever worked as protocol officer or in any capacity in that household but they never did.”
He added that the 2nd defendant admitted that he worked for Hope ’93 and that after the organisation was disbanded, he went back to his private business, adding that the allegation filed against his came almost two years after he left Hope ’93.
He said there was nothing placed before the court to show that there was conspiracy or murder charge.
In his reply, the Solicitor General of Lagos State, Lawal Pedro (SAN), told the court that Jabila (PW2) had earlier told the court how he killed late Alhaja Abiola, adding that there were circumstantial evidence that linked the two defendants with the prosecution witnesses.
He submitted that each of the defendants might not have shot Alhaja Abiola or be present at the time she was shot yet they could be found guilty for her murder.
He said: “There is direct evidence before the court on who killed Alhaja Kudirat Abiola. Whether the evidence is credible or not is another thing entirely. The direct evidence by PW2 (Rogers) was that he shot the deceased and he said it was on the instruction of the first defendant (Al-Mustapha) and that he was assisted by the 2nd defendant (Lateef Shofolahan) who provided information about Alhaja Kudirat’s movements and even led them to her residence.”
He submitted that it was the information provided by the 2nd defendant that enabled them to trace her and shot her.
He urged the court to hold that the prosecution had proved the case of conspiracy and murder against the defendants and convict them accordingly.
The judgment however witnessed heavy presence of combat ready security agencies comprising the prisons, police and the SSS.
The armed prison officers were also with sniffer dogs scaring people away.
There was almost chaos as security agencies apprehended a man who was alleged to have dropped a bag at the court premises. The bomb scare made them apprehend him and beat him up.
After the judgment, supporters of the condemned men thronged the court premises spoiling for a fight and threatening to deal with those considered as opposition to the freedom of their principal.
Shofolahan had already been convicted in 2009 and sentenced to 28 years in prison providing information leading to the attempted murder of Pa Abraham Adesanya in 1996, Al-Mustapha was discharged and acquitted in the attempted murder of the Publisher of The Guardian Newspapers, Mr. Alex Ibru.