On October 15, 1965, the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation building was heavily fortified. The Premier, Chief Ladoke Akintola, was scheduled to address the Region. It was a quarter to 7pm. Akinwande Oshin, who led his crew of three into the newsroom, had two tapes containing the Premier’s speech in both Yoruba and English languages.
Just as Oshin was about to slot in the first tape, a bearded man appeared at the door, as if from nowhere, produced a gun and held it to Oshin’s head. The gunman demanded that the technician handed over the tapes which he was holding. Oshin quietly handed over the tapes to the bearded gunman who appeared very desperate, while the other three men in the cubicle watched the drama with apparent disbelief.
But the gunman was not done yet. He handed a tape over to Oshin and with his gun focused on the radio man’s head, he ordered him to play it. Oshin looked at the gun, looked at the gunman’s face. He read determination and desperation in the cold eyes. He slotted the gunman’s tape in, and played it.
The gunman listened to part of the contents, and quietly disappeared as mysteriously as he had come.
At his residence, the Premier listened in shock! Instead of his singsong voice addressing the people of the Region, what assaulted his ears was a booming voice: Akintola Go!
Pandemonium broke out. Oshin fled the studio. All over the region, the question was the same: Who was the mystery gunman? Could it have been a ghost sent by Awolowo from the prison?
Police arrested Oshin and charged him with stealing the Premier’s tapes. He was remanded in custody without bail. The IPO was however not satisfied. He listened to the grapevines and he spread his tentacles. He gathered sufficient information. A single name kept recurring like a decimal point. WOLE SOYINKA.
Wole Soyinka’s arrest was as dramatic as his profession as a dramatist. He phoned the IPO that he heard he had been declared wanted. “Mr. Soyinka, where are you speaking from?” Superintendent Ugowe asked with bated breath. “From my house, of course. Where else? If you will be good enough to collect me from my house, it is in Molete.”
The police car sped off, siren blaring. Ugowe was almost left behind by his team. On getting to Molete, Wole Soyinka was nowhere to be found. Disappointed and deflated, they went back to the station where they met Wole Soyinka waiting for them calmly.
On his first appearance court, the trial judge observed that the accused appeared disheveled. He sported thick bushy hair. He had a goatee beard and the French suit he wore could have done with a bit of dry cleaning.
The Prosecution was led by the DPP himself, T. A. B Oki (World War veteran and later Senior Advocate) and his deputy, Thomas Gomez (later Mr. Justice Gomez).
On the defence side was a crop of young and vibrant lawyers: Oladele Ige, his brother, Bola Ige (later Oyo State Governor; Minister of Power & Steel and Attorney General of the Federation); Olajide Olatawura (later Justice of the Supreme Court; Omotayo Onalaja (later Justice of the Court of Appeal); and Moronfolu Olakunrin (later Senior Advocate). The team was later to be led by Michael Odesanya (later Mr. Justice Odesanya of the High Court of Lagos State).
The trial was fought both in Court and off Court. Whilst counsel exchanged legal brickbats in the court room, political gladiators piled pressures on the young trial judge.
One day, His Lordship was called by the Secretary to the Government, Chief Ejiwunmi who hinted him that the ‘authorities’ were not happy with his seeming arrogance and independence. After confirming that the ‘authorities’ referred to the Premier, His Lordship demanded to meet with him having made up his mind to tell “the Premier, who was a lawyer, the importance of a judge taking an independence stance” if the oath of office was to be meaningful.
On getting to the Premier’s Lodge, the unexpected happened. On being informed by Chief Ejiwunmi that the trial judge was around, the Premier swiftly came straight to the car and went to the passenger side where the judge sat, effectively blocking the door. In his famous aphidian voice, the Premier spoke in his characteristically flawless Yoruba:
“ Ha! Seye (Chief Ejiwunmi), So you have brought such a dignitary here; May God assist you (the judge) in this assignment; We have always known that you are on our side; We have never doubted this, nor believed the contrary story that had drifted into our ears; God will help you with the assignment.” With that the Premier left without allowing His Lordship to utter a word in response.
Let’s get back to the courtroom.
Wole Soyinka’s defence was that he was not the gunman. He stated in his defence that he was in Enugu as a guest of one Okwonah of the Eastern Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation. The Prosecution called as one of its witnesses, Soyinka’s Head of Department who testified that he attended a departmental meeting where Soyinka was present at 5pm that same day in Ibadan!
Extremely happy, the Prosecutor asked the final question, his master-stroke: “Describe his appearance”. He requested. “He was clean shaven!” came the response from Professor Axworthy! Knowing that he had damaged his case, the prosecutor sat down. Mr. Odesanya, as an experienced advocate, giggled and refused to cross-examine the professor.
In his judgment, His Lordship dealt a crushing blow to the alibi of the accused person. On the strength of the evidence of Professor Axworthy, the judge found that it was a fiction that Soyinka was in Enugu on October 15.
His Lordship went on: “All the eye-witnesses, including Oshin, were positive that the man who held them up was not masked. The gunman, they all said, was bearded. Professor Axworthy told the court, and it was the DPP who led him to give this evidence, that ‘Wole Soyinka, whom he saw two hours earlier, was clean-shaven’. While I can understand a bearded man at 5pm in the evening becoming clean shaven at 7pm, I cannot unravel the mystery of a clean shaven man at 5pm becoming bearded at 7pm, except he is somehow masked. And the overwhelming evidence placed before the court by the prosecution itself, was that the gunman was not masked…with this sharp contradiction in the evidence of the prosecution, I am bound to give the accused person the benefit of the doubt. I therefore found him not guilty and he is, accordingly, acquitted and discharged.”
Adapted from The Mystery Gunman by Justice Kayode Eso (Spectrum 1996)