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Friday, 9 June 2017

Abacha’s anniversary: How brutal dictator died unsung, Unmourned, shamefully

Even in death, General Abacha set hard to surpass records. He is the fourth head of state to die in office. The three others – Tafawa Balewa, Aguiyi Ironsi and Murtala Muhammed – were assassinated. The circumstances of his death, for a head of state, were most shameful. Even his burial was a shoddy affair as Reverend Mbang aptly noted: ‘he died unsung, unmourned, and was buried at ten o’clock in the night.’ It was anything but a state burial for a serving head of state. The Nigerian flag was nowhere in sight when his body was being transferred to the plane on the way to Kano.

During his five-year rule, he maximally expressed dictatorial powers, depriving fellow countrymen right to self-expression and he threatened, imprisoned, tortured and murdered anyone who challenged his authority. Nelson Mandela, then President of South Africa berated the government, describing him first as ‘an irresponsible fellow’ and later as a ‘corrupt military dictator in charge of an illegitimate and barbaric regime.’ Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth for the first time since independence, during Abacha’s regime.

Perhaps the most pervasive impulse in Abacha’s life and career was fear. All the dramatic turning points of his life – either as a young indigent recruit in 1962 or thirty one year later as a stupendously rich, immensely powerful head of state and armed forces – were fear driven. He was mortally afraid of real or implied domination, a fear which his relatively small physique and social and educational background did very little to help.


When Sani Abacha went for the Nigerian Army recruitment trials in 1962, he had little more than a humble ambition to wear an officer’s pop(s). by the time he died 36 years later, however, he had surpassed even the wildest of his childhood dreams.

Abacha came from a very humble background. He attended City Senior Primary School and Provincial Secondary School (now Government College) both in Kano. Between 1962 and 1963, he attended the Nigerian Military Training College, Kaduna and officers’ courses in the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Commissioned Second Lieutenant in 1963, Abacha had the singular distinction of being the only army officer who worked his way up the military rank without skipping a single one; and rising in the end to the highest rank, head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

His role was not well-defined in the crisis that led to the Civil War, as he was only a lieutenant in 1966 when the first military coup took place. But it is believed that Abacha was one of the many young officers of northern extraction who took exception to the lopsided nature of deaths in the Major Nzeogwu-led January 1966 coup and decided to launch a revenge coup six months later. That bloody counter-coup and the organized pogrom on the Igbo that followed accelerated the Igbo’s secession bid.

When the civil war broke out the following year, Abacha was promoted to captain and he led a platoon and then a battalion in the war. He was also Commander, Training Department of the 2 Infantry Division and before the end of the war, he was promoted to major. By 1972 Abacha had risen to Lieutenant-colonel. He later became Commander, 9 Mechanized Brigade where he earned his promotion as full colonel in 1975. Before then, he had been Commander, 2 Amphibious Brigade, Port Harcourt. Five years later, he was promoted to brigadier.

He held the rank when till December 31, 1983 when he announced the overthrown of the civilian government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari. His very graphic analysis of the problems besetting the nation struck the right chord in Nigerians. The association of his name with the disciplinarian, no-non sense ‘rescue team’ of Buhari-Idiagbon lent Abacha a measure of credibility in the public view. But he withdrew from the public glare to be General Officer Commanding 2 Mechanized Division Ibadan. He was promoted major-general in 1984 and a year later, he came again to sound the death knell of the regime of Major General Muhammed Buhari. General Ibrahim Babangida who took over as head of state appointed him Chief of Army Staff and into the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC).

These appointments launched Abacha into the political limelight. In 1986 when Babangida considered it necessary to shuffle out his ten dejure second-in-command, Commander Ebitu Ukiwe (an ‘uncompromising’ officer), Abacha lent himself to the government as the arrowhead. As a major general and army chief of staff, it can be said that from this point, Abacha’s vision of his ultimate role in the destiny of Nigeria crystallized. In 1987 he was moved up to the rank of lieutenant general. As Minister of Defence between 1990 and 1993, he underlined his approach to conflict resolution with his knee-jerk reactions to news of protest. He ordered that soldiers be sent into the streets to restore order when hundreds of people protested the annulment of the June 12 1993 Presidential elections.

In August 1993, the military president General Ibrahim Babangida was practically forced to ‘step aside’. On leaving, he left Abacha behind, ostensibly as a ‘stabilizing’ force in the Interim National Government (ING) which he created to take over governance in his forced retreat. Abacha held the position of Secretary of Defence in a unique arrangement suspected to have been tailored to suit the power-relay scheme: a scheme that seemed to have been worked out between himself and Babangida long ago. A certain clause was inserted in the enabling decree that set up the Chief Ernest Shonekan – led ING, to the effect that in the event of a crisis which made the head of that government incapable of performing in that capacity, the most senior secretary (Abacha) would step in as head of government. Three months later, Abacha played this ace, he forced Shonekan to resign and assumed the position of head of state, commander in chief of the armed forces on 17 November 1993.

By the time death forced him out of office on 8 June 1998, Abacha had succeeded in turning Nigeria into a pariah in the western media. During his five-year rule, he maximally expressed dictatorial powers, depriving fellow countrymen right to self-expression and he threatened, imprisoned, tortured and murdered anyone who challenged his authority. Nelson Mandela, then President of South Africa berated the government, describing him first as ‘an irresponsible fellow’ and later as a ‘corrupt military dictator in charge of an illegitimate and barbaric regime.’ Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth for the first time since independence, during Abacha’s regime.

Before the ‘judicial murder’ of Ken Saro-Wiwa (as John Major, the then British Prime Minister described it), Abacha had started a battle with the opposition to his regime. The pro-democracy activists on noticing that Abacha had begun to manifest tendencies to overstay his welcome as head of state started the fight early in 1994 when he incarcerated Chief Moshood Abiola.

Abiola’s election as president of Nigeria on June 12, 1993 was annulled by General Babangida on the advice of his lieutenants. Abacha was one of these lieutenants, and a prominent one at that. Abiola’s insistence on his mandate brought him in direct conflict with Abacha’s ambition to rule forever. So, he had to be taken out of the way alongside other pro democracy and human rights activists, journalists and even military officers. Those that could not be killed outright by hired assassins were framed in phoney coup plots, tried and jailed. Among those who lost their freedom then, were General Olusegun Obasanjo (rtd), former head of state and now president, Federal Republic of Nigeria and Major General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua (rtd), Obasanjo’s deputy in his earlier government as military head of state. It is believed that the latter was poisoned in prison.

Since Abacha could not plot a coup against himself, he devised a unique quasi-political route to get his heart’s desire. He formed five political parties and ingeniously got all of them to adopt him as their sole presidential candidate. All those who had expressed interest in the contest beat hasty retreats when they heard that Abacha was interested. They wised up rather quickly to the fact that Abacha’s obstacles were removed with brutal efficiency. The wife of Chief Abiola, Alhaja Kudirat Abiola who was actively campaigning for her husband’s release did not come to a full realization of this, hence she was gunned down in a Lagos street, in the morning of June 4, 1996.

Under Abacha, Nigerians lived in a perpetual state of apprehension and fear. His sudden death in June 1998 therefore, was an occasion of great relief. Immediately his death was confirmed there were eruptions of joy across the land. Two years after his ignominious death in the company of international prostitutes, Abacha’s evil legacy still haunts Nigeria. The government of Switzerland has officially acknowledged that he salted away over $5 billion in secret personal accounts in Swiss banks and the American government has opened a senate probe into his illegal financial deposits in American banks. The security agents sent out to kill his political opponents have equally been making confessional statements to law enforcement agents.

Even in death, General Abacha set hard to surpass records. He is the fourth head of state to die in office. The three others – Tafawa Balewa, Aguiyi Ironsi and Murtala Muhammed – were assassinated. The circumstances of his death, for a head of state, were most shameful. Even his burial was a shoddy affair as Reverend Mbang aptly noted: ‘he died unsung, unmourned, and was buried at ten o’clock in the night.’ It was anything but a state burial for a serving head of state. The Nigerian flag was nowhere in sight when his body was being transferred to the plane on the way to Kano. And in Kano, Abacha’s remains were literally dumped in a grave and hastily covered up in the presence of a sprinkling of serving and retired military officers including two former heads of state. The symbolic dissociation from him continued months after, with former comrades in crime denouncing him. The new civilian government of President Obasanjo at various levels overturned his policies, repealed his draconian decrees and went on to rename almost every road and public institution named after Abacha and members of his family.

Rated by many as less than average in intelligence, the late General Abacha was quite capable of stunning displays of native intelligence and guile. He was not one to be stampeded into action when he did not feel a compelling inclination and his deft manoeuvres caught his army of opponents wrong footed many times. He remained to them a puny mysterious bundle of contradictions. While he was unquestionable totally impervious to external manipulations, Abacha was at the same time wildly driven by strong, internal and personal impulses.

Perhaps the most pervasive impulse in Abacha’s life and career was fear. All the dramatic turning points of his life – either as a young indigent recruit in 1962 or thirty one year later as a stupendously rich, immensely powerful head of state and armed forces – were fear driven. He was mortally afraid of real or implied domination, a fear which his relatively small physique and social and educational background did very little to help.

Before, he realized that he would not grow any taller or that extenuating imperatives would affect his personal circumstances, Abacha was an easy going, happy go lucky teenager. He featured prominently in his high school drama and debating societies and the cricket and football teams. In the field of soccer, he earned the sobriquet Obi the Pele. He fell in love with the very pretty Mariam Jida, but was briefly denied his first real love courtesy of societal categorization and parental opposition. Mariam, protesting all the way was forced to marry the wealthy and mature Alhaji Sarkin Maska, then junior minister in the First Republic. Maska was also a close friend of Alhaji Musa Yar’Adua, then minister of Lagos Affairs. He was thought to have been influential in the decision that briefly denied the young Abacha the love of his life. It was a cruel blow that he would never forget, let alone forgive, not even after he had the fairy tale chance to marry his heart throb in 1965, after the marital union with Maska collapsed. As head of state, 30 years later, Abacha seized a platter of gold chance to get even when Major General Shehu Musa Yardua (rtd) son of Alhaji Yar’Adua crossed his path.

Abacha was a firm believer in vicarious revenge. If anyone annoyed him, he went after the person, but if he or she was immediately out of reach, Abacha attacked the spouse, parents, associates, businesses and property. When General Yar’Adua let a united political charge against Abacha’s sit-tight plan, the congenital paranoia and parching thirst for vengeance surfaced. Abacha railroaded Maj. Gen Yar’Adua (rtd) into prison from which he never emerged. That Abacha never forgave any personal slights that held his inadequacies up to scrutiny is an accurate deconstruction of his persona.
By the time he died at 54 years of age, Abacha had the rare distinction of having gone full swing from one extreme of life’s spectrum to the other. The gifted teenager of Kano who had the talent of making people happy by his soccer wizardry took pleasure in making widows, widowers and orphans of friends and colleagues. The extrovert who acted and debated issues in college became a virtual recluse in his last years who jumped at his own shadow. The young man who was oppressed with wealth and social status became the master oppressor himself. The unambitious young soldier suddenly had a consuming passion to rule for life, importing marabouts from every known West African country for divine intercession. The honest young man humbled by circumstances of birth, later excelled in thievery and succeeded in ruining the economy of the nation. 

*Never live a Life of no impact, if not, you will end up more disgraceful than him.....!!!

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