Next to the civil war, the five-year rule of Sani Abacha ushered in some of the bleakest moments in Nigeria’s history. But sometimes, a nation rises to its finest heights in its darkest hours. The Abacha-years brought a lot of pain and suffering, but they also brought out the best in Nigerian society, a time when many risked their lives for a cause greater than themselves: the future of their country.
Most of those who fought the fight were not famous; we don’t know their names. Only their families know their sacrifice. While Abiola’s place as the face of the pro-democratic struggle is obvious, I bow to the countless faceless members of civil society who waged a life-and-death battle with the man they called the Khalifa. A battle that showed what Nigerians are capable of if united in a common cause.
Who was Abacha?
For those too young to recall, a few words on the Khalifa appear in order. As with most rulers of his generation, Abacha’s biography is fragmentary. We know he joined the army in 1962, commencing a stellar military career. It was Abacha who announced Buhari’s 1983 coup on Lagos radio. By 1985, he was Chief of Army Staff in Babangida’s regime, his reward for having helped topple Buhari. But despite his high-profile position, he avoided the limelight, hardly ever speaking to the media. This did not change after he finally seized power for himself from Ernest Shonekan’s “transition government” in 1993. The Khalifa’s psyche is crucial to understanding his five-year rule. Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell said this of Abacha in 1995: “He has the worst C.I.A [psychological] bio I have ever read, and I’ve read lots of them.”
Very short, Abacha was often bullied as a child and suffered from many illnesses, according to Abiodun Onadipe, a scholar who researched his past. He suffered chronic illnesses all his life, one of the reasons he avoided long-distance travels. Combine his persistent ill-health and short height in the uber-macho culture of the military and it is not difficult to understand Abacha’s focus on not appearing weak.
To make matters worse, he was never considered overly bright or charismatic. He compensated for all these “shortcomings” with a ruthless brutality geared to impress even hardened soldiers. Abacha could not charm people into loyalty like Babangida, he had to scare them into it. Considering his predispositions, Abacha’s actions in power become almost predictable.
In the years prior to his arrest, Abiola was apparently very dismissive of Abacha, reserving his admiration for IBB who he considered the Big Boss, even after Abacha had taken over. He would be punished for this “disrespect”. Authoritarian rule can easily turn into a nightmare for a society if someone who feels slighted by the world gets into power. They are likely to use that power as an opportunity for retribution, not just against specific individuals who have wronged them, but sometimes against entire societies. Yes, Abacha wanted to steal billions and he wanted to be number one, but he also seemed to feel a strong need to punish. And punish he did, lashing out at anyone who voiced dissent which to a man of his mindset equalled disrespect and worst of all, a lack of fear. This he could not have.
The dark years
In his five years as head of state, Abacha imprisoned Musa Yar’adua and Olusegun Obasanjo, executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists despite the active intervention of Nelson Mandela, assassinated Kudirat Abiola and Alfred Rewane, attempted to assassinate Pa Abraham Adesanya and Alex Ibru, drove Wole Soyinka into exile and condemned journalists like Chris Anyanwu, Kunle Ajibade, George Mbah and Ben Charles-Obi to life in jail for doing their job. And these are just the prominent names that come to mind. Many more were jailed, killed or went missing during those years. The Oputa Panel hearings, set up to look into Abacha’s crimes, are available to watch on Youtube. But what was incredible in all this was the response of Nigerian civil society: It refused to shut up.
Throughout the five years he spent in office, Abacha was embroiled in a persistent battle with Nigerian civil society, ranging from politicians and academics grouped around the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) to journalists, trade unionists and students. The nameless heroes who resisted were many. While the struggle for democracy and against Abacha’s tyranny had its louder and quieter moments, there was no time at which the dictator could be comfortable of no resistance. He constantly struggled to assert his political legitimacy. In frustration, he often resorted to force. As is often the case with unpopular dictators, Abacha was overly-authoritarian in order to disguise his lack of authority.
Of course, Abacha did not rule by force alone. He was supported by an array of political opportunists, many of whom had previously been Abiola-supporters. He used the usual methods to buy them over, oil blocs and the rest. A veteran coup plotter and post-coup manager, Abacha had first-hand knowledge of the nature of Nigeria’s political class.
But even these betrayals did not diminish the resilience and perseverance of the countless Nigerian pro-democracy activists and heroes whose struggle was triumphant in the end; albeit aided by the Khalifa’s timely death. While democratic rule in Nigeria has admittedly failed to deliver on its promises, the promise of democracy remains. My utmost respect to those who paid the price to keep that promise alive for the rest of us. Talk about standing on the shoulders of giants.