Both were accused of killing Kudirat Abiola.
The Court of Appeal in Lagos, Friday, discharged and acquitted Hamza Al-Mustapha and Lateef Sofolahan of the murder of Kudirat Abiola.
The judgment of the appellate court overturned that of the Lagos High Court which sentenced both men to death by hanging.
In a unanimous judgment that lasted about two hours, the court berated Mojisola Dada, the Lagos High Court judge who convicted Messrs Al-Mustapha and Sofolahan, accusing her of being “stroked to secure a conviction by all means.”
Rita Pemu, who read the lead judgment, said that the Lagos State government, the prosecution, failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt.
Supporters of Mr. Al-Mustapha, a former Army Major, who crowded the court room – some of them sat on the floor – shook hands and embraced one another after the court announced its decision. One of them, in apparent ecstasy, screamed at the three-man judges’ panel: “Allahu Akbar! You will live long.”
Two prosecution’s “star witnesses,” Barnabas Jabila (also known as Sergeant Rogers) and Mohammed Abdul (also known as Katako) had given conflicting statements during their testimonies – the duo had narrated how Mr. Al-Mustapha had ordered the murder, but then recanted days later claiming that they made the statement under duress. But Mrs. Dada, the trial judge, had insisted that their evidences were still admissible.
Mrs. Abiola, 45, was shot in Lagos on June 4, 1996 and- as Mrs. Dada held in her 326-page judgment- on the orders of Mr. Al-Mustapha.
The appellate court accused the lower court of allowing sentiments to becloud its judgment.
“It is unimaginable that the lower court did not expunge the testimonies on the grounds of their contradictions,” said Mrs. Pemu. “This court is not interested in politics and its attendant semantics.”
Mr. Al-Mustapha, a former chief security officer to the late military dictator, Sani Abacha, was arraigned in 1999 for conspiracy and murder of Kudirat Abiola.
Mr. Sofolahan, personal assistant to the murder victim; Mohammed Abacha, son of the late Mr. Abacha and; Rabo Lawal, a Police Chief Superintendent, were also arrested in connection with the murder. While Mr. Lawal was left to walk on a “no case submission,” the Supreme Court discharged Mr. Abacha on “non culpability.”
In January 2012, both Messrs Al-Mustapha and Sofolahan were sentenced to death by hanging by the Lagos High Court.
The appellate court stated that there was a “gaping hole” in the prosecution’s case. First, its first witness, Ore Falomo, a medical doctor, testified that the bullet extracted from Mrs. Abiola’s skull was a “special bullet” that could have come “only” from the presidency.
The victim died after a three-hour surgery to remove the bullet and after suffering a second heart attack. Mr. Falomo said that the police took away the bullet “for investigation” and never returned it.
The appellate court noted that the prosecution failed to state the whereabouts of the bullet, get a ballistician to examine the bullet or tender it as an exhibit before the court.
“The prosecution failed to produce the bullet, and there was no explanation as to why it was not available,” Mrs. Pemu said.
Again, Mr. Jabila, during his testimony gave a vivid account of how they, acting on the orders of Mr. Al-Mustapha, trailed their victim from her Ikeja home to Lagos-Ibadan expressway where they sprayed her white Mercedes Benz with bullets.
However, under cross-examination, the witness said he was in Abuja on June 4 but was asked to give such testimony as part of an agreement with the federal government and the Lagos State government. Mr. Jabila said that he was promised a job, house, and security. His wife had been on a N15, 000 monthly salary which was later increased to N20, 000.
Mr. Jabila also said that Yemi Osibajo, the Lagos State Attorney General and the late Bola Ige, then Attorney General of the Federation, paid him repeated visits while in detention, with the latter giving him N100,000 on one occasion.
Mr. Abdul, who had admitted being Mr. Jabila’s driver when the murder was committed, said he was made the same offers by the authorities including a promise that he would not be brought to court – but they reneged on their promise. When he recanted, Mr. Abdul said that he was in Azare, Bauchi State, on the day of the murder.
“There was no explanation for this somersault,” said Mrs. Pemu.
The prosecution’s fourth witness, Ahmed Fari, a retired Police Commissioner in charge of Budget, disappeared when it was time for his cross-examination. His absence renders his evidence and exhibits “of no relevance,” according to the appellate court.
Mr. Al-Mustapha said that he was arrested in October, 1998 and initially accused of holding the late Mr. Abacha’s properties. After the charge could not stick, he said he was accused of gunrunning, and then planning a coup against the then Head of State, Abdulsalami Abubakar.
Finally, in 2004, Mr. Al-Mustapha said that he was accused of planning to overthrow the Olusegun Obasanjo regime. He said that he was blackmailed by people “in high places” even though he had been cleared by all the 10 panels he faced.
The appellate court said that although the prosecution’s first witness stated that it was the “fifth columnist” that killed Mrs. Abiola; he did not suggest any conspiracy involving Messrs Al-Mustapha and Sofolahan.
The court further said that there was nothing to show that the police investigated Mrs. Abiola’s murder properly.
“I wonder why PW2 (Mr. Jabila) was treated as a prosecution witness instead of charging him with murder,” Mrs. Pemu said. “In the face of all these, can it be said that the prosecution had proven its case beyond reasonable doubt?”
In his reaction to the judgment, Olalekan Ojo, counsel to Mr. Sofolahan, said that the judgment had “brought sanity to the criminal justice administration in this country.”
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