Abacha’s release: Justice or politics?

Musa Umar Kazaure, Kano

Until all the issues are cleared and the truth becomes clearer, the Supreme Court judgement on Mohammed Abacha delivered on Thursday, 11th July 2002 will remain a subject of controversy, while challenging the complete independence and integrity of the judiciary. Justices Idris Legbo, Sylvester Onu, Aloysius Iyorgyer Katsina-Ala, Salihu Belgore discharged and acquitted Mohammed Abacha on all the four-count charges while the fifth judge, Justice Akintola Olufemi gave a dissenting verdict and even went further to describe his colleagues’ judgement as "tyranny of the majority."

If respected justices of the highest court of the land could pass a split-judgement of four to one after exhaustively making reference to the laws, why then are they being accused by some as having passed a political judgement? Were all the four respected judges of the Supreme Court bought over by the government in order to satisfy its own side of the said money-for-freedom agreement, while only Justice Akintola refused to be bought? Or was Mohammed Abacha freed as a bargain chip for Obasanjo’s 2003 campaign?

Those who hold the view that a financial deal was actually struck point to the confirmation of the deal by no less a person than the president himself, in an interview recently. They also pointed to the fact that the Presidency had an alleged "understanding" with the judiciary hence the absence of dog-eat-dog relationship as obtains with the legislature. This they further argue gives the executive some leverage to influence decisions in the courtroom.

But a legal practitioner and lecturer in the faculty of law, Bayero University, Kano, Professor Auwalu Yadudu argued that there is nothing political in the Mohammed Abacha case at the Supreme Court.

"An aggrieved party has appealed to the Supreme Court challenging the charges brought against him, arguing that there is no basis for the charges. The lower court, applying the law thought there was a basis, but the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, by a judgement of four to one, also applying the law, decided that there is merit in the appeal. And that the prosecution should not appear to be persecuting the accused person. And that a mere allegation, mere suspicion cannot be evidence on the basis of which you can hold a person for the commission of the crime," the former adviser on legal matters to the late head of state, General Abacha, averred.

Professor Yadudu said people are mistaking the trial for murder, which is the one that has gone on appeal and the so-called "deal" on the case of assisting to loot public fund.

Alhaji Aminu Mohammed Fagge, childhood friend of Mohammed and leader of the Free Mohammed Abacha movement in Fagge described the Supreme Court judgement as the triumph of democracy and the judiciary over an intimidating executive which is used to having its way. He noted that their entire hope was on the Supreme Court because they believe that only men of integrity preside over cases at that level, adding that the biased ruling in the lower courts is evidence of government influence over them. He also pointed to the fact that Rogers who killed Kudirat Abiola had already confessed in the lower courts that he shot her and wondered why the murder charges were preferred on Mohammed.

Alhaji Wada Nas, former special duties minister, challenged proponents of the "political judgement" to fault the judgment on the basis of law rather than sentimental conclusion. "To insinuate that they delivered their judgments based on political consideration rather than rule of law, is patently unfair to their reputation."

But just as the euphoria of the discharge and acquittal of Mohammed Abacha was dying down, another controversy on the possibility of re-arresting him on new charges set in, even as his family began legal proceedings to obtain his bail over the bailable offence of receipt of stolen property. The rumours about the possible re-arrest of young Abacha was strengthened by the presence of plainclothes and uniformed policemen at Kuje prisons where he is being held, and the fact that dozens of security agents had wanted the prison officials to hand over Mohammed to them for deliverance at police headquarters but for the refusal of the prison officials who demanded for proper paperwork.

Meanwhile, the amount of sympathy on the Abacha family appears to be growing. Some prominent Nigerians feel that the Abachas should be left alone after what they called the "persecution" of the family by Obasanjo for three years. A PDP presidential aspirant and former governor of Kano State, Alhaji Muhammadu Abubakar Rimi said Kano people will find it difficult to forgive Obasanjo because of his determination for vengeance against the Abacha family.

Dr Ibrahim Tahir, former communications minister in the Second Republic advised Obasanjo to leave the Abacha family alone and face other more pressing problems in the country. "If I were in the president’s shoes, I would have directed my Inspector-General of Police to leave Mohammed Abacha well alone, to let him go home. And if I have a case about money transfer or whatever, I would recognize that the principal character is in the grave and therefore the nature of the case between me and his family becomes a tort, not a criminal matter," he said.

Alhaji Tanko Yakasai, a respected elder of ANPP called for peace and reconciliation between the Abacha family and the government, noting that since the other charges against Mohammed are bailable, the government should not make it difficult for the family to obtain the bail.

Mohammed Abacha’s ordeal with the Obasanjo government began after the death of his father in 1998 when the Abdulsalami Abubakar administration began what it called "retrieval of looted public funds." The government of Obasanjo, on assuming office in 1999, pursued that policy vigorously to a point considered as vendetta by some Nigerians. In 1999, security personnels, on the orders of the president, picked up Mrs Maryam Abacha and drove her to Abuja for a chat with the vice president on the possibility of persuading her son, Mohammed, to cooperate. Shortly after that meeting with the vice president, Mohammed was arrested and charged with conspiracy in the murder of Kudirat Abiola, a move seen by many observers as penalty for Mohammed’s refusal to cooperate. The government however insisted that Mohammed has a case to answer, presenting a self-confession by Rogers and Katako. The case had dragged on for three years with both the Lagos State and federal government unable to prove any of the charges. Consequently, a financial deal was allegedly struck between the federal government and the Abacha family.

The money-for-freedom deal was reportedly confirmed by President Olusegun Obasanjo in an interview with a newsmagazine in May, 2002. In the said interview, the president was quoted as saying that his government had reached a gentleman’s agreement with the Abacha family to return 1.2 billion US dollars supposedly stolen from government by the former head of state but they are to retain 100 million US dollars out of the total sum. In exchange, the government could drop its charges against Mohammed Abacha and would be granted immunity from prosecution on charges brought against him on the murder of the wife of late M.K.O. Abiola, Alhaja Kudirat Abiola.

But this assertion was flawed and denied by the Abacha family through their spokesman, Alhaji Wada Nas. "The truth of the matter is that no agreement, of whatsoever description has ever been signed between the federal government and Mohammed Abacha or with his mother, Mrs Maryam Abacha or with any of the Abacha family, their lawyers or representatives for that matter. It is therefore totally false and unfounded for anyone to claim that such agreement exists. Let those making such claims publish the said agreement for the public to see," Alhaji Wada Nas challenged the government.

Also arguing for the Abacha family, a bossom friend of Mohammed, Alhaji Ibrahim Little argued that the discharge and acquittal of Mohammed by the Supreme Court is in itself a vindication of the Abacha family over the money-for-freedom deal. "If there was indeed any agreement between the family and government, only the case of looting would have been discontinued and certainly not that of murder. Why then is he acquitted in the murder case while the other one is still pending?" he queried.

There are, however, speculations in Kano linking Mohammed Abacha’s victory in the Supreme Court to political considerations by President Olusegun Obasanjo. One is the dwindling popularity of the president in Kano State, hometown of the Abacha family. Kano’s hostility towards anything Obasanjo reached its climax in May this year when his vice, Atiku Abubakar was booed and stoned in Kano on two different occasions. The president himself had to sneak in and out of Kano at six o’clock in the morning when he decided to visit the EAS aircraft disaster in Gwammaja residential area.

There is also the talk about the possibility of Kano voters turning to ANPP with their votes in sympathy for the Abacha family, who only recently was alleged to have donated twenty million naira to the party. This was further strengthened by the open show of preference at a function recently in Kano where the vice president was left standing for over 20 minutes waiting for cheering of General Buhari to subside.

There is yet another story of Obasanjo trying to pacify ACF to change its stand against his (Obasanjo’s) second term bid, hoping that the Northern umbrella organisation, which has openly rejected Obasanjo, would change its position.

But Kano State government officials are also claiming that it is the effort of the state governor that influenced the federal government to soft-pedal on the Mohammed Abacha case. The governor, Dr Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, once told journalists during a parley that his government is not just folding its arms on Mohammed Abacha’s case and that they don’t broadcast their effort in radio and newspapers, adding that he had even visited Mohammed when he was admitted in hospital.