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Sani Abacha

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Sani Abacha
Official portrait of Sani Abacha
Portrait, c. 1993–1998
10th Head of State of Nigeria
In office
17 November 1993 – 8 June 1998
Chief of General StaffOladipo Diya
Preceded byErnest Shonekan
Succeeded byAbdulsalami Abubakar
Defence Minister of Nigeria
In office
August 1990 – 8 June 1998
PresidentIbrahim Babangida
Ernest Shonekan
Preceded byDomkat Bali
Succeeded byAbdulsalami Abubakar
Chief of Defence Staff
In office
August 1990 – 17 November 1993
PresidentIbrahim Babangida
Ernest Shonekan
Preceded byDomkat Bali
Succeeded byOladipo Diya
Chief of Army Staff
In office
August 1985 – August 1990
PresidentIbrahim Babangida
Preceded byIbrahim Babangida
Succeeded bySalihu Ibrahim
Personal details
Born(1943-09-20)20 September 1943
Kano, Northern Region, British Nigeria
(now Kano, Kano, Nigeria)
Died8 June 1998(1998-06-08) (aged 54)
Aso Villa, Abuja, Nigeria
Cause of deathUnnatural Death (alleged)
Political partynone (military)
SpouseMaryam Abacha
  • Ibrahim
    Fatima Gumsu
OccupationMilitary officer
Military service
Allegiance Nigeria
Branch/service Nigerian Army
Years of service1963–1998
Rank General
Battles/warsNigerian Civil War
First Liberian Civil War

Sani Abacha GCFR ((listen); (20 September 1943 – 8 June 1998) was a Nigerian military dictator and statesman who ruled Nigeria with an iron-fist as the military head of state from 1993 following a palace coup d'état until his sudden death in 1998.[1][2]

Abacha's seizure of power was the last successful coup d'état in Nigerian military history. He wielded power with an unyielding attitude and his rule heralded an unprecedented total disregard for human rights with several political assassinations and summary executions of dissidents and political opponents in Nigeria. His rule drew disrepute to the country with Nigeria becoming a pariah state in international relations particularly with regards to the execution of environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. At the same time his regime oversaw the achievement of several economic feats.[3][4]

Sani Abacha was one of the twentieth centuries[5] most corrupt dictators as a kleptocrat for the alleged embezzlement of US$2–5 billion. Abacha, and his family allegedly hid most of the loot abroad in Switzerland, as well as in other jurisdictions including Liechtenstein, the United Kingdom and the United States.[6][7][8][9][10] Abacha's death on 8 June 1998 brought about the Nigerian Fourth Republic a year later and he was succeeded as Nigeria's head of state by General Abdulsalami Abubakar.

Early life[edit]

Abacha was born and brought up in Kano to a Kanuri family originally from present-day Borno State.[11][12] He attended the Nigerian Military Training College in Kaduna, and was commissioned in 1963 after he had attended the Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershot, England.[13]

Military career[edit]

Abacha was involved in all the military coups in Nigeria during his military career. In 1966, 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.[14] He could well have been a participant in the Lagos or Abeokuta phases of the coup the previous January as well.[15] In 1969, he fought during the Nigerian Civil War as a platoon and battalion commander. He later became commander of the 2nd Infantry Division in 1975.[16] In 1983, Abacha was general officer commanding of the 2nd Mechanised Division, and was appointed a member of the Supreme Military Council.[17]

In 1983, Abacha played a prominent role in the 1983 Nigerian coup d'état which brought General Muhammadu Buhari to power; and the 1985 Nigerian coup d'état which removed Buhari and brought General Ibrahim Babangida to power.[18] 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 later appointed Minister of Defence in 1990.[19][20][21]

Abacha served as Chief of Army Staff from 1985 to 1990, as Chief of Defence Staff from 1990 to 1993, and as Minister of Defence. Abacha is noted for having been the first Nigerian Army officer to attain the rank of a full military general without skipping a single rank.[22]

Seizure of power[edit]

Abacha was the defence minister and most senior official within the military hierarchy during the crisis of the Third Republic. He orchestrated the coup d'état of 1993 which overthrew the Interim National Government of Ernest Shonekan.[23] In his nationwide broadcast, Abacha portrayed the overthrow as an act of stability brought about through the socio-political uncertainties caused by the 1993 presidential election.[24]

Head of state[edit]

Abacha ruled as Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria from 1993 to 1998. In September 1994, he issued a decree that placed his government above the jurisdiction of the courts[25] effectively giving him absolute power. Another decree gave him the right to detain anyone for up to three months without trial. He further abrogated Decree 691 of 1993.[26][27]

Regime maintenance[edit]

Abacha assembled a personal security force of 3,000 men trained in North Korea. Abacha's chief security officer Hamza al-Mustapha had an iron grip on the apparatus of military-security. The Nigeria Police Force underwent a large scale retraining. The state cracked down ruthlessly on criminals and dissidents, the National Democratic Coalition was attributed with several bombings across the country, and several members were arrested.[28] When Moshood Abiola proclaimed himself president, he was jailed for treason and subsequently died in custody.[29] Also, former military ruler Olusegun Obasanjo was jailed for treason and accused of plotting a coup together with General Oladipo Diya.[30] In 1997, General Shehu Yar'Adua who was also jailed died in custody. Abacha's regime was accused of human rights abuses, especially after the hanging of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa (only one of several executions of Ogoni activists opposed to the exploitation of Nigerian resources by the multinational petroleum company, Royal Dutch Shell), whose death later led to the eviction of Nigeria from the Commonwealth Nations.[31] Wole Soyinka was charged in absentia with treason.[20] Abacha's regime suffered opposition externally by pro-democracy activists.

National economy[edit]

Abacha's administration oversaw an increase in the country's foreign exchange reserves from $494 million in 1993 to $9.6 billion by the middle of 1997, and reduced the external debt of Nigeria from $36 billion in 1993 to $27 billion by 1997.[32][33] Abacha also constructed between 25 and 100 km of urban road in major cities such as Kano, Gusau, Benin, Funtua, Zaria, Enugu, Kaduna, Aba,[34] Lagos, Lokoja and Port Harcourt.[35] Abacha brought the privatisation programs of the Ibrahim Babangida administration to a halt, reduced an inflation rate of 54% inherited from Ernest Shonekan to 8.5% between 1993 and 1998, all while the nation's primary commodity, oil was at an average of $15 per barrel.[33] GDP growth, despite being estimated to be higher than the 2.2% growth in 1995, was largely limited to the petroleum sector.[36]

Embezzlement of state funds[edit]

The unprecedented economic achievements coincided with the rapid expansion of embezzlement hitherto unseen in the history of corruption in Nigeria[37] in the alleged saga known as "Abacha loot".[38] Abacha's national security adviser, Alhaji Ismaila Gwarzo, was accused by the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo to have played a central role in the looting and transfer of money to overseas accounts.[39] Abacha's son, Mohammed Abacha and best friend Alhaji Mohammed M. Sada were also involved. 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 national security funding requests, which Abacha approved. The funds were usually sent in cash or traveller's 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. An estimated $1.4 billion in cash was delivered in this way.[40]

In 2004, a list of the ten most self-enriching leaders in the previous two decades was released;[41] in order of amount allegedly stolen, the fourth-ranked of these leaders was Abacha and his family who are alleged to have embezzled between $1 billion – $5 billion.[42] In 2002, rumours circulated that Abacha's family purportedly agreed to return $1.2 billion. Sources in the Obasanjo administration disclosed that the whole Abacha loot was politicised by the administration for his re-election bid.[43] On 7 August 2014, the United States Department of Justice announced the forfeiture of US$480 million, the largest in its history, to the Nigerian government.[44] Jersey discovered more than $267 million in funds that were allegedly laundered through the U.S. banking system and deposited in a Jersey account (£210m in British pounds). In 2019, more than 20 years after his death the U.S. Justice Department, Jersey courts and the government of Nigeria completed a civil asset forfeiture against the funds and they will be divided between those countries.[45]

National politics[edit]


Abacha oversaw the re-organisation of Nigeria into six geopolitical zones,[46] in order to reflect cultural, economic, and political realities of the regions:

This was achieved after adding additional six states to the already existing 30 to make up the present 36 states in the country.[47]

Abacha held a constitutional conference between 1993 and 1995. Early in 1998, Abacha announced that elections would be held on 1 August, with a view toward handing power to a civilian government on 1 October. It later became apparent that Abacha had no intention of relinquishing power. By April 1998, Abacha had coerced the country's five political parties into endorsing him as the sole presidential candidate.[48]

Foreign policy[edit]

In 1995, following the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations.[49][50] While hosting Nelson Mandela, Abacha admitted he was advised against interfering with Saro-Wiwa's trial—but made assurances that he would use his rank in government to commute the sentence if death sentence was pronounced. Justice Ibrahim Auta was the judge presiding over the proceedings, and sentenced Saro-Wiwa to death by hanging.[51] Abacha did not commute the sentence.[52]

In 1997, Muammar Gaddafi's West African Tour to Sani Abacha to mark the new Islamic year directly infringed United Nations Sanctions on Libya, yet he was greeted by thousands of Abacha's supporters who came out to demonstrate their loyalty in Kano.[53] The Libyan leader sought to strengthen relations with the country, as a way to strengthen his agenda of Pan-Africanism.[54]

Abacha intervened in the Liberian Civil War. Through the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group, Abacha sent troops to Liberia to fight against the rising insurgency in the country. The Civil War, which began in 1989, saw an influx of Nigerian troops from 1990 when Abacha was defence minister.[55]

Despite being repeatedly condemned by the US State Department,[56] Abacha did have a few ties to American politicians. 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.[57][58] Abacha also developed ties with other American political figures such as Senator Carol Moseley Braun (D-Illinois) Rev. Jesse Jackson and Minister Louis Farrakhan. Several African American political leaders visited Nigeria during his reign and Farrakhan supported his administration.

Personal life and death[edit]

Abacha was married to Maryam Abacha and had seven sons and three daughters. As of 2018, he had thirty-three grandchildren.[59]

The scars on his face were tribal markings.[60]

On Monday 8 June 1998, Abacha died in the Aso Rock Presidential Villa in Abuja.[61] He was buried on the same day according to Muslim tradition and without an autopsy, fueling speculation that he may have been assassinated.[62][63] The government identified the cause of death as a sudden heart attack.[64] It is believed by foreign diplomats, including United States intelligence analysts, that he may have been poisoned.[65] His chief security officer, Hamza al-Mustapha, believed he was poisoned by Israeli operatives in the company of Yasser Arafat.[66] At the time of his death, he was allegedly about to transfer power to a civilian government in October 1998, implemented in October 1995.[67] After Abacha's death, General Abdulsalami Abubakar became head of state, whose short tenure ushered in the Fourth Nigerian Republic.[68]

Dates of rank[edit]

Year Insignia Rank
1963 Second lieutenant (Commissioned)
1966 Lieutenant
1967 Captain
1969 Major
1972 Lieutenant colonel
1975 Colonel
1980 Brigadier general
1984 Major general
1987 Lieutenant general
October 1990 General

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ Kaufman, Michael T. (9 June 1998). "NEW CHAPTER IN NIGERIA: THE OBITUARY; Sani Abacha, 54, a Beacon of Brutality In an Era When Brutality Was Standard". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 February 2023.
  3. ^ Kaufman, Michael T. (9 June 1998). "NEW CHAPTER IN NIGERIA: THE OBITUARY; Sani Abacha, 54, a Beacon of Brutality in an Era when Brutality Was Standard". The New York Times.
  4. ^ "Nigeria: Statements on Assassination, 6/5/'96".
  5. ^ "The World's All-Time Most Corrupt Leaders". Forbes. Retrieved 22 May 2024.
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  8. ^ Olawoyin, Oladeinde (23 May 2018). "Again, Buhari lauds late kleptocrat dictator, Sani Abacha". Premium Times (Nigeria). Retrieved 26 May 2020.
  9. ^ "U.S. Freezes More Than $458 Million Stolen by Former Nigerian Dictator in Largest Kleptocracy Forfeiture Action Ever Brought in the U.S." US Department of Justice. 5 March 2014. Retrieved 26 May 2020.
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  15. ^ Siollun, Max (2009). Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria's Military Coup Culture (1966–1976). Algora Publishing. ISBN 978-0-87586-709-0.
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  54. ^ "Gaddafi blames West for Islam's image". The Herald. 10 May 1997. Retrieved 15 February 2024.
  55. ^ Amao, Olumuyiwa Babatunde; Maiangwa, Benjamin (2 January 2017). "Has the Giant gone to sleep? Re-assessing Nigeria's response to the Liberian Civil War (1990–1997) and the Boko Haram insurgency (2009–2015)". African Studies. 76 (1): 22–43. doi:10.1080/00020184.2017.1285665. ISSN 0002-0184.
  56. ^ "Return of the ugly American". salon.com. 10 November 1999.
  57. ^ "Junkets for Jesus". Mother Jones.
  58. ^ "A Different Perspective On 'The Family' And Uganda". NPR.org. 22 December 2009.
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  60. ^ Rupert, James (9 June 1998). "Gen. Sani Abacha dies". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 14 October 2023.
  61. ^ "The Trans-Pacific, Volume 24, Issue 24 - 1936-06-11". Manchuria Daily News Online. doi:10.1163/36722_meao_transpacific_1936-06-11-007. Retrieved 14 February 2024.
  62. ^ "General Sani Abacha Profile". Africa Confidential. Retrieved 19 June 2012.
  63. ^ Masland, Tom; Bartholet, Jeffrey; Johnson, Scott (13 March 2000). "Tracking Abacha's Billions". Newsweek (Atlantic Edition). 135 (11): 16.
  64. ^ Weiner, Tim (11 July 1998). "U.S. Aides Say Nigeria Leader Might Have Been Poisoned". The New York Times. Retrieved 9 April 2010.
  65. ^ Weiner, Tim (11 July 1998). "U.S. Aides Say Nigeria Leader Might Have Been Poisoned". The New York Times.
  66. ^ Opejobi, Seun (19 June 2017). "Details of how Abacha died in 1998 – Al-Mustapha". Daily Post Nigeria. Retrieved 24 January 2020.
  67. ^ "Analysis | Nigeria: General Abacha's era of dictatorship". BBC News.
  68. ^ "Sani Abacha: Timeline of the late Nigerian dictator's life". BBC News. Retrieved 27 May 2020.

External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by Chief of the Army Staff
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by Chairman of the Provisional Ruling Council of Nigeria
Succeeded by
Preceded by Chairman of the Economic Community of West African States
Succeeded by