By EMMANUEL AZIKEN, Political Editor & TINA AKANNAM
LAGOS – ECHOES of the 53 suitcases saga of 1984 resounded as an issue in the 2011 presidential campaign, yesterday, with major actors accusing and denying allegations of culpability.
The Congress for Progressive Change, CPC, presidential candidate, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, under whose regime as Head of State the suitcases were stowed away from Customs check, told newsmen at a campaign stop in Dutse, Jigawa State, that erstwhile Peoples Democratic Party, PDP presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar, was in the best position to explain the issue.
While Atiku in a riposte acquitted himself and blamed “rude and crude” soldiers from Buhari’s headquarters for the slip, the Buhari/Bakare campaign in another statement queried the intentions of the PDP in raising the issue when it alleged that the PDP government was itself rocked with scandals.
The PDP presidential campaign council had at the weekend cited the 53 suitcases saga as evidence of what it claimed as Buhari’s imperfection.
Depletion of foreign reserves
The CPC challenged the PDP to, among others, explain the depletion of the foreign reserve by $30 billion, the award of the Abuja airport runway at a price of N64 billion among other allegations on malfeasances by the present administration.
The 53 suitcases saga arose in 1984 during the currency change exercise ordered by the Buhari junta when it ordered that every case arriving the country should be inspected irrespective of the status of the person behind such.
The 53 suitcases were, however, ferried through the Murtala Muhammed Airport without Customs check by soldiers allegedly at the behest of Major Mustapha Jokolo, the then Aide-de-Camp, ADC, to Gen. Buhari. Atiku was at that time the Area Comptroller of Customs in charge of the Murtala Muhammed Airport.
Responding to enquiries from newsmen on the issue during a campaign stop in Dutse, shortly before a courtesy call on Governor Sule Lamido, Buhari said that Atiku was in the best position to speak on the issue because he was in-charge of the Airport Customs.
He said: “You go and ask him 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.”
Responding, yesterday, Atiku said the issue was well documented in his authorized biography, “Atiku: The Story of Atiku Abubakar” written by Onukaba Adiniyi-Ojo who was at that time The Guardian aviation correspondent and now a top aide of the former Vice-President.
Speaking through his spokesman, Garba Shehu, he said: “In his own account (Adiniyi-Ojo’s) the story is how big men and women consider the observance of laid down procedure as something that is belittling. Soldiers who came to pick the suitcases were rude and crude and threatened Customs officers who had insisted on inspecting the suitcases.”
Details on the 53 suitcases
Buhari’s spokesman, Mr. Yinka Odumakin, in another statement giving further details on how the 53 suitcases were ferried into the country said: “In 1984, the Emir of Gwandu whose son was ADC to General Buhari was returning to the country from overseas.
The Head of State on learning of his arrival asked his son to go and receive him at the airport as they were only playing squash at the time.
“Coincidentally, the Nigerian ambassador to Libya at the time, Dr. Tahir Waziri, arrived at the same time with the Emir with his three wives and 16 children.
They all came with their belongings as he was coming home to take up a new appointment as chief of protocol to the Head of State. It was the suitcases of the family of 20 that were counted as belonging to the Emir and falsely presented to the public.
“General Buhari has, over the years, asked those who have questions over the matter to go to Alhaji Atiku Abubakar who was at the head of Customs operations at the airport on the day. Now we are further suggesting this as a research topic for a doctoral thesis by the President when he hands over on May 29, 2011.”
Repeated efforts to get a response from the Jonathan campaign team on the issues were not successful yesterday.