2 decades after the death of General Sani Abacha, it is important that we never forget his legacy.
Today, June 8, 2018, marks the 20th anniversary of the death of General Sani Abacha. He was Nigeria's 10th Head of State.
I remember the day the clearly. I had just gotten back from school and was on the balcony because there was no power supply. My mother ran into the living room and screamed these words 'Abacha is dead'.
I saw a lot of people rejoicing on the streets that day. I too celebrated. As a matter of fact, I stepped on an iron nail but couldn't care less about tetanus. The troubler of Israel was no more.
With his trademark RayBan aviators, the General from Kano, born in 1943, ruled the nation with a tight grip.
After his death, the process to return the country to democratic rule was swift.
On May 29, 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo (a former military Head of State jailed under Abacha's regime) was sworn in as a civilian president.
Nigeria's has had four democratically elected presidents since 1999, Obasanjo, Yar'Adua, Jonathan and Buhari.
For some, the memories of Khaki boys is nothing but the distant past. As Nigeria gears up for another election, the days of military rulers are now blurry to many young people.
Abacha does not bring up the fondest or happiest of memories for many who lived during this period. Yet, older Nigerians have a habit of glorifying the past no matter how bad it was.
In January 2017, I posted a video of the late General addressing Nigerians for the first time on my Twitter account.
I was shocked to see people express their admiration for the dictator. Some even called for a reset to these days to flush Nigeria of its corrupt politicians. A tired and old sentiment used by many soldiers to stage coups.
The recent disturbing praise heaped on the late dictator has not only come from millennials on social media. People who were aware to know how Nigeria was from 1993-1998 have had nice words for Abacha.
One of them is our present leader, President Buhari. He praised the late dictator for building roads.
“No matter what opinion you have about Abacha, I agreed to work with him and the PTF road we did from here to Port Harcourt, to Onitsha, to Benin and so on… On top of other things in the institution, education, medical care and so on” he said. It was a controversial statement.
In 2014, the Goodluck Jonathan administration chose Sani Abacha as one of Nigeria's greatest heroes for “unity, patriotism and national development.”
Even in popular culture, the reverence of Abacha as a 'bad guy' is present. There are T-shirts with his image printed on them. His RayBan aviators, a symbol of fear in the 90s, served as an inspiration of a rap song by a popular Nigerian rapper.
One of the lowest moments of the General Sani Abacha regime was the execution of the 'Ogoni Nine' made up of human rights activist Ken Saro Wiwa along with Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine.
A kangaroo court (more or less) found them guilty. The Ogoni 9 were hung afterwards.
The tragic incident was condemned, both home and abroad. It further made Nigeria a pariah state.
Ken Saro Wiwa's daughter Noo Saro Wiwa exclusively spoke to Pulse. She described it as strange for some Nigerians to look back on the Abacha years positively.
“The idea that we can look back favourably on the 90s is strange. It shows how low our expectations have fallen. There was no press freedom or space for political protests in those days, and child mortality was lower.
As a nation, we need to stop looking backwards and start thinking forwards. Recycling old leaders hasn’t worked” she told Pulse.
The Abacha regime is also synonymous with corruption. It is alleged that the Abacha family made way with £5 billion of the country's wealth.
There have been several claims that Abacha did not steal the country's money but rather kept in Swiss banks for safekeeping. As ludicrous as it may sound to you, it holds weight in some quarters.
Former Chief of Army Staff, Ishaya Bamaiyi in 2017 echoed these sentiments and further went on to claim that the late Head of State transferred money to some European countries to enable Nigeria to continue peacekeeping missions in the West African region.
Unfortunately, this claim has filtered down from the hills of power to the streets.
In May 2018, popular Nigerian fashionista Noble Igwe wrote this about Sani Abacha while rocking a t-shirt with his face on it, “… the former Military head of state whom after his death became the country’s saving account in diaspora.” It might have been a joke but it's a sentiment that a lot of people harbour.
And herein lies the major reason why some Nigerians look back at the Abacha years favourably.
1994-1997, his regime increased the foreign exchange reserves from $494m to $9.6b. He also reduced the external debt of Nigeria from $36b to $27b in three years. General Sani Abacha was able to also reduce the inflation inherited from the IBB administration.
Within the current economic context, it might be tempting to hail the late dictator as an economic genius.
“Even Abacha who was a dictator left the economy to be run by experts and the economy did well then,” said Akpan Ekpo, former Director of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
Not surprisingly, in 2016, Abacha's economic stats were reproduced by his oldest daughter on her Instagram account. (Gumsu Sani Abacha was reached severally for comments about her father. She did not respond to any of them.)
Apart from the economy, Abacha paid a lot of attention to political stability within the West African region also. The Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) during his rule was successful in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
In sports, Abacha's performance was mixed. The Super Eagles won the 1994 Nations Cup, gave a strong performance at the World Cup in America and won the U-23 football competition at the Atlanta '96 Olympics.
The Olympics in 1996 was also Nigeria's best performance at the event with 2 gold medals, one silver medal and three bronze medals.
However, because of human rights violations, Nigeria was not allowed to participate at the '96 and '98 African Cup of Nations.
Fans and sports journalists saw these as missed chances for the Super Eagles to further dominate African football.
By the time the ban was lifted for the Super Eagles to participate in 2000, the talent of the golden generation had started to dwindle.
I tried to reach out to sports journalists to speak on the state of football and sports during the Abacha era but they were unwilling to talk. 20 years after his death, he strikes fear in the heart of many.
And right there is the legacy of the late Head of State. Fear. The Sani Abacha regime struck fear into the hearts of Nigerians.
The administration of General Sani Abacha could best be described as a reign of terror and blood, of fear and violence, of bullets and whips.
Human rights activists were assassinated, hung, and locked up in prison. To speak up against the Abacha regime was to dance with death.
Kudirat Abiola, Pa Alfred Rewane, two human rights activists were allegedly assassinated by the leader of Abacha's hit squad, Sgt. Rogers.
The late Alex Ibru and Abraham Adesanya had attempts on their lives during this period. Luckily they escaped. Professor Wole Soyinka went into self-exile in 1994. Three years later he was charged with treason in absentia.
Soyinka was not the only one to have gone into exile during this period.
Many members of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) including present political juggernaut Bola Ahmed Tinubu left Nigeria for fear of being killed.
We can't also forget MKO Abiola, the presumed winner of the June 12 elections in 1993. In 1994, after an international trip to gain support from foreign countries, MKO came back to Nigeria and declared himself President.
Abacha's regime did not take this move lightly. Abiola was declared wanted, arrested and accused of treason. The billionaire turned politician stayed in detention for four years. Abiola died with the June 12 mandate, 29 days after the death of Abacha in 1998.
The former head of state Olusegun Obasanjo was arrested during the Abacha years and imprisoned for his supposed role in a phantom coup.
While Obasanjo made it out alive, his deputy when he was Head of State wasn't so lucky. Shehu Musa Yar'adua, former Chief of Staff, died in captivity in 1997.
Abacha not only dealt with his political opponents but the media as well.
“It was a period when journalists, civil society activists and the few principled politicians in the country were targets of the regime,” said Olusegun Adeniyi who was the Assistant Editor at Sunday Concord during the Abacha years.
“Bagauda Kaltho was bombed to death. Kunle Ajibade, Chris Anyanwu and others were jailed for being accessories after the fact of a coup. Many were forced into exiles. My editor (at African Concord magazine), Soji Omotunde was dragged from a moving vehicle on the street of Lagos, leaving him almost crippled while my friend and colleague, Mohammed Adamu, should have enough stories to tell his grand-children” he further remembered.
On Christmas Day in 1995, Nosa Igiebor, then Editor-In-Chief of TELL Magazine was arrested by security operatives. He spent six months in detention and was later released on June 26, 1996.
At the end of the day, Abacha is not a fashion icon or economic guru. He was a totalitarian, a dictator that ruled Nigeria with fear.
According to the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor, in 1971 Abacha's superiors recommended that he should not be promoted beyond the rank of colonel because he was not “stable enough for higher command.”
Yet, in 1990 when he became a full General, Abacha became the first Nigerian military officer not to skip a rank. By 1993, he became the ruler of the most populous black nation on earth via a palace coup.
There are many millennials who do not totally understand what it meant to live in Sani Abacha's Nigeria. Some older Nigerians have forgotten the reign of terror as they groan and moan about this present administration.
There is no negotiating the legacy of Sani Abacha. It is absolute in its brutality.
“General Abacha established a distinctive record of brutal rule. Nigerian human rights groups, clandestinely active in the country and openly critical in exile, have charged that more people were arrested in his five and a half years in power than in the five decades of British rule” wrote the New York Times in Abacha's obituary.
A few months before his shocking death, The Christian Science Monitor described him as “most dangerous leader in the world.”
Noo Saro Wiwa defines his legacy as “the regime reached such lows that a return to democracy was the only option: the Commonwealth had expelled Nigeria, and British Airways suspended its flights after my father and his eight colleagues were murdered. The Abacha years increased the cynicism and distrust among Nigerians, which served to entrench corruption.”
Despite the Sani Abacha regime's execution of her father, she does not have any hatred for the man.
“No, my family doesn’t hate him. We don’t waste our mental energy on someone like him. Abacha was one of the most brutal dictators but he was also the symptom of Nigeria’s problems, which means there were other men equally capable of doing what he did.
Many players were involved in the murder of the Ogoni Nine, and millions of people besides our family have suffered. So my anger is diffused in many directions within this morally bankrupt system. It’s not all about one dead man” she told Pulse.
The system that produced Sani Abacha still exists today. It might no longer produce military dictators but it still creates corrupt and inefficient leaders.
Nigeria has made a lot of progress from the dark days irrespective of what cynics say but there is still a lot of work to be done.
“There are more technocrats, and the political scene is not as strongly ethnic-based as before, but we still have no electricity and other basic amenities,” said Noo Saro-Wiwa during her brief interview with Pulse.
“No administration has dealt with Boko Haram effectively or addressed its root causes, and we still depend too much on oil revenues. It feels rather cyclical. I have much more hope in the younger generation, however. The under-40s will be the ones to turn things around” she further said.
These are the set of Nigerians who should know what it meant to live in Nigeria during the Abacha years. They must know that his legacy was that of fear and terror. We cannot afford to go back and glorify our dark past.
We must shed light on it so that we might never forget. 20 years after we must still remember.