A former Navy Director of Legal Services, Commander Lawrence Fabiyi, who defended former President Olusegun Obasanjo and many other military officers charged with treasonable felony during the 1995 phantom coup, laments in this interview with BAYO AKINLOYE that 22 years after, he and his colleagues are still victims of injustice
It’s been 22 years since you, other military officers and civilians were sentenced to either life imprisonment or death for taking part in the 1995 coup. How do you and your co-travellers feel today?
Let me express the sad feelings of the group of the 1995 phantom coup; many of them are dead and many others incapacitated. Even those who were involved in the 1997 coup, they have their freedom; they are enjoying their benefits, allowances and other entitlements paid to them. It’s so pathetic; it’s so sad that those of us who never planned any coup but were unjustly incarcerated in 1995 have got no reprieve. Nothing has been done to compensate us. We deserve the sympathy of the government more than those accused of planning the 1997 coup. The problems that the 1995 phantom coup plotters are facing is as a result of Baba Obasanjo (former President Olusegun Obasanjo), who failed to use his administrative powers to ensure that all of us who were framed got back to the service with promotions given to each individual — and that’s exactly what the Oputa panel recommended.
But Baba was saying Bello Fadile was the one who implicated him in the 1995 phantom coup, so he wouldn’t want to help anybody. Can you imagine that? See that rationale? Is it fair? In fact, it was said in the (Oputa) report that (Col. Bello) Fadile was supposed to be queried and sanctioned for putting everybody in trouble. It’s not fair – even I, a lawyer who went to defend them, was accused of being the one that exposed the regime of Gen. Sani Abacha, that it wanted to execute 14 people. I don’t know how I did that. So, if because of trying to defend people like Obasanjo, I got into trouble, should Baba not be good enough to say, ‘OK, this boy who had gone to the tribunal to defend us, this is what is good for him.’ But nothing was done. For 22 years, we have been suffering. It is not fair.
How exactly were you involved in that coup as a lawyer?
I was the Director of Navy Legal Services. A letter – signal – came from the Ministry of Defence that they wanted lawyers from various services so that they could defend the accused persons in the phantom coup. What I used to do as director of legal services was to send people to represent the services. However, at that time, most of the boys who were lawyers under me had been sent on inquiries in two places – one in Port Harcourt and the others in Calabar. So, there was no lawyer available to represent those people (coup suspects). I volunteered to see if I could defend some of the accused. When I got there, I saw a lot of people in incarceration. They knew I was the Director of Navy Legal Services and they were begging, ‘Please, come and save us! They (the Abacha regime) put us in this problem. They want to kill us.’ If you witnessed the scenario, human sympathy would move you to take up their cases. So, I decided to defend some of them. A lot of others were pleading, ‘Please, add us to your briefs so that you can defend us.’ I took about five of them and I also supported other lawyers because I did not have enough time. I defended them to the best of my knowledge and that was how I was involved; otherwise, I was supposed to be in my office while I would have sent my boys there to defend the accused persons.
Who are some of the people you defended before the military tribunal?
I contributed to the defense of Baba; (Obasanjo) Gen. Musa Yar’Adua; I defended (Navy Lt. Akin) Olowookere; sometimes, I joined other counsels when I noticed they were having problems defending their clients. We never knew they (the Abacha goons) were watching us; we were just working. At the end of the day, they said I was sympathetic to the coup plotters and that I was the one who leaked information to the outside world that some people were to be executed – that was a blatant lie.
How exactly were you linked to the coup?
Bello’s (Fadile) defense counsel served as a reference point to all other defense counsels because he (Fadile) mentioned so many names and so many defence counsels were interested in his defense. So, copies of his defense were given to every counsel. And, even copies were given to the panel – the tribunal. Fadile’s defense was like a locus classicus (a passage considered to be the best known or most authoritative on a particular subject); so many people had copies of the paper and we didn’t know how it got out to the world. I was accused of leaking the document because I was the one who carried the books he used.
The man who defended Fadile was called Major Hamad. He was the one who came to me and said, ‘Sir, Bello Fadile said you should deliver his books to his sister-in-law.
He said his sister-in-law is in Kontangora House.’ Hamad told me that. I assumed Hamad, as the defense counsel, must have checked the documents.
I was working, doing some write-ups when I saw a lot of people in handcuffs with Bello. He said, ‘Please, can you help me deliver these books to my sister-in-law.’ Then, I said, ‘What of your defense counsel?’ He told me that his counsel lived in Ikoyi and would not be able to deliver those books in Marina after working very hard. I asked the security officer that was around to put the carton in which the books were kept in the boot of my car. There were operatives of the Department of State Services and the Military Intelligence present at that time. Would it have been possible for an individual where he was intercepted to smuggle in a document among the books without the security agents knowing or searching the carton? I did not touch the carton. Immediately I got to the office, I called the woman to come and pick her brother-in-law’s books. We opened the booth and the woman took the carton away – that was all. I never knew that single action would put me in trouble.
Did the regime charge you with being part of the coup plot?
About the third or the fourth day, some boys in uniform came over to my office with a very big paper bag. They said, ‘Oga, they said you should come and see oga in the office.’ I said, ‘Which oga?’ They said, ‘At the court.’ I asked, ‘What happened?’ They said, ‘Nothing. He just wants to see you.’ That was (Gen. Ishaya) Bamaiyi along with Patrick Aziza. I followed the boys. Bamaiyi said, ‘Were you the one who carried Bello Fadile’s carton?’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’ He said, ‘OK.’ Then, Aziza said, ‘You carried the books, what about Fadile’s defense counsel? Why didn’t he carry the books?’ Then, I explained to him what happened. Bamaiyi said I had a question to answer. I was shocked – saliva dried up in my mouth and throat. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. Having worked so vigorously to defend the accused persons, I had now become an accused myself. They asked me, ‘Do you know Beko (Ransome-Kuti)?’ In my life, I had never seen Beko though I had heard the name several times concerning his activities as a human rights crusader. ‘I’ve never met Beko before,’ I told them.
Again, they said to me, ‘You have a query to answer.’ They handcuffed me – in uniform; that was how I was intercepted and they didn’t allow me to get to my family. Another court was set up and under five minutes, I was tried – they didn’t allow me to call most of the people, like the defense counsel to Fadile that I wanted to call. At a point, somebody told me Major Hamad had a family problem he had gone to resolve. Double standard! He could have come over to give evidence concerning what actually happened about the carton – he was nowhere to be found. Under five minutes, I was given life imprisonment. Later on, they brought in Beko – and that was the first time I would set my eyes on him. When he got there, he was laughing saying, ‘All of you here, the kangaroo court you’re establishing; the world has exposed you.’ They said, ‘Ehn-ehn, we shall deal with you.’ And, that was exactly what they did to him and in about 15 minutes they tried and sentenced him to life imprisonment too. The entire scenario smacked of wickedness; they were callous human beings who came together to destroy other humans. At a point, they accused me of being an agent of NADECO (National Democratic Coalition). They said I was an agent trying to stall the execution of anybody – about 14 people – implicated in the phantom coup. They just scuttled my career.
What can you say about Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi and his book?
That man (Bamaiyi) is a callous human being. He’s a destroyer; he doesn’t have a conscience. He has touched the wrong people; he has spoken evil about many people. He will suffer for his deeds. He is a wicked man and the wicked will not go unpunished.
Obasanjo has been accused of elongating your predicament and that of others, despite establishing the panel?
Yes; Baba Obasanjo kept mum. He kept mum after all we had done going up and down trying to meet him. We met him on some occasions. He would just look at us as if we were strangers but we were together before (in prison). At a point in time, Baba said I should go to my governor – (ex)-Governor (Ibrahim) Idris of Kogi State. Can you imagine? A head of state can pick the telephone and call a governor: ‘Governor, I need you to do this or that for this my boy.’ Knowing full well that I defended him and others, Baba could have done that. But Baba said I should go to the governor. He told his personal assistant to speak to the governor on my behalf; eventually, I went to see my governor. My governor said, ‘Why would Baba not help you? He’s in the position to have helped you.’ I replied, ‘He has not helped me. He said I should come over to see you.’ And, in that instant, as I was talking with the governor, somebody who is a politician from my area (in Kogi State) came to see the governor around that period. He was not happy seeing me with the governor – that was the last I saw of the governor. He blocked me from seeing the governor.
Who is that politician?
No, I will not mention his name. He knows himself. He is in my state, Kogi. I never saw the governor again.
That must be a painful experience for you. Do you have any regret joining the Nigerian military service?
Joining the military is a thing of my dream – I had wanted to join the Navy and sail (around) the world. I received all manner of training in the Navy. The Navy sent me for training abroad many times; for my degrees. I have a degree in Law; I have a degree in Transport. I have master’s degrees in those fields. Those are achievements I made while in the service. I will not say I have any regret except that none of my children is interested in joining the service. They are eyewitnesses and victims of my bitter experience.
Do you have any regret defending people like Obasanjo?
(Sighs) I know someday that my destiny helper will come. I will not say I regret defending Baba Obasanjo or other people implicated in a coup that never existed. Part of the mandate of a lawyer is to defend anything defendable, particularly a suspect – a lawyer is expected to defend him to the best of his ability. And if the fellow doesn’t have any money to pay, the ethics of the profession still encourages you to do your best. We defended Baba – at times, he was not present during the defense – together with this same Hamad. Unfortunately, Baba could not even recognize me any longer as a defense counsel who worked diligently for him. In spite of all this, I give glory to God; I am still alive. Life has to go on.