Revisiting Africa’s 20th Century Dictators: Sani Abacha - Newslibre

Revisiting Africa’s 20th Century Dictators: Sani Abacha

On 20th September 1943 in the Northern Nigerian state of Kano, a new son of the land was born, his name was Sani Abacha. Like many others from his homeland, Abacha took a military direction when it came to formal education.

In 1963, Abacha was passed out as a Second Lieutenant after attending military academies in the neighbouring state of Kaduna and England respectively. A few years later, he took part in the Nigerian Civil War as a serving officer which in turn helped him rise in military ranks since the country’s national army had managed to fight off Biafrans, who wanted self-independence.

Sani Abacha gained more power and influence after playing a pivotal role in two military coups with one in 1983 when current president Muhammadu Buhari first came into power, and the other in 1985 against the same president.

The 1985 coup brought General Ibrahim Babangida to power and in appreciation, he was promoted to Major General, and also named Army Chief of Staff and Defence Minister later in 1990.

In 1993, President Babangida nearly delivered on his promise of letting democracy take root into the country when he organised a National Election. The unannounced results of the election were not as the dictator wished and so, he annulled it before the would-be winner Moshood Abiola would be announced.

This sparked widespread chains of protests which caused under fire dictator Babangida to resign. On his resignation, an interim President Ernest Shonekan was pointed but later ousted in a peaceful coup led by Defence Minister Sani Abacha.

Sani Abacha had promised the return of democracy but his actions proved otherwise

On 17th November 1993, Sani Abacha became the ruler of Nigeria promising so many things including a return to democracy but his actions were very opposite of these promises.

Just like any other dictator with more power than sense, he passed two decrees in 1994, one which made his government immune to any laws in the country and the second one giving his government the right to detain anyone for 90 days without appearing in any court of law. This made him a very powerful dictator whom nothing but death could stop. It also made his opposition his playing toys.

The Abacha administration arrested, tortured, maimed and killed many opposition figures and activists including Moshood Abiola who was arrested for declaring himself as president in 1994 and later died in custody, which was the same case for General Shehu Yar’Adua in 1997.

Among other famous names jailed during his reign were Olusegun Obasanjo, Ken Saro-Wiwa plus his other Ogoni activists. Abacha went on to execute Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni activists commonly known as The Ogoni Nine who had risen up against environmental exploitation by petroleum companies.

Revisiting Africa’s 20th Century Dictators: Sani Abacha - Newslibre
Sani had over 3000 personal guards all which were costing the nation dearly. (Image credit: – Newslibre

Unlike many African dictators, Abacha oversaw a lot of great economic success in his country like reduction in inflation and national debt, increase in export income and infrastructural investment.

However, this was done at a cost which included an extravagant expenditure of public funds. For example the expenditure on maintaining his 3000 personal guards adding to the astronomical increase in corruption by Abacha himself, his family and allies. Abacha and family are believed to have squandered about $5 billion dollars of taxpayers’ income.

Early in 1998, Abacha announced that he was to fulfil his main promise of returning democracy to the land. He announced that elections would be held on 1st August to usher in a new civilian government.

In February the same year, the dictator deployed boots on the ground in Sierra Leone in order to help restore a civilian regime which was ousted by a military group, ironic isn’t it? Or maybe he was giving hope to the countrymen about the elections he had promised.

June 1998 saw the untimely demise of General Sani Abacha

On 8th June 1998, indeed death stopped General Sani Abacha as he mysteriously breathed his last at the Abuja Presidential Palace, and was buried on that very day in accordance with Islamic laws without an autopsy. Details of his death still remain a mystery to many in Nigeria and abroad with some saying heart attack, and others poisoning as the cause of death.

Abacha was succeeded by an interim government led by Abdulsalam Abubaker that later revealed that the late dictator’s promise to allow fair elections was a hoax because he had already bullied all the political parties to endorse him as the sole candidate. The Interim government oversaw Nigeria’s return to a democratic path in April 1999.

Revisiting Africa’s 20th Century Dictators: Sani Abacha - Newslibre
Details of Sani Abacha’s death still remain a mystery to many in Nigeria. (Picture: Rex Shuttershock) – Newslibre

It might be more than 20 years since the dawn on Abacha’s administration and life but his name is still widely a point of discussion not because of his atrocities but of what is termed as the Abacha Loot.

The total value of the loot/money stolen by Abacha was thought to be about $5 billion, which was hidden in financial havens like Switzerland, UK, Liechtenstein, France and USA plus assets in Nigeria. For all these years since 1999, democratic governments have been able to recover all this money and assets back home and abroad.

As of today about, $3.624 billion have been recovered of which $311 million was recovered last week. As the world was still talking about this revelation, the U.S Embassy in Nigeria said that there were a further $167 millions in France and $152 million in the U.K yet to be fully recovered.

Dictators may be in place for a short while but the impacts of their actions last a long time.

Also read: Revisiting Africa’s 20th Century Dictators: Jean-Bedel Bokassa

Revisiting Africa’s 20th Century Dictators: Sani Abacha 1

Author: Katende Basajjabaka

Katende writes about sports and occasionally technology.


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