By ABBA MAHMOOD –
Tomorrow, November 17, it will be exactly 24 years since General Sani Abacha took over power from Chief Ernest Shonekan, the head of the Interim National Government set up after the annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election. The Abacha administration has been variously described as a child of necessity and indeed it was. A high court in Lagos had declared the Shonekan regime illegal and Nigeria was heading towards a national crisis. Many prominent citizens, including Professor Bolaji Ahinyemi, a former foreign minister, and even the presumed winner of the June 12 presidential election, Chief MKO Abiola, openly called on Abacha to take over to save Nigeria from imminent collapse.
A veteran of military coups, General Abacha answered the call and effortlessly took over in one of the most peaceful, bloodless military coup d’état in Africa’s history. If there was any legitimate coup, the Abacha coup was indeed one: Chief Shonekan resigned in a national broadcast; Chief Abiola visited Abacha and the political class from the then two political parties all gave names of those who should be in Abacha’s cabinet, thus conferring the much-needed legitimacy to that government.
Apart from the Gowon cabinet, no other cabinet consisted of prominent politicians like that of Abacha – Adamu Ciroma, Bamanga Tukur, Abubakar Rimi, Lateef Jakande, Jimi Nwobodo, Babagana Kingibe (who was Abiola’s running mate), Uche Chukwumerije, Olu Onagoruwa, Solomon Lar, Anthony Ani, Iyorchia Ayu, Uba Ahmed, etc. were all ministers in the Abacha cabinet. The situation quickly calmed down.
It appears that apart from President Babangida no one correctly knew Abacha. Most politicians underrated him. They actually forgot that he was the first four-star general in Nigeria’s history who never jumped any rank and never promoted himself to attain that position. They equally forgot that for at least one decade he was at the highest decision-making level of the federal government, thus gaining much needed experience, exposure and expertise before becoming the head of state. Abacha was indeed one of the most prepared leaders in Nigeria’s history. In fact, he was the second African general to be given one of the highest military honours by the US years before he took over.
Under Abacha, no one was above the law, and everyone knew who was in charge. When he promulgated the Failed Banks Decree which was the first anti-corruption Act, so many hitherto untouchable VIPs were arrested and the loans they took and refused to pay back were recovered from them. One of the most powerful traditional rulers in Nigeria’s contemporary history, Sultan Dasuki, was deposed and detained. One of the richest individuals at that time, Chief Abiola himself was arrested and detained. No one would ever have contemplated any government arresting generals Obasanjo and Yar’Adua in Nigeria but the Abacha administration did that.
No government gave the issue of security the necessary attention like Abacha’s. As far as Abacha was concerned, security of life and property of citizens and the territorial integrity of Nigeria were sacrosanct. That was why there were no kidnappings. No insurgency and no militancy were tolerated as they were promptly dealt with. When Cameroon laid claim to the Bakassi Peninsula, Abacha quickly stationed troops there and granted Bakassi local government status in Nigeria’s constitution. He rightly protected it as Nigerian territory until his death in June 1998 and, afterwards, the case was adjudicated at the International Court of Justice in October 2002 as brought by Cameroon.
General Abacha gave the national economy the needed attention. To address the dilapidated national infrastructure, he set up the Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund (PTF) where the marginal petroleum products’ price increase was used to repair roads, hospitals, schools and other institutions. The PTF was under a trusted board made up of people of integrity under the chairmanship of General Buhari, a former head of state, now president of Nigeria. Abacha gave them free hand to operate. For most of the period of the Abacha regime, the naira was predictably exchanging for N80 to one dollar. He never took any external debts and refused to be dictated to by the Bretton Woods institutions. There was a National Economic Intelligence Committee under the chairmanship of Prof. Sam Aluko, one of Nigeria’s most renowned economists. Nigerian professionals never had it so good as that time.
Discussions and consultations were some of the hallmarks of the Abacha era. He set up the National Constitutional Conference of mostly elected delegates to fashion a unique Nigerian constitution. For state creation, he set up the Arthur Mbanefo Committee to collate views from across Nigeria before he created the last six states, some of the most viable, in 1996. He set up the Transition Implementation Committee to midwife the transition to civil rule. To fashion a home-grown economic blueprint, he set up a committee consisting of both private and public sector operators under Chief Shonekan which came up with the Vision 2010 blueprint for national development, but unfortunately jettisoned by subsequent governments.
During the Abacha regime, Nigeria was in words and actions the true African leader. Throughout his time as head of state, Abacha never travelled outside Africa, perhaps to give effect to Nigeria’s Africa-centred foreign policy. The World Council of Mayors was hosted here in Abuja for the first and only time. Pope John Paul II was here on state visit. Nigeria was president of the UN Security Council during Abacha when the obnoxious apartheid policy of the minority white regime in South Africa was dismantled. For the first time in the history of Africa also, Abacha reversed a coup d’état and re-installed the overthrown democratically elected President Tejan Kabbah in Sierra Leone, when Nigeria’s General Maxwell Khobe successfully flushed out the Paul Koroma junta there. Nobody joked with Nigeria. Nigeria was well respected by all.
Even in sports, Nigeria never had it so good either before or after General Abacha. For the first time Nigeria earned gold medals in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics including the much-coveted one in football. Abacha personally phoned the players and sportsmen and women during these competitions. He motivated them and they in turn patriotically won laurels for Nigeria under the then sports minister, Chief Jim Nwobodo. Regardless of what was being subsequently said and printed to paint Abacha black, history will record him as one of the greatest leaders of his time. And history is always on the side of the oppressed.