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.