AL-MUSTAPHA: 13 YEARS' WALK TO THE GALLOWS
That day in November 1999 was very special and spectacular at the premises of the Ikeja High Court.
The business at the Chief MagistrateÃs Court was presided over by a lady. The entire Lagos literally gathered to catch a glimpse of the major suspects. They were people that made news and made the nation shake like a flame in the wind in the days of General Sani Abacha as the Head of State.
The arraignment had been announced and anticipation was high that those fingered in the death of the wife of the late politician, MKO Abiola, Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, would be arraigned after a very long investigation.
On the great day, spectators had taken over the entire court premises and when the Black Maria that brought them blared its siren into the court premises, the crowd went into frenzy and surged endlessly to see the accused persons. They included former Chief of Army Staff in the Abacha days, Lt. Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi, later charged with complicity in the murder for allegedly supplying the hit squad the guns with which Kudirat was shot. The gun supply allegation later stretched to the assassination attempt on the Publisher of The Guardian, the late Chief Alex Ibru and that of late Pa Abraham Adesanya.
The next in the list of the suspects and indeed the most known name to the public was the Chief Security Officer (CSO) to Abacha, Major Hamza Al-Mustapha. There was also the former Zamfara State military administrator, Lt.-Col. Bala Jibrin, the former Lagos State Police Commissioner at the time of the assassination, Mr. James Danbaba, the chief of the Aso Rock hit squad, CSP Rabo Lawal who the star witness, Rogers or Barnabas Jabila identified in court as OC Mopol. Of course, the first son of Abacha, Mohammed, was among them.
The argument of the day was dominated by lead counsel to Bamaiyi and Al-Mustapha, the late Clement Akpamgbo, SAN, who asked the court to hands off because the charge of murder preferred against his clients was not within the powers of the court to handle.
Amid protestations, the Chief Magistrate ordered the remand of the suspects on holden charge pending their proper arraignment at the High Court.
On the day they were brought back that was before the High Court 1 presided by Lagos State Chief Judge, Justice Christopher Segun, who later played into the hands of the accused persons and was asked to disqualify himself. On that tensed day they were supposed to take pleas and open trial, Mike Okoye who led the defense legal team had asked the judge to allow his clients who had been standing in the dock for hours to sit down. And Segun gave himself away by asking: 'You mean criminals should sit down in my court?' They hinged their argument on that mistake that he had already sentenced them prior to trial. Segun stepped down.
The matter was transferred to Justice Augustine Ade-Alabi at the Igbosere High Court, who handled it for most of the trial duration Ã± in fact, at its peak. It was before Ade-Alabi who later retired as chief judge that the earth shaking evidences of Rogers were squealed.
If the slip by Justice Segun was a mistake, it was a type of mistake the defence team loved and always angled to score all through the trial.
The longest celebrated trial
If the Nigerian judicial system were a fabric, it is lace stuff. It is so replete with loopholes and multiple perforations aimed at ensuring fair hearing and sound justice. But those safeguards that warrant the truncation of hearing on the substantive matter to treat and handle preliminary objections are exploitable by the powerful and the accused person of means who can pick the legal bill and call his counsel to go the whole hog. To exploit the loopholes means truncating the progress of a trial for as long as an accused wished with the connivance of his counsel who benefits from that.
To the man in the street, Al-MustaphaÃs trial that ended at the pronouncement of guilt for murder yesterday Jan. 30, 2012, has been on because the system or government wanted him punished. But to the informed, those that were part of it, and knew exactly what happened, the delay for 13 years was largely the making of Al-Mustapha and his co-accused persons.
It started well and smoothly like every other matter but with so much tension, politics and hype. All manner of things were put in place by both sides to either get conviction fast or frustrate it. The first Attorney-General of Lagos to handle the matter was Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, SAN. He always accused the defence counsel of not bring in a hurry to have the matter prosecuted. With him was the Lagos DPP, late Ngozi Mofunanya, the deputy DPP, Mrs. Grace Modupe Onyeabor who later became a High Court judge at Igbosere. At a point, the Solicitor-General of the state, Mr. Fola Arthur-Worrey, now retired, was part of it. The trial must have gone through at least seven DPPs since it began.
The legal team for Al-Mustapha led by Akpamgbo included Mike Okoye, Amobi Nzelu, Yakubu Maikyau, BamaiyiÃs nephew who is now a SAN. DanbabaÃs counsel was Emmanuel Toro, SAN. while Jibrin was represented by Ibrahim Buba, a young bright lawyer who later became Federal High Court judge. Peter Obi was counsel to Rabo Lawal (OC Mopol)
These accused persons were no doubt people of means, and their counsel knowing the benefit of the loopholes decided to exploit them to the fullest. It was a big brief and it was a political trial as generally seen. So there was this underlying belief that buying time or delay in prosecution was all that was needed so that with time, there could be political negotiations that would lead to the freedom of the accused persons.
For every cough by the judge, he was asked to disqualify self by defence counsel as having compromised. There were at least ten of such rulings by Ade-Alabi where he affirmed that he didnÃt play against the rules and continued with the trial. On one heated day, one of the counsel to Al-Mustapha and the most controversial of them broke the rules and fired straight accusation at the judge for taking bribe and making sure he jails his clients at all costs. This generated so much tension that even the late Chief FRA Williams who was in court that day as a friend of the court took up the matter to prosecute the flippant counsel.
While this trial was on, the Oputa Panel started sitting, and since the same parties were summoned or had cases to answer before the panel, the trial suffered set back while their petitions in the panel was sorted out.
In this trial, in those years before Ade-AlabiÃs court, there were as many preliminary objections as possible that many lost count. Every decision on each of them was appealed, and sometimes to Supreme Court. While this went on – from the hearing at the trial court to appeals, the main trial is put on hold until the objection is over. For every witness that testified, there were objections. For every written evidence from the investigation, there were claims of evidence being obtained under duress that triggered a trial within trial. Recall that there were five accused persons after Mohammed Abacha had been dropped. And these objections went round each of them. Every counsel on behalf of all the accused took time to walk the same circle. That was how the trial got held down almost indefinitely.
It got so bad that as they changed counsel from time to time, at a point Bamaiyi had to apply to be tried separately as one personÃs delay meant delay to all of them as they were collectively charged. Any day any of them was indisposed and could not attend trial, the business of the day would be called off because they are jointly being tried and must all be before the court.
With this style, it did not take many years before the trial lost steam and the public attention was diverted to other things as the political intervention did not come.