The elaborately sensational story that Kaduna-based businessman and activist Mahdi Shehu told in an Arise TV interview last week raised many questions that are begging for answers.
The first problem had to do with Mahdi’s credibility after the elaborate medical scam he perpetrated last year in order to deceive a court. He had been arraigned in a Katsina court for making corruption allegations against Governor Aminu Bello Masari’s government. The activist pleaded ill health but when the court insisted on his personal appearance, he arrived in court posing as an invalid, with crutches, held by aides, clad in medical foot, body, neck and head gears that he apparently took from his well-stocked Dialogue Pharmacy in Kaduna. According to the video recording, it took Mahdi nearly half an hour to walk the short distance from the entrance to the court room, moving with great difficulty and sat down with great pain.
Unknown to him, while he was in the court room, government agents sneaked into his cell at the Katsina Prison and installed a camera. Mahdi Shehu returned to prison with the same elaborately staged difficulty and pain. As the camera recorded however, as soon as he entered the cell, he put aside the crutches, removed all the other medical accoutrements, put them aside, immediately became his normal self and proceeded to lead the congregational prayer in the cell, with several of his mates behind him. Since that video went viral, Mahdi Shehu’s standing as an accomplished dramatist was enhanced but his credibility as an anti-corruption crusader suffered an image blow.
Last week, he was asked what he thought about the detention of Kaduna-based, self-appointed train hostage negotiator Tukur Mamu. Mahdi went about answering the simple question by telling a long and sensational story from the 1990s. He said he spoke at the seminar tagged Not In Our Character, which took place in Kaduna in 1995. That was true because I also attended that seminar, organized by Kaduna State Government under the Military Administrator Colonel [later Brig General] Lawal Jafaru Isa. Print and video recordings of the seminar were compiled and sold and the proceeds formed the kernel for the Sani Abacha Foundation that was established later that year, with Lt General Jerry Useni as chairman.
Mahdi’s contribution was interrupted by the chairman because it was long and rambling. I was Editor of the Kaduna-based Sentinel magazine that year. A few days after the seminar, Mahdi went to see me in my office and asked me to publish a paper that he wrote. It contained the things he wanted to say at the seminar but was interrupted. The paper was nearly 100 pages long. I pleaded that I could not publish it in a weekly magazine. Mahdi asked that it be serialized; it would take months to do that! The paper had a section on every problem of Nigeria, from education to health to power supply to industry. I politely told him that no one in Nigeria knows the solution to all the problems but that since he was in the health care field, it will be more beneficial to readers if he wrote only on that sector. He took his paper and went away.
Back to the story he told last week. Mahdi said he met an American diplomat called Russell Hanks at the seminar. That was believable because Western, African and other diplomats frequent workshops and seminars in this country. It is an important part of their duties, to make contacts and to glean information. Even though he said Hanks was a Political Counsellor at the American Embassy in Nigeria, Mahdi implied that he was an undercover CIA agent. That was entirely possible; in every embassy in this world, intelligence agents operate under cover as political, consular, cultural or other officers.
Mahdi said he spoke to Hanks only once or twice afterwards. Now, in 1995, we had as yet no mobile phone service in Nigeria, so I believe that communication was not as frequent as it is these days. Trouble begins from what Mahdi said happened next. After a few weeks, he said Hanks went to Kaduna’s Arewa Hotel Annex, asked Mahdi to see him there, unceremoniously offered him half a million naira [worth more than ten million today], gave him a small parcel which he declared was a bomb, told him to go and place it in the bookshop of Durbar Hotel, less than a kilometer away, and then come back and collect another half a million naira.
If Hanks did that and if he was a CIA agent, then he must be the sloppiest and most incompetent CIA agent in the whole world! In my 32 years in journalism, I have met dozens of Western, African, Arab, Asian, even Communist diplomats, at seminars, at dinners, and I received many in my office. I have always known that the dividing line between any diplomat and a spy is very thin, so one must watch what he says. Not one of them ever tried to recruit me for a clandestine activity. It could well be because they sized me up and concluded that I will make a lousy double agent. I am not saying that they don’t recruit other Nigerians. I however believe they do it much more competently than Mahdi Shehu made it to look like.
The closest I ever got inside the CIA was when the late Ahmadu Abubakar, who was hosting me in Washington DC, drove with me past the CIA Headquarters at Langley in a cab, for a brief look. But from everything I read about it and from innumerable spy films we watched as youngsters, I have the impression that CIA does it things with great skill. To summon a man who you barely know, whom you met at a seminar, whose speech at the seminar was anything but revolutionary, who had no skill as a security or intelligence officer but as a health care worker, and proceed to ask him to plant a bomb in a hotel, will require the least trained, the least sensible and the most incompetent spy in this world.
Who in his right mind will accept a bomb parcel from a stranger and drive with it for a kilometer? What if it goes off prematurely? Even drug couriers are often deceived about the nature of the parcels they are made to carry, not to mention bombs. Ok, it was well known that Abacha regime’s relations with Western governments was very frosty. Still, what was the strategic value of bombing Durbar Hotel? It was not even government owned; it was already privatized. Jarman Kano Alhaji Adamu Dankabo was posing as the owner, even though some people said he was fronting for the Abacha family.
I was sitting in my office in June 1995 when NTA Kaduna flashed a story that a bomb had gone off at Durbar Hotel, killing one man who was thought to have planted it. Soon afterwards, activists began to shout that The News reporter Bagauda Kaltho was missing, suspected to have been abducted by the SSS. The police soon said Kaltho was the bomber, that his corpse was recovered at the bombing scene, and that he even bought a book at the hotel bookshop before he proceeded to plant the bomb. If I remember right, the then head of police Anti-Terrorism Squad ACP Zakari Biu appeared at the scene and buttressed the police story.
Since the Abacha regime had no credibility with the media and with civil society activists, to put it mildly, the police story was roundly derided and Kaltho was promoted as a hero of the struggle against dictatorship. Lagos Government House press center was even named after him. The matter was indeed raised at the Oputa panel in 2001. The police lawyer then, Nuhu Ribadu, mounted a spirited defence of the force and called several witnesses, if I remember right. I don’t think the matter was resolved there, but there was no firm evidence that government agents killed Kaltho.
Now, with Mahdi’s story last week, he is the first person who is directly linking Bagauda Kaltho to the bomb. Mahdi said as he left Hanks’ room, Kaltho walked in and not long afterwards, the bomb went off in Durbar Hotel. Kaltho was known to hate the Abacha regime with passion. I did not know him personally but on the day government accused him, several of my reporters told me he often spoke with venom against the Abacha regime at the Kaduna press centre.
I read a story at the weekend saying both Russell Hanks and the US Embassy in Nigeria refused to comment on Mahdi’s story. If so, that kind of lent credence to it, because governments often refuse to comment on botched intelligence operations. No wonder that a civil society group is demanding a fresh probe into Bagauda Kaltho’s death, saying he was “gruesomely murdered in 1995 by the junta of General Sani Abacha.”
Why did Mahdi Shehu tell this sensational story at this time? Simply to support what he said he told Tukur Mamu, to be careful, because a security officer once told him that spy agencies are envious and don’t want anyone to venture into their field. But his story get as e be. Mahdi Shehu may be in for more drama than the one he staged in Katsina.