Max Siollun is a historian and commentator on Nigerian political and governmental issues, with a focus on those pertaining to Nigerian history and the Nigerian military’s participation in politics. He has written a number of articles and critiques regarding Nigerian history, politics and its military coups. He is also the author of a forthcoming book on the origins of military engagement in Nigerian politics. Mr Siollun welcomes reader feedback on his articles and may be contacted by clicking here. His website.
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Over the past few weeks I have been revisiting the controversial attempt to kidnap Umaru Dikko in 1984 (Read Part 1 and Part 2). Dikko was one of the most powerful and notorious figures in the government of President Shagari between 1979 and 1983. This is the concluding part of the series which recounts the circumstances, timing and details of the kidnap.
Mossad boss Nahum Admoni felt that London was the most likely hideaway for Dikko. London was a favourite haunt of Nigerian fugitives from justice. They were typically Anglophile and had haunts in the affluent areas of London. Some Mossad agents set up base in London along with Major (retired) Mohammed Ahmadu Jarfa Yusufu. Yusufu was a 40 year old former army officer. After the military coup that overthrew Shagari he was transferred to the Nigerian Ministry of External Affairs and posted to Nigeria’s High Commission in the UK on May 1984. Although Yusufu entered the UK on a diplomatic passport, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was not notified that he was a member of the Nigerian diplomatic mission. Clearly he had been planted for the specific purpose of taking part in the Dikko operation. Two separate groups of undercover agents worked underground among London’s Nigerian community. The search was narrowed to west London where many Nigerian officials had opulent residences purchased with embezzled Nigerian state funds. The Dikko trail seemed to be running cold until a chance encounter during the summer of 1984. On June 30, 1984 a Mossad agent spotted a man fitting Dikko’s description in London’s wealthy Bayswater neighbourhood. The agent surreptitiously followed Dikko on foot to a house at number 49 Porchester Terrace. For several days the house was continuously watched by the agents, and Dikko’s routine and movements were noted.
The plans for Dikko’s capture were assembled by a small team. It involved making arrangements to anaesthetise, capture and then transport Dikko out of the UK to Nigeria to face trial. Dr Levi-Arie Shapiro was a 43 year old Israeli national, a consultant and director of the intensive care unit at Hasharon hospital in Tel Aviv. “Lou” Shapiro was also a reserve Major in the Israeli army. Shapiro was recruited by a 27 year old Mossad field officer named Alexander Barak who gave him money to purchase anaesthetics which would be used to stupefy Dikko. Barak was from the Israeli coastal town of Netanya and came from a family of diamond dealers. Another Mossad field officer named Felix Abithol (31 years old) arrived in London on July 2, 1984 and checked into the Russell Square hotel. Meanwhile Major Yusufu hired a van which would be used to convey Dikko once he had been anaesthetised. Strangely Yusufu’s men opted to hire a bright conspicuous yellow van. On July 4, 1984 a Nigerian Airways Boeing 707 cargo plane flew in with no cargo from Lagos and landed at Stansted airport. The UK authorities were informed that the plane had come in to collect diplomatic baggage from the Nigerian High Commission in London. Several security officers were onboard the plane and had orders not to leave the airport.
July 5, 1984
The next day Major Yusufu drove the van he had rented from Notting Hill Gate in west London and parked outside Dikko’s house on Porchester Terrace. With Yusufu in the van were Dr Shapiro, Barak and Abithol. Meanwhile, back at Stansted airport the Captain of the Nigerian Airways plan that landed the day before filed a departure time of 3pm and claimed that on its way back to Nigeria, the plane would be carrying “documentation” for the Nigerian Ministry of External Affairs. Diplomatic immunity was claimed for the “documentation”.
Porchester Terrace - Midday
Just before midday lunchtime Dikko emerged from the house in Porchester Terrace for a midday interview meeting with a Ghanaian journalist named Elizabeth Akua Ohene. Ohene was then the editor of Talking Drum magazine but later became a Minister of State in Ghana’s Ministry of Education. As Dikko walked two men burst out from the yellow van parked outside his house, grabbed him and forced him into the back of the van. Within seconds the van doors had closed and the van had sped away at break-neck speed. Quick, surgical and precise, it was a typical Mossad operation. Inside the van Dikko was dumped on his back and handcuffed. The van eventually came to a halt. Dikko was initially relieved and thought his kidnappers had been stopped by the police. He was wrong. They had simply stopped to refuel. Dikko was told to keep quiet as his captors refuelled. At a predetermined rendezvous point near Regent’s Park, Dikko was transferred to a waiting lorry. Dr Shapiro went to work and injected Dikko in the arm and buttock with a powerful anaesthetic. Dikko lost consciousness.
However there was a hitch. Through a window Dikko’s secretary Elizabeth Hayes witnessed Dikko being bundled into the van. The astonished secretary managed to compose herself enough to quickly dial 999 (the UK’s emergency services number) and alerted the authorities of the incredible incident she just witnessed. Given Dikko’s profile as a former government minister, the call was quickly escalated and within minutes police had arrived at the scene, closely followed by officers from Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist squad. The Foreign Office and the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were also alerted. All customs officials at airports, ports and border crossings were told to be extra vigilant with regard to Nigeria bound vessels.
Back to Stansted Airport
By mid-afternoon on July 5, 1984 Dikko had been anaesthetised into unconsciousness by Dr Shapiro, locked into a crate and taken to Stansted airport. However at Stansted there was no visible sign of Dikko, Shapiro, Abithol or Barak. Instead a lorry ferried two crates to the airport. The lorry was escorted by two black Mercedes Benz cars bearing Nigerian diplomatic licence plates. Shortly before 3pm the two crates labelled "diplomatic baggage" and addressed to the Nigerian Ministry of External Affairs in Lagos were being loaded onto the Nigerian Airways plane. The crates were 1.2 meters in height, 1.2 meters in depth and 1.5 meters in width. They were accompanied by Major Yusufu and a member of the Nigerian High Commission in London named Okon Edet. Having been warned to be wary by the security forces, customs officers were unusually inquisitive and vigilant.
There was a second hitch. When subsequently interviewed by Israel’s biggest selling newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, Alexander Barak said "In retrospect, I found out that the main culprit had been Group Captain Banfa, formerly head of the Nigerian air force and now CEO of Air Nigeria. This guy was supposed, according to the plan, to meet at 9:00 A.M. with Yusufu and Dr. Shapiro at the apartment in London and give them the right documents and join us, to supervise the loading of the diplomatic crates at Stanstead Airport. But at the last minute Banfa got cold feet." The absence of the correct diplomatic documents would come back to haunt the kidnappers. A customs officer named Charles Morrow noticed an unusual medical smell (probably the powerful medical anaesthetic sodium pentathol) and a noise emanating from one of the crates. Although the 707 was minutes away from take off, this gave Morrow an excuse to use red tape to get a closer look at the crates. On the pretext that the crates did not have the correct official seal, Morrow insisted on having a closer look at them. Major Yusufu protested furiously that the crates were protected by diplomatic immunity and could not be searched. His vehement protests were dismissed and the customs officers opened the crates with a crowbar.
What they found inside was shocking. In the first case was a bound and unconscious Dikko with his torso bare. Dikko’s captors had shoved an endo-tracheal tube in his throat to prevent him from choking on his own vomit when he was out cold, but he was still alive. They wanted him brought to Nigeria alive rather than dead. Beside him was Dr Shapiro brandishing syringes and a supply of additional anaesthetics with which to administer replenishments to Dikko. Dr Shapiro asked the customs officers “Well gentlemen, what do we do now?”. Abithol and Barak were found in the second crate. Dikko was rushed to Hertfordshire and Essex Hospital in Bishops Stortford. He regained consciousness at midday the following day having been unconscious for 36 hours. He awoke totally oblivious to the ensuing drama and his dramatic rescue, and received treatment at the hospital under heavy police guard. Barak later blamed a Nigerian air force officer for the plan’s failure.
Britain was angry at the kidnap attempt on its soil. Sending foreign security agents from a friendly country to commit a crime on its shores was a hostile act. The Nigerian government played a straight bat and denied any involvement in the affair. Nigeria’s High Commissioner in London, Major-General Haladu Anthony Hannaniya claimed the incident was the work of ''some patriotic friends of Nigeria''. Hannaniya was formerly Nigeria’s military attaché at the Nigerian High Commission in London, but was promoted to High Commissioner when the military returned to power.