20 years since the death of Gen Sani Abacha, considered one of Nigeria’s most brutal leaders.
His regime was marked by human rights abuses, attacks on the press and the jailing of political opponents, including Moshood Abiola who is believed to have won the annulled 1993 election.
The hanging in 1995 of nine prominent environment activists – famously known as the Ogoni Nine – caused international outrage and as a result Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth.
Gen Abacha promised to return Nigeria to democracy and held parliamentary elections in 1998 in which he was the sole candidate. He died months later.
Reaction to his death was divided, with some celebrating and other mourning, and he remains a controversial figure among Nigerians.
President Muhammadu Buhari was heavily criticised recently for his comments on Abacha’s contribution to infrastructural projects.
Anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International estimates that during his five-year rule between 1993-1998, he stole between $2-5bn
- A Kanuri originally from Borno State, General Sani Abacha was born and brought up in Kano state, which he made his home.
- He married a Shuwa Arab, Maryam, also from Borno state, in 1965 and they had six boys and three girls. The first child, Ibrahim, died in a plane crash in 1996.
- The last of their children was born in Aso Rock in 1994 when Abacha was 50 and his wife 47. The boy was named Mustapha, supposedly after Abacha’s chief security officer, Hamza al Mustapha.
- Abacha was the first and only military head of state who never skipped a rank to become a full-star general.
- Abacha announced the coup that brought an end to the government of President Shehu Shagari on December 31, 1983, and brought Major-Gen. Muhammadu Buhari to 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 (the coup speech was read by Brigadier Joshua Nimyel Dogonyaro).
- On appointment as chief of army staff in 1985, he caused a stir when he said the issue of “second in command” to Babangida had not been resolved, even though Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe, as chief of general staff, was understood to be holding the position. It was later resolved in favour of Ukiwe.
- Abacha was commissioned 2nd lieutenant in 1963 after he had attended the Mons Defence Officers Cadet Training College in Aldershot, England.
- He was believed to have participated fully in the July 1966 countercoup, which led to the death of the head of state, Major-Gen. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, and subsequently resulted in the civil war.
- 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 defence and the most senior member of government, took over. Unofficially, it was a bloodless coup.
- He was known as a man of “few words and deadly actions” and he demonstrated this as head of state with one of the most brutal regimes Nigeria has ever had. There was massive crackdown on the media, civil rights groups and pro-democracy campaigns.
- Two of the most important recommendations of the 1995 constitutional conference he set up are: 13% derivation for oil-producing areas and six geo-political zones.
- He never held a non-military appointment in his career until he became minister of defence in 1990 (later re-designated secretary of defence in 1993). He was a Lt. Gen then.
- His supporters describe him as a good economic manager and that he stabilised exchange rate at N22/$1 but the unofficial rate was N80/$1. This created colossal rent-seeking, with many “chosen” associates buying at the official rate and reselling at four times the rate in the black market.
- It was under Abacha that Nigeria became a perpetual importer of petroleum products, as all the refineries packed up. However, 17 years after his death, Nigeria is still heavily dependent on fuel imports.
- An unforgettable phenomenon under Abacha was the importation of “foul fuel” which had an offensive odour and damaged car engines.
- He was instrumental to the restoration of peace and democracy in Sierra Leone and Liberia after years of civil wars.
- 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.
- His wife set up what is now known as the National Hospital, Abuja. It was originally named National Hospital for Women and Children before it was upgraded into what is intended to be Nigeria’s no. 1 public hospital.
- His death is shrouded in mystery: the most popular version is that he died in the midst of Indian prostitutes flown in from Dubai but the official version is that he died of heart attack. A more likely story is that he was “eliminated” to end the political crisis in Nigeria.