On this day in 1998, all of Nigeria flung into celebratory mode when news filtered through that then Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, General Sani Abacha had died.
Abacha, the hardest of them all, had passed on. Abacha-with-the-aviators was gone. And the reported manner of his demise left all with jaws dropped – supposedly after taking a drink given to him by a woman.
Some of you reading this may be wondering what was so terrifying about this Abacha person that his death stirs such nostalgia among ’80s and ’90s kids these days. Tell you what, even many of the ’60s kids would fall into similar nostalgia.
Abacha wasn’t your regular military man, he was one of the ultimate Nigerian villains. When he reigned supreme between November 1993 and June 1998, he was pretty much untouchable.
Grab a bottle of wine, or groundnut, or bowl of popcorn and put your feet up for what’s coming.
From the sneaky manner he bounced the transitional government of Ernest Shonekan from Aso Rock in 1993 to his infamous record in successive successful coup d’états, Abacha’s life ought to be a Netflix special already.
For well before 1993, Abacha was out there plotting coups way back in 1966. He’s listed among the plotters of the July 1966 coup which overthrew General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi just seven months after Ironsi assumed the position of Head of State. Word remains that Abacha was actually part of the coup plotters of January 1966 but that remains unconfirmed.
In the July 1966 which was masterminded by Lt. Colonel Murtala Mohammed, Abacha was a Second Lieutenant in a group which comprised men that would go on to become key figures in Nigeria’s political history – Theophilus Danjuma (then a Major), Joseph Garba and Ibrahim Taiwo (both Captains), as well as Ibrahim Babangida, Buka S. Dimka, Ibrahim Bako, and Daddy BuBu himself (all of whom were Lieutenants at the time).
17 years later and after one failed coup attempt by Dimka which led to the deaths of Murtala Mohammed and Dimka, Abacha was back plotting the overthrow of the Shehu Shagari-led democratic government in 1983, with Buhari (a Major General at the time) becoming Head of State as a result.
But Daddy BuBu barely enjoyed two years before his regime was overthrown in the 1985 coup led by Babangida, with Abacha becoming Chief of Army Staff afterwards. Abacha would go on to be named Minister of Defence in 1990 as well as being the first Nigerian to become a full-star General without skipping a rank in the military.
Less than a year after becoming Head of State, Abacha created a decree in September 1994 which basically placed him above the courts and handed him absolute power – from a 22-year-old Second Lieutenant, Abacha became a General who was above the law.
And the man was not messing about with his god status – he got another decree up which allowed him arrest anybody for three months without trial. Today, we go about telling people “I’m in my house come and beat me” so confidently; stuff only a handful dared during Abacha’s regime.
His regime saw MKO Abiola and Olusegun Obasanjo thrown in jail for treason, Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the Oputa Commission, Wole Soyinka got charged with treason in absentia (no chill at all!), and the refineries stopped working. With no refinery functioning, Nigeria became a major importer of petroleum products.
Then there was the billions he was accused of embezzling, reportedly to the tune of £5 billion – for perspective, that amount would have placed him within the top 20 of Forbes richest persons in the world in 1997.
In recent times, Nigerians have witnessed many years of stashed millions being returned from previously frozen foreign accounts to the Nigerian government like gifts from Santa Claus.
Man was deemed so evil, it was the perfect picture when Pope John Paul II clad in white visited Nigeria and was met by Abacha who was dressed in all-black everything – good meets evil, many Nigerians mooted at the time.
Most of all, Abacha was all set to make himself president of Nigeria by declaring in January 1998 that elections would take place in June – only thing was, all the political parties at the time declared him as their preferred candidate.
August 1998 was supposed to be the time Abacha truly gained full control of everything Nigeria but look at God, he died of a heart attack according to official accounts of his death on this day in 1998.