The real-life, kinda-sorta antihero of Orange Is the New Black may be called to testify against a suspected Nigerian drug kingpin after all, depending on the outcome of a legal and political standoff that was still unresolved on Tuesday.
As detailed in the book that inspired the Netflix television show of the same name, Piper Kerman was slated to take the stand against Buruji Kashamu in Chicago federal court back in 1998. Kashamu was expected to be extradited imminently from Britain on the same indictment that so famously landed Kerman, her former lover, and a dozen others behind bars.
At least two cooperating witnesses had identified Kashamu as “Alaji,” as they knew the alleged boss of this international heroin ring. And Kashamu was found to be carrying $230,000 in cash when he stepped off a plane from Nigeria into the awaiting arms of British authorities.
But at two successive extradition proceedings, the accused kingpin argued that the real Alaji was a younger brother named Adewale Kashamu, who supposedly looks strikingly like him.
Buruji Kashamu further argued that he had himself been an informant, even providing information against his own brother.
“When I found out about these illicit drug activities, I made a complaint to law enforcement agencies in Benin and Nigeria,” Baruji Kashamu later said in an affidavit.
A defense lawyer submitted letters supposedly from Nigeria’s National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) confirming that Kashamu had indeed supplied the agency with information “which led to successful interdiction, arrest and prosecution of drug traffickers.”
On hearing this, the NDLEA informed the narcotics attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Lagos that the letters were “bogus…absolutely false.” The NDLEA further informed American authorities that Kashamu was making “baseless, fictitious and fallacious claims aimed at beclouding his culpability.”
“Mr. Buruji Kashamu is a notorious drug criminal who is still on the NDLEA wanted list,” the agency stated. “He has never been an informant. His claim that it is his brother who is wanted is absolutely false, since the said brother died before he [Buruji] became a known drug offender.”
The NDLEA further contended that the brother had been killed in 1989 “while attempting to run away from a Customs investigation for involvement in drugs.”
Lawyers for Buruji Kashamu then confronted the NDLEA with a valid Nigerian passport that had been issued to Adewale Kashamu in 1990, a year after the brother had supposedly been killed.
“Since passports are not issued to the dead, it becomes difficult to assert our earlier conclusion that Adewale Kashamu died in the custody of the Nigerian Customs Service,” the NDLEA was forced to admit.
Along with the resurrection of the brother by Nigerian authorities came a revelation that American prosecutors had chosen not to inform the British that a co-defendant had failed to identify Baruji Kashamu as Alaji in a photo lineup. The American prosecutors took the position that “the extradition treaty between the United Kingdom and the United States did not require that such disclosures be made.”
With the same photo array, the Americans had been able to obtain two seemingly definite identifications, one by the woman who was apparently Kerman’s real-life former lover as well as a co-defendant, Catherine Cleary Wolters. The other was by Cleary’s sister, Ellen “Hester” Wolters, also a co-defendant and said by prosecutors to have had a “romantic relationship” with Buruji Kashamu.
But the British court had been made so skeptical that it suggested the sisters may have simply been trying to get a good plea deal from the American prosecutors. The British court further suggested it was inclined to believe that Buruji Kashamu had indeed been an informant.
The extradition was denied and the Americans tried again, only to be denied once more in 2003. Kashamu was allowed to return to Nigeria, where he had already been a prominent businessman.
Kashamu further prospered, and his stature increased as he became a prime money man for the ruling political party. His lawyers described him as a “key facilitator of Nigeria’s current President Goodluck Jonathan’s initiative to reform the Nigerian government.” Kashamu bestowed upon himself the title of prince.
Prince Kashamu seemed all but untouchable, but he pursued a protracted legal campaign to have the indictment against him dropped on the same grounds that the British had cited in refusing to extradite him. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit declined.
“Our government had not presented enough evidence to convince the English magistrate that Kashamu was Alaji, but Kashamu had not presented enough evidence to convince the magistrate that he was not Alaji,” the court said.
The court scoffed at Kashamu’s further contention that the case should be dismissed because he was denied the right to a speedy trial.
“We’re not at all sure that the government even must try to extradite a fugitive to protect the right to a speedy trial,” the court said. “The government did try—made, in fact strenuous, protracted, albeit eventually futile efforts—to get Kashamu back to the United States.”
The court added, “It’s not as if he wants to be extradited...One of his co-defendants was sentenced to 10 years in prison. If Kashamu was indeed the ringleader of the drug conspiracy, as he may have been, he might if convicted be given an even heavier sentence—quite possibly a life sentence.”
The court let the indictment stand.
“If he wants to fight the charges, he has only to fly from Lagos to Chicago; there are loads of reasonably priced flights,” the court said. “See Priceline.com, ‘Cheap Flights from Lagos, Nigeria to Chicago, Il.’”
The court closed by asking, “How then can he argue with a straight face that the failure of the United States to extradite him entitles him to dismissal of the charges? He can’t.”
Actually, Kashamu could have been assured a free flight to Chicago if he had just gone along with the NDLEA agents who surrounded his residence on Saturday. His lawyers rushed to the high court, arguing that the agents had failed to produce an arrest warrant. The NDLEA replied that it was acting on a formal extradition request from the U.S. government.
The high court ordered the NDLEA to stand down pending a hearing. The NDLEA refused.
“The NDLEA has described as diversionary and inconsequential reports of a court order directing its men to vacate the residence of Senator-elect Buruji Kashamu,” an NDLEA spokesman said. “We are prepared to explore all legal means in handling this case to a logical conclusion. The Nigerian Government has received a formal request from the United States government for the extradition of Prince Buruji Kashamu. It also has a provisional warrant of arrest on him contrary to claims by his attorneys.”
That the NDLEA was at his residence at all was a measure of how much Teflon had peeled away from the storied Prince Kashamu since President Jonathan’s recent failure to win reelection at the end of March.
Yet, seemingly ever the survivor, Kashamu had been successful in his own bid to become a senator, though his opponent has contested the results. The opponent alleged that Kashamu engaged in cash-for-votes and that there had been no voting at all in three wards where Kashamu had been declared the winner.
Kashamu insisted it was all legit.
In April, Kashamu went to the Nigerian Human Rights Commission saying he was being targeted by what his petition termed “Abduction Plans by United States of America Agents in Collaboration with Law Enforcement Agencies in Nigeria.”
Kashamu suggested that he was facing a political plot orchestrated by one-time President Olusegun Obasanjo, with whom he is said to have had a falling out in 2012. Obasanjo was now supposedly scheming to have Kashamu kidnapped at his swearing-in as senator on May 29 and spirited aboard a private jet bound for the United States.
Kashamu further theorized that Obasanjo might enlist the help of the incoming president-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, who will be sworn in on the same day.
Of course, Kashamu did not let such worries stop him from attending a wedding reception for the daughter of a senior police official in mid-May. The local media noted that he “showed up in grand style…was full of life and was seen exchanging pleasantries with the bride’s father.”
The police have now been instructed by the high court to enforce its order for the NDLEA to quit Kashamu’s residence.
But the court also cautioned that this should be done without “a free for all.”
Should Kashamu again avoid extradition, he will remain under indictment in Chicago.
Should he be extradited, he will very likely go to trial and seek to convince an American jury that the real Alaji was his brother.
In the effort to prove him guilty, the prosecution could call to the stand not just Kerman but her former lover, who has written a book of her own, Out of Orange: A Memoir.
Neither could be reached for comment, and Kerman’s lawyer did not return a phone call. Nor did the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago.
Kerman’s Orange Is the New Black does not mention Kashamu by name, but it does say that at one point she was slated to testify against the kingpin she called Alaji.
“Shortly after I pleaded guilty, something surprising happened. Alaji, the West African drug kingpin, was arrested in London on a U.S. warrant,” Kerman recalls in her memoir. “Suddenly, my date with prison was postponed—indefinitely—while the United States tried to extradite him to stand trial. They wanted me in street clothes, not an orange jump suit, to testify against him.”
Then came more news.
“Ultimately, Britain declined to extradite the Kingpin Alaji to America and instead set him free,” she writes. “A little bit of Web research revealed that the man I knew as Alaji was a wealthy and powerful businessman-gangster in Africa and I could certainly imagine that he might have connections that could make pesky things like extradition treaties go away.”
Twenty-one years have passed since a co-defendant named Kary Hayes was caught at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport coming off a plane from Zurich with a suitcase containing 14 pounds of heroin.
“Hayes disclosed the identity of several co-conspirators, who named others, ultimately bringing down the entire conspiracy,” court papers attest.
All these years later, the government might finally succeed in putting the alleged kingpin on trial.