Gun runners escape agents

March 21, 1997

NIGERIA's secret service agents are scouring the neighbouring Benin Republic for a university lecturer and his partner who have been convicted of gun running.

The government wants to extradite Adesegun Banjo, an anatomy lecturer at Nigeria's Obafemi Awolowo University in Ife-Ife, and his wife Ngozika Iwunze, a graduate nurse, to stand trial for planning an armed uprising.

The two make no secret of the wish of their organisation, the People's Liberation Organisation of Nigeria (PLON), and its military wing the People's Liberation Army of Nigeria (PLAN), to overthrow the military regime of General Sani Abacha by force.

They opposed the annulment of the 1993 presidential election believed to have been won by Moshood Abiola, who has been in detention without trial since July 1994. "When Abiola declared himself president, I thought he had built an army which I was prepared to join. I never knew this man made no preparation," Dr Banjo told a correspondent of The News, Nigeria's weekly independent magazine.

"Our objective is to drive the military away not through guerrilla warfare because it will be too wasteful and prolonged. Our aim is to arm a large group as soldiers and to mobilise the people so that when we march, we will be at least five million. Should the soldiers shoot at us, there will be many Nigerians to shoot back at them.

"Our second objective is to free Abiola and install him as president. Then we will present a manifesto to him to consider for implementation."

As a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr Banjo divided his time between teaching and raising money to buy arms. "I told a couple of Nigerians in the US that the time was ripe for armed struggle. Everybody promised to raise money. My partner and I started and I got some donations."

Unknown to the US authorities, they bought books on arms and warfare and eventually "large quantities" of arms, military hardware and uniforms.

He organised the US branch of a Copenhagen-based shipping company to ship a container of arms to West Africa. The container was landed at Cotonou Port, the economic capital of the neighbouring Republic of Benin. Dr Banjo and his partner travelled to Benin to receive the container and smuggle it across the border into Nigeria. "We had $6,000 at hand because we were going to spend a lot of money bribing on the road to Nigeria. So we decided to off-load it into a lorry," he said. In addition to ammunition, pistols and machine guns, Dr Banjo also bought camouflage dress, caps, torchlights, batteries, night vision goggles, ear drum protectors and other military accessories.

"Our people were in Cotonou hanging around and were at the border. Should the possibility arise of our being caught there would have been a shoot-out. It is possible we may die in it and we may not. The possibility of dying in it was remote. We had 30 armed men on the way. The immediate plan was to use money, and, if that failed, combat," he said.

When, after a tip-off, the contents of the container became known to the authorities at Cotonou, they wanted to find out how someone not an accredited arms dealer could import arms into Benin. Dr Banjo and Ms Iwunze were immediately arrested.

Benin's then president, Nicephore Soglo, ordered an investigation and academic credentials were discovered in one of Dr Banjo's bags, showing that he was a member of the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Association of Anatomists, the Nigeria Science Association and a former student of anatomy at Oxford University. The two were photographed and their interrogation video-taped.

According to diplomatic sources in Benin, the documented material was sent to Nigeria's embassy in Cotonou. Forty-eight hours later Nigeria's military attache in Benin approached the president demanding their extradition.

President Soglo refused but assured the Nigerian authorities that "by the time they leave detention, they would either be dead or at best physically and mentally incapacitated".

According to reliable sources in Cotonou, Tom Ikimi, Nigeria's foreign minister, and General Fred Chijuka, former spokesman for Nigeria's armed forces, secretly came to Cotonou intending to see the couple and extract information on sources of funding and membership.

"We refused to see them because, we told them, we do not recognise the Abacha government," said Dr Banjo. "They asked what our needs are. We told them we did not need anything, that there are hundreds of Nigerians in Benin prison and they should give something to them."

Prison conditions in Benin were awful. They were not allowed to receive visitors and were given a small cup of dry cassava flour a day. On Fridays, they were fed a tiny bit of raw fish and on Saturdays and Sundays they had a small cup of raw beans.

Dr Banjo developed typhoid and diabetes in prison. Doctors attached to the prison gave him special attention because of his medical background and he recovered.

The Benin government eventually brought the two before a court despite continued pressure for extradition. Charged with possession of arms and the formation of an illegal army, they pleaded guilty to the first charge and argued that PLAN was seeking to destabilise the Abacha regime, not the Benin government.

Dr Banjo's lawyers accused the police of breaking illegally into a container belonging to a non-national using Cotonou "for his legitimate business". The defence lawyers argued that if their clients were extradited, the Nigerian military authorities would summarily execute them as in the case of Ken Saro-Wiwa.

The judge acquitted them, but they were re-arrested and taken before another judge accused, this time, of trying to overthrow the legally constituted government of Benin by force of arms.

The prosecutor claimed that Dr Banjo and his partner were being arrested on presidential orders but the judge, sensing the doubtful claim that such orders existed in law, advised them to write to the president asking him to release them. No reply came before President Soglo was voted out of power.

Under the new government of Mathieu Kerekou, the two were again brought before a court, charged with possession of arms. In the witness box, Ms Iwunze pleaded guilty on behalf of her husband and herself. They were sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment with hard labour, but since they had already been detained for 14 months, they were released.

To escape being smuggled out of Benin by Nigeria's secret service agents, they sought political asylum from several embassies. The French, Canadian, US, Libyan and Cuban embassies rejected them and threw them out of their compounds. They took refuge with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Cotonou but left because they felt unsafe. According to diplomatic sources, the two have gone into hiding in Benin, with the hope of changing their names and passports and perhaps leaving Benin for another country.

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