Today, it is not uncommon for you to pick up a piece of magazine and newspaper and see that a Nigerian or Nigerians have been sentenced to death in a foreign land. Their crimes? They were drug pushers. Although it is quite shocking to many, there was a time in Nigeria when drug traffickers were sentenced to death by firing squad based on Decree 20 put in place by the military junta of the Muhammadu Buhari regime. Today, I will take a look at what happened back in time, the intrigues surrounding the executions and the responses that came with the killings. The following Nigerians were executed on Nigerian soil by the Nigerian government for trafficking drugs and how it all happened:
- BARTHOLOMEW OWOH, 26. His last words were: ‘If I knew this would happen to me, I would not have been involved in drugs.’ He was arrested on the 26th of May, 1984 at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos for being in possession of cocaine.
- BERNARD OGEDEGBE, 29
- ALHAJI AKANNI LAWAL OJUOLAPE, 29: He was arrested on the 18th of June, 1984 also at MMIA for unlawful possession of cocaine.
The trio of Owoh, Ogedegbe and Ojuolape were executed on 10th April, 1985 at the Kirikiri Maximum Security Prisons in Lagos and Nigerians protested seriously over the matter describing it as too harsh, tyrannical and inhuman. They were shot by six marksmen at exactly 0932 AM and certified dead by the police doctor three minutes later. They were the first to be executed for offences under Decree 20 of 1984.
The next three people on the list (Tairu, Oguntayo and Omosebi) were sentenced to death the same day in the same court by the same judge in April 1985. Their cases were handled by the Special Tribunal (Miscellaneous Offences) chaired by Justice Adebayo Desalu. The judge sentenced the three (two ladies, one man) to death by the firing squad.
- SIDIKATU TAIRU (aka ALHAJA SIDIKATU TAIRU): She was arrested alongside Shola Oguntayo on the 21st of August 1984 at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, for concealing heroin in their private parts. That was how they landed in front of the tribunal for possession of the drug without lawful authority.
- MISS SHOLA OGUNTAYO (aka Mrs. AYISAT AJIKE MOHAMMED): She had given birth to a baby boy while she was in detention and awaiting trial. As she was taken inside the dock, a stream of tears ran down her face. Once inside the dock and listening to the stone-faced judge, all Oguntayo could do was cry. It was as if she could smell death in the air.
- OLADELE OMOSEBI: He was charged with aiding in the possession of heroin, also without lawful authority. Bald-headed Omosebi was wearing a cream French suit and as the judge was reading the verdict, he just stared at the space below him, looking away from the tribunal judges.
As the trio (Tairu, Oguntayo and Omosebi) were marched into the dock on Tuesday, 23rd April, 1985 to listen to the final judgment, they were followed everywhere by journalists and photographs who blasted their faces with unwanted lights from television cameras, flash bulb cameras and all sorts of gadgets. As the first set of the Decree 20 convicts were executed just six days earlier, the courtroom was besieged by Nigerians anxious to know what the verdict was going to be.
As Judge Desalu read the judgment, his voice was in a dreaded monotone and his face did not betray a single emotion. The ominous signs were everywhere: the wall backed by the tribunal members was black and Desalu himself was seated on a black leather chair. His navy blue suit pointed to the sober nature of the event. The accused were so emotionally subdued that they could not even look in the judge’s direction. Tairu was so tensed and stressed that all she was doing was to gnaw continuously at the wooden panel of the dock with her right thumb and index finger. Judge Desalu was not moved. From the tone of his voice, it was clear the three accused were doomed and the most emotional of the three of them, Oguntayo was almost convulsing and tried but failed to hold the hot tears back. Desalu continued reading:
‘We are convinced that the statements of the accused were voluntarily made. The second accused person had full knowledge and was aware of the contents of the package put in her private part. Decree 20, as amended, places the proof of lawful possession on the accused persons and there was no evidence that the first and second defendants had lawful possession. The prosecution has established its case beyond reasonable doubt and accordingly, we find the first and second accused guilty…’
As Desalu mentioned the word ‘guilty’, a frightening, alien-like scream pierced the entire courtroom. Everyone was shocked and confused, some were terrified. The scream was from Oguntayo, who was so mortified with the fear of an impending death that she collapsed on the floor and five mobile policemen rushed to hold her, while 10 others formed a ring around her in the dock and one cupped her mouth and gripped her neck with his palms. She must have been thinking of not just her death via the bullets but what was going to become of her baby.
As for the third accused, Desalu continued in relation to the second count:
‘All the evidence against the third accused, remained uncontradicted. We believe that, apart from the confessional statement of the third accused, the statements of the first and second about the third accused are worthy of credit. We are satisfied that the third conspired with the first and second accused to commit an offence under Decree 20 as amended by Decree 34.’
To cut the story short, Omosebi was also sentenced to death. The defence counsel of the convicted pleaded that the sentence be mitigated but Desalu said the law under which the tribunal was operating was absolute and fixed. He said:
‘The only penalty prescribed by Decree 20 on the conviction of death is by firing squad. In compliance with this provision, the sentence on the three accused persons is death by firing squad. May the Lord have mercy on your soul.’
After the final verdict was given, Omosebi turned and took a look at the crowd and as he did so, his forearms flashed and on them were tattoos on each. The tattoos had the same floral design with green and red patterns and on both arms were written:
Lara, kiss me.
But that day, Lara was nowhere to kiss him. It was death that gave him a cold cuddle.
- GLADYS CAROLINE IYAMAH: She was a postgraduate student of the University of Bombay, India. She was 29 as at the time of her execution and was the mother of a toddler and two paraplegic and badly-deformed girls. Mrs. Iyamah was convicted for cocaine trafficking and there were concerns then over whether she should be executed in public or not. She became the very woman in Nigeria to be sentenced to death by firing squad for cocaine trafficking and she pleaded that her sentence be reduced as she was forced into cocaine smuggling as she had to provide for her kids. The Lagos Zone of the Miscellaneous Offences Tribunal pronounced that Gladys should be shot, subject to ratification by the Supreme Military Council (SMC) which is the confirming authority. The photos of her kids were circulated widely in the press and by groups calling for her to be spared the death sentence.
- LASUNKANMI TAJUDEEN AWOLOLA
- JIMI ADEBAYO: He was an accountant.
- MISS MORONKE FAUSA LAWAL (also saved from execution by the Babangida regime).
On the 15th of May, 1985, the Supreme Military Council (SMC) confirmed the death sentences by firing squad passed on Iyamah and co. But she and Shola Oguntayo were spared from public execution when General Ibrahim Babangida took over in a military coup on the 27th of August, 1985. IBB abolished the death penalty for drug trafficking and the smugglers were soon in business – till date.
THE RESPONSE OF NIGERIANS THEN
Hmmm…well, you know that today on social media whenever I post that a Nigerian has been killed in Indonesia for drugs, the comments you will be seeing will be like, well, what was he looking for carrying drugs, oh, na dem again, it is good for him like that and stuff but Nigerians of the 1980s were much more vocal and defended their positions much more intelligently even if they were under the iron-grip of a military dictator. They protested against the executions. In fact, as Desalu was given his judgments, there were protests against the trio of Owo, Ogedegbe and Ojulope executed days earlier. One of the loudest voices of those against the executions was that of Wole Soyinka, then a professor of comparative literature at the Ife University (now Obafemi Awolowo University). He called the executions of Tairu and co a ‘triple cold-blooded murder’ which every Nigerian was forced to be an accomplice. He was not alone in the condemnation.
Olubunmi Okogie, an army chaplain during the Nigerian Civil War and then Catholic Bishop of Lagos was also against the killings. He said:
‘Life is a sacred thing which should not be toyed with.’ He argued further saying: ‘God’s laws forbids killing except in ‘just wars’. Without being specific, decrees dealing with human lives when carefully looked at should not per se attract capital punishment.’
Olu Onagoruwa also added his voice saying that a cocaine pusher cannot be deterred by the certainty that he would be shot. He said:
‘It is therefore unnecessary to impose the death penalty where there is no evidence that it deters.’
The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) condemned it calling a ‘dangerous precedent’. Bola Ajibola, the NBA President said:
‘…it is against the rule of law for people to be charged, tried, convicted and sentenced on any law that was not in existence at the time the offence was committed.’
But, there were others who supported the executions, and they also did it as loudly as they could. One of them was the late Gani Fawehinmi, who became the first Nigerian to publicly support the execution then when he said:
‘How can anyone in his right senses pity these messengers of death? The criticisms are thoroughly unjustified, misguided and emotively sentimental.’
NB: The sentencing to death of these people marked the first time in the history of Nigeria that such would happen. Prior to that time, no one was condemned to death for drug trafficking, let alone executed. Thus, to many Nigerians of that time, it was truly a shocker. Many expected the sentences to be commuted to life imprisonment but were disappointed when the convicts were swiftly executed. It was a brutal time of War Against Indiscipline spearheaded by the late Major-General Tunde Idiagbon in a repressive junta headed by Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (now the president and a reformed democrat). Later under the presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo, the family of Bartholomew Owoh sent a barrage of petitions over the retroactive legislations (Owoh, Ojulope and Ogedegbe were awaiting trial when the decree was promulgated so the law used to execute them was not in existence as at the time they committed the said offence) to the Human Rights Violation Investigation Commission (HRVIC, aka Oputa Panel) against General Buhari who was summoned repeatedly to appear before the panel which he never did. The story of Gloria Okon, Nigeria’s most mysterious drug pusher is an entirely different episode on its own and you can read it HERE.