20 YEARS AGO – By 10am the news had spread far and wide via landline telephones, for there was no GSM in the country then. Beer parlours filled up with jubilant youth. Vehicle drivers honked horns. People assembled in groups discussing the news which had not yet been confirmed.
Soon, the media caught it. The CNN reported, “Nigerian leader reported dead”. And the government-owned NTA and Radio Nigeria could no longer conceal it: the head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, General Sani Abacha, was dead!
It was the first time a Nigerian head of state died and there was celebration galore in most parts of the country. The “maximum ruler” who was about to transmute to the country’s civilian president through a fraudulent process had answered the call. It was a time many, especially in the south, were clamouring for June 12 – the presidential election held in 1993 that was won by Moshood Abiola but was annulled by the military regime of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida.
What killed Abacha? How did he die?
The news about town in the days after his demise was that he died in the midst of Indian prostitutes. One of the “hot” ladies gave him a poisoned apple, the story went.
However, his chief security officer at the time, Major Hamza Al-Mustapha [he was jailed shortly after by the succeeding regime of Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar] sometime in 2014 dismissed claims that Abacha died after eating an apple.
Al-Mustapha said his former boss’ health started collapsing on June 7, 1998, at the Abuja International Airport, immediately after one of the white security operatives accompanying President Yasser Arafat of Palestine shook hands with him.
After the handshake, Al-Mustapha said he noticed the change in the countenance of Abacha and informed his ADC, Lt. Col. Abdallah, who advised that “we keep a close watch on the head of state”.
Later in the evening of June 7, said Al-Mustapha, his doctor came and administered an injection to stabilize him.
He continued his story: “He was advised to have a short rest. Happily enough, by 9pm the head of state was bouncing and receiving visitors until much later when General Jeremiah Useni, the then minister of the Federal Capital Territory, came calling.
“They stayed and chatted together till about 3:35am. A friend of the house was with me in my office and, as he was bidding me farewell, he came back to inform me that the FCT minister, General Useni, was out of the head of state’s guest house within the Villa. I then decided to inform the ADC and other security boys that I would be on my way home to prepare for the early morning event at the International Conference Centre.
“At about 5am, the security guards ran to my quarters to inform me that the head of state was very unstable. At first, I thought it was a coup attempt. Immediately, I prepared myself fully for any eventuality. As an intelligence officer and the chief security officer to the head of state for that matter, I devised a means of diverting the attention of the security boys from my escape route by asking my wife to continue chatting with them at the door – she was in the house while the boys were outside. From there, I got to the guest house of the head of state before them.
“When I got to the bedside of the head of state, he was already gasping. Ordinarily, I could not just touch him. It was not allowed in our job. But under the situation on ground, I knelt close to him and shouted, ‘General Sani Abacha, Sir, please grant me permission to touch and carry you.’
“I again knocked at the stool beside the bed and shouted in the same manner, yet he did not respond. I then realized there was a serious danger. I immediately called the head of state’s personal physician, Dr Wali, who arrived in the place under 8 minutes from his house. He immediately gave oga two doses of injection, one at the heart and another close to his neck.
“This did not work apparently, as the head of state had turned very cold. He then told me that the head of state was dead and nothing could be done after all. I there and then asked the personal physician to remain with the dead body while I dashed home to be fully prepared for the problems that might arise from the incident.
“As soon as I informed my wife, she collapsed and burst into tears. I secured my house and then ran back. At that point, the aide-de-camp had been contacted by me and we decided that great caution must be taken in handling the grave situation.”
Abacha ruled Nigeria from November 17, 1993 (the day of his coup) until his death on June 8, 1998.
His emergence as head of state followed Babangida’s decision to “step aside” on August 26, 1993. He handed over to an interim government led by Ernest Shonekan. But General Abacha remained chief of army staff. After 82 days he struck – and Shonekan was forced to resign.
He dissolved the two political parties, SDP and NRC.
It was Abacha that arrested Chief Abiola in June 1994 when he wanted to claim his mandate, after waiting in vain for Abacha to give it to him as he (Abacha) was said to have promised before his coup. While Abiola was in jail, pro-democracy movements led by NADECO were making the country ungovernable. Abacha fought them and they fought back.
In 1995 a coup said to have been led by Col. Lawan Gwadabe was “uncovered”. Many prominent people including retired generals Olusegun Obasanjo and Shehu Yar’Adua, journalists like Kunle Ajibade, and rights leader Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti were implicated, “tried” and jailed.
In January 1996, Abacha’s first son died in a jet crash. On June 4, 1996, Abiola’s wife was assassinated in Lagos. Several NADECO chieftains were killed or arrested. Others fled the country. Yar’Adua died in custody in December 1997.
Until his death, Abacha sat on the report of a constitution conference of 1994–95. His government registered five political parties all of which endorsed him [Abacha] as their presidential candidate.
His sudden death brought relief to many. Abiola’s death while in custody followed 30 days later.
Questions are still being asked: who and what killed both men?