Men in Crates

Bassman, Going Postal
“File:Moscow, wooden crates at the VDNKh (19184053835).jpg” by Gennady Grachev from Moscow, Russia is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The ripping yarns of derring-do served up by AWS are green in our memory, but here’s a caper that is more a case of derring-didn’t. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Umaru Abdulrahman Dikko was an influential Nigerian politician born in 1936 into a prominent Moslem family. He added Alhaji to his name at some point after a pilgrimage to Mecca. He spent quite a bit of his early years in the UK, studying at Birkbeck College where he gained a first in mathematics. Clever boy. He also worked for the BBC in the foreign language section for five years. Dikko returned to Nigeria  in the sixties to join the political bun fight and In 1979 rose to become Minister of Transport in the Shagari government. The fact that he was President Shagari’s brother-in-law and campaign manager may have been a factor. In 1983 he was appointed head of a task force to supervise the import and sale of rice. Clearly a man of the utmost integrity was needed for such a temptation-strewn post. Was he that man? His opponents did not believe so and a military coup ejected Shagari and his henchmen by the end of 1983.  As Minister of Transport Dikko had had access to oil revenues as well as the licence to print money from rice sales. The alleged sum of embezzlement was said to run into several billion US dollars. Dikko did what any self-respecting fugitive from justice would do: he fled into exile in the UK. To my eyes there is a small irony here in that the devout Moslem Dikko made his escape across the Benin border dressed as a Catholic priest. Charges of corruption involving the Rice Task Force and missing millions of oil revenue were left trailing in his wake.

The replacement government demanded that we repatriate the man and his ill-gotten gains. Mrs Thatcher retorted that she would be pleased to help but would feel obliged to publish details of the bank accounts of all prominent Nigerians to ensure equality. The military junta went smartly into reverse.

Dikko settled into a comfortable life in exile in upmarket Bayswater (in a borrowed house) whilst taking highly vocal potshots at the new Nigerian military government. He was labelled “Nigeria’s most wanted man”, a title that some of you might think takes some achieving. Nevertheless, he thought that the recent murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher would preclude foreign adventures so he took no real security precautions. He would possibly have done better to maintain an interval of silence, because plans involving him were being hatched in that government’s mind. None other than a plot to kidnap him off the streets of London, drug him and stick him in a crate to be flown back to Nigeria. An alleged former Mossad agent was recruited to lead the kidnap team, along with an Israeli doctor who was to keep Dikko anaesthetised during the proceedings. Mossad was engaged to track Dikko down. (Although the two countries had no formal relations Nigeria had an interest in flogging oil to Israel, Israel weapons to Nigeria.) Although Dikko wasn’t exactly cowering in a safe house it took Mossad a while to locate him in London. Eventually they succeeded when an agent simply spotted  Dikko while driving in Bayswater. Not very hi-tech. The team staked out the property. Some of their tradecraft was not exactly Smiley-esque. They used a bright yellow van with rear windows painted grey for their surveillance activities. What followed was more Bodie and Doyle than Circus. On 5th July 1984 armed men attacked Dikko as he left his house: his “Irish-Nigerian” secretary was observing from an upstairs window. A desperate struggle ensued because Dikko was a big lad, but he was eventually subdued and bundled into the back of a van where he was handcuffed and chained. They changed vehicles near London Zoo and sped off to Stansted to a waiting Nigerian Airways Boeing 707 freighter. It is thought that Dikko and the medic were crated up in the van along with two Israeli kidnappers in a second crate. Must have been a horrible journey. The crates were only five foot by four.

But of course, Dikko’s secretary had witnessed the kidnap episode and alerted the authorities. Although the plan to designate the crates as diplomatic baggage was not bad, the plotters bungled the paperwork and procedures. To qualify as a diplomatic bag an item has to be, inter alia, clearly marked, er, “diplomatic bag.” It should also be accompanied by an accredited courier. HM Customs had already had their curiosity piqued by the arrival the previous day of a 707, uncommon at Stansted, containing several security officers. Further interest was raised by an all-points bulletin notifying the kidnap. The duty customs officer was unfamiliar with diplomatic procedure, but he saw the crates and, in his words, “I just put two and two together. The classic customs approach is not to look for the goods, you look for the space.”

By this time the crates were ready for the forklifts but the officer had been notified that procedures had not been met and he was entitled to search them. Imagine his surprise… an unconscious and intubated Dikko, a doctor who coolly asked “Well, what do we do now?”, two more sheepish men in the other crate and a Nigerian diplomat who legged it before realising that he was in an empty, open area of several square miles and was not being chased. Collapse of plot.

The fallout was considerable: jail sentences, High Commissioner packed off as persona non grata, diplomatic relations put in the deep freeze, two Scots jailed in Nigeria charged with attempting to steal a small jet which they were re-possessing for non-payment. Who’d be a pawn in diplomatic retaliation? One of the chaps caught malaria.  Nevertheless, Dikko was soon none the worse for the ordeal and quickly put in an application for what was then known – and quite properly in his case – as political asylum. This is where I cross paths with yer man. Dikko’s application was refused on the then viable grounds that he faced prosecution, not persecution. The case went to appeal. I was in charge of it and one of my presenting officers was to put the Home Office case before the Chief Adjudicator. The latter was a big, bluff, genial old Swaziland hand. In those days a number of Adjudicators were former District Officers and took a sardonic and knowing view on the tissues of lies before them. They knew how to end their determinations with the words “appeal dismissed.” The hearing was of great interest to the press, and with Dikko choosing a criminal barrister rather than the usual immigration type we were sure of a theatrical time. We were actually seconded an FCO operative to monitor proceedings for the one and only time in my ten-year career. The stakes were high. My officer was a former Bath first team prop, so we weren’t going to be overawed. The appeal unfolded in a way familiar to me. The Home Office explanatory statement was our evidence and in my experience nearly always contained flaws. We were forever having to defend errors. The barrister soon exposed three bloopers and made a great rhetorical flourish out of it. Then Dikko went into the witness box. The details are sketchy in my mind, but one exchange sticks out. Probing the corruption, my man asked Dikko if he was familiar with the concept of the “dash”?  We interrupt this article to provide you with a definition:

“One of the most common informal transactions in Nigeria is the ‘dash.’ A dash, as it is called in Nigerian English and Pidgin English, may be a gift or a bribe.”

No, replied Dikko – he was pretty sure he hadn’t heard of that.  This wasn’t going to be easy.

The hearing rumbled on and ended with the dismissal of the appeal. The sound and fury didn’t do us much good, though, as Dikko was later granted exceptional leave to remain. I can see the point, I suppose. The UK’s relations with Nigeria were at freezing point and the scope for prodding an unwilling Dikko up the aircraft steps was not a picture that appealed to HMG. The man himself went on to be called to The Bar and was eventually rehabilitated by the Nigerian government. He returned there to carry on meddling in politics and to studiously avoid anything resembling a “dash.” Maybe. He died in London in 2013.

© Bassman 2020

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