- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 10, 2011

LAGOS, NIGERIA | Maj. Hamza Al-Mustapha served as the right-hand man of Nigeria’s final military dictator, suppressing dissent through fear and once boasting of even having a “license to kill.”

Now, after nearly 14 years in prison, he finally is facing trial on charges of orchestrating the killing of a political rival’s wife, reopening old wounds from an era of terror in Nigeria.

The man once accused of plotting a coup from inside a maximum-security prison is back to haunt a nation wracked by sectarian violence that still is taking stumbling steps on the road to democracy. He is even drawing scores of supporters to the courthouse, despite his affiliation with the oppressive regime.

As part of his re-emergence, Maj. Al-Mustapha also is bringing forth videos and memos that he claims indict various ethnic leaders. Those accusations could fuel further unrest in Nigeria, where rioting across the north earlier this year left hundreds dead.

Nigerian authorities still view Mr. Al-Mustapha as a security threat, holding him in Lagos’ maximum-security Kirikiri prison. In 2004, officials said he planned to have someone with a Stinger missile shoot down a helicopter carrying then-President Olusegun Obasanjo.

Some, though, say it is time that the former intelligence officer finally is getting his day in court.

“I believe the case has been too long-standing,” said Solomon Akinboye, chairman of the political science department at the University of Lagos. “There’s need to get it over. If the man is believed to have committed an offense, it should be known.”

Maj. Al-Mustapha is accused of ordering a security agent to kill the wife of Moshood Abiola, a flamboyant businessman widely believed to be the winner of the 1993 presidential election. Maj. Al-Mustapha has denied taking part in her 1996 machine-gun killing, saying he was tortured into a false confession.

“It was intense torture, physical and psychological. I will never forget,” he said, later pulling up his traditional robes to show a scar he claimed came from a gunshot wound. “Every day was too long a day to go through.”

Yet security agents under Maj. Al-Mustapha’s control routinely used torture on political prisoners and journalists, according to multiple accounts in the years after the death of dictator Sani Abacha in 1998.

Maj. Al-Mustapha worked for Mr. Abacha, who seized power in 1993 after the presidential election results were annulled. Mr. Abacha went on to set up a kleptocratic and brutal regime that imprisoned critics, ran intellectuals out of the country, stole hundreds of millions of dollars in government funds and benefited from the unsolved killings of political opponents.

Now a slender man in his 50s, Maj. Al-Mustapha speaks in a soft, yet insistent voice, acting almost as a historical revisionist of Nigeria’s bloody past. The way he now tells it, Mr. Abacha’s power grab was not a coup but merely a “change of course of history of Nigeria’s political life.”

Prosecutors also have sought to link him to the crime by showing his control of Mr. Abacha’s security forces, including bodyguards and a paramilitary “strike force” that traveled to Libya and North Korea for training and routinely used violence.

But Maj. Al-Mustapha, a Hausa from the country’s north, still receives support from the Muslim populace there, highlighting Nigeria’s religious divisions.

His recent claims in court have been driving a further wedge, as he has offered a government memorandum that says hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on visitors to Mr. Abacha’s palace.

Maj. Al-Mustapha also provided a videotape that shows leaders of Nigeria’s southwestern Yoruba tribe arriving and leaving the villa. He says the visit included Yoruba elders taking massive bribes in exchange for dropping their demands for democracy and support for Mr. Abiola. A member of the Yoruba tribe, Mr. Abiola won the 1993 presidential election, but a military junta blocked him from taking power.

The claims, denied by the surviving Yoruba elders, comes as Maj. Al-Mustapha and his family claim the government and powerful politicians want him dead.

They also highlight the long unease between Nigeria’s north and south, where divisions largely fall along religious lines with Muslims dominating the north and Christians the south. Tens of thousands have died in religious and ethnic rioting since the nation embraced democracy in 1999.

After Monday’s testimony, Muslim supporters of Maj. Al-Mustapha milled outside the courtroom, wearing postage-stamp-sized photographs of the soldier safety-pinned to their clothes.

As a convoy of security trucks roared away, the crowd rushed forward, pressing their hands and faces against the barred windows of the van holding Maj. Al-Mustapha, crying “God is Great” in Arabic.

The chanting crowd gathered around a local imam, shouting prayers for his release, their hands raised to the sky.

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