For a man who had literally shot the way into power for other military dictators, Sani Abacha’s ascension into the office of the Head of State in November 1993 was remarkably bloodless and executed with such smoothness that for years, many debated whether it was a coup, or not.
In discussing Abacha (as with many public figures past and present), it’s important to restrict how history casts him holistically but with brutal objectivity. Every human has good and bad sides but what history casts is their net effect on society – and so it was with Abacha.
Some may today see him in a more charitable light for various reasons but his role in history was ignoble as far as Nigeria is concerned. And we must keep in mind, that even serial killers have families who adore them, or serial child rapists having daughters whom they love.
To them, the evil person can do no wrong, especially when that person was powerful enough to make billionaires out of paupers, to change the lives of a few positively – the focus of history must always be holistic and on a net scale, Sani Abacha was an extremely terrible leader.
More than a condemnation though, I feel compelled to discuss Abacha for two crucial reasons – firstly because there are exact parallels to be drawn from his misrule and the reaction of the society as at that time to it and the polity today with Buhari in power and same reactions.
Secondly, it will serve as an outlet for some of my deep thoughts about the polity especially as regards the position of many, which from my perspective is clearly misguided but I have little interest in denouncing them or pointing out their errors – this will be a parable.
Abacha had the distinction of being one of the very few military officers who rose to the highest ranks in Nigeria without skipping any rank. He was a courageous soldiers but considered by many to be a dullard – the exact word some used to describe him back then.
IBB had conducted elections which MKO Abiola was widely believed to have won but IBB refused to hand over to him – many say that Abacha was the one who openly said that there was no way the military would hand over to a Yoruba – and a section of Northern leaders backed him.
IBB confirmed this in a book written by Prof. Omo Omoruyi – and it is plausible: IBB was seen by the core North as an outsider, surrounded by the Langtang Mafia which the rest of the country thought to be Northern but the core North saw as outsiders. Abacha was their star.
IBB handed over to Ernest Shonekan – an Egba-Yoruba like MKO Abiola but left Abacha behind as Secretary of Defense and de facto Vice-President, to whom power was to be handed over if Shonekan left. Abacha himself told Shonekan much the same but kept away until he was ready.
Abacha told Shonekan that if he ever felt he couldn’t go on being Interim President, he should hand over to him. And almost daily after then whenever they saw, Abacha would ask Shonekan if he still felt able to continue. But Abacha was scheming – in the most unlikely of places.
Abacha was conniving with MKO Abiola to push Shonekan aside, presumably to then hand over to Abiola and MKO, not being so much of a politician, was himself deceived. Abiola by this time had surrounded himself with core Yoruba interests – which had adverse effects on his mandate.
For a man who had won elections even in Kano, to restrict himself to Yoruba interests was a mistake – only outsiders around him I can think of were the likes of Frank Kokori. He abandoned the Anenihs, Yar’Aduas, Atikus and others who had helped him. He had the likes of Tinubu.
A pix of Tinubu, Abiola and Abacha together that often circulates was shortly after Abacha took over power – they had encouraged Abiola to see Abacha as an ally and to abandon his multi-ethnic political family, SDP. Once Abacha had Abiola’s backing, he moved against Shonekan.
While Shonekan ‘governed’ from a Guest Residence in Aso Rock (he wasn’t allowed to live in the Villa itself), Abacha was in the Barracks in Lagos, meeting and pulling strings. On the morning of November 17, Abacha, Diya and Gusau strolled in to see Shonekan in his office.
Diya was brought along to assuage Yoruba sentiments, Gusau practically forced himself into the ‘coup’ – he was more of an IBB Boy and had been excluded from the meetings. Outside the presidential office were hundreds of soldiers to enforce the will of Abacha over Shonekan.
Some say Abacha brought out a pistol and pointed it at Shonekan, most reliable account says he merely asked Shonekan a simple question: “Do you want to resign today?” And the man used his tongue to count his teeth and resigned – wrote his letter and a speech, typed both.
Resignation letter was accepted by Abacha, speech was delivered later that day to members of the ING and for hours, only few even knew what was going on, until NTA News broke the info about change of power much later that night. ‘Palace Coup’ is the accepted historical version.
According to Ore Falomo who was Abiola’s personal doctor – the coup was originally scheduled for November 13 but the plan leaked to Shonekan. Falomo knew because Abiola knew and even nominated Ministers to serve under Abacha for a period, many of them, Yoruba allies.
Abacha first did the crucial post-coup power sharing meeting before addressing the country on November 18 and dissolving all elected Govts from LGA to State, banned the two political parties – SDP and NRC and proscribed the ING. He then retired several officers loyal to IBB.
Abacha appointed Ebenezer Babatope, Olu Onagoruwa and Lateef Jakande as Ministers with the backing of Abiola and his new allies. When Abacha dissolved the Senate was when the Tinubus who had surrounded Abiola knew that things were going wrong – Bola Tinubu was then a Senator.
By the time their eyes opened, Abacha had consolidated his hold on power. Undaunted, Abiola was encouraged to declare himself President – in Epetedo in Lagos, Nigeria – under Abacha – without controlling the military – surrounded only the Tinubus – he was arrested for this.
Obasanjo was not exactly a fan of MKO Abiola but he had a perception to protect as the only military leader who had handed over to a democratically elected President. He opposed Abacha, as did the great Shehu Musa Yar’Adua. For their efforts, Abacha had both of them jailed.
Ironically, the decree Abacha relied on was a decree that had been promulgated under their own military tenure in the late 70s. The decree prescribed death for attempted coups and the sentence was given by the Military Tribunal, but Abacha changed it to Life Imprisonment.
Ken Saro-Wiwa was not so lucky – he was sentenced to die and despite national and international outcry, Abacha had him killed by hanging. Nigeria became a pariah nation. Abacha also had a killer squad that was deployed all over the country, a top member later confessed.
Sgt. Rogers (as popularly called) shed tears as he recounted how Abacha’s CSO made them believe the killings they did were only in the interest of “national security” – so they killed Suliat Adedeji, Pa Alfred Rewane and Kudirat Abiola – MKO’s wife, shot in broad daylight.
(I skip much of Abacha’s misrule so that this thread will not be too long – will only mention parts I think are relevant to the polity today.) Abacha had collaborators from even among the Yorubas while Abiola languished in jail, many of them turning logic upside down.
One of them was Chief Yomi Tokoya who led General Sani Abacha Movement for Peaceful and Successful Transition (then called GESAM) for short. He came up with a logic that Abiola’s mandate expired 4 years after June 12 1993 – so by 1998, it had ended. MKO that wasn’t sworn in.
You also had “Vision 98 National Mobilisation for Abacha” by Alhaji Arisekola Alao – Abacha had made him rich, you could hardly blame his lack of political direction on compromised interests. When you see people like them today saying “all is well”, understand the angles.
There was also Daniel Kanu – a young man who didn’t think well about his future and supported tyranny – we’ll come back to him if I don’t get lost. There was also Godwin Daboh – funnily, only few Northerners openly endorsed Abacha but they didn’t oppose him too openly also.
One of the earliest person to ever speak openly against Abacha from the North apart from Yar’Adua who worked mostly underground is a woman I will forever respect and whom I look forward to meeting in the afterlife: Hajiya Gambo Sawaba was a woman who stood where men fell.
Sawaba once said: “If I don’t know book, I know rights… I have not been a member of any Assembly. I have not held any office except that I was a member of the House of Prison. From the beginning, I went radical. I know definitely I am a radical, a no-nonsense radical.”
She rejected tyranny and spoke up courageously against it. In the polity though at the time, certain factors were working for and against Abacha. First was that the Abiola Mandate had been made a Yoruba vs Rest of Nigeria matter, and many were excluded from the struggle.
Abiola, who was a sworn opponent of Awolowo all through Papa’s life suddenly became cast in the image of an Awo reincarnation – proof that the Fulani would never hand over to a Yoruba person. Many tactics used alienated other ethnicities and so the Yorubas largely bore it alone.
This bit of history dictates my politics – alienation never helps in any game of numbers and ethnicity, even where painfully manifest can only win the argument with a minority in a multi-ethnic nation. The likes of Shehu Sani spoke up then also, Arthur Nwankwo was another voice.
Olisa Agbakoba, many CDHR and CD cadre also spoke up, mostly often against Abacha and military rule than for Abiola. Our own
@AbdulMahmud01 and other students leaders too numerous to mention but many whom I met in the days of students unionism also agitated openly.
There was also another group – ideological former military officers who had been sidelined, like Ebitu Ukiwe, or IBB loyalists like David Mark and Abubakar Umar, or Sambo Dasuki whose father was deposed as Sultan of Sokoto for bothering to condemn Abacha – they also spoke up.
But in all, the struggle was largely a SW thing and most killings happened there. It was not until a national gathering of political leaders began to emerge that things began to shake politically – and two things catalyzed this national coalition of opposition against Abacha.
The first was that Yar’Adua died in prison – allegedly injected with a lethal substance. His death was a rude awakening to core Northern leaders who had thought themselves immune to Abacha’s brutality which had consumed Yoruba people. Yar’Adua had been a lodestar in the North.
It was in his office under Obasanjo that the likes of Ibrahim Tahir, Mamman Daura and other then young men had cut their political teeth before becoming Northern champions. But Yar’Adua was clear-headed – he openly proposed to “build a bridge across the Niger”…a great man.
The second thing that happened was that it suddenly became obvious that Abacha was planning to transmute himself into a civilian leader – all the five political parties under his transition adopted him as presidential candidate, only GDM hesitated before doing so.
The political establishment that had remained quiet was suddenly threatened and it stirred against Abacha. Alhaji M.D. Yusuf courageously stepped up and declared his bid to be President on the platform of GDM, against Abacha. Old warhorse – Tunji Braithwaite also stepped out.
It was at this time that Daniel Kanu came into the picture – speaking on international television and extolling Abacha. He planned a massive rally for Abacha in Abuja which had a good number of political heavyweights. I’ll name some I remember, sorry if your daddy is there.
Shina Peters, Salawa Abeni, Onyeka Onwenu, Christy Essien-Igbokwe, Dan Maraya Jos were the artistes, Titilayo Ajanaku, Arisekola Alao, Maitama Sule, Zainab Maina, Arthur Eze, Joseph Wayas, TOS Benson, John Fashanu, Uche Okechukwu and some other footballers were also there.
The 2 Million man March Rally was a fiasco projected only by Govt outlets like NTA, only AIT and later Channels TV were available objective news stations – this was in 1997 or 1998. Can’t remember more names offhand. Back to the political reaction – it started also from Lagos.
A group of 9 distinguished gentlemen formed the core of the national political opposition to Abacha – Adamu Ciroma, Bola Ige, Jerry Gana, Francis Ellah, Abubakar Rimi, Sule Lamido, Solomon Lar – all led by Alex Ekwueme. (I’m missing a name, either that or they were actually 8.)
They held meetings in Lagos at Ekwueme’s home or Ellah’s Ikoyi office. At one such meeting, Bola Ige accused the Northern members of not speaking up courageously enough – he and Rimi really got into according to my leader, Sule Lamido who was there and who intervened.
Lamido proposed that since that was Ige’s perception, they from the North would go back and do just that. And they did. 18 Northern leaders wrote a letter to Abacha after a meeting in Kaduna, denouncing his self-succession plan and asking him to exit the office he occupied.
Some of these men were Adamu Ciroma, Abubakar Rimi, Jerry Gana, Lawal Kaita, Iyorchia Ayu (last member of the G9 I forgot), Ango Abdullahi, Usman Bugaje, Iro DanMusa, Mohammed Arzika, Abubakar Umar, Suleiman Kumo, Sule Lamido and others, 18 in all. A national opposition was born.
This group soon expanded into G34, which should have been G36 with one person from each state of Nigeria but Abacha arrested and detained Lamido and Rimi on the day of the inauguration in Lagos. And G34 became the final sword stroke – Abacha died mysteriously some weeks after.
Some say that Abacha was killed – if true, he wasn’t killed until Nigeria showed absolute national solidarity, rejecting his misrule. Some say God took him away suddenly – if true, God didn’t intervene until Nigeria showed absolute national solidarity, rejecting his misrule.
This is because the Pope had visited Nigeria some weeks before Abacha died and had allegedly implored him to release political detainees – Abacha refused. The Pope could have been God’s final warning from a Christian perspective, or the international community warning.
Abacha died, Nigerians jubilated, G34 became the PDP and won national elections until everyone thought Nigeria had truly become United and voted Buhari in, only to see that today, the ethnic divisions are more easily seen than almost ever before. And there are many lessons here:
The Yorubas who side with Buhari’s ethnocentrism and denounce the Igbos for insisting on equity are most foolish and historically ignorant – our ethnicity was once here before and even Onagoruwa who thought himself safe as Minister had his son killed by ruthless Abacha killers.
Onagoruwa was in Govt with Abacha, giving legal backing for some illegality, speaking openly in favour of the closure of The News and other media houses, infamously saying “Newswatch must be taught a lesson”. His 26 year old son was killed brutally after the man left Govt.
Alex Ibru also suffered similar fate – shot by Abacha’s killer squad after he left ministerial office, lucky to escape with his life but unlucky to be paralysed in one side of his body afterwards. And that’s another lesson – nobody is ever safe under a tyrannical Govt.
Abacha made other military leaders look good – only few of them were ever called ‘Dictator’ – but tyranny does not start in a single day or with a single move. Tyranny sometimes creeps upon a nation while they’re sleeping, snuck in sometimes by seemingly democratic forces.
For me, the big lesson from Abacha is that the opposition to any such leader must necessarily be brutally objective and despite any obvious ethnic provocation, be devoid of ethnic coloration, to achieve national solidarity and force a reversal of the political tide.
The other dark deeds of Abacha are legendary stuff, most well known. Ironic that the Tinubus who asked Abiola to declare himself President are now in bed with a Buhari who served under Abacha and refuses to see Abacha as anything less than good. They will learn soon enough.
One foreign journalist was so brutalised in Nigeria under Abacha that she went back to Europe and became a fiction writer, winning a Pulitzer Price in fact. Abacha was a Dictator that should have taught Nigeria that only consensual leadership can work. Nigeria will soon learn.
History is not just a collection of stories – it is a guide from the past for the present into a better future. The History that humans refuse to learn from is the history they are doomed to repeat again and again and again.