By Buchi Obichie
In light of the recent flowery comments made about the late Gen Sani Abacha by President Muhammadu Buhari, the writer, Buchi Obichie, recalls her memories of the former head of state. She recollects the mood of the country during his regime and at his sudden death, and explains why he should not been used as a reference point for good! One spectacular night, while I was in still in secondary school, there was suddenly a loud cry of jubilation coming from the adjoining dining hall, where a ‘Senior’ had just made an announcement.
It was prep time and we were all seated at our 14-person tables, staring at books whose words we really weren’t assimilating, trying very hard to stay awake. At the sound of jubilation however, we all stood; waiting for the announcement to get to our own section. Eventually, it did; and just like my friends around me, I started jumping up and down with joy, then I packed my books into my bag, and ran out. It was chaos everywhere. Prep had been canceled. We were all told to go to our dormitories and just celebrate…no more reading for that night…just celebration till lights out! So, what was the announcement? It was this: Head of State, General Sani Abacha, had just passed away. The date was June 8, 1998.
In normal times, death is not a thing to be celebrated; but these were not normal times. And even though we were still basically children, we knew enough to comprehend the gravity and significance of the moment. Our minds were still young, but we knew that the man who had held a tight, fearsome grip on our nation and given our parents so much cause for grief, had passed on. That was why we were celebrating.
I remember Sani Abacha as a ruthless leader…no, the right term is ‘dictator’. I remember the atmosphere of great, palpable fear that pervaded during his regime; and how even within our household, people seemed to always speak in ‘hushed tones’ whenever they discussed about him. I remember the suffering in silence, the fear of arrests, and the total clampdown on society. I remember the almost complete erase of all semblances of free speech, the truncating of democratic norms and values, and the eventual isolation of the nation in the international community. During the 5-year rule of Abacha, many critics and opponents of his brutal regime were hounded like animals; arrested on trumped-up charges, and sent to jail. Activists, journalists, even military men opposed to his sit-tight stance, were locked up; and some did not make it out alive.
Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, the acclaimed ruler of the 1993 presidential election was thrown in jail, when he insisted that his mandate be respected. Abiola would later die in jail! OBJ and Shehu Musa Yar’Adua were also locked up; and like Abiola, Yar’Adua did not make it out alive. Then, there was the unforgettable hanging of Ken Saro Wiwa and his Ogoni brethren. In that period as well, Alhaja Kudirat Abiola was assassinated! In my opinion, Abacha was mean; almost up to the point of being evil. He was also a ruthless despot who siphoned billions of dollars of the nation’s wealth, while common people survived on meager resources.
That is the Sani Abacha I remember. So, as you can imagine, it left a very sour taste in my mouth, when I heard our current president describe him in glowing terms. It is even ironical, that the man who claims to be a champion of the anti-corruption fight, would speak in such flowery terms, about an individual who plundered and looted the nation’s treasury without any consideration for its future! Till today, the famous ‘Abacha loot’ is still being recovered from abroad! But I guess these are the times we live in… The late great former South African president, Nelson Mandela, once described Abacha as an “irresponsible fellow”. Then later, he referred to him as a “corrupt military dictator in charge of an illegitimate and barbaric regime.” He was not wrong.
Abacha had overthrown the Interim National Government of Ernest Shonekan and perpetuated himself in power, with no plans to hand over to anyone else. But man is not God…his days were numbered. Sani Abacha died, and the nation jubilated; just as we did in Federal Government Girls College, Benin City. We were not sure about our future, but we were glad that the past was over. He was gone…there was a chance to rebuild…a chance for better days. I am not sure we have fared so well economically since then; but at least, we can have these sort of open conversations about the failures of our leaders, and proffer ideas on the way forward…something Abacha would NOT have permitted in his time!
So, for me, Sani Abacha can never be a reference point for good. All I remember about the man is sad, evil and dark…as dark as his famous ‘shades’. They say one should not speak evil of the dead; but then, there are exceptions. I mean, no sane person can ever speak well about Adolf Hitler, even though Abacha’s level of brutality pales in comparison to that of the Nazi dictator! To cut this story short, I would just point out that at Abacha’s death, there were not many tears; and reportedly, not a flag was in sight as his body was transported to his ancestral home of Kano for burial. There was only wild jubilation in streets, homes, schools and even churches. Nigerians jubilated that an era of deadly fear had come to an end…that is the Abacha I remember!