How time flies! I vividly recall June 8, 1998 when I was still a starry-eyed student of Kings College Lagos. I was writing the West African Examinations Council exam for entry into the senior secondary school. I had finished writing the French exam and I recall that one of the comprehension passages was about Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka who was in exile at the time.
The news was broken to me on radio by an illiterate Hausa shop attendant popularly known as mallams. He told me that he died of cardiac arrest and in his own interpretation meant that he was arrested by some dissenting soldiers. I had to clarify the meaning of cardiac arrest which I heard for the first time on that day from a medical doctor who explained to me that the dark goggled maximum dictator died of a heart failure.
General Sani Abacha came to the national limelight on December 31, 1983 when he announced the coup that brought to an abrupt end of the Shehu Shagari led civilian administration popularly known as the Second Republic. He was the voice that said that our hospitals were mere consulting clinics amongst other dysfunctions that bedeviled the Nigerian society.
He played a key role in the ill fated regime of General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida as one of his key allies also known as the ‘IBB boys.’ The wily Maradona of Nigerian politics didn’t retire him when he stepped aside in August 1993 and the time bomb in the diminutive General reared its ugly head when he toppled the Interim National Government headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan who was a former United African Company Chairman.
November 1993 proved to be watershed in the history of Nigeria as he sought to manage the fall out of the June 12 annulment so that it wouldn’t threaten his secret ambitions of succeeding himself as a civilian president in the way and manner that Jerry John Rawlings had done in Ghana in 1992.
Abacha was socially withdrawn and rarely appeared in public and whenever he did, his eyes were invisible to his countrymen as he permanently wore dark goggles. The greatest challenge that he had was in effectively managing the aftermath of the June 12 presidential election which was presumably won by business mogul, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola before its surprising annulment by Babangida.
The street smart general lured the likes of Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, Abiola’s running mate, Alhaji Lateef Kayode Jakande, the former action Governor of Lagos state, Chief Ebenezer Babatope, an erstwhile core Awoist, Chief Alex Ibru, the respected publisher of the Guardian newspapers into his cabinet. He also recruited the services of Chief Tony Anenih, the former national chairman of the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP) and former Biafran leader, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu as his roving ambassadors to sell his candidacy to the international community.
After the Epetedo declaration of Abiola as President by the business mogul, he was locked up in detention with the option of renouncing his mandate as a price to pay for his freedom.
In 1995, his friend turned foe, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogoni chiefs were hanged till they met their respective makers. Nigeria was slammed with severe sanctions as a result of the murders but the dictator didn’t give a hoot as to what became of his country. The killings went unabated. Pa Alfred Rewane, one of the pillars of support for the defunct Action Group and a staunch financier of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) was shot to death by an agent of the murderous Abacha regime.
In 1996, Kudirat, the wife of Chief Abiola was killed in broad daylight. The likes of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and the Late Shehu Musa Yar’adua were hounded into detention with the latter dying there in 1997 after being injected by a poisonous substance. Obasanjo escaped death by the whiskers. That same year his deputy, Lt-Gen Donaldson Oladipo Diya was arrested for allegedly plotting to topple his government. He was arrested alongside Generals Tajudeen Olarenwaju, the minister for communications and Abdulkareem Adisa, the minister for works and housing. Some pundits opine that they would have joined their ancestors if Abacha had lived longer.
The likes of Professor Wole Soyinka, Chief Anthony Enahoro who moved the motion for Nigeria’s independence in 1953, Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Dele Momodu, Tokunbo Afikuyomi, General Alani Akinrinade, a former Chief of Army Staff and many others were on exile in the west for fear of being liquidated by the General’s killer squad.
Many journalists were detained and harassed with many newspapers like Guardian, Punch, Concord etc being banned in 1994/95. Guerilla magazines like Tell and The News were proscribed at various times with journalists like Babafemi Ojudu, Christy Anyanwu etc slammed behind bars. Dapo Olorunyomi, the Publisher of Premium Times and a then Director with The News had to flee to Uncle Sam in order to safeguard his life.
The General used his civilian stooges to float five political parties which the late Chief Bola Ige described as the five fingers of a leprous hand. These parties unanimously adopted him as their presidential candidate and the General was warming up to do what his former boss, IBB failed to do by succeeding himself without a popular mandate by Nigerians whom he mercilessly battered financially, psychologically and emotionally.
Then came his sudden demise on June 8, 1998 which coincided with the time that the Super Eagles of Nigeria were slugging it out in the France 1998 world cup.
A school of thought posited that he died of food poisoning in the hands of some Indian prostitutes while others debunked the claim and attributed it to natural causes.
As common with military dictators, he helped himself to the public till by embezzling huge sums of money which was stashed away in foreign bank accounts. His death revealed this fact as some of the loot has been recovered.
He was no respecter of army tradition as his chief security officer, Major Hamza El-Mustapha was more powerful than many of the Generals. General Diya was seen prostrating before El-Mustapha as he begged him to appeal to his former boss to ‘tamper justice with mercy.’
As today marks twenty-two years of the demise of the tyrant, we should be sober and realize that power is indeed transient and what matters at the end of the day is the legacies we leave behind.
What is Abacha really remembered for? What can we point out to as a positive gain the country had during his regime?
These questions should be posed to our political class as posterity the ultimate judge will be harsh to those who fail to learn from history.
Tony Ademiluyi wrote from Lagos and edits www.africanbard.com