20 Years after Abacha: Lest We Forget

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There is hardly any Nigerian of my generation (as well as members of the generations before us) who would not remember what they were doing on 8th June 1998 (exactly 20 years ago tomorrow) when they heard about the sudden death of the then Head of State, General Sani Abacha. It was a day in which a whole nation lost its humanity given the spontaneous celebrations that followed the announcement of Abacha’s demise. Summing up the mood of the nation on that fateful day, Chief Mofia Tonjo Akobo, the first Nigerian Minister of Petroleum Resources, said in Port Harcourt: “Abacha’s death is God’s solution to Nigeria’s political stalemate. Although we send our condolence to the family and the military, the fact remains that this is a heavenly coup.”

Meanwhile, in a landmark decision that none of his predecessors had the courage to take, President Muhammadu Buhari last night officially recognized the late Chief M.K.O Abiola as the winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, cancelled May 29 as the annual Democracy Day (replacing it with June 12) and conferred a posthumous highest national honour of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) on Abiola. What President Buhari did with a stroke of his pen is fundamental and commendable in several respects and in the days and weeks ahead, I am sure it would generate considerable interest both at home and abroad.

However, as we reflect on the Abacha era, especially against the background of the current drama of the absurd in Abuja, it may also be important for us to remember that under the late Head of State, some micro-economic indicators actually improved despite the international sanctions imposed against our country at the time. Under Abacha, inflation also came down just as he managed to sustain a stable exchange rate throughout his tenure, albeit through a primitive system which may have opened his eyes into how easy it was to loot the treasury.

As I have highlighted before on this page, Abacha’s contempt for accountability commenced less than two weeks after he took power from Chief Ernest Shonekan. In a memo reference NSA/A/320/S/46 dated 30th November 1994, the then National Security Adviser, Alhaji Ismaila Gwarzo, requested for $100 million to combat “an economy that was deflected and distorted through the black market.” In the same memo, Gwarzo also undertook to pay back the naira equivalent into government coffers. Having apparently been briefed by Abacha, the then Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor, Dr Paul Ogwuma released the money in the following sums: $95 Million and 3.2 million Pounds Sterling, all in cash.

By the arrangement, the dollar was meant to be sold through Bureau De Change dealers at the then prevailing exchange rate, with a view to mopping up the naira, and beefing up its value. Abacha’s son, the late Ibrahim was to sell the dollars in the black market and remit the naira equivalent to the CBN through Gwarzo. The transaction was indeed carried out even though the money eventually returned to the CBN, according to official documents, was not up to what was received.

As it would happen, that became the template for taking money directly from the treasury. In my column of 3rd July 2014 titled “Abacha Loot and Mohammed’s Deal” I highlighted (by listing all the transactions), from the report of the Special Investigation Panel (SIP) established by former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, how Gwarzo would write a memo, Abacha would approve and Ogwuma would open the CBN vault for the release of the cash.

That Abacha personalized the Nigerian state is an understatement but he must have been emboldened by what happened on the political front where Nigerians had been reduced to a conquered people. The lesson is that when you create an atmosphere of impunity, financial corruption is not too far away because those who can abuse their authority to deny fellow citizens of their fundamental rights would have no qualms appropriating to themselves what belongs to the public.

Incidentally, most of the politicians who are prancing all over the place today and their parents/godfathers were agents of Abacha; telling Nigerians only the late Head of State and his wife (two for the price of one) were fit to rule the country, if possible, forever. That is why people like us can never be taken in by the cheap attempts of any politician to present their personal travails as a public interest issue. Meanwhile, so bizarre was the transition programme of 1997/98 (with all the five registered political parties adopting Abacha as their sole presidential candidate) that in a memorable interview he granted the CNN at the period, Nobel Laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka said: “If I had written this scenario in a play, I would have been ridiculed.”

While interested readers can download free copies of my book, ‘The Last 100 Days of Abacha’ from my web portal, olusegunadeniyi.com, it is a lesson for future generations that people hardly remember anything positive about the Abacha era, essentially because his regime trampled on the rights of citizens. In an atmosphere where the resources and institutions of state were pressed into the service of one man and his political aspiration, a killing machine was unleashed on those who dared to challenge Abacha.

From Mrs Kudirat Abiola to Mr Alfred Rewane to Mrs Bisoye Tejuosho to Dr Shola Omatsola to Major General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua to Ken Saro Wiwa to Mrs Sulia Adedeji and several others, including lucky ones like the late Abraham Adesanya and Alex Ibru who survived assassins’ bullets, it was a period when journalists, civil society activists and the few principled politicians in the country were targets of the regime. 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. But some of us were lucky.

As an assistant editor at Sunday Concord, I was arrested around 3am in October 1996 by truckloads of soldiers who were shocked to see a “small boy” and became sympathetic the moment they realized I was a journalist (they told me they thought I was a ‘419’ kingpin since no reason was given them for the arrest). Dumped at the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) dungeon in Apapa at that ungodly time of the day, I did not get to meet the much-dreaded DMI Director, Col Frank Omenka until around 5pm to endure verbal abuse, bullying and threats in the name of interrogation that lasted five days. While I will tell my story if I live long enough to write a biography, I can never forget that, right in my presence, a man was hurled into the room to whom Omenka threatened: “I will detain you here tonight and organise some boys to go and rape your wife at home.”

After the distraught man had been dragged away, Omenka now turned to me. “I will let you go home tonight but you must come back tomorrow with everything you have ever written, including your latest piece where you compared General Abacha with Idi Amin. Meanwhile, greet your wife for me.” When I replied that I was not married, he countered: “I know that already. But you have a fiancée who is undergoing her youth service in Ogun State.” Seeing how shocked I was, Omenka pressed his advantage. “I know everything about you. You are a lucky boy because my instruction before I left office yesterday was that my men should arrest and dump you in the underground cell for two months before bringing you to me but when I came this morning and I saw you asleep on the sofa, I had pity on you. But don’t push your luck because, as you must be aware, I stammer and I am already provoked. Since you are a small boy, maybe I can still mend you. And if I cannot, I will make your mother to weep over you.”

It is very instructive that whenever the name of Abacha comes up today, all we remember were the abuse of power and corruption that characterized his period in office. But when you interrogate the era, it was all because the late Head of State allowed the security goons to be out of control. As a former State House Correspondent who also had the rare privilege of later working as a presidential spokesman in the same Villa, I doubt if Abacha sanctioned most of what was going on at the time but his inordinate ambition provided an environment for the security agencies to go rogue. That explains why it should worry Nigerians that we are gradually descending into a police state where the liberties of citizens can no longer be taken for granted, where public officials who are supposed to be neutral in the discharge of their responsibilities are not only partisan but now openly wear the campaign lapel of the incumbent president, a throwback to the Abacha era.

Given the internal contradictions that have led to convulsions within the ruling APC, the orgy of violence in certain theatres across the country and the manner in which institutions of state are now being used to fight personal battles, there are genuine reasons to be apprehensive as democracy loses its meaning when mob passion or crude coercion overwhelms the rule of law and public decency. Yet, if there is any lesson we must learn from the Abacha era, it is that when the security and law enforcement institutions become extensions of the political agenda of the incumbent and the political elite cannot see beyond its narrow interests, the society can never advance or be peaceful.

As we therefore approach the 2019 general election, with the security agencies preoccupied with regime protection, at a time a cult of personality has effectively been built around the president by an uncritical mob while the National Assembly leadership becomes increasingly desperate (also in pursuit of their personal agenda), the answer to the question Abacha posed to our system (before the divine intervention of 8th June 1988) lies in the people not letting down their guards. Eternal vigilance, as the old saying goes, is the price of liberty!

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