Nigeria’s Umaru Dikko was the minister of transport in the civilian government run by Shehu Shagari from 1979 until the end of 1983 when the country’s army overthrew the administration and installed Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari as the head of state. The new military government under Buhari jailed scores of government ministers under Shagari’s administration for corruption. Dikko, who criticized the military regime under Buhari, managed to flee to London reportedly dressed as a priest.
While in London, he continued to be an outspoken critic of the military government, which also accused him of corruption and of stealing millions of dollars from a rice distribution program he was in charge of. Dikko denied the accusations. Still, the military government labeled him as “Nigeria’s most wanted man” and devised a plan to kidnap him off the streets of London and bring him back to Nigeria to face trial.
The Independent reported that Nigerian intelligence services and undercover agents (alongside several Israelis who were alleged to be members of Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad) tracked Dikko to a house in west London. The joint Nigerian-Israeli team placed the former minister’s house under surveillance. An Israeli alleged former Mossad agent, Alexander Barak, reportedly led the kidnap team, which included a Nigerian intelligence officer, Maj Mohammed Yusufu, and Israeli nationals Felix Abitbol and Dr. Lev-Arie Shapiro. One of the team members was to inject Dikko with an anesthetic.
On July 5, 1984, Dikko was kidnapped outside his home in London, bundled into the back of a van and locked in a large crate addressed to the Nigerian Ministry of External Affairs in the then capital city, Lagos. The kidnappers injected Dikko before laying him, unconscious, in the crate with the Israeli anesthetist by his side in the crate to keep him breathing. Barak and Abitbol were in a second crate. The two boxes were sealed. The kidnappers drove Dikko to Stansted airport to put him on a waiting Nigerian cargo plane to be flown back to Lagos.
Unknown to the kidnappers, Dikko’s secretary had witnessed the abduction. She called the police. The British government subsequently ordered customs officials at airports, ports and border crossings to be extremely observant when inspecting Nigeria-bound vessels. At Stansted, one young customs officer, Charles David Morrow, having heard about the news of a kidnapping, ordered the crates to be opened just when the Nigerian cargo plane was minutes from taking off.
“The day had gone fairly normally until about 3 pm. 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,” Morrow recalled what happened to the BBC.
“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.”
Morrow said Nigerian intelligence officials and diplomatic staff argued that the crates could not be opened as they were protected by diplomatic immunity.
Morrow knew that any cargo designated as a diplomatic bag is protected by the Vienna Convention from being opened by customs officers. Thus, he 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 final decision was that the crates could be opened. Customs officers called anti-terrorist police, cordoned off the area and evacuated airport staff. They then opened the crate in the presence of the police. They found Dikko unconscious inside one of the crates. Next to him was the doctor who had injected him.
“He [Dikko] 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 anesthetist was in there, clearly to keep him alive,” recalled Morrow.
Customs officials found the other kidnappers in the other crate. “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,” Dikko told the BBC a year after the incident.
At the end of the day, the Nigerian intelligence officer and the three Israelis were all convicted of the crime and sent to prison. The governments of Nigeria and Israel however denied involvement in the crime. The incident marred relations between Britain and Nigeria for two years. “The kidnap caused one of the worst-ever diplomatic crises between Britain and Nigeria,” historian Max Siollun wrote in The Independent of London in 2012. “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.”
Dikko returned to Nigeria a decade after the incident. He later died on July 1 in London, leaving behind “two wives, 11 children and many grandchildren.”
Born in Wamba, in central Nigeria, in 1936, Dikko had studied at the University of London and worked with the BBC for some time. He was later a commissioner in the northern province of Nigeria (now Kaduna State) and the manager of the presidential campaign of his brother-in-law, Shagari.
After his abduction, he went to law school in London and was admitted to the bar. He reentered Nigerian politics in the 1990s, and before his death, he became chairman of the disciplinary committee of the People’s Democratic Party, led by President Goodluck Jonathan.