HISTORY: NIGERIA’S MOST SUCCESSFUL COUP PLOTTER – WAS IT GENERAL SANI ABACHA?
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.
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.
PARTICIPATION IN COUPS
Abacha’s military career is distinguished by a string of successful coups. He is by some records the most successful coup plotter in the history of Nigeria’s military. Abacha, then a 2nd Lieutenant with the 3rd Battalion in Kaduna, took part in the July 1966 Nigerian counter-coup from the conceptual stage. He may have been a participant in the Lagos or Abeokuta phases of the coup the previous January as well.
He was also a prominent figure 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. 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. In 1990, Abacha became the first Nigerian soldier to attain the rank of a full General without skipping a single rank.
SEIZURE OF POWER
On 17 November 1993, Abacha overthrew the short-lived transitional government of Chief Ernest Shonekan. 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.
The Abacha administration became the first to record unprecedented economic achievements: 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 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.
HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES
Abacha’s government was accused of human rights abuses, especially after the hanging of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa 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. 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, 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. 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.
During Abacha’s regime, he and his family reportedly stole a total of £5 billion from the country’s coffers. In 2004, Abacha was listed as the fourth most corrupt leader in history. Interestingly, during a service marking the 10th year 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”. Reports have it that Abacha’s national security adviser, Alhaji Ismaila Gwarzo played a central role in the looting and transfer of money to overseas accounts. His son Mohammed Abacha was also involved.
A preliminary report published by the Abdulsalam Abubakar transitional government in November 1998 described the process. 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 Abacha then arranged to launder the money to offshore accounts. An estimated $1.4 billion in cash was delivered in this way.
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.
Early in 1998, Abacha announced that elections would be held that August with a view toward handing power to a civilian government on 1 October. It soon became apparent, though, that Abacha had no intention of permitting an honest election; by April he had strong-armed the country’s five parties into endorsing him as the sole presidential candidate. 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 executed extra-judicially by way of being poisoned by political rivals using prostitutes. The government identified the cause of death as a sudden heart attack. It is reported that he was in the company of two Indian prostitutes imported from Dubai. It is thought that the prostitutes laced his drink with a poisonous substance, making Abacha feel unwell around 4:30am. He retired to his bed and was dead by 6:15am.
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 President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Abacha was married to Maryam Abacha and had seven sons and three daughters. He left fifteen grandchildren: eight girls and seven boys.
General Abacha’s legacy is mixed. His administration oversaw ECOMOG military successes in West Africa that raised Nigeria’s military profile. In February 2014, during Nigeria’s centenary celebrations, the Nigerian government honored Abacha for his immense contribution to the nation’s development 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’. Soyinka further noted that by honoring 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”.
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.
FALSE REPRESENTATION OF NAME
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.
RECOVERY OF STOLEN FUNDS
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. In 2002, Abacha’s family purportedly agreed to return $1.2 billion that was taken from the central bank.
U.S. FORFEITURE OF ABACHA $480 MILLION
On August 7, 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. Assistant Attorney General Caldwell noted that “rather than serve his county, General Abacha used his public office in Nigeria to loot millions of dollars, engaging in brazen acts of kleptocracy”.
“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.”
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, General 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.
Research by Raymond Essienobom