Hamza al-Mustapha and the Mysterious Deaths

Discourse 325

I had my suspicion right from the beginning regarding the deaths of the three biggest politicians in the Nigerian political landscape of the 1990s – Maj. General Shehu Yar’adua (rtd), General Sani Abacha and Chief Mashood Abiola. The ‘big three’ died mysteriously and suddenly within the spate of exactly seven months.

It all started on December 8, 1997 when Shehu Musa Yar’adua died in prison where he was serving a life sentence for his involvement coup plot. The then government said that his death was natural while the opposition claimed that he was killed by the agents of the then President, General Sani Abacha. Shehu was the politician to beat in the country. He had the strongest political structure that cut across the country’s regional, ethnic and religious divides. Though I was not surprised of his involvement in a coup plot given his notoriety as a power schemer, however, I doubted the opposition’s claim that Abacha assassinated him. If Abacha had wanted to get rid of him, I thought, the President had enough alibi in Shehu’s conviction as a coup plotter. Two, Nigerians will attest that Abacha was not a coward by any measure. Three, the opposition to date has not presented any credible evidence to substantiate its claim other than speculation. Four, the person who was alleged to have administered him the lethal injection was never convicted even after the demise of his supposed sponsor. He is still a free person. Incredible. One.

Then exactly six months later, on June 8, 1998, the country was told that the night before, President Abacha has died of cardiac arrest which was caused by eating a poisoned apple served him by an Indian lady. Of course that was not a natural death. Mysteriously, the Indian lady was never arrested or convicted. Nothing about her was heard again. And surprisingly too, the death was never investigated by his successors. The body was rushed to his hometown of Kano and immediately burial without any autopsy conducted. His wife, Hajiya Maryam, was to later look at Jerry Useni in his face and tell him, “You killed my husband.” Two.

Then almost exactly a month later, on Tuesday, July 7, 1998, Chief Abiola, the widely acclaimed winner of the cancelled June 12, 1993 presidential election was announced dead. The cancellation of that election had for years generated heat in the polity. After declaring himself President, Abiola was imprisoned in 1994 by the President Abacha. He died just after being released from prison by the successor of Abacha, President Abdulsalami Abubakar. Before he could even return to his family, he was invited to the State House for a meeting with US delegation where he suddenly died after being served with a tea. That is all Nigerians knew. They cried foul. But the government, together with US officials, said it was a natural death caused by cardiac arrest, again. The family protested, demanded for an autopsy by overseas doctors to which the government yielded. But nothing came out of it. The family went silent on the matter. Surprising too was the sudden silence of protest voices from the champions of Abiola’s mandate, who had accused him of cowardice. Three.

Nigerians, gullible as ever, ascribed the serial deaths to God, whom they accuse of every death. However, I did not see the hands of God here, even then. Without the benefit of hindsight, anyone who reads the scenario would be compelled to arrive at the same conclusion. Those behind it were careful in concealing the truth from Nigerians by virtue of their high positions in the land.

Until now, perhaps.

The bombshells dropped by Hamza al-Mustapha in a Lagos High Court in the past three days are likely to give the world a glimpse into the myth behind these deaths. He is one person whose footprints were not washed away by the waters of the conspiracy.

Al-Mustapha, as he is popularly known, was arguably the second most powerful person in the country during the period of Abacha presidency. His claim that he ‘helped’ Abdulsalami to become the President after Abacha’s death can hardly be disputed because he was in a position to do so, being in control of the security of the Presidency and given the fact that Abacha loyalists were heading major military command positions in the country. Naively, instead of staging a coup, he acceded to installing Abdulsalami and remained in the country.

Abiding by the tradition of power, few months later, President Abdulsalami arrested Al-Mustapha, who was later accused, among other things, of assassinating Kudirat Abiola, the wife of Chief Abiola, on 4 June 1996. Since 1998, Al-Mustapha has been in custody where, he believes, successive administrations have tried to keep him at bay by frustrating any progress in his trial. As it is turning out now, after thirteen years, he has decided to fight back using the arsenal of information he has as a former security chief.

Al-Mustapha has also told the court that large sum of money - $200m, 75 Sterling Pounds and N500m – was used to buy the silence political leaders of Chief Abiola’s from ethnic group – the Yoruba. The money was withdrawn on the directive of the President Abdulsalami from the Central Bank of Nigeria. Two days ago, he tendered to the court a document signed by Abdulsalami to support his claim. He also submitted a tape – to be played today in the court – showing the Yoruba leaders’ visit to the Presidency, into which, according to Al-Mustapha, they went looking angry but from which they came out smiling.

It is difficult to dispute Al-Mustapha on his claims. Using money to settle people is a common practice in managing security matters in Nigeria. An ambiguous vote called “security vote” exists in every government in the federation, whether local, state or federal. So Al-Mustapha is not at all sounding Greek to the ears of Nigerians. The truth-value of his statement is very high. It can be proved otherwise only if the money can be traced to the Liberian peace keeping mission it was officially meant for.

Opinion leaders from the Southwest have challenged Al-Mustapha to mention the names of the beneficiaries. We do not know how much is in the video right now. However, I do not expect to see the distribution of the monies there physically. Nigerians are discrete in deals like this. We await the speculations, denials and counter-denials that would follow.

It will also be difficult to deny the claim that his continuous incarceration is a instigated by fear. If he has such implicating evidences, his imprisonment is a natural, if not a merciful, consequence in the game of power. He is lucky to be alive, so far. Abidina Coumassie, the publisher that was to publish the evidence earlier was not that lucky. He was poisoned to death, according to Al-Mustapha. If there were any evidence to prove his guilt, as many commentators have argued, successive regimes would not have wasted time to convict him.

In any case, if the hand behind the scenes is obscure, the beneficiary of these assassinations is known – former President Olusegun Obasanjo. He would not have been president were any of the ‘big three’ living – Shehu Yar’adua, Abacha or Abiola. He was lucky that the mysterious hand that has worked throughout his life, saving him from death in different coups and shoving him into power, has remained until now. Let us have a look at the skill of this mysterious hand.

Obasanjo, then in his twenties, had just returned from a military training course in India. According to him, he was sharing bed with Nzeogwu when the latter plotted and executed the January 15, 1966 coup in which many prominent northern political leaders including Prime Minister Balewa, the Premiers of northern and southern regions – Ahmadu Bello and Samuel Akintola – were gruesomely murdered along with many northern military officers. Immediately after the coup, Obasanjo ran to Maiduguri, for safety, and hid in the house of Alhaji Maidaribe. He later claimed that he did not know anything about the coup.

Then in 1975 Obasanjo, along with General Murtala Mohammed, TY Danjuma and other officers toppled the Gowon regime. Obasanjo became the Deputy Head of State. However, only six month into the regime, Murtala, the Head of State, was assassinated in a coup attempt. Obasanjo, again, disappeared, this time briefly. After resurfacing, he ‘reluctantly’ accepted to become the Head of State. It is widely believed in Nigeria that the CIA had a hand in the assassination of General Murtala (,, Allegations have also been made by a tabloid in the UK, according to an edition of Hassan Sani Kontagora’s Hotlline magazine over a decade ago, that Obasanjo had a hand in the assassination. (Unfortunately, I am not able to quickly lay my hands on the reference but I will give its citation on this blog as soon as I access it)

After handing over power to civilian president in 1978, Obasanjo retired from the military and enjoyed the position of an ‘elder statesman’. He was involved in many international initiatives on the African continent. One of them, according to, is “Founder and Chairman of Africa Leadership Forum and Chairman, Board of Directors, Africa Leadership Foundation, Inc, New York.” He held those positions until 1999 when he became President of Nigeria, covering the time when the deaths of the ‘big three’ took place between 1997 and 1998. I cannot substantiate the widely held belief that the CIA funds the foundation. However, a visit to the official site of the foundation – - reveals that it is funded by UNDP, USAID, The World Bank, Rockefeller Foundation, The Mac Arthur Foundation, and 13 other strong international partners.

And in 1995, he was convicted by a military tribunal in the coup plot against the Abacha government, for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment until President Abdulsalami Abubakar freed him after Abacha’s death in 1997.

Immediately he was released, he was sold the idea of running for the Presidency. He showed some reluctance, if I will recall well, and pleaded for time to make consultations. Finally, after Abiola was done, he had no difficulty accepting the offer.

He became the President in 1999. Nigerians will recall how every step was taken to ensure he became the President, including the prevention of anyone from the northern part of the country from contesting in all the three registered political parties. Thus, Abdulsalami administration nurtured his journey from prison to the Presidency. Always a lucky guy!
As President, Obasanjo ensured that Hamza Al-Mustapha remained in prison. Pleas made to his successor, Umaru Yar’adua, to release him were rejected, presumably either for what Al-Mustapha knows or because the late President was still nursing the belief that the Major, when he was the Chief of Staff to Abacha, had a hand in the death of his elder brother, Shehu Yar’adua.

To complete the work of that mysterious hand, President Yar’adua also died of cardiac arrest, opening the gate of opportunity for his successor, who was appointed to the Vice Presidency by Obasanjo, to become the President. It is clear this hand has been helping Obasanjo either through coups or cardiac arrests. Mhm. Na wa!

I am not sure whether Al-Mustapha’s bombshell can conclusively demolish the mountain of obscurity regarding the role of prominent officials in the deaths of the ‘big three’ of Nigeria’s 1990s and the political imbroglio that characterized those seven months. However, one thing is certain: either he remains alive in prison or his revelations will instigate yet another ‘mysterious’ death which Nigerians will not find hard to fathom.

Criminals usually forget something behind that implicates them. Major Hamza Al-Mustapha may just be one such thing.

4 July 2011