Memories of Gen. Sani Abacha linger, 18 years after

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By Femi Ogunshola,

Some 18 years ago, June 8, 1998 to be precise, when the death of the then Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha, was announced; the news elicited mixed reactions across the country.

To some, the news marked the end of a ruler who ruled Nigeria with an iron hand from Nov. 17, 1993 to June 8, 1998, while to others; the death signified the end of a patriot.

In a nutshell, Nigerians, who are privileged to know the life and times of Gen Sani Abacha, have different perceptions of the late military ruler.

While some see him as the best thing ever to happen to Nigeria, others view him as a head of state who ruled with an iron fist.

Prof. Femi Odekunle, former Special Adviser to ex-Chief of General Staff, Lt.-Gen. Oladipo Diya, on Political Matters, once told his students in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, that persons like Alhaji Wada Nas and retired Lt.-Gen Jeremiah Useni, who were close associates to Abacha, would forever be grateful to him.

“In spite of my agonising experience under Abacha, he still remained a good man to those who benefited from him because nobody can be extremely good and nobody can be extremely bad,’’ he said.

The professor’s reminiscences were a response to a question which a student asked during his lecture on psychology as to if Abacha could be described as a good man in spite of his harrowing experience under the Abacha-regime.

From all indications the student’s question and his lecturer’s reply were both apt.

To the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, a renowned human rights activist and lawyer, who had a running battle with the Abacha-administration, the regime was very high-handed.

However, to Wada Nas, a former minister in the Abacha-administration, Gen. Sani Abacha was the best ruler in Nigerian history.

Abacha, born on Sept. 20, 1943, became Nigeria’s military head of state on Nov. 17, 1993 and ruled for almost five years before dying under mysterious circumstances.

Political historians recall the circumstances leading to Abacha’s ascension to power in 1993 as Nigeria’s seventh military head of state:

Gen. Ibrahim Babangida had just left government, following the crisis that cropped up after the annulment of the result of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, purportedly won by Chief MKO Abiola.

Babangida, who ruled for eight years, handed over power to Chief Ernest Shonekan, who headed the Interim National Government (ING), in which Abacha was the Secretary of Defence.

Initially, Abacha, no doubt, played a major role in giving the ING some measure of credibility and acceptance among the wide spectrum of Nigeria’s political class and the international community.

Bolstered by the lingering crisis that plagued the ING, Abacha tactically edged out Shonekan from power and became military Head of State.

Today, it is exactly 18 years since Abacha’s death but stories continue to re-echo on how he ruled Nigeria and the way he handled all forms of dissent or opposition, particularly the agitations of pro-democracy activists.

Nevertheless, some analysts underscore the need to be fair to Abacha, while discussing Nigeria’s socio-political and economic history.

This school of thought describes the late ruler as a distinguished Nigerian, a fine officer, a great reconciliator and a seasoned administrator.

They recall that Abacha was very popular and highly revered among his peers in the top military echelon because of his professional mien.

On his economic policies, the experts note that Abacha increased the pump price of fuel just once throughout his four-and-a-half-year tenure and set up the Petroleum Special Trust Fund (PTF).

The PTF was widely acknowledged to have performed well in infrastructural development efforts and intervention programmes in education, health and water sectors.

The late general was also described as a good economic manager, having stabilised the exchange rate of the naira at N22 to one U.S. dollar during his reign, while the unofficial rate was N80 to a dollar.

Under the Abacha-administration, the country’s foreign exchange reserves soared from 494 million U.S. dollars in 1993 to 9.6 billion U.S. dollars by the middle of 1997.

The government also reduced Nigeria’s external debt from 36 billion U.S. dollars in 1993 to 27 billion U.S. dollars by 1997.

It also brought all the controversial privatisation programmes of the Babangida-administration to a halt, while reducing the 54-per-cent inflation rate it inherited from its predecessor to 8.5 per cent between 1993 and 1998.

Besides, Abacha set up the 1995 constitutional conference, in which two important recommendations emerged. The proposals, which later came into force, include the 13-per-cent derivation for oil-producing areas and the delineation of Nigeria into six geopolitical zones.

His wife, Mrs Maryam Abacha, also participated in nation-building efforts by establishing National Hospital for Women and Children, Abuja, which later metamorphosed into National Hospital, Abuja, a foremost hospital in the country.

On the foreign scene, Abacha supported the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the efforts of ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) to restore peace in war-torn Liberia and Sierra Leone.

All the same, the Abacha-regime has always been accused of monumental corruption and large scale plundering of the country’s treasury.

In fact, successive administrations, right from President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration to the current administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, have been making frantic efforts to recover the stolen money which was stashed abroad in different currencies.

Meanwhile, Major Hamzat Al-Mustapha, the former Chief Security Officer (CSO) to Gen. Sani Abacha, has described reports about Abacha’s loot by successive governments as a hoax and deliberate attempt by some powerful individuals to smear his name even in death.

Al-Mustapha who made the declaration at a recent media interaction at Airport Hotel, Ikeja, claimed that the monies in question were only kept in foreign accounts to stave off the international community’s threat of sanctions against the Abacha-regime and keep Nigeria afloat.

He alleged that Abacha’s decision to keep the monies abroad was taken after due consultations with relevant stakeholders.

“During the time of Abacha, sanctions were threatened upon Nigeria and at the request of some notable Nigerians, including traditional rulers, key politicians and businessmen; some measures were taken to allow some monies to be saved in some foreign accounts abroad.

“The thinking was that whenever the sanctions come, the monies would be used to keep Nigeria afloat. At that time, Chief Tom Ikime, was the foreign affairs minister.

“These stakeholders can still testify to what the money was meant for and I can remember many of the big men who attended the Abuja meeting where the decision was taken.

“The lodgements will show whether those monies were kept in Gen. Abacha’s name before he became Head of State and whether the monies were kept in his name after he became Head of State,” he added.

Al-Mustapha claimed that some Nigerians, who Abacha had to deal with in the face of the mounting opposition against his government, were responsible for the smear campaign.

Whether Al-Mustapha’s sentiments are an afterthought that is true or false, only God can tell, but one thing is, however, clear: Gen. Sani Abacha was a Nigerian ruler who created more enemies than friends due to his approach to governance. (NANFeatures)