Nigeria was thrown into confusion December 21, 1997 when military dictator, General Sani Abacha arrested his second-in-command, Oladipo Diya over an alleged coup plot.
Arrested alongside Diya were senior military officers who are mainly from the Yoruba tribe. They are: Major General Tunji Olanrewaju, Major General Abdulkarim Adisa, Colonels Daniel Akintonde, Edwin Jando, Peters Alinyode, Emmanuel Shode, Major Olusegun Fadipe, and Diya’s political advisor, professor Femi Odekunle.
The reasons for the alleged coup plot are obsure. Although Diya was reportedly known for his “quiet” opposition to Abacha’s presidential aspirations, Olanrewaju and Adisa were regarded “as ultra-loyalists who enthusiastically endorsed an extension of Abacha’s presidential tenure”. Only one week before his arrest, Diya had allegedly narrowly missed becoming the victim of a bomb explosion at Abuja Airport when he was on his way to represent President Abacha at the funeral of the mother of Major-General Lawrence Onoja in Benue state.
Diya’s personal guards had also been gradually reduced and replaced by Special Bodyguards (SB), described as members of a “carefully selected” private army of 3,000 men trained in Libya and North Korea. The SB is reputed for its “quiet efficiency and brutality;” they are personally loyal to the president and take “orders from the presidential security chief, Maj. Hamza al-Mustapha”.
A 12-person military board was established and charged with questioning the suspects and making recommendations to the government within four weeks as to which suspects should be charged. The board was headed by Major-General Chris Abutu Garuba, a well respected officer, who played “an assertive” role in the UN peacekeeping to Angola. By mid-January more than 60 people had been arrested. It was speculated that the arraigned suspects would be tried before a secret military tribunal and that the death penalty was often imposed in such circumstances.
Abacha’s critics dismissed the coup plot as part of his machinations to marginalize and crack-down on potential challengers to his presidential ambitions. The National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), particularly, claimed that the coup plot and subsequent arrests were a “stratagem” by the government designed to divert “attention from the recent death of former vice-president Musa Yar’Adua”. The death of this eminent northerner had embarrassed Abacha, angered the northerners, and reportedly split the northern solidarity. There is speculation that Abacha, himself a northerner, may have used the alleged coup plot as a ploy to regain the support of northerners: ten of the original twelve persons arrested were Yoruba.
In order to counteract critics’ claims that the plot was a hoax, and to demonstrate the seriousness of the coup plot allegation, the government played video and audio tapes, allegedly made while suspected coup plotters were under surveillance and also during interviews with them after their arrests, to carefully selected retired military officers, traditional rulers, journalists and other prominent figures.
The regime has also orchestrated mobs of demonstrators to march singing Abacha’s praises and heap abuse on the ‘coup plotters’. All this seems to be intended to portray Abacha as a national saviour who must stand (probably) alone in August’s scheduled presidential election. But the evidence of plot disclosed so far remains highly ambiguous … [and] are among the most controversial revelations.
The Nigerian Bar Association asked the government to stop showing the tapes but the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Lt. Gen. Jeremiah Useni, refused and added that the tapes would eventually be aired on state television. Although the videos showed the suspects begging for mercy, a February 1998 New African report claims that the videos prejudiced “any prospect of a fair trial” because they were shown before giving the accused an opportunity to defend themselves.
The trials began on the weekend of 14 February 1998 in the central city of Jos; and they were conducted by a seven-member panel headed by Major-General Victor Malu, ex-commander of a West African peacekeeping force in Liberia and Sierra Leone. 26 civilians and soldiers were accused of treason and faced the death penalty if found guilty.
“No appeal will be allowed once the verdicts and sentences are announced” and the only recourse left to the accused would be to seek clemency from the Provisional Council, the regime’s highest court composed of army officers. The accused were allocated defence lawyers provided by the state.
The trial drew condemnation from various human rights groups, and Nigeria’s renowned human rights activist and lawyer, Femi Falana, who claimed that the fairness of the trial had already been prejudiced by the showing of the video clips. Both Femi Falana and the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) called for an open-court trial for the accused suspects. Throughout the trial, Gen. Oladipo Diya maintained that he had been framed.
At the end of the two-month trial, the military tribunal gave the death sentence to six including Lt. Gen. Oladipo Diya, Maj. Gen. Tajudeen Olanrewaju and Maj. Gen. Adulkareem Adisa, and a civilian.
Five of the 20 other accused reportedly received prison sentences from 2 to 14 years while 15 others were set free.
Africa Confidential reports that 14 were released and the remaining 6 sentenced to prison for two years to life. The six persons sentenced to death, and most of the 20 others, are Yorubas. The situation has reportedly to increased tension within the Yoruba community.