By ABBA MAHMOOD –
It’s exactly 19 years since Nigeria’s head of state General Sani Abacha died in office; he became the first Nigerian leader to do so in a non-coup d’etat. He took over power on November 17, 1993, after a Lagos high court declared the Shonekan-led Interim National Government (ING) illegal. There was a power vacuum and Gen. Abacha was practically begged to intervene and save the situation and indeed the nation. He served as head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces for four years and seven months in one of the most eventful era in the nation’s history.
General Abacha came to power well prepared. He was the first Nigerian four-star general who never jumped any rank from second-lieutenant until he attained the rank of four-star general. He was also the first four-star general who never promoted himself but was promoted by successive governments. Having served at the highest decision-making level for almost a decade before he became head of state, he was indeed adequately exposed and sufficiently experienced in the art of governance.
He assembled one of the best cabinets in the history of Nigeria: Alhaji Lateef Jakande, Alhaji Bamanga Tukur, Mallam Adamu Ciroma, Chief Anthony Ani, Chief Olu Onagoruwa, Alhaji Abubakar Rimi, Dr Walter Ofonagoro, Comrade Uche Chukwumerije, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe (incidentally MKO Abiola’s running mate), Dr Sarki Tafida, and Chief Tom Ikimi were some of his ministers. It was only General Gowon’s cabinet that could boast such array of political heavyweights. He came to power with the full consent of the political class as represented by the two political parties as well as the military. And it was a bloodless operation – he himself was a veteran of coups.
The primary responsibility of any government is the protection of life and property of its people. Accordingly, Abacha gave maximum attention to security. Mr Peter Nwaoduah, a thorough professional was director-general of the State Security Service (SSS) under Abacha. For the military, General Ishaya Bamaiyi was army chief; Admiral Mike Akhigbe was navy chief; and Air Marshal Nsikak Eduah was air force chief. All these were minorities and Christians, conclusively proving that Abacha was never a tribal or religious bigot. He only chose the best based on merit to serve the nation to the best of their abilities.
After security, the welfare of citizens is the main priority of any responsible government. Accordingly, Abacha gave attention to the national economy. He assembled some of the best economic brains that Nigeria had under the National Economic Intelligence Committee chaired by Prof. Sam Aluko, of course with Chief Ani as finance minister. The result was there for all to see: with oil price at less than $10 per barrel throughout the administration, he was able to continue paying the external debts and the exchange rate was N80 to one US dollar for most of his period so that manufacturers could plan ahead, and the economic indices were very predictable.
He raised the domestic price of petrol to N11 per litre and set up the Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund (PTF) to use part of the proceeds from the price increase to repair critical infrastructure. For chairman of the Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund (PTF), he appointed General Muhammadu Buhari. The PTF turned out to be a model intervention agency which was able to repair over 12,000 kilometres of roads across the country, and able to supply and repair many hospitals, schools, and other institutions using Nigerian professionals. That helped in laying a strong foundation for young professional private-sector operators in various sectors of the economy who helped in resuscitating many dilapidated infrastructure.
For medium- to long-term national economic planning, he assembled key economic players under the chairmanship of Chief Ernest Shonekan, the head of the ING who was for a long time chairman of the UAC. They produced VISION 2010 — a home-grown blueprint for Nigeria’s economic development. Before its full implementation, Gen. Abacha died and subsequent administrations jettisoned that fine document with none like it again.
Abacha committed to the re-professionalization of the military. There were two known coup attempts on his regime — in 1995 and 1997 — and on each occasion it was nipped in the bud and the suspects were arrested and tried. General Bamaiyi writes in his book Vindication of A General: “People used the term ‘phantom coup’ because it was the Abacha period, and Abacha is the only military Head of State to spare coup plotters who were arrested, tried and convicted. If it had occurred during the reign of another military Head of State, no one would have talked of a ‘phantom coup’.”
General Abacha was not only determined to make sure that his was the last military incursion into governance in Nigeria but he was committed to seeing the same for the West African sub-region. That was why when Major Paul Koroma and his group overthrew the government of Tejan Kabbah in Sierra Leone, Abacha quickly assembled ECOMOG soldiers under Nigeria’s Gen. Maxwell Khobe [may his soul rest in peace] to flush out Koroma and reverse the coup. It was the first time a coup was reversed. Abacha personally took Kabbah and returned him to power in Freetown.
One area that Abacha made Nigeria proud was foreign relations. Under Abacha, Nigeria was truly independent as far as policy autonomy was concerned. He did not allow an inch of Nigeria to be ceded to any country as he granted the disputed Bakassai Peninsula local government status and stationed troops there. He stood up to the pressure of the Commonwealth which he described as “an association like Boys’ Scout with no charter or constitution meant to massage the ego of a former imperial power” and said that Nigeria was not ready to take any dictation from the Commonwealth. All our neighbours respected us. Indeed even the global powers feared and were conscious of Nigeria’s power and influence in Africa and globally.
In sports, Abacha presided over Nigeria’s golden era. With Chief Jim Nwobodo as sport minister, Nigeria was able to win the African Cup of Nations, attend the World Cup for the first time, and won for the first time Olympic gold medals in the Atlanta Olympics in USA, especially the gold medal in football. Nigeria has never had it so good as far as international sports outing is concerned. All the sports men and women were motivated by patriotism and the head of state usually personally spoke to them on phone to encourage them.
After his death, there was much propaganda on a so-called “Abacha loot”. In the same book quoted above, Gen. Bamaiyi writes: “In the light of the increasingly battered image of Nigeria and even references to Nigeria in academic circles as a ‘rogue’ state, some decisions had to be taken if Nigeria was to continue to play its roles as a stabilizer in the West African region, a role very much valued by the United Nations. A decision was therefore reached to keep money in some countries that were a bit friendly to Nigeria. This decision was taken at a meeting in which the then Minister of Finance, Chief Anthony Ani, was present. It was agreed that some funds be transferred to some selected countries to ensure that government was in a position to get vital imports as and when necessary. That informed the transfer of funds to some countries.”
The truth shall always prevail. May God grant Abacha permanent abode in the Garden of Eden. Amen.
History is on the side of the oppressed.