On Sunday, June 10, 1984, a young reporter of The Guardian Newspapers, Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo, published an investigative report of some mysterious 53 suitcases supposedly bearing contraband cash passed through the Murtala Muhammed International Airport unchecked.
The military government of General Muhammed Buhari had enacted a decree of strict perusal of any incoming baggage from abroad owing to the currency note conversion which had begun in April of 1984. The borders had to be tight so that criminals would not be able to smuggle in currency notes into the country and take advantage of the policy decision. Customs officers had their work cut out for them. It would, however, turn out that top military personnel loyal to some VIPs would allow some cargo to sneak through the system using military might and presidential influence.
The published report indicated that Major Mustapha Jokolo who was the ADC to President Buhari drove into the VIP section of the airport and forcefully prevented the customs officers on duty from checking the 53 suitcases. In a major twist to the scandal, a first class Northern king, the Emir of Gwandu who also happens to be the father of Major Jokolo, was allegedly the owner of the 53 suitcases.
“You go and ask him (Atiku) for details. I was in Dodan Barrack as Head of State then. I know my head of protocol, late Ambassador Dahiru, came back from Saudi Arabia together with his three wives and about 15 children. Each had their luggage and his hand bag was also counted as one person’s luggage. The other details I cannot speak because I wasn’t there when the incident happened.” – Buhari
This account further elucidates the complicity and possible collusion of top government officials in the scandal. The timing of the itinerary of Ambassador Dahuru who was to resume as General Buhari’s Head of Protocol, coinciding with the Emir of Gwandu’s arrival while the Emir’s son, the President’s ADC escorts them out of the airport unchecked, appears too strategic to not be suspicious of.
For Atiku, while commenting in like manner on the matter, and as written in his biography by the same Adinoyi-Ojo, he claimed that he was only the supervising officer for the Murtala Muhammed International Airport and only got wind of the matter when he saw it in the newspapers on June 10, 1984. Atiku further said that on learning about the scandal, the first thing he did was to check the Customs station diary at the airport for the said date only to discover the customs officers on duty were really prevented from inspecting the cargo.
Due to the media backlash on the matter, created just about 6 months into the junta of General Buhari after the coup of 1983, Atiku Abubakar almost lost his job as Assistant Comptroller of Customs before another top government official, Dr Onaolapo Soleye who was the Minister of Finance, saved him from being sacked.
As is usually the case in matters concerning top politicians as this, such scandal will always rear their ugly heads whenever one of the parties wants to use such scandals against their political opponents. Even though there were more implicating pieces of evidence which corroborated the complicity of top government officials as well as the oversight of then President Buhari on the matter, we may never know the perfect truth on the mystery of the 53 suitcases, 34 years later.
And this is why Nigerians sometimes tend to surrender some matters beyond their total understanding to God to solve such mysteries for them or keep it in store as an exhibit against criminal perpetrators until the day when judgement shall come.