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Nigerian officers charged with plot to kill president

- Ausrtalian Lagos correspondents

(Friday, October 22, 2004)

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[ Mustapha used Okorie to pass money to Abdallah "for the purpose of purchasing a Stinger surface-to-air missile to be used in shooting down the president's helicopter with the president on board", the charge sheet said. ]

NIGERIAN prosecutors today charged three senior military officers and a Lagos businessman with plotting to shoot down President Olusegun Obasanjo's helicopter and topple his government in a violent coup. Appearing before the Federal High Court in Lagos, Major Hamza al-Mustapha, the former security chief to late dictator Sani Abacha, and three others pleaded not guilty to treason and to conspiring to overthrow Mr Obasanjo. All four were remanded in the custody of military intelligence.

Africa's most populous country has endured six successful military coups in the 44 years since it won its independence, and reports of Mustapha's alleged plot triggered anxious speculation when they surfaced in March this year. Mr Obasanjo's government initially played down the dangers, insisting that the conspiracy amounted to a "security breach" rather than an attempted putsch. But a charge sheet signed by Nigeria's justice minister, Attorney General Akinlolu Olujinmi, now lays out the extent of the alleged plot.

Mustapha has been in custody since 1999, accused of the attempted murder of a newspaper proprietor who criticised Abacha's regime. In March of this year he was removed from his civilian jail by military intelligence officers. Today, he was accused of having held secret meetings in Lagos's Kirikiri maximum security prison with serving military officers and with a hotelier, Onwuchekwa Okorie, and of plotting to overthrow the government. Okorie was in court alongside Mustapha and Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed ibn Umar Adeka. The fourth defendant, navy Commander Yakubu Kudambo is on the run after escaping secret police custody. He was charged in his absence.

According to the charges laid out by prosecutors, the four "assigned themselves and other persons roles for the purpose of overthrowing the Federal Government of Nigeria by force of arms". Okorie was to be the plot's financier, Adeka would coordinate planning, Kudambo was to recruit personnel while a fifth suspect, Lieutenant Tijani Abdallah, was assigned the task of collecting weapons, the court heard. Abdallah is reported to be ready to testify as a prosecution witness and was not charged with the others.

Mustapha used Okorie to pass money to Abdallah "for the purpose of purchasing a Stinger surface-to-air missile to be used in shooting down the president's helicopter with the president on board", the charge sheet said. Abdallah was said to have made several trips to the nearby west African countries of Togo and Ivory Coast and to have negotiated for the purchase of the missile, a sophisticated US-made shoulder-mounted weapon, it said. Press reports in Nigeria have alleged that Mustapha sought to buy the missile from Ivorian rebels based in Bouake in the north of their country.

Surface-to-air missiles have been used before against African leaders. In 1994 President Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda was killed when his jet was downed, an attack which triggered a hundred-day genocidal slaughter which left upwards of 500,000 dead when his fellow Hutus attacked Rwanda's Tutsi minority.

"Between November 1, 2002 and March 2004 Commander Yakumbu Kudambo drafted the framework of a coup speech and the outlook of the intended government," according to the charge sheet. Judge Dan Abutu dismissed a defence request that the defendants be transferred to civilian custody and remanded them to remain in the charge of the Directorate of Military Intelligence's detention centre in Apapa, Lagos. The case was adjourned until October 28.

Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999 when Obasanjo, himself a former military ruler, won an election organised by the army. He won re-election in a civilian run poll in April last year and is due to step down in 2007.

Mustapha served as Abacha's feared chief of security during the late dictator's 1993 to 1998 reign, and has been widely accused of running death squads and persecuting his boss's opponents.

Before his arrest by military intelligence he was already facing trial for the 1996 attempted murder of Alex Ibru, publisher of The Guardian newspaper, who was shot in the eye after falling out of favour with Abacha.

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