Nigeria: Legacies of General Sani Abacha

1993, a pivotal year for Nigeria, is in some ways still very much present. That year, a long-promised transition from military to civilian rule was blocked. Presidential elections organized by the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida were annulled, and by year’s end a new military regime, that of General Sani Abacha, was in place. The apparent winner of the June 1993 elections, businessman M.K.O. Abiola, was jailed in 1994, and remained in captivity until his death in 1998, only two weeks after the death of Abacha. The deaths of Abacha and Abiola, both of which occurred in mysterious circumstances, sparked a period of political turbulence that ultimately birthed Nigeria’s Fourth Republic in 1999.

The names of Abacha and Abiola are back in the news this week. The Lagos State High Court recently passed a death sentence against a close aide of Abacha’s, Major Hamza al-Mustapha, whom the Court found guilty of murdering Abiola’s wife Kudirat (she was shot in 1996). Al-Mustapha’s case has occasioned substantial commentary in the Nigerian press and a statement by at least one political party, the Lagos chapter of the Action Congress of Nigeria. The names Abacha and Abiola, especially when they’re evoked due to an event like this, have powerful associations with fundamental struggles in Nigerian politics over democracy, transparency, and accountability.

Abacha may look like the villain of this story, but he is not necessarily a one-dimensional or evil figure for everyone in Nigeria. American political science literature on Nigeria consistently depicts Abacha’s rule as brutal, a brutality symbolized above all by the execution of activist Ken Saro Wiwa in 1995. The conviction of al-Mustapha lends weight to this image of Abacha.

Political scientists sometimes take the step, however, of assuming that brutality automatically engenders unpopularity. The evidence for this contention is more mixed. After having read for years how much Nigerians hated Abacha’s rule and welcomed the return to democracy in 1999, I was surprised in Kano to see and hear, on a regular basis, testaments to Abacha’s continuing popularity. The General’s sticker appears on a number of cabs and cars in the city, and during periods of political tension and insecurity some people spoke nostalgically of his rule. One of the General’s sons came close to being the gubernatorial candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change in last year’s elections in Kano, suggesting that his father’s name is not completely mud in the state.* These examples all come from Kano, which after all is Abacha’s home town, but to me they indicate that the General’s legacies are more complicated inside Nigeria than outsiders might imagine at first.

Zooming out even further, these contradictory legacies are yet another demonstration of Faulkner’s observation that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Whatever Abacha’s legacy is, it is still relevant to Nigerian politics.

*The family’s money may also be a factor in the younger Abacha’s prominence, however.


17 thoughts on “Nigeria: Legacies of General Sani Abacha

  1. Of course Abacha would be popular in Kano. He was an SOB, but he was their SOB (forgive my language). If you move a few hundred kilometers to either Katsina or Sokoto, you’ll meet intense hatred for Abacha (the senior Yar’adua died in detention under Abacha and a sultan of Sokoto was deposed by Abacha).

    I lived under Abacha and I can only speak for my self. He was a thoroughly nasty piece of business – and those views are shared by the vast majority of Nigerians.

    (I am worried by the tone of this blog posting, it makes me wonder whether foreigners are best equipped to present a balanced view of Nigeria’s complexities).

    • I knew you wouldn’t like this one! But this “only Nigerians can understand Nigeria” line, I mean, anyone can say that about their country. I see part of the picture, you see part of the picture, we all have our biases, and in fact no one “understands” Nigeria, or the United States, or anywhere else for that matter.

      • Abacha is popular the same way Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il are still popular with some segments of the Iraqi and North Korean population. Mobutu still has his die-hard followers (and his tribe still sees him as a great man).

        What exactly does the popularity prove? Nothing.

        Sometimes it is important to take a step back and consider the empirical evidence. What kind of environment existed when Abacha was in power? A climate of fear and government sponsored assassinations?

        Who was responsible for the murders of Kudirat Abiola, Alfred Rewane, Baguada Kaltho, Ken Saro-Wiwa and several others. Has any Nigerian administration gone to the lengths Abacha went to in perpetuating a personality cult and abuse of human rights? No.

        Did you come to Nigeria with the assumption that Abacha would not be popular in Kano or that Babangida won’t be popular in Minna or that Yar’adua won’t be popular in Katsina?

      • Thanks for responding with substantive points. To make it clear, I’m happy to have debates here – I just get sick of the ad hominem stuff.

        The main point of the post is not to argue that Abacha is broadly popular or that his rule was good – I do not believe either of those things. The point of the post is that his legacies (plural) still matter for Nigeria. Al-Mustapha’s trial is not an ordinary murder trial; it is an event that touches on powerful – and, it seems to me, partly unresolved – political memories and conflicts.

        To say that Abacha still has some support in Kano is not to say that he is popular across Nigeria, but rather that different Nigerians have different memories of the man and different views on his rule. Perhaps you are saying that the number of Nigerians who recall his rule positively is so small that it doesn’t matter, or that their allegiances are simply sectarian and therefore don’t matter. But even if 90% of Nigerians hate Abacha, that does not mean that he is irrelevant, or that his ghost does not still haunt the country.

      • What was the political climate in Nigeria prior to Abacha’s rise to power? In Saddam’s case his rule benefited the Sunni and Christians, something they lost with his fall. Did Abacha favor northern Nigeria over the south?

      • Gyre,

        You could say he favoured certain segments of the Northern elite (a very small segment of the population). But he was an equal opportunities human rights abuser.

        Shehu Yar’adua and Shehu Sani (both from the North) were sentenced to death for speaking out. Yar’adua died under mysterious circumstances, Sanni is alive to tell the tale. Obasanjo was imprisoned – trumped up charges. Saro-Wiwa and fellow Ogonis were hastily tried and hanged. Kudirat Abiola, Alfred Rewane and Baguada Kaltho were murdered (Baguada’s body hasn’t been located till today).

        An assassination attempt was made on Alex Ibru (lost an eye) and Abraham Adesanya. Wole Soyinka had to flee to neighbouring Benin for his dear life. Lawan Gwadabe (another Northerner) was physically wrecked by torture. Perceived rivals in the Military were bombed.

        Nigeria has never witnessed such a wicked and callous regime. The fear in the air could be tasted. Even as a teenager I noticed it.

      • Interesting. He also only managed to last five years. If he targeted other members of the military then he couldn’t have been sure of his power there nor that the military command was firmly behind him. I wonder what suggested he could hold power.

      • Alex,

        Sorry if I came across as being brash, but Abacha is an emotional topic for many Nigerians.

        The point still remains that even the worst of dictators have a support base. Saddam is still loved in Tikrit, Gaddafi is still loved in Sirte and the Confederacy is still loved in Alabama and “Dixie land” (the context for your Faulkner quote).

        It isn’t revolutionary for a scholar to point that out, that is human nature.

        The question should be “what impact does/did Abacha have on the Nigerian state”. Most people would agree that (together with Babangida), he accelerated the decline of Nigerian institutions, these observations can be supported by facts.

        Alas, I am no longer a scholar (I once thought I was one), but I had to go into business to pay the bills! I cannot challenge you, but I still need to make my thoughts known.

  2. Alex, my observations in Kano are similar. Having lived in Jos during the Abacha era and remembering it as a very bad time, I was surprised by how many people I met in Kano over the past three and a half years who held Abacha as a beloved figure, whom they felt was much maligned. When I would bring up human rights abuses that occurred under Abacha, they would bring up human rights abuses under Obasanjo. Among his “achievements,” they claimed were the PTF initiative and the creation of 6 additional states.

    I personally agree with Maduka that Abacha was a nasty piece of work and it may be that as people become more angry with corrupt politicians/elite in general that these feelings of love might be fading (I observed this in friends who initially liked the Abacha family but when Mohammad Abacha ran for governor said something about how he didn’t know anything about politics but thought that his money could buy anything.) However, I don’t think it is uncalled for (who says all observations on a blog have to be “revolutionary”?) to point the different ways in which he was remembered. The outcry over the sentencing of Al-Mustapha I think points to some of this complexity.

    Here are a few links to people from Kaduna, Kano, and Abuja praising Abacha that are representative of the sorts of things I heard in Kano:

    • Thanks Carmen. For what it’s worth I also see Abacha as a brutal ruler – I’m definitely not trying to defend him! – but I was just surprised at the contrast between what the scholarly literature says about Abacha (everyone hated him) and what people were saying in Kano.

      That’s interesting that state creation is seen as one of his top achievements.

      Thanks also for these links, I will check them out.

    • Maduka, You are certainly welcome to your opinion. However, I posted links to opinion pieces, illustrating certain feelings about Abacha that Alex and I observed in Kano, not “news.” Furthermore, three of the links came from other sources. Neither Alex or I is trying to promote Abacha-love–just pointing that there is not one monolithic way in which he is remembered.

      • Of course some people still think that James Ibori (convicted criminal) is a great man or that Al-Mustapha is wonderful. Where does it end? Isn’t it expected?

        What does it prove?

  3. Pingback: Daily bread v. liberty | Niger Delta Politics

  4. abacha would be popular, if u look at the stuation of the present government, during abacha’s government nigeria is 27th currupt country but it was even rated 2scnd, in abacha’s government fuel price is 23 while now how much its? In abacha’ government there was nothing like boko haram and dollar is 80 naira, in abacha’s regim nigeria has even got foreing reservr account with bellion of dollers. So now who is the dictator and misguded ruler????

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