It is the most daring operation ever conducted by Nigerian Intelligence agents to date. The Dikko affair as it came to be known severed for the first time in history the ties between Nigeria and its former colonial mistress; Britain. What motivated the Buhari Administration to try this brazen op in the light of a London morning?
Knottedpost Panorama investigates what an NSO agent called: Our most prestigious op to date.
Umaru Dikko, Nigeria’s former Minister of Transport who has died aged 78, was abducted in London in 1984 by government agents, then discovered in a Lagos-bound wooden crate at Stansted Airport claimed to be diplomatic baggage. The episode led to the expulsion of the Nigerian High Commissioner from Britain and a two-year chill in relations.
If anything could embarrass a Nigerian government, Dikko’s discovery in the crate (amid tightened security after the shooting of Pc Yvonne Fletcher from the Libyan People’s Bureau) should have. But the botched abduction was also sensitive in Tel Aviv, as Nigeria had enlisted a Mossad front company to track down Dikko and bring him home, and three Israelis were caught.
Dikko, an important member of the civilian government of his brother-in-law President Shehu Shagari, fled to London when it was overthrown in a military coup in 1983. The incoming regime put him at the top of a list of allegedly corrupt ex-ministers, accusing him of having embezzled £300 million in oil revenues, and launched a search for him.
London was the traditional refuge of ousted Nigerian politicians, and on June 30 1984 a Mossad agent spotted Dikko in Queensway. He was tailed to a house in Porchester Terrace, which was kept under surveillance.
While a Nigerian team, led by ex-Major Mohammed Yusufu, planned the kidnapping from the High Commission, an Israeli anaesthetist, Dr Levi-Arie Shapiro, was flown to London. His role was to drug Dikko, and insert a tube to prevent him choking while being transported in the crate. And late on July 3, a Nigeria Airways Boeing 707 flew into Stansted from Lagos with several security guards aboard.
On July 5, a group of men seized Dikko in his garden. A desperate struggle ended in his being bundled into a yellow van with blacked-out windows. His secretary, Elizabeth Hayes, witnessed the abduction and contacted the police, sparking a national search.
The hunt soon moved to Stansted, where Customs had become suspicious of two crates measuring 4½ft by 5½ft and addressed to the Ministry of External Affairs in Lagos which were being loaded onto the aircraft as diplomatic baggage; one emitted a “powerful medical smell”. Loading was halted, and departure of the flight delayed as anti-terrorist officers were rushed from London.
The crate in which Umaru Dikko was kidnapped in
Nigerian diplomats were present for the loading of the cargo, but the crates had not been labelled as diplomatic bags as required by the Vienna Convention, so customs invoked their right to inspect them. In the first they found a comatose Dikko and Dr Shapiro, and in the second a Nigerian diplomat and a second Israeli.
Dikko was taken to hospital and found to be uninjured. Four people were convicted of abducting him and jailed for 10 to 14 years: Maj Yusufu, Dr Shapiro and two Israelis, Alexander Barak and Felix Abithol. They served between six and nine years before being quietly deported.
The Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, had the Nigerian High Commissioner and the diplomat found in the crate expelled, and relations went into a deep freeze. The Nigerians retaliated by having two expat British engineers arrested and jailed. Neither Nigeria nor Israel ever admitted any involvement.
There was a sequel in the Commons when, during a debate on the policies of Margaret Thatcher’s Secretary of State for Transport, Nicholas Ridley, the front-bench Labour spokesman Peter Snape brought the house down by complaining that the Nigerians had “kidnapped the wrong Minister of Transport”.
Some time later Nigeria formally requested Dikko’s extradition; unsurprisingly it was refused. Indeed the long-term consequence of the affair was to make it almost impossible for the most upright regime in Nigeria to secure extradition from Britain of even the most flagrantly corrupt of the country’s political exiles.
The plot was foiled by a young British customs officer, Charles David Morrow, who has now told the BBC World Service Witness programme what happened.
So this is how it all unfolded:
On that summer’s day, Mr Dikko walked out of his front door in an upmarket neighbourhood of Bayswater in London. Within seconds he had been grabbed by two men and bundled into the back of a transit van.
“I remember the very violent way in which I was grabbed and hurled into a van, with a huge fellow sitting on my head – and the way in which they immediately put on me handcuffs and chains on my legs,” he told the BBC a year later.
Mr Dikko had been minister for transport in the government of Shehu Shagari until it was overthrown by the military at the end of 1983. He fled to London accused by Nigeria’s new rulers of embezzlement – a charge he has always denied.
Labelled “Nigeria’s most wanted man”, a plot was hatched to get both him and the money back.
The extraordinary plan was to kidnap Mr Dikko, drug him, stick him into a specially made crate and put him on a plane back to Nigeria – alive.
An Israeli alleged former Mossad agent, Alexander Barak, was recruited to lead the kidnap team. It included a Nigerian intelligence officer, Maj Mohammed Yusufu, and Israeli nationals Felix Abitbol and Dr Lev-Arie Shapiro, who was to inject Mr Dikko with an anaesthetic.
The kidnappers switched vehicles in a car park by London Zoo and headed towards Stansted airport where a Nigerian Airways plane was waiting. They injected Mr Dikko and laid him, unconscious, in a crate.
The Israeli anaesthetist climbed into the crate as well, carrying medical equipment to make sure Mr Dikko didn’t die en route. Barak and Abitbol got into a second crate. Both boxes were then sealed.
At the cargo terminal of Stansted Airport, 40 miles (64km) north of London, a Nigerian diplomat was anxiously waiting for the crates to arrive. Also on duty that day was a young customs officer, Charles David Morrow.
“The day had gone fairly normally until about 3pm. Then we had the handling agents come through and say that there was a cargo due to go on a Nigerian Airways 707, but the people delivering it didn’t want it manifested,” Mr Morrow said.
“I went downstairs to see who they were and what was happening. I met a guy who turned out to be a Nigerian diplomat called Mr Edet. He showed me his passport and he said it was diplomatic cargo. Being ignorant of such matters, I asked him what it was, and he told me it was just documents and things.”
No-one on duty at Stansted had dealt with a diplomatic bag before and Mr Morrow went to check the procedure.
Just then a colleague returned from the passenger terminal with some startling news. There was an All Ports Bulletin from Scotland Yard saying that a Nigerian had been kidnapped and it was suspected he would be smuggled out of the country.
The police had been alerted by Mr Dikko’s secretary who had witnessed his abduction from a window in the house.
Hearing the news, Mr Morrow realised he had a problem on his hands.
“I just put two and two together. The classic customs approach is not to look for the goods, you look for the space,” he said.
“So I am looking out of the window and I can see the space which is these two crates, clearly big enough to get a man inside. We’ve got a Nigerian Airways 707, which we don’t normally see. They don’t want the crates manifested, so there would be no record of them having gone through. And there was very little other cargo going on board the aircraft.
“If you want to hide a tree, you hide it in the forest. You don’t stick it out in the middle of Essex.”
By the book
But any cargo designated as a diplomatic bag is protected by the Vienna Convention from being opened by customs officers. So Mr Morrow got on the phone to the British Foreign Office.
“To qualify as a ‘diplomatic bag’ they clearly had to be marked with the words ‘Diplomatic Bag’ and they had to be accompanied by an accredited courier with the appropriate documentation. It was fair to say they had a Nigerian diplomat – I’d seen his passport – but they didn’t have the right paperwork and they weren’t marked ‘Diplomatic Bag’,” he said.
The decision was taken that the crates could be opened – but it would be done by the book. That required the presence of a Nigerian diplomat, but as Mr Morrow pointed out, one was already on hand. By now, the crates were up on special trolleys ready to be loaded on to the plane.
“Peter, the cargo manager, hit the lid on the bottom and lifted it. And as he lifted it, the Nigerian diplomat, who was standing next to me, took off like a startled rabbit across the tarmac,” Mr Morrow said.
“You have to remember we are on an airfield which is square miles of nothing. He ran about five yards (4.5m), realised no-one was chasing him and then stopped.
“Peter looked into the crate and said: ‘There’s bodies inside!’
He parked a forklift truck so its tines lay across the top of the crate so it couldn’t be opened. Mr Morrow dialled the emergency number 999.
“My name’s Morrow, from Customs at Stansted. We’ve got some bodies in a crate. Do you think you can send someone over,” he recalls saying.
“They said: ‘Alive or Dead?’
“I said: ‘That’s a very good point. I don’t know.’
“They said: ‘We’ll send an ambulance as well.'”
After half an hour, police started to arrive, and they opened the second crate. Inside they found an unconscious Mr Dikko, and a very much awake Israeli anaesthetist. Mr Dikko was lying on his back in the corner of the crate.
“He had no shirt on, he had a heart monitor on him, and he had a tube in his throat to keep his airway open. No shoes and socks and handcuffs around his ankles. The Israeli anaesthetist was in there, clearly to keep him alive,” recalls Mr Morrow.
The kidnappers in the other crate were unrepentant. They said Mr Dikko was the biggest crook in the world.
The Nigerian intelligence officer and the three Israelis all received prison sentences in the UK.
Diplomatic relations between the UK and Nigeria broke down and were only fully restored two years later. The Nigerian and Israeli governments have always denied involvement in the kidnapping.
Mr Dikko returned to Nigeria the following decade and still lives there.
Mr Morrow was commended for actions that day by the head of UK Customs, who described the incident as a “very tricky situation”
In London Dikko studied at the Bar, being called at the Middle Temple in 1991. After a further change of regime he was invited home, setting up his own political party. In his final months, despite declining health, he chaired the disciplinary committee of President Goodluck Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party.
Umaru Dikko (he took the name Alhaji after a pilgrimage to Mecca) was born at Wamba in central Nigeria in 1936. In 1967, seven years after Independence, he was appointed a commissioner in the North Central State (now Kaduna State). He was also secretary of a committee set up by General Hassan Katsina to unite the North after a coup in 1966, which, he recalled, “wiped out our leaders for no just cause”.
Umaru Dikko in later life
Shagari chose Dikko to manage his successful 1979 presidential campaign. During the Second Republic that followed, he was Minister of Transport and head of a task force on rice.
He died in London after suffering three strokes. Among his surviving family is his son, Dr Bello Dikko.