1971: Ishola Oyenusi, smiling to his death

Add comment September 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1971, the Nigerian robber Ishola Oyenusi — “smil[ing] to his death,” in the words of the next day’s paper — was publicly shot with his gang at Lagos Bar Beach.

Dubbed “the most dangerous criminal of this decade” even though the Seventies were barely underway “Doctor” Oyenusi — as he liked to style himself — sprang out of the wreckage of the 1967-1970 Nigerian Civil War, a charismatic, cocksure gangster whose lordly disdain for the law cast the terrifying portent of social breakdown.

Beyond Oyenusi loomed a systematic breakdown in social order that would long outlive him. In years to come, other celebrity crime lords would follow him; eventually, armed robbery would proliferate into a frightfully ubiquitous feature of life in Lagos. Maybe the Doctor smiled at the stake because he foresaw his legacy.

Disturbingly unable to combat the plague systematically, authorities would resort to occasional high-profile executions instead, provided, of course, that the culprit’s misappropriations were of the retail street-crime variety, rather than the fruits of wholesale corruption.

Oyenusi was never in the same universe with such exalted impunity. He got into the robbery business back in 1959, boosting a car (and murdering its owner into the bargain) to make it rain for his broke girlfriend. While he eventually expanded his operations into a brutal syndicate, he was still just a hoodlum; the infamy that packed the Bar Beach with 30,000 fellow humans who booed and jeered Oyenusi to the stake was merely enough to make him worth the quashing. (He was condemned to death specifically for a raid on the WAHUM factory in March 1971 that also claimed the life of a police constable.)

Six members of Oyenusi’s crime ring went with him to the stake on the same occasion. An eighth man was also shot in the batch for an unrelated armed carjacking.

There is a 1977 film by Nigerian director Eddie Ugbomah based on this flamboyant gangster’s life, The Rise and Fall of Dr. Oyenusi.

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1995: 43 armed robbers

Add comment July 22nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1995, Nigeria’s military dictatorship struck a bloody blow against the country’s surging crime waves with a mass execution of 43 prisoners at Kirikiri prison in Lagos.

Soldiers dressed in camouflage and with black shoe polish on their faces fired semi-automatic weapons to execute the convicts who were tied to stakes in three groups of 12 and one of seven.

The executions, which lasted 90 minutes, were witnessed by three doctors, who certified the deaths, an Irish Roman Catholic priest and a Muslim imam. (Reuters report, in the July 23, 1995 Los Angeles Times)

Armed robbery had since the 1970s been the most feared and high-profile genre of a crime surge that seemed all but impervious to remedies. Organized into aggressive syndicates stealing on an industrial scale, robbers grew so numerous and brazen that they plundered the personal home of the Vice President in 1983; another band raided currency exchange offices at the Lagos airport in 1993. For everyday citizens, the terror of home invasion, often accompanied by rape or gratuitous murder, horribly taxed material and psychological resources. A 1985 Nigerian Herald article (via) reported that

Lagosians now live behind bars, in houses caged with tough iron rods. In such homes, it takes occupants 20 to 30 minutes to get through the barricades each time they want to go out or get in. Driving in Lagos as well is done in a style intended to avoid interception by armed robbers. The basic rule is that no driver allows the vehicle behind him to catch up with his and overtaking at the wrong side of the lane by another motorist is avoided at the risk of death. In Lagos, people live in such terrible fear of armed robbers that those who are not attacked as each day passes regard themselves as fortunate.

The death penalty was decreed for armed robbery in 1970, revoked in 1980, re-introduced in 1983. In the late 1980s, Nigeria tried check points, road blocks, increased police patrols — nothing stemmed the tide.

This date’s demonstrative mass execution made the news, for sure. But it didn’t exactly do the trick either.

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1976: Lt. Col. Bukar Dimka and six coup confederates

Add comment May 15th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1976, Nigeria executed the leading spirit of an abortive Nigerian coup was shot for the “abortive” part of that coup.

That February 13, Bukar Dimka had taken to the airwaves to announce the assassination of Nigeria’s incumbent military strongman, Murtala Mohammed.*

Good morning fellow Nigerians.

This is Lt. Colonel B. Dimka of the Nigerian Army calling. I bring you good tidings. Murtala Muhammed’s deficiency has been detected. His government is now overthrown by the young revolutionaries. All the 19 military governors have no powers over the states they now govern. The states affairs will be run by military brigade commanders until further notice.

Any acts of looting or raids will be death. Everyone should be calm. Please stay by your radio for further announcements. All borders, air and sea ports are closed until futher notice. Curfew is imposed from 6am to 6pm. Thank you. We are all together.

-From Romancing the Gun: The Press as Promoter of Military Rule

They were not all together.

Mohammed’s second-in-command, Olusegun Obasanjo, instantly quashed the putsch and served notice that assassinating the head of state would not be welcome on his watch.**

A large body of coup conspirators were publicly executed within a month; the Nigerian Defense Minister was among them.

Dimka himself managed to remain at large for most of that month, so he wasn’t among that crop. Instead, Obasanjo had the pleasure of announcing Dimka’s execution separately, along with that of

a former state governor, Joseph Gomwalk … “two of the principal actors” in the coup.

-New York Times, May 16, 1976

The coup was thought to have aimed at restoring the guy Mohammed deposed, Yakubu Gowon, who was luckily in exile in England and therefore escaped a similarly grim fate.

Years later, he received an official pardon; Gowon is still alive, one of Nigeria’s elder political statesmen.

* When next in Lagos to transfer several million in oil wealth from a secret bank account, be sure to visit Mohammed’s bullet-ridden Mercedes.

** Obasanjo handed power to a democratic government in 1979; that government was itself later toppled by the military, but Obasanjo eventually served as Nigeria’s elected president from 1999 to 2007.

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1846: The last civil executions in Portugal

5 comments April 22nd, 2010 Headsman

Portugal has not carried out a civil (non-military, non-wartime) execution since hanging two murderers on this date in 1846.*

Despite some impressively sanguinary exercises of capital punishment in its history, the Iberian nation has been in the European vanguard of death penalty abolition.

Writing on what turned out to be the eve of Portugal’s landmark 1867 renunciation of the death penalty for criminal offenses, the 1866 report of Britain’s capital punishment commission observed:

The last execution which took place was at Lagos, on the 22nd of April 1846. And it is right to state also, that ever since the definitive re-establishment of a liberal government in this country, capital punishments have never been very numerous. Thus during the 13 years which elapsed between 1833 and 1846, inclusive, out of 99 culprits condemned to death there were only 32 executed, and the sentences of the remaining 67 were commuted.

[Portugal] is, then, the only [country] in Europe in which the punishment of death has been for the last 18 years de facto suppressed. Public opinion has gone before the law: and the law, in effacing this punishment from its provisions, far from being in anticipation of society, will not do more than give its sanction to a fact which has long been accepted by general feeling, and which at the present day it would be difficult to contravene. Even if the punishment of death were to remain inserted in the text of our penal legislation, I think I may with safety affirm it would be impossible to meet with a Minister of Justice who would venture to recommend the King to withhold the exercise of the Royal prerogative of pardon, and who would have the heart to order the timbers of a new scaffold to be again erected on the soil of Portugal.

Despite an abortive feint at backsliding during World War I, the popular sense of the issue does not seem to have changed much in the interim.

The tragedy of man, ‘a postponed dead body’ as Fernando Pessoa said, does not need an untimely exit from the stage. It is tense enough without an end that is artificial and planned by butchers, megalomaniacs, potentates, racisms, and orthodoxies. Therefore, being human, we demand unequivocally that all peoples should have a code of humanity. A code that for all citizens guarantees the right to die their own death.

-Portuguese writer Miguel Torga, at a 1967 colloquy marking the centennial of Portugal’s formal abolition of the death penalty for ordinary crimes.

* There are some scantily documented World War II treason executions; the death penalty was officially abolished for treason (the last capital crime on the books) in 1977.

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