The history of Nigeria as a nation is full of tales of legendary criminals with daring exploits. This piece is about one of such notorious characters, a man so troublesome that politicians tapped into his violent energy to advance their devilish causes. This is the really shocking story of a 35-year-old man named Isiaka Busari aka Mighty Joe.
How did he start from a primary school pupil in the heart of Ilorin only to end up dispatched to an early grave by the bullets of angry soldiers in faraway Lagos? That is what I will be trying to unravel today and we will start from the very beginning of his life.
BIRTH AND GROWING UP
Mighty Joe was born in the heart of Lagos, in a house on Evans Street in 1938. His dad (who was dead by the time his son was executed) migrated from Ilorin in Kwara State and settled in Lagos in hope of a better life, like millions of other Nigerians. His mother, a struggling woman, gave birth to five children, but three died, leaving Mighty Joe and a sister who tried all she could to straighten the crooked ways of her doomed sibling. His mother never abandoned him and even when he was condemned to death, she would visit him several times.
Life for the guy was a tough one. While narrating his own story after he was sentenced to death by the firing squad, he said:
‘My father’s children were too many at school and his resources could not cope with our school fees. Therefore, he asked me to stop schooling after I had read Standard Four at Pakata School, Ilorin. After leaving school, I became interested in boxing at the Kakawa Boys Club. My mother did not like the idea, so she tried to stop me. My father too hated the idea, but I used to sneak out to do it.
A few times, I represented my Club in boxing competitions against other Clubs, such as Faji Boys Club and Olowogbowo Boys Club. In 1956, I decided to stop boxing. I wanted to work as a seaman. As this was not an easy job to get, I decided to be going into ships which come into Lagos harbour to buy things which I could sell for profits.’
Thus, he was into exchange of carvings, wrist watches and other items. But his life was to change radically when the time came for the federal elections.
THE LIFE OF A CRIMINAL
A look into the life of Mighty Joe is like flipping through the pages of a master gangster and a thug unleashed from the very depths of Hell. He was sheer terror unto Lagos. In one of his exploits in the Obalende area of Lagos one day, he accosted a charming lady at the bus stop. She was waiting for a bus only for her to be approached by Mighty Joe. In a brash tone, he demanded to date the girl. She ignored the unruly hooligan and like a bully that he was, Mighty Joe was enraged. He thundered:
‘Don’t you know me?’
The lady, now on the verge of being irritated, asked him:
‘Who are you?’
Confident in his burly ways, he blurted with pride:
‘I am Mighty Joe.’
Now full of contempt for him, wondering who the nasty creature was, the annoyed lady lashed out at him:
‘And so what?’
She would say no more. The next thing Mighty Joe did would make anyone shudder in revulsion. While disturbing the lady at the bus stop, he was smoking a cigarette. At that point when she asked ‘and so what’, he took the lighted cigarette he was smoking and plunged it into one of her eyes. The poor girl was blinded as she lost her sight in that eye forever. That was not all. She was not to be the only victim of Mighty Joe’s brutality and scant regard for humans and peace.
At another time in a separate incident, a girl travelled down from Benin where she was a student to Lagos to visit her elder sister. One day, while she was returning home in the evening with a relative, they were unfortunate enough to cross paths with Mighty Joe around the railway track at Idi Oro. Fascinated by the girl’s beauty, colourful dress and her seductive curves, Joe went for the girl, grabbed her and snarled:
‘Tell me why I should not take you straight to my place and go to bed with you.’
The stunned girl did not know him and like any other person, she was taken aback my such madness. She insulted Mighty Joe and all hell was let loose. He dragged the girl to his den for having the temerity to be rude to him. But as he was dragging the poor girl towards his criminal base, the victim’s sister and other people around intervened and made sure she was released from the claws of the monster. But Mighty Joe made sure he collected ransom money from her sister before releasing the screaming girl. She would have been raped by Mighty Joe for nothing.
Joe considered himself untouchable. In a lawless country, some policemen felt it was better to pacify and beg Mighty Joe than arrest him when frustrated citizens came to report him. He felt he was above the law. Some police officers simply refused to accost and arrest him. Mighty Joe had assaulted many courageous officers sent out to arrest him. He was perceived by many as an unassailable rock and he was very well-known to the police. Between 1956 and 1967 when the Nigerian Civil War started, Mighty Joe was jailed five times. But that did not stop him from unleashing terror once he was released.
THE MAN, MIGHTY JOE
The most intriguing thing about Mighty Joe was that although he would later be killed for being an armed robber, he never considered himself to be a thief. In fact, he deeply loathed being called a thief. After perusing historical records, I believe it will be more accurate to describe Mighty Joe as a versatile thug, a colourful combination of a bandit, area boy, bully and a pickpocket. Shortly before he was executed, he insisted he was not a thief and told the journalist interviewing him:
‘I am not all that educated, but I am knowledgeable and civilized enough to know that in Nigeria today, anyone who robs with violence will be killed in public. Even when armed robbery was not punishable by death, but by imprisonment, I did not rob. When I have come to a stage when I was able to make two ends meet and start raising a family, how could I rob and want to lose my life and everything?’
Despite his pleas for innocence, some reporters dismissed the handsome Mighty Joe as one of the cruelest criminals to have ever walked the Nigerian soil. They pointed to a series of his violent acts as criminality as the most visible evidence of his atrocities. Mighty Joe was depicted as the most merciless creature in the country. 1973 Nigeria was in the firm grips of military rulers, with the government headed by the charismatic General Yakubu Gowon.
It should be noted that what was considered the major difference between notorious armed robber Ishola Oyenusi aka Dr. Rob-and-Kill who was also executed publicly and Mighty Joe was that Oyenusi made robbery his fulltime profession and never mixed ‘sex with business’. Unlike Joe, Oyenusi also made sure he avoided pointless street fights. Joe was not a professional robber. He took more joy in beating up everyone, including police officers. He enjoyed and craved the company of beautiful ladies and even considered himself to be a playboy rather than the thug or bandit he is viewed as. He said with a strange tinge of pride that all his prison sentences were either for fighting or injuring people.
BECOMING A POLITICAL THUG AND BRUSHES WITH THE LAW
Nigerian politicians have been actively involved in destroying the lives of hopeless Nigerian youths and the case of Mighty Joe is a very instructive illustration. It is quite disturbing that this menace is still in full swing today and as another election year is approaching, some Nigerian youths are already preparing to die for politicians who will never care about them or their corpses. So how did Mighty Joe mutate from a petty trader in the Lagos harbour into a terrorist political thug? He said in his own words:
‘One of the parties recruited me as a security officer. I was based in Lagos and was paid the equivalent of 40 Naira a week. It was our job to fight our counterparts in the rival parties who tried to disturb the public meetings of our own party. When the election was over, we lost our jobs with the parties and I went back to my job of buying things off seamen on ships.
In 1965, another political party which was a breakaway from my former party engaged my services for the purposes of the Parliamentary election of the same year. I was the party’s security officer on a salary of what was equal to 135 Naira a month. I was in charge of Lagos and Ibadan. The party allocated one Land Rover to me and my boys – about 100 of us.
Our job was to fight our counterparts in a certain rival political group whenever they tried to prevent our own party leaders from holding political campaigns and other meetings. Sometimes the other side would uproot our party flags and we had to retaliate.
My boys and I invaded the meeting of a rival party at a hotel in Idi Oro in retaliation for what the party’s boys did to our own side at a meeting held in a party’s leader’s house in Yaba. We fought the boys of the other side and prevented the rival party from holding their meeting. Their own security man fought me. I broke his arm.
One police officer came to arrest me afterwards. I was taken to court in Lagos. The magistrate refused to listen to my defence. He gave me four years imprisonment. That was the fifth time I went to prison, apart from the time when I was detained by the Army during the Nigerian crisis.
The first time I went to prison was in 1956. I often went to the Race Course (now Tafawa Balewa Square) to gamble with dice. The police started to harass us and soon, we could no longer operate there. So we decided to shift our base to the residence of the ‘boatman’, as we usually call the owner of the dice.
The boatman’s residence was at Olonode Street, Yaba. One day, I won all the money staked by the boatman, about 30 Naira. At his request, I raised him 4 Naira to try his luck. He lost it to me again. Then he brought his shoes and pawned them for 6 Naira. I won the 6 Naira from him. I then decided that it was enough for the day and I left to return to my own house. I was still in his neighborhood when he came with some of his friends. They tried to take the shoes from me. I refused to return them. We fought and the police came and arrested all of us. The boatman and his friends alleged that I stole the shoes. I tried to explain what led to my possession of the shoes, but the police refused to accept my explanation. I was charged to court for stealing.
At this time, my father who was then a butcher at Apapa, was on a tour of the north. My mother was at Ilorin. There was nobody to help me out of trouble. I was ashamed even to send for anybody to come to my rescue. I had no lawyer and I was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment.
On my first day in prison, my fellow prisoners asked me why I was jailed and I told them. I was then put in a cell for fighters and taken from the cell for thieves. We used to cut grass and carry nightsoil. One day I ran into luck through a warder. He liked me and he asked why I was in jail. I told him my story which he checked from my records. He then assigned me to kitchen work. I preferred that although it was a tough job.
I used to wake up at two o’clock in the night and work until 10 p.m. But as for food, it was no longer my problem. I was in the same cell with a well-known boxer who used to coach me at the Kakawa Boy’s Club.
I also went in prison again in 1964 for two years for assaulting a police officer. On the day of the incident, I went to the Old King George V Stadium to watch a football match. The stadium was overflowing with people. I went there with my wife and we sat at the popular side. One man who brought his own chair from his house begged me to watch over the chair while he went to ease himself and I agreed to do so. Before the man came back, a senior police officer came and sat on the chair. He was not in police uniform. I told him the owner of the chair would soon be back. He ignored me. When the owner of the chair returned, he asked the intruder to vacate the chair, but the police officer sat tight.
The man then pulled the chair from under the police officer. The latter stood up and slapped the poor man. The man tried to retaliate but before he could do so, some policemen who had seen what was happening rushed in and started to beat up the poor man.
I could not resist coming to the man’s aid. I jumped into the midst of the policemen and asked them to stop beating the innocent man. I stopped the assault on the man and in annoyance the police officer shouted at me: Mighty Joe, this is not your business. I replied that it was.
Then the police constables present started to beat me. I fought them. The member kept increasing and they became too many for me to handle. So I decided to escape. But as I was trying to do so through the gate adjacent to the swimming pool, I ran into another police officer who grabbed me.
I was taken to the Central Police Station where the police officer who started it all was the Officer-in-Charge (OIC). My people came to beg the man but he refused to let me go. He charged me to court for assault. I got two years for that.
-FIGHTING OVER A PROSTITUTE
Mighty Joe continued:
My first jail term resulted from a fight with one Stephen – over a girl, a prostitute. I brought the girl to the hotel, but when I went to the toilet, Stephen – he tried to snatch the girl. Because I was a tough man, a boxer, people around, instead of stopping us from fighting, spurred us on so that they would see who was the greater fighter. They made a sort of ring for the two of us. We fought for about half-an-hour. Eventually, I gave him a blow and he collapsed and lay flat on the tarred road. As I was trying to run away, a policeman suddenly emerged and grabbed me. Some people thought that I had killed my opponent. But he later opened his eyes and stood up. When he saw the policeman, he took to his heels. The prostitute who was the bone of contention had also flown.’
Death can be such a horrible nightmare. Not even the most notorious street thug in Nigeria’s history could face it with joy. After Mighty Joe was sentenced to death by the firing squad after being declared guilty of robbery over N10, he became very sober. He was charged with robbing a hotel attendant named Michael Osayunana of the said amount. While in prison, he converted to Islam and started offering his daily prayers. He hoped his new faith in Allah was going to save him from the ruthless executioners’ bullets. He was dead wrong.
On the day of his execution, he was taken to Bar Beach with six trucks of armed men. To be executed with him was his accomplice, a retired soldier named Bashiru Fatola.
Excited Nigerians and motorists trooped to the execution ground. People were actually excited to view the gory drama. See their photos below:
The crowd erupted in cheers and shouts of joy as the doomed convicts were dragged to their deaths. The almighty Joe had fallen from the grace of terror, he was wearing white short-sleeved shirt and brown trousers while Fatola was wearing a yellow, flowing dress.
In a matter of minutes, Mighty Joe was properly tied to the stakes and he let out his final words:
‘May God bless everybody, both my friends and enemies. Tell my wife, my mother and my in-law to keep fit.’
Seconds after, his body was wriggling, submitting itself to the overpowering force of the torrent of bullets. He went limp and that was the end of his mortal existence. Mighty Joe was gone.
Some people believe that Mighty Joe was killed on trumped-up charges. Some even believe that he was not even an armed robber but a common street thug (what we now call an Area Boy) who was killed to clear the path for some. Such people claim that the Daily Times was partly owned by the Federal Government and the wealthy Alakija family of Mushin. Mighty Joe was said to have had a tussle with one of these prominent families who then set him up and ensure he was executed. For some, especially, those who grew up in his neighbourhood in the era of Mighty Joe, he is still regarded as a legend of sorts.
LIMITED OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE NIGERIAN YOUTH
I could not stop thinking that Mighty Joe was just one of the numerous reflections of the failure that is the dysfunctional Nigerian society. Today, millions of Nigerian youths are trapped in the same desperate conditions. Like Joe, hordes of Nigerian youths are not educated and even those who were able to get some education cannot find jobs to do. Joe wanted to be a seaman (he could have made a fantastic boxer as well) but many factors militated against his destiny. Politicians exploit these weaknesses and this way, many Nigerian youths have been sent plunging to violent deaths working as tools of destruction for the politicians who created the problems in the first place. Nigerian youths need to come together, form associations, refuse to be tools in the hands of selfish politicians, stop being foolish zombies and work together to chart a future for themselves by combating the same problems they all face.
NB: I am dedicating this piece to one of my biggest supporters, role model, pillar of inspiration, political analyst, social commentator and a medical doctor with a difference, MICHAEL ‘DRBIGGIE’ ADEYEMI. Sir, I hope to make you proud one day!
THANKS FOR YOUR TIME.