Sani Abacha (About this sound pronunciation ; 20 September 1943 – 8 June 1998) was a Nigerian Army officer and politician who served as the de facto President of Nigeria from 1993 to 1998.
Seizure of power
On 17 November 1993, Abacha overthrew the short-lived transitional government of Chief Ernest Shonekan. In September 1994, he issued a decree that placed his government above the jurisdiction of the courts, effectively giving him absolute power. Another decree gave him the right to detain anyone for up to three months without trial.
The Abacha administration became the first to record unprecedented economic achievements: he oversaw an increase in the country’s foreign exchange reserves from $494 million in 1993 to $9.6 billion by the middle of 1997, reduced the external debt of Nigeria from $36 billion in 1993 to $27 billion by 1997, brought all the controversial privatization programs of the Babangida administration to halt, reduced an inflation rate of 54% inherited from Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida to 8.5% between 1993 and 1998, all while the nation’s primary commodity, oil was at an average of $15 per barrel.
Human rights abuses
Abacha’s government was accused of human rights abuses, especially after the hanging of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa by the Oputa Commission (only one of several executions of Ogoni activists opposed to the exploitation of Nigerian resources by the multinational petroleum company, Royal Dutch Shell Group); Moshood Abiola and Olusegun Obasanjo were jailed for treason, and Wole Soyinka charged in absentia with treason. His regime suffered opposition externally by pro-democracy activists. He however supported the Economic Community of West African States and sent Nigerian troops to Liberia and Sierra Leone to help restore democracy to those countries.
Despite being repeatedly condemned by the US State Department, Abacha did have a few ties to American politics. In 1997, Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) travelled to Nigeria to meet with Abacha as a representative of the “Family”, a group of evangelical Christian politicians and civic leaders. Abacha and the Family had a business and political relationship from that point until his death. Abacha also developed ties with other American political figures such as Senator Carol Moseley Braun, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Minister Louis Farrakhan. Several African American political leaders visited Nigeria during his reign and Farrakhan supported his administration.
During Abacha’s regime, he and his family reportedly stole a total of £5 billion from the country’s coffers. In 2004, Abacha was listed as the fourth most corrupt leader in history. Interestingly, during a service marking the 10th year anniversary of the death of the dictator, several former Nigerian heads of state, including Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, refuted claims that Abacha looted the country, claiming such accusations are “baseless”. Abacha’s national security adviser, Alhaji Ismaila Gwarzo, played a central role in the looting and transfer of money to overseas accounts. His son Mohammed Abacha and best friend Alh. Mohammed M. Sada were also involved.
A preliminary report published by the Abdulsalam Abubakar transitional government in November 1998 described the process. Sani Abacha told Ismaila Gwarzo to provide fake funding requests, which Abacha approved. The funds were usually sent in cash or travellers’ cheques by the Central Bank of Nigeria to Gwarzo, who took them to Abacha’s house. Mohammed Sada then arranged to launder the money to offshore accounts. But interestingly, several calls for the prosecution of MM.Sada were turned down by the Olusegun Obasanjo presidency even after being indicted by the Justice Oputa lead Human Rights Violation Investigation Commission (popularly known as Oputa Panel). An estimated $1.4 billion in cash was delivered in this way.
In March 2014, the United States Department of Justice revealed that it had frozen more than $458 million believed to have been illegally obtained by Abacha and other corrupt officials.
Early in 1998, Abacha announced that elections would be held that August, with a view toward handing power to a civilian government on 1 October. It soon became apparent, though, that Abacha had no intention of permitting an honest election; by April he had strong-armed the country’s five parties into endorsing him as the sole presidential candidate.
Abacha died in June 1998 while at the presidential villa in Abuja. He was buried on the same day, according to Muslim tradition, without an autopsy. This fueled speculation that he may have been executed extrajudicially by way of being poisoned by political rivals via prostitutes. The government identified the cause of death as a sudden heart attack. It is reported that he was in the company of two Indian prostitutes imported from Dubai. It is thought that the prostitutes laced his drink with a poisonous substance, making Abacha feel unwell around 4:30am. He retired to his bed and was dead by 6:15am.
After Abacha’s death, Maj. Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, Nigeria’s Chief of Defence Staff, was sworn in as the country’s head of state. Abubakar had never before held public office and was quick to announce a transition to democracy, which led to the election of President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Abacha was married to Maryam Abacha and had seven sons and three daughters. He left fifteen grandchildren: eight girls and seven boys.