Nigeria in the 1970s is not the same country we have today. For a nation that had just emerged from one of the bloodiest civil wars in Africa and ruled by army generals who preferred to settle quarrels with hot, smoking bullets, it should be understandable that the criminal system then was a lot more violent. The civil war might have just ended but the proliferation of weapons in a damaged economy meant more people turned to armed robbery.
For the first time in Nigeria’s history, armed robbery and other forms of violent crimes went up dramatically and the military rulers decided to take very drastic measures against it. Prior to 1971, Nigeria had never had any public execution but the military dictators, in their trademark manner, would soon unleash another bloody chapter in the nation’s history, a chapter so horrific that they successfully entrenched themselves with fear in the psyche of Nigerians, something a lot of people are yet to get over.
A handsome and fashionable man, Mr. Babatunde Folorunsho, was one of the most wanted criminals in the country. A highway armed robber and jailbreaker, the police got so fed up of him they branded him a ‘habitual criminal’. Folorunsho was reported to be an incorrigible criminal and he continued his nefarious ways until his cup was overflowing.
In 1971, Folorunsho was caught with others. He was charged with robbing one Mr. Alfred Marshall of a motor car with arms. In his judgment of April 8 and 13, 1971, the trial judge, Mr. Ojomo, found them guilty and sentenced them to death by the firing squad. The crime then was called highway robber. And so the fateful day came in July 1971, the venue of execution was the famous Bar Beach in Lagos, flanking the Atlantic Ocean.
On his last day on earth, Folorunsho ruled the news waves once again by wearing an expensive lace (his nickname actually was Mr. Lace) fabric to the venue of his execution. It was a hot afternoon and the time was 1:30, Nigerians had trooped to the beach to witness what was going to be the very first public execution in the most populous black nation in the world. Three people were going to be executed by the firing squad.
There was obvious excitement in the crowd that had gathered and the noise of anxiety was everywhere. That was the first time and strangely, the crowd did not have a single atom of pity for the condemned, virtually everyone felt they deserved the deadly punishment. The first of the condemned to be dragged forward was Babatunde Folorounsho. His hands were handcuffed and his legs were in chains so he walked with a shuffle but his gait was steady. With thousands of Nigerian eyes piercing his skin, Folorunsho simply stared into space with shame and disappointment written all over his sober face. He did not say a word.
The next person to be brought to the execution spot was Joseph Ilobo but unlike Folorunsho, Ilobo was not going to keep quiet. When he gazed upon the massive crowd that had gathered anxiously to watch him die, he shouted:
‘Are all these people here to see me die? Ah! This is a wicked world….I have not committed any crime.’
His executioners were not impressed. They guided him to the stakes and tied him like a sacrificial offer. The next and the third person on the death list was Williams Alders Oyazimo. He was a sub-lieutenant in the Nigerian Navy and his passionate cries of innocence still haunt many till today. He had a bushy beard and as he approached his sure death, he protested till the last moment. Oyazimo’s final words were:
‘Father, I am innocent. My blood will cleanse my family and my children will prosper.’
The soldiers aimed and the bullets flew, crashing into their bodies. In seconds, they went limp. But one interesting thing is that Oyazimo might have actually being innocent and killed wrongly. According to Maurice Asielue, the child of a former deputy-inspector general of the police, he said in 2012:
‘Oyazimo’s execution was a travesty of justice. The evidence against him was so flimsy. I remember as a young 6-7 year old listening to my Dad and then a police DSP (who later rose to become DIG of Police), the injustice of the case’. I have since been told that he was killed due to some personal issues he had with some other officers. I will actually look for the case records and review this case myself. ‘
Therefore, it is actually possible that Oyazimo was a victim of gross injustice. Ilobo was 26 and Folorunsho was reportedly 23.
As a result of the fact that the executions were published and widely broadcast by the print and electronic media, it destroyed the psyche of millions of Nigerians. Lives had become cheap and even children were not spared the most savage displays of bloodshed. Nigerians still suffer from the hangover of the execution done in 1971. Years after the killings, successive military dictators kept on executing criminals or those they termed enemies of the state. With time, Nigerians had an institutionalized mindset that violence can be used to sort out violent criminals. Today, we see even unarmed Nigerians mobbing suspected thieves, kidnappers and other criminals to death, many of whom were later found to be innocent.
If the goal of the government then was to discourage violent crimes by public executions, it is doubtful if that method has worked. This is because the armed robbers in Nigeria of today will make Babatunde Folorunsho, Lawrence Anini, Monday Osunbor, Shina Rambo and their ilk look like kindergarten pupils. Armed robbers today use the most sophisticated weapons and even outgun the police or military in some cases. Rather than discourage violent crimes, public executions only damaged the mental fabric of the Nigerian society while simultaneously failing to curb the spate of violent crimes over time. It is hoped that an urgent and effective reform of the Nigerian legal and judicial system is carried out. It is long overdue.
THANKS FOR YOUR TIME.
- Olu Adetule, Death In The Afternoon Sun, Drum, July 1971.
- Security, Crime and Segregation in West African Cities Since the 19th Century by Laurent Fourchard and Isaac Olawale Albert, pages 133, 134.
- Babcock Journal of Management and Social Sciences: BJMASS, Volumes 3-5, Faculty of Management and Social Sciences, Babcock University, 2004, page 109.
- Maurice Asielue/Nigerian Nostalgia Project https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=497460160796&set=gm.284268324947290&type=3&theater
- Nigeria’s Book of Firsts: A Handbook on Pioneer Nigerian Citizens, Institutions and Events by N. Nik Onyechi, Nigeriana Publications, 1989, page 270.
- NAYOU: Abacha Administration’s Initiative for the Development, Participation, Empowerment of the Nigerian Youth, Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports, 1995, page 16.
- ThisWeek, Volume 3, 1987.