The Kidnap of Umaru Dikko – 1984

In light of the recent Julian Assange controversy, I wrote an article on the Nigerian attempt to kidnap Umaru Dikko and return him to Nigeria to face trial. The article was published yesterday in the UK’s Independent newspaper:
Umaru Dikko, the man who was nearly spirited away in a diplomatic bag

One of the more outlandish options for Julian Assange’s passage to Ecuador has been tried before. Max Siollun reports

Max Siollun
Monday, 20 August 2012

On 31 December, 1983, the elected government of Nigeria was overthrown in a military coup by the country’s army. The new military government jailed several government ministers for corruption and embezzlement while in office. However, the powerful former Transport Minister, Umaru Dikko, fled to London. The military claimed that Dikko used his position as Transport Minister to enrich himself in a series of racketeering scandals. It regarded Dikko as its most wanted fugitive from justice and wanted to bring him back to Nigeria to face trial.

To bring this about, they hatched a plot to kidnap him off the streets of London. Nigerian intelligence services and undercover agents (with the help of several Israelis who were alleged to be members of Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad) tracked Dikko to a house in west London. After placing the house under surveillance, the agents decided to strike on 5 July, 1984.

Moments after Dikko emerged from the house, two men burst out from a van parked outside the house. They grabbed Dikko and bundled him into the back of the van. The team inside the van included a doctor who injected Dikko to render him unconscious.

Dikko’s kidnappers locked him in a large crate labelled “diplomatic baggage” and addressed to the Nigerian Ministry of External Affairs in the then capital city, Lagos. They claimed diplomatic immunity for the crate’s contents, and drove him to Stansted airport to place him on a waiting Nigerian cargo plane.

Unbeknown to the kidnappers, Dikko’s secretary had glanced out of her window just in time to see her boss being bundled into the van outside his house, and she dialled 999.

The kidnap was initially thought to be the work of criminals and was referred to Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist squad. The Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was also informed.

The British government ordered customs officials at airports, ports and border crossings to be vigilant when inspecting Nigeria-bound vessels. One customs officer at Stansted airport was especially vigilant. Although the Nigerian cargo plane was minutes from taking off with Dikko on board, he ordered the crate to be opened. Nigerian intelligence officials and diplomatic staff protested that the crate could not be opened as it was protected by diplomatic immunity.

The customs officer called anti-terrorist police. They cordoned off the area and evacuated airport staff. Customs then opened the crate with armed police watching. Inside the crate, they found Dikko unconscious, next to the doctor who had injected him. The doctor had accompanied Dikko in the box to top up his anaesthetics and ensure he did not die during transit.

Armed police surrounded the Nigerian cargo plane on the runway, arrested its crew and refused to allow the plane to take off. They also arrested the Nigerian officials and Israelis who drove the crate to Stansted, and several members of Nigeria’s High Commission in London.

The Nigerian and Israeli governments always denied any involvement in the affair. Foreign intelligence involvement became apparent only when the sophistication and daring of the Dikko kidnap was revealed.

The kidnap caused one of the worst-ever diplomatic crises between Britain and Nigeria. The Nigerian High Commissioner was declared persona non grata in London, and the head of Nigeria Airways narrowly escaped being arrested by British police. Diplomatic relations between Nigeria and Britain were suspended for two years. The controversy also weakened Nigeria’s war on corruption, as Britain rejected a subsequent formal request from Nigeria to extradite Dikko and other Nigerian politicians in the UK who were wanted in Nigeria on charges of corruption.

Four men were convicted of kidnapping Dikko (three Israelis and a Nigerian) in a trial at the Old Bailey, and were jailed. All were released and returned to their countries after serving their sentences. After regaining consciousness in hospital, Dikko remained in Britain for over a decade.

Max Siollun is a historian and the author of “Soldiers of Fortune: Nigerian Politics Under Buhari and Babangida“.


13 responses

  1. By the way is it true that the then Nigerian High Commissioner Maj. Gen Hannaniya was banned from ever entering the UK way back then because of this botched attempt which was linked back to the government of the day?

  2. As indescent as the aborted attempt was, it was to me a commendable efforts by the Gen. Buhari’s government then, aimed at archiving a noble objective of ensuring that, all those who think they would commit terrible attrocities any time, and run to UK,US or any of the foreign nations to find protection are pruned down to the barest minimum size possible.

  3. Ekuson Debango | Reply

    My question to you guys is this: Do you think that Umaru Dikko was wanted back in Nigeria to stand trial for some trumped up charges of corruption or could there have been some other reason for this botched kidnap attempt? Mind you they just as easily could have poisoned him or even staged a robbery-murder attempt right there. Sahagari in his memoir sort of alluded to part of the reason Buhari and co hated Dikko. There is yet another reason they wanted him back alive. The reason is not something as simple as the importation of rice.People have been importing rice ever since Nigeria was fabricated by British imperial fiat.

    1. There must have been other reasons for them wanting Dikko so badly (and using so much effort to keep him alive). He probably “had something” on them.

      1. Ekusond Debango | Reply

        It had to do with more than the importation of rice.There were two reasons as far as I am concerned.The military brass under Shagari complained to the president that Dikko was carrying out surveillance on them for no “apparent” reason. This much was disclosed by Shagari in his book “Beckoned To Serve” ( I think that was the title). Also Dikko infuriated a lot of these military officers when he revealed in an interview that the real reason for the coup was that these officers were not pleased that the NPN had reached a concensus to present Alex Ekwueme as their presidential candidate in 1987, after Shagari’s second term. These officers were repulsed by the possibility that they they could be serving under an Igbo president a few short years after the civil war. This revelation made made Dikko as the real reason for the coup so irked these military officers that they wanted Dikko alive in Nigeria for questioning. I believe they intended to try him on trumped up charges, convict him and then dispatch of him for good. If Azikiwe would have won against all odds they would have overthrown him and possibly assassinated him anyway. The timing of the coup right after Shagari had won re-election was very questionable. If one would believe IBB, in one of his interviews,, he disclosed that they started planning to overthrow Shagari the very moment Obasanjo handed over power to him in 1979.Shagari left all contact with the military to his then NSO Lawal Rafindadi. I believe this to be a mistake also.You do not have to have served in the military to understand the workings of the military. I have not served but I sure keep abreast of postings and their significance as well as weapons systems of various militaries around the wolrd. My interest right this moment is the rise and changes in the People Liberation Army of China. One to be watched rather closely..

        1. This is the first I have heard that the NPN would “zone” the presidency to Ekwueme. It definitely had more controversy than rice importation though.

        2. I sure can send you an email with a link to an interview where this revelation was made. I never thought it was planned that Ekwueme should succeed Shagari after the latter had served his second term until I saw this interview.Dikko reportedly made the revelation while in exile and well before any plan to kidnap him.I think there might be some truth to the revelation though.Even a frustrated Obasanjo, who was unable to get a third term,reminded the South Easterners how it was unthinkable to hand over power to them after their defeat in the civil war. It appears that the consequence of that war will remain with us for a long time to come, particularly with some of the actors still very much alive. A little digression, I think president Goodluck Jonathan should maintain frequent contact with the military( all ranks) by holding retreats and showing interest in their affairs.As we speak I doubt that he has appointed a defence minister after sacking the previous occupant of that office. At the very least, have a replacement ready before letting go of a defence minister.Shagari failed to engage the military during his tenure.Had he held regular meetings with at least the senior officers that would have kept them wondering what he was up to- they would have suspected he was on top of things.

          1. I would love to read the interview links where Dikko and OBJ made those comments. I also like your idea of GEJ holding retreats with senior officers. He is the Commander-in-Chief after all, so that is his prerogative.

  4. wow! i find this article very intriguing. I for one has created scenes of escape in my head if i were to be in Julians’ shoes, come to think of it, how did the former gov of bayelsa state- Alameahsya escape some years back?

    1. I wonder what would have happened had Dikko been successfully transported back to Nigeria? Would he have been imprisoned or killed?

      1. The plan was to shut him up forever. They would have done him in by any available subtle means.

        1. If they wanted to forever silence him, why did they try so hard to ensure he did not die in transit?

          1. They probably wanted to taunt him, torture him both physically and mentally and then shut his big mouth for am( if I may vote the great Fela Kuti). One wonders how much the Israelis were paid for their services as they were really knee-deep in this whole affair. They must have been promised very lucrative oil deals or something of that nature.I think that the fact that that man want ever ready with the syringe right next to Dikko meant they did not intend to kill him right away.

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