Anytime the name General Sani Abacha is mentioned, it elicits some feelings among those who witnessed his draconian rule as Nigerian military dictator. Easily recognised and most times described by the tribal marks which conspicuously adorn his cheeks, the younger generation still struggle to connect with the name in the same way others might, but for clarity sake, this was the General who had Nigeria in his iron-clad grip as military head of state from November 17, 1993 to June 8, 1998.
Born on September 20, 1943, he was originally of the Kanuri tribe in Borno state but was brought up in Kano state. From 1957 to 1962 he was a student, first in the City Senior Primary School of Kano and then in the Provincial Secondary School, later renamed Government College.
Thereafter, he attended the Nigerian Military Training College and Mons Officer Cadet School before being commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in 1963 in Aldershot, England and that marked the beginning of his military career. Reports have it that he distinguished himself in his career as an accomplished and successful coup plotter.
When he was 2nd lieutenant with the 3rd Battalion in Kaduna, he was said to have taken part in the July 1966 Nigerian counter-coup, and even rumoured to have been a participant in the Lagos or Abeokuta phases of the coup the previous January.
We gathered that he was also very instrumental in the 1983 Nigerian coup and even made the announcement which brought General Muhammadu Buhari to power in 1983, and still made the announcement of the August 1985 coup which removed Buhari from power.
After Buhari was overthrown in a palace on August 27, 1985, it was Abacha that announced the chief of army staff, Major-Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, as the new military president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces in an evening broadcast. Abacha was named chief of army staff and later appointed minister of defense in 1990 following his attainment of the rank of a full star General without skipping a single rank in the Nigerian army.
Those who were close to him described him as a man of few words but dangerous in actions and deeds. This he actually demonstrated when he became military head of state having overthrown the transitional government of Chief Ernest Shonekan. Officially, he did not overthrow the interim national government in 1993.
The head of government, Chief Ernest Shonekan, resigned and Abacha, being the secretary of defense and the most senior member of government, took over. Unofficially, it was a bloodless coup. His ascension to the seat of the presidency made him the 10th Nigerian head of state. But among the military presidents, he was seventh.
His was described as one of the most brutal military presidents Nigeria has ever had. There was massive crackdown on the media, civil rights groups and pro-democracy campaigns. In September 1994, he issued a decree that placed his government above the jurisdiction of the courts, effectively giving him absolute power.
Another decree gave him the right to detain anyone for up to three months without trial. Abacha’s government was heavily criticized of human rights violations, especially after the hanging of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa; Moshood Abiola and Olusegun Obasanjo were jailed for treason, and Wole Soyinka charged in absentia with treason. Abacha’s regime was characterized by state-sponsored murder and assassination, and random imprisonment of people seen as critical of government.
Of course, many Nigerians of the time, hunted by the government worked in secret and sought exile abroad. Some of those who died either directly in the hands of the state or believed to have been murdered by the government beside Ken Saro-Wiwa were Shehu Yar’Adua and Kudirat Abiola, as well as those imprisoned including journalist Kunle Ajibade and others, are agreed to be undisputedly part of the heinous crimes Abacha’s regime had committed or have been accused of committing.
Despite the heavy oppositions by pro-democracy activists, he supported the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and sent Nigerian troops to Liberia and Sierra Leone to help restore democracy to those countries. Being one of those who stick to the one wife philosophy, he only married Maryam, also from Borno state, in 1965 and together they had six boys and three girls, nine children in all; with the last child Mustapha being born in Aso Rock in 1994 when Abacha was 50 and his wife 47. He left 15 grandchildren: eight girls and seven boys.
On the economic end, Nigeria attained unprecedented economic achievements with him, with an overwhelming increase in the country’s foreign exchange reserves from $494 million in 1993 to $9.6 billion by the middle of 1997, and a reduction of the external debt of Nigeria from $36 billion in 1993 to $27 billion by 1997. He halted all the controversial privatization programmes initiated by Babangida his predecessor and reduced the inflation rate from the 54 percent he inherited to 8.5 percent by 1998, while oil was sold at an average of $15 per barrel.
He increased fuel price just once in his four-and-a-half years in office and set up the Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund, which was widely acknowledged to have performed well in infrastructural development and intervention programmes in education, health and water.
It was under Abacha that Nigeria became a perpetual importer of petroleum products, as all the refineries packed up; a situation which is yet to be addressed almost two decades after his death. His regime was also marked for the importation of foul fuel which had an offensive odour and damaged car engines.
Despite all the economic feats achieved, Abacha and his family were still accused of heavily looting no less than £5 billion (N2.3 Trillion) from the national treasury, causing him to be listed in 2004 as the fourth most corrupt leaders in history, though most former Nigerian heads of state, including the current President, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, refuted the claims describing it as baseless and unfounded.
As recently as March 2014, the United States Department of Justice revealed that it had frozen more than $458 million believed to have been illegally obtained by Abacha and other corrupt officials.
Sometime in the last year of his rule, 1998, Abacha announced that elections would be held that August, with a view toward handing power to a civilian government on 1 October. But it became clear that he had no intention of allowing such as he had, by April, strong-armed the country’s five parties into endorsing him as the sole presidential candidate. As tense as the political atmosphere was, no oppositions were brought forward, as he had successfully clamped them down by then.
In June 1998, Abacha died while at the presidential villa and was buried on the same day, according to Muslim tradition. It was rumoured that he was in the company of two Indian prostitutes imported from Dubai, who laced his drink with a poisonous substance, making Abacha feel unwell around 4:30am and was taken dead at 6.15am. His death sent wide jubilation across the country as many Nigerians were happy that the dictator had died.
This was in contrast to the wide protest that erupted in the country, especially in the south west when MKO Abiola died. While speculation went wide that he was extra-judicially executed to end the political crisis, the government denied that claim, attributing his death to unexpected heart spell.
After Abacha’s death, Maj. Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, Nigeria’s chief of defense staff, was sworn in as the country’s head of state. Abubakar had never before held public office and was quick to announce a transition to democracy, which led to the election and swearing of President Olusegun Obasanjo on May 29, 1999. After Abacha’s death, the Obasanjo government implicated Abacha and his family in a wholesale looting of Nigeria’s coffers.
The late dictator’s son, Mohammed Abacha, continued to maintain that all the assets in question were legitimately acquired. In 2002, Abacha’s family purportedly agreed to return $1.2 billion that was taken from the central bank. On August 7, 2014, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) made a public announcement of the largest forfeiture in the DOJ’s history, the return of $480 million to the Nigerian government. Assistant Attorney General Caldwell noted: “Rather than serve his country, General Abacha used his public office in Nigeria to loot millions of dollars, engaging in brazen acts of kleptocracy.”
“With this judgment, we have forfeited $480 million in corruption proceeds that can be used for the benefit of the Nigerian people. Through the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division denies kleptocrats like Abacha the fruits of their crimes, and protects the U.S. financial system from money laundering.
In coordination with our partners in Jersey, France and the United Kingdom, we are helping to end this chapter of corruption and flagrant abuse of office.” In February 2014, during Nigeria’s centenary celebrations, when the Nigerian government honored Abacha post-humously for his immense contribution to the nation’s development, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka who was similarly honored by the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan criticized the honor bestowed on Abacha by rejecting the honor, describing it as the ‘canonization of terror’.
Soyinka further noted that by honoring Abacha, the government of Goodluck Jonathan had gathered “a century’s accumulated degeneracy in one pre-eminent symbol, then placed it on a podium for the nation to admire, emulate and even worship.” Even then, one can dare to say that Abacha was more feared than he was hated. If his economic achievements are anything to go by, can it safely be said that Nigeria needs another Abacha now?
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