Sani Abacha

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Sani Abacha
Sani Abacha.jpg
10th Head of State of Nigeria
In office
17 November 1993 – 8 June 1998
Preceded byErnest Shonekan
Succeeded byAbdulsalami Abubakar
Chief of Defence Staff
In office
August 1990 – November 1993
Preceded byDomkat Bali
Succeeded byOladipo Diya
Chief of Army Staff
In office
August 1985 – August 1990
Preceded byIbrahim Babangida
Succeeded bySalihu Ibrahim
Personal details
Born(1943-09-20)20 September 1943
Kano, Northern Region, British Nigeria
Died8 June 1998(1998-06-08) (aged 54)
Abuja, FCT, Nigeria
Political partynone (military)
Spouse(s)Maryam Abacha
Military service
Branch/serviceFlag of the Nigerian Army Headquarters.svg Nigerian Army
Years of service1963–1998

Sani Abacha (About this soundpronunciation ; 20 September 1943 – 8 June 1998) was a Nigerian Army officer and dictator who served as the de facto President of Nigeria from 1993 until his death in 1998. He is also the first Nigerian soldier to attain the rank of a full star General without skipping a single rank.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

A Kanuri from Borno, Abacha was born and brought up in Kano, Nigeria. He attended the Nigerian Military Training College and Mons Officer Cadet School before being commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in 1963. [2]

Military career[edit]

Abacha was commissioned in 1963 after he had attended Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershot, England. Before then, he had attended the Nigerian Military Training College in Kaduna.[3]

Participation in coups[edit]

The military career of Abacha was marked by involvement by a string of successful coups. When he was still a Second Lieutenant with the 3rd Battalion in Kaduna, he took part in the July 1966 Nigerian counter-coup from the conceptual stage.[4] He could well have been a participant in the Lagos or Abeokuta phases of the coup the previous January as well.[citation needed]

In addition, Abacha took a prominent role in the 1983 Nigerian coup d'état which brought General Muhammadu Buhari to power in 1983, and the August 1985 coup which removed Buhari from power.[citation needed] When General Ibrahim Babangida was named President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 1985, Abacha was named Chief of Army Staff. He was appointed Minister of Defence in 1990.[5][6] Abacha became in 1993 the first Nigerian soldier to attain the rank of a full General without skipping a single rank.[citation needed]

Seizure of power[edit]

On 17 November 1993, Abacha overthrew the short-lived transitional government of Chief Ernest Shonekan. In his nationwide broadcast, Abacha cited the stagnant nature of Chief Ernest Shonekan's government, being unable to manage the democratic process in the country. In September 1994, he issued a decree that placed his government above the jurisdiction of the courts, effectively giving him absolute power. Another decree gave him the right to detain anyone for up to three months without trial.[7]


The Abacha administration became the first to record unprecedented economic achievements:[8] he oversaw an increase in the country's foreign exchange reserves from $494 million in 1993 to $9.6 billion by the middle of 1997, reduced the external debt of Nigeria from $36 billion in 1993 to $27 billion by 1997, brought all the controversial privatization programs of the Babangida administration to a halt, reduced an inflation rate of 54% inherited from Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida to 8.5% between 1993 and 1998, all while the nation's primary commodity, oil was at an average of $15 per barrel.[8]

Human rights abuses[edit]

Abacha's government was accused of human rights abuses, especially after the hanging of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa[9] by the Oputa Commission (only one of several executions of Ogoni activists opposed to the exploitation of Nigerian resources by the multinational petroleum company, Royal Dutch Shell Group); Moshood Abiola and Olusegun Obasanjo were jailed for treason, and Wole Soyinka charged in absentia with treason.[6] His regime suffered opposition externally by pro-democracy activists. He however supported the Economic Community of West African States and sent Nigerian troops to Liberia and Sierra Leone to help restore democracy to those countries.

Despite being repeatedly condemned by the US State Department,[10] Abacha did have a few ties to American politics. In 1997, Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) travelled to Nigeria to meet with Abacha as a representative of the "Family", a group of evangelical Christian politicians and civic leaders. Abacha and the Family had a business and political relationship from that point until his death.[11][12] Abacha also developed ties with other American political figures such as Senator Carol Moseley Braun, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Minister Louis Farrakhan. Several African American political leaders visited Nigeria during his reign and Farrakhan supported his administration.

Corruption allegations[edit]

During Abacha's regime, he and his family reportedly stole a total of £5 billion from the country's coffers.[13] In 2004, Abacha was listed as the fourth most corrupt leader in history.[14] During a service marking the 10th anniversary of the death of the dictator, several former Nigerian heads of state, including Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, refuted claims that Abacha looted the country, claiming such accusations are "baseless".[15][16][17] Abacha's national security adviser, Alhaji Ismaila Gwarzo, were accused by the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo to have played a central role in the looting and transfer of money to overseas accounts.[18] His son Mohammed Abacha and best friend Alh. Mohammed M. Sada were mentioned in the suit.

A preliminary report published by the Abdulsalam Abubakar transitional government in November 1998 described the process. The report mentioned that Sani Abacha told Ismaila Gwarzo to provide fake funding requests, which Abacha approved. The funds were usually sent in cash or travellers' cheques by the Central Bank of Nigeria to Gwarzo, who took them to Abacha's house. Mohammed Sada then arranged to launder the money to offshore accounts. But several calls for the prosecution of MM.Sada were turned down by the Olusegun Obasanjo presidency even after being indicted by the Justice Oputa lead Human Rights Violation Investigation Commission (popularly known as Oputa Panel).[19] An estimated $1.4 billion in cash was delivered in this way.[20]

In March 2014, the United States Department of Justice revealed that it had frozen more than $458 million believed to have been illegally obtained by Abacha and other corrupt officials.[21][22]


Early in 1998, Abacha announced that elections would be held in August of the same year, with a view toward handing power to a civilian government on 1 October. It soon became apparent, though, that Abacha was going to continue his presidency; by April, the country's five parties endorsed him as the sole presidential candidate. They defended this endorsement by citing the unprecedented economic milestones which he had achieved in his regime.[23][24]

Abacha died in June 1998 while at the presidential villa in Abuja. He was buried on the same day, according to Muslim tradition, without an autopsy. This fueled speculation that he may have been murdered by political rivals via poison.[25] The government identified the cause of death as a sudden heart attack.[26] It is thought that his drink was laced with a poisonous substance, making Abacha feel unwell around 4:30am. He retired to his bed and died by 6:15am.[27]

After Abacha's death, Maj. Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, Nigeria's Chief of Defence Staff, was sworn in as the country's head of state. Abubakar had never before held public office and was quick to announce a transition to democracy, which led to the election of ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo, who had been detained by Abacha for treason, and whom Abacha had accused of being involved in a coup attempt with Abacha's second in command Maj. General Oladipo Diya.

Abacha was married to Maryam Abacha and had seven sons and three daughters, he became a grandfather posthumously; as of 2018 he had thirty-three grandchildren. [28]


Abacha's legacy is mixed. His administration oversaw ECOMOG military successes in West Africa that raised Nigeria's military profile.[29] In February 2014, during Nigeria's centenary celebrations, the Nigerian government honoured Abacha for his contributions to the country's development[30] though Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka who was similarly honored by the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan criticized the honor bestowed on Abacha by rejecting the honor, noting it as the 'canonization of terror'.[31] Soyinka further noted that by honouring Abacha, the government of Goodluck Jonathan had gathered "a century’s accumulated degeneracy in one preeminent symbol, then place[d] it on a podium for the nation to admire, emulate and even – worship".[31] Abacha was largely unpopular in southern Nigeria because of his administration's human rights abuses, execution of Ken Saro Wiwa, resulting in Nigeria attaining a pariah status internationally.[32][33]

False representation of name[edit]

The names of Abacha, his wife Maryam, and son Mohammed are often used in advance fee fraud (419) scams; he is identified in scam letters as the source for money that does not exist.[34][35]

Recovery of stolen funds[edit]

After Abacha's death, the Obasanjo government implicated Abacha and his family in a wholesale looting of Nigeria's coffers. The late dictator's son, Mohammed Abacha, continues to maintain that all the assets in question were legitimately acquired.[36][37] In 2002, rumours circulated that Abacha's family purportedly agreed to return $1.2 billion that was taken from the central bank, they were found to be false. Sources in the Olusegun Obasanjo administration spoke of-record, disclosing that the whole Abacha Loot was a scam used by the administration for political points toward Obasanjo's bid for a second-term. [38]

U.S. forfeiture of Abacha for $480 million[edit]

On 7 August 2014, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the largest forfeiture in the DOJ's history: the return of $480 million to the Nigerian government.[39] Assistant Attorney General Caldwell noted that "rather than serve his country, General Abacha used his public office in Nigeria to loot millions of dollars, engaging in brazen acts of kleptocracy".[39] “With this judgment, we have forfeited $480 million in corruption proceeds that can be used for the benefit of the Nigerian people. Through the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division denies kleptocrats like Abacha the fruits of their crimes, and protects the U.S. financial system from money laundering. In coordination with our partners in Jersey, France and the United Kingdom, we are helping to end this chapter of corruption and flagrant abuse of office.”[39]

According to the DOJ forfeiture, the assets returned to the Nigerian government represented proceeds of corruption during and after the military regime of General Abacha. The complaint alleges that General Abacha, his son Mohammed Sani Abacha, their associate Abubakar Atiku Bagudu and others embezzled, misappropriated and extorted billions of dollars from the government of Nigeria and others, then laundered their criminal proceeds through U.S. financial institutions and the purchase of bonds backed by the United States. As alleged in the complaint, General Abacha and others systematically embezzled billions of dollars in public funds from the Central Bank of Nigeria under a false national security imperative. The complaint further alleged that Abacha and his conspirators withdrew the funds in cash and then moved the money overseas through U.S. financial institutions. General Abacha and his finance minister also allegedly caused the government of Nigeria to purchase Nigerian government bonds at vastly inflated prices from a company controlled by Bagudu and Mohammed Abacha, generating an illegal windfall of more than $282 million. In addition, Abacha and his associates allegedly extorted more than $11 million from a French company and its Nigerian affiliate in connection with payments on government contracts. Funds involved in each of these schemes were allegedly laundered through the United States.[39]


  1. ^ Paden, John N. (2005) Muslim Civic Cultures and Conflict Resolution, Brookings Institution Press. p. 240. ISBN 0-8157-6817-6.
  2. ^ "Biography". Sani Abacha. Archived from the original on 15 November 2012. Retrieved 7 May 2012.
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  10. ^ "Return of the ugly American".
  11. ^ "Junkets for Jesus". Mother Jones.
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  21. ^ Reuters. "US freezes $458m hidden by Nigerian ex-leader". Al Jazeera. Retrieved 6 March 2014.
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External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by
Ibrahim Babangida
Chief of the Army Staff
Succeeded by
Salihu Ibrahim
Political offices
Preceded by
Ernest Shonekan
Chairman of the Provisional Ruling Council of Nigeria
Succeeded by
Abdulsalami Abubakar
Preceded by
Jerry Rawlings
Chairman of the Economic Community of West African States
Succeeded by
Abdulsalami Abubakar