December 1, 1998 is a day the Federal High Court in Kaduna will wish the world would forget in a hurry, but in itself it will never be in a hurry to forget, for on that fateful day it abruptly terminated a two – year – old trial the world so much wanted to see to its conclusion.
It was one fine Friday, and surprisingly quite unlike other Fridays when security operatives were seen all over the streets in anticipation of the usual impromptu procession by followers of Sheikh Ibraheem Yaqub Zakzaky, who was detained by the Federal Government of Nigeria.
The state had filed a three-count charge against Sheikh Zakzaky and three of his followers, referred to as the Zaria Four, for carrying out the following acts:
1. Forming a common intention to excite or attempt to excite a feeling of disaffection against the government.
2. To excite or attempt to excite feelings of dissatisfaction against the government.
3. Reproducing by mechanical means and on the front pages of magazines “Babu Gwamnati Sai Ta Musulunci” (there is no government except that of Islam), words intended to excite feelings of dissatisfaction against the government of the Federation and Kaduna State.
The day was not slated for the Islamic scholar to appear before the court, but words were going round that the presiding judge, Adamu Abdul Kafarati was in town. This made those interested in the case to become more suspicious. Somehow, anyhow, a group of tipped off journalists, appeared at the court. I was among. Then we learned Sheikh Zakzaky was to be quietly released that morning. On a second thought-perhaps based on security report-it was decided that the released be postponed till after Friday prayers when the Muslim population must have reduced to avoid possible jubilation, and perhaps friction to that effect.
Quietly without the usual siren and heavy security presence, Sheikh Zakzaky and his three followers- Alhaji Hamidu Danlami, Abubakar Abdullahi and Shittu Muhammad- were silently ushered into the court chambers around 3pm. Without much hesitation, the then Attorney General of Kaduna State, Mr. Rabo Barde stood up and informed the court that of the state’s decision to discontinue with the case. The press and indeed the few mobile police presence were highly surprised. “I, Mr. Rabo Barde, the Attorney General of the State, by the powers conferred unto me by section 19(2) of the 1979 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended by Decree 107 of 1993, move for the discontinuance of the case of a three- count charge filed against Sheikh Ibraheem Yaqub Zakzaky, Alhaji Hamidu Danlami, Abubakar Abduallahi and Shittu Muhammad”.
Having moved the application, Justice Adamu Abdul Kafarati shrugged off his shoulders in total resignation and turned to Sheikh Zakzaky for his response. The court was highly astonished at his response: “I would have wished that the case be allowed to continue to its logical conclusion till a winner or vanquished emerged”. He however informed the court that since the prosecution has decided to withdraw the case in the face of “impending defeat”, he had no objection. The presiding judge, who was moved by the response sat on the edge of his chair and informed Sheikh Zakzaky of the clamor for his release by teeming followers. Mallam said he did not make the clamor, and was not aware of any clamor for his release since he has been in prison custody for over two years.
With nothing much to say, the presiding judge turned to the second accused person, Alhaji Hamidu Danlami for his response. Alhaji Danlami associated himself with the submission of Sheikh Zakzaky, and asked that the state government seek forgiveness from Mallam. The other two accused persons made similar statements.
There was a moment silence in the court chambers. Sheikh Zakzaky saved the embarrassing moment, “since it is over we can be friends”. He moved forward to the presiding judge, offered him a hand and gallantly went out followed by his lieutenants under the helpless watchful eyes of the security escorts.
As Sheikh Zakzaky stepped out of the court chamber, he was swarmed by journalists and head of the Human Rights Monitor, Festus Okoye. I quickly gave Sheikh Zakzaky the Weekly Trust newspaper of that day which carried the story of his release. He passed it to Alhaji Hamidu Danlami (now late). “Waiting for El-ZakZaky”, says the front headline story. According to the story, “The Attorney-General of Kaduna State, Mr. Rabo Barde, has announced the intention of the state government to withdraw the two-count charge of common intent to commit an offence and inciting disaffection against the government against Alhaji Ibrahim El- Zakzaky and three others…”
It became obvious to me that, the release was arranged by the government, but meant to be quite. Weekly Trust however got wind of it. And it became among the first newspapers to interview Sheikh Zakzaky weeks after, in which the cleric declared: “Imprisonment strengthens us”.
From nowhere, I saw one Brother prostrating close to the court room when Sheikh Zakzaky and the three others stepped out. An angry looking riot policeman watched with disdain, but he was helpless as people began to flock around the Sheikh. They security operatives quickly left the premises.
Two new salon Peugeot Station Wagons were brought by the government to convey Sheikh Zakzaky and the three others, but I heard him say: “We have our own car”. He pointed to a car parked close to the courtroom, they were perplexed. That was how Sheikh Zakzaky and his convoy left the court premises triumphant.
The release was not coincidental, or even accidental. It is the accumulation of series of defeat suffered by the state in the course of the two – year trial. The array of witnesses paraded by the state worsened the situation that some of them were prevented to appear before the court to avoid disgracing the state. Here is the list of prosecution’s witnesses that Sheikh Zakzaky outwitted in an awful disgrace that it became obvious they were acting a poorly written script. While the play lasted, the script went beyond the playwright’s control- the state: Musa Abdullahi DSP, Sule Garba Cpl (whom Sheikh Zakzaky said he was in school before he was born), Ibrahim Yaro Sgt., Ibrahim Adama Cpl., Jimoh Umaru Insp., Christopher Ater Sgt., Joseph Bodunke Omokore, Lt. Shamg Ibrahim and Alhaji Mukhtari Ibrahim ACP- who after his testimony ran after Sheikh Zakzaky pleading: “By Allah, Malam did not. They tell you AC Mukhtar did this and that. Wallahi, it wasn’t me…” Sheikh Zakzaky waved him away: “You owes us blankets and Tuwon Sallah”. He kept on pleading. An incident happened at the prison when blankets and Eid feast were brought to Sheikh Zakzaky and the three others, but were confiscated at the gate.
Sheikh Zakzaky made a deadly blow to the state’s charge of excite or attempt to excite a feeling of disaffection against the government with the presentation of a commendation letter to him by the former military administrator of Kaduna State, Col Lawal Jafaru Isa. To say that Sheikh Zakzaky won the battle is not just enough, he has indeed ridiculed the state’s judiciary system which was rendered inept. The Trial reflected the classic model play of a terror state (toothless bulldog) that transgresses into private life of citizens without any reason. When the state chewed more than it could swallow, and the drama became more complicated and therefore had to employed the Greek technique of Deus ex Machina of killing a story to save situation.