The public protests which greeted the illegal annulment of the result of the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by Chief M.K.O Abiola forced the military President, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, to relinquish power. While announcing that he was merely stepping aside, the dictator transferred power to an Interim National Government (ING) headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan. A former Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Sani Abacha, was appointed the Secretary of Defence for the ING. But based on a suit filed by Chief Abiola at the Lagos High Court, the ING was declared illegal and unconstitutional. The epochal verdict was handed down on November 10, 1993. A week later, Gen. Abacha sacked the ING and declared himself the new military head of state.
Prof. Wole Soyinka condemned the palace coup and demanded the inauguration of a democratically elected government headed by the winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election. On Prof. Soyinka’s instructions, Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN) proceeded to the Federal High Court to challenge the legitimacy of the Abacha junta. On the basis of the preliminary objection filed by the junta’s lawyer, the case was struck out for want of jurisdiction on the part of the court. It was also held that Soyinka lacked the locus standi to institute the action. Peeved about the legal challenge to legality of his regime, the maximum ruler ordered the immediate arrest and detention of the Nobel Laureate.
However, information of the impending arrest was leaked to Soyinka who left the country through what later became known as the “NADECO route”. In utter frustration, Gen. Abacha sanctioned some officials of the government for their negligence and disloyalty, which led to the escape of the “wanted man.” While in exile, Soyinka coordinated an effective international campaign against the junta. The campaign became intensified when the leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), Ken Saro-Wiwa, and other Ogoni leaders were executed by the dictator after a sham trial by a special military tribunal.
In addition to his leading role in the campaign for the restoration of democratic rule in the country, Soyinka established Radio Kudirat and formed the National Liberation Council of Nigeria (NALICON). According to its mission statement, the NALICON was determined to wage an armed struggle against the Abacha junta since it had engaged in terrorist attacks in order to perpetuate itself in power. To blackmail and cow Soyinka to submission, Abacha ordered that he be declared wanted and charged with treason. In actuality, some mercenaries were hired by the junta to kidnap the “wanted man”, crate him and bring him to the country for trial.
At the home front, Fawehinmi had been charged with the illegal formation of a political party before the Chief Magistrate Court, Ikeja, Lagos. He had been granted bail and trial had commenced in the case. As the leader of the defence team, I was in court for the continuation of the trial on March 12, 1997. I had just taken my seat when I noticed that Chief Olu Falae and 10 other persons were being brought to the court. They had been detained without trial at the Alagbon police station in Lagos for upward of 10 months for alleged terrorist activities. The investigating police officer, Mr. Zakari Biu, who was then in charge of the Police Anti-Terrorism Department, thought I was in the court because I had foreknowledge of the case. He therefore suggested that the suspects be returned to Alagbon. But the prosecutor, Mr. Nuhu Ribadu, overruled him on the ground that the suspects were entitled to legal representation in court.
I was still having some consultations with the defendants when the Chief Magistrate entered the court. As soon as she took her seat, she ordered the clerk of the court to read the charge to the defendants. In the criminal complaint filed that morning, Soyinka and three other pro-democracy campaigners namely Chief Anthony Enahoro, Gen. Alani Akinrinade (rtd.) and Dr. Amos Akingba who were living in exile in the United States and the United Kingdom together with Chief Falae and 10 other political detainees were charged before the Chief Magistrate Court who was trying Fawehinmi’s case. In the two-count charge, the defendants were accused of “levying war against the federal military government of Nigeria by conspiring with people to explode bombs in Nigeria between 1995 and 1997″ and treason by “causing explosions in various parts of Nigeria and overawing the Head of State of the Federal Government of Nigeria” contrary to sections 516 and 37 respectively of the Criminal Code applicable in Lagos State.
Even though the charge was read, the plea of the defendants was not taken for want of jurisdiction on the part of the magistrate court to try the offence of treason. But as the charge was being read, I recalled that the junta had engaged in some desperate moves to link Soyinka with terrorism. In fishing for evidence with which to nail him, the Abacha killer squad had placed a copy of Soyinka’s detention dairy, “The Man Died”, on the charred body of Babangida Kaltho, TheNews/TEMPO magazines’ correspondent after bombing him at the Hamdala Hotel, Kaduna. I wondered why the innocent young man had to be so gruesomely murdered to nail another man.
In reacting to that incident and the spate of bombings rocking the country at the material time, Soyinka had told the media: “I don’t know who is behind the bombs. He (Abacha) has created so much enmity in the army that I think the army could be responsible. It is very divided.” In dismissing the official allegation of his involvement in the bombings, the Nobel Laureate said: “Abacha is a psychopath, and a pathological liar. He knows he doesn’t have any shred of proof connecting me to these bombings.”
After the charge had been read, the prosecutor applied that the defendants who were present in court be remanded in prison custody. In opposing Ribadu’s application, I submitted that Ribadu had strengthened our case by his own admission that what was before the court was a holding charge which had been declared illegal and unconstitutional in the case of Andrew Ogor v Kolawole (1983) 5 NCLR 342. In opposing the application that the defendants who were in court be remanded in prison custody, I pointed out that the chief magistrate had no power to transfer them to the prison since she had no power to try the main case of treason.
At that juncture, Fawehinmi who had entered the court in the middle of my submissions announced that he was, with my concurrence, leading me in the matter. While adopting my address on the objection to the charge Chief Fawehinmi further submitted that “the Criminal Code does not provide for any form of trial in absentia. To that extent the involvement of Soyinka and others in exile has vitiated the charge. Even with respect to Falae, Dr. Frederick Faseun and others in court the charge is equally illegal as a holding charge is no longer part of the criminal justice system of the country.” Fawehinmi made it clear to the court that none of the exiled defendants was going to be extradited, as was the case with Enahoro who was deported from the United Kingdom to stand trial for treason with Chief Obafemi Awolowo in 1962.
Although the chief magistrate did not agree with our submissions that she could not order the detention of the defendants in prison custody, she directed that they be taken back to Alagbon police station. On our preliminary objections to the charge, she said that she would rule at a later date and then adjourned the case to May 9, 1997 for mention. Unlike when he reported himself to the police in 1965 after he had been declared wanted for holding up a radio station in Ibadan, Soyinka was not prepared for the trial of another “mystery man.”
After the adjournment of the case, Soyinka pleaded not guilty to the treason charge. Speaking from California in the United States, he told the CNN: “It’s an old familiar charge that’s being dusted off to tie it in with this spate of bombings. This is a ploy to liquidate us.” The charge was still pending in court when Abacha suddenly died June 8, 1998. But following the decision of his successor, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar junta to withdraw all politically-motivated cases from the courts, the case was discontinued and struck out. Thus, Soyinka never appeared in any court to face the charge of treason slammed against him by the Abacha junta.
However, it was later proved beyond any reasonable doubt at the Lagos High Court during the trial of some members of the Abacha junta involved in the killing of members of the opposition that the Abacha Strike Force was responsible for the spate of bombings, which had rocked the country from 1995-1998. Indeed, some operatives of the killer squad confirmed their involvement in such state-sponsored terrorist activities at the Oputa Panel of Enquiry on Human Rights Abuses. In fact, one of them, Sergeant Rogers Jabila, cried and asked for forgiveness from the victims when he appeared at the panel. Such confessional statements have since exonerated Soyinka and other suspects who were charged with conspiracy and treason by the Abacha junta.
•Mr. Femi Falana (SAN) is a member of the THISDAY Editorial Board. Article culled from Thisday Newspaper.
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