Abacha's Last Days: By Mudiaga Ofuoku
The late Nigerian leader had a lot going for him in his bid to succeed himself when death cut short his ambition June 8
General Sani Abacha, late Nigerian head of state, perfected a policy of silence and deceptive indifference to crucial government decisions. There were two things the public wanted him to decide on: his long speculated self-succession, and the death sentence passed on the alleged coup plotters led by Oladipo Diya, a lieutenant general and his former second-command.
These two issues and other thorny ones formed part of the agenda of a meeting of the provisional ruling council, PRC, which the late general was to convene that week. He was to have signed a decree authorising serving military officers to contest election without retiring from service. He was to also sign a decree allowing the country to choose the next president through a referendum. this decree, according to Newswatch sources, was much a closely guarded secret that even some of his friends did not know about it. It was not drafted by the office of the attorney-general.
The PRC was also set to confirm the death sentence on Diya and four others. Abdulkarim Adisa, Tajudeen Olanrewaju, both major-generals and former minister of works and housing, and communication, respectively. The other two are Olusegun Fadipe, a major and Olu Akiyede, a civilian. Sold Sode, the sixth person condemned by the special military tribunal for concealing the plot was to have escaped that, according to Newswatch sources.
Disappointment with Diya
Abacha, sources said, had been hurt by Diya's utterance that the coup was a set-up against him by his boss. He felt that Diya's participation and leading role in the plot was an act of disloyalty on his part.
Diya, like Adisa, acknowledged Abacha as his mentor in the army.
He told his closed friends that Abacha saved him from premature retirement during the Ibrahim Babangida administration. Babangida doubted Diya's loyalty during the April 22, 1990 abortive coup led by Gideon Orka, a major. Instead of rising to condemn the coup, Diya, as the general officer commanding 3rd Division Jos, was said to have merely pledged his loyalty to Nigeria. Apart from saving his military career, Abacha also influenced Diya's appointment as military governor of Ogun State in 1984. Abacha also virtually forced through Diya's promotion.
Dependable sources said Abacha, in fact, sensed Diya's disloyalty in the first quarter of 1996 when he told his number two man in strict confidence that he wished to be civilian president in October, 1998. What did Diya think about that? Diya pleaded for time to think over it. Then Diya invited two of his friends to his office in Abuja and asked them to advise him on his answer.
The two friends told Diya he had made a fundamental error by not immediately supporting Abacha's decision. According to them, it was a measure of Abacha's confidence in Diya that he told him of his plan. Two weeks later when Diya went back to his boss with an answer, Abacha was suspicious of Diya's support for him. It would appear that from this points, the trap was set to see which way Diya's loyalty lay. In 1997, Abacha told Diya he would be going abroad for medical treatment, he told Diya to prepare to hold the fort and ensure everything went well. Abacha was surprised when a few days later, Diya asked why he was delaying his trip. He tried to persuade the head of state to make the trip because according to him his health was more important than anything else. Abacha sweet a rat.
It was also suspected that Diya leaked information about Abacha's ill-health to a newsmagazine in Lagos. The Week the magazine published the story, Abacha made a dramatic public appearance as if to disprove the story. Indeed two weeks before the publication, security sources told Newswatch the story of the late head of state's ill-health would be published by "one of those magazines," but that Abacha was in good health.
M.K.O Abiola & June 12
A few months before he died, Abacha's transition to civil rule programme was suffering serious credibility problem and drifting inexorably towards ultimate collapse. It was widely dismissed by both local and foreign critics.
He considered several options to put it back on course. One of these options was the release of Moshood Abiola, the apparent winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election that was annulled by the Babangida government. Abacha would make him a participant in an interim national government, ING, to be headed by Abacha himself. Abiola would be vice-president. This was also part of the agenda of the PRC meeting the week Abacha died.
One of Abiola's wives, Titilayo, was to play a major role in this arrangement. She was to see her detained husband the week general died. She was to persuade him to accept the new deal. Mrs Abiola flew the kite in April when she told a news conference in Lagos that June 12 was no longer realisable.
Many people found this shocking but she insisted it was her position all along and that it was "not actually different from the thinking of most members of the Abiola family." She danced the Abiola family from NADECO''s stand on the release of her husband. She told Newswatch last month that she did not believe in confrontation and that "NADECO whose only language is confrontation (had) frustrated every move at peaceful resolution."
She also confirmed that arrangements were on for her to see her husband. She said government's response to her application to visit her husband in detention was "positive" but declined to say when the visit would take place.
Newswatch has since confirmed from dependable sources that the visit was arranged for the week Abacha died. The magazine was unable to confirm that she was already in Abuja that week. Abacha's death scuttled this plan.
If this option had failed, Abacha was to have gone for option two. This option was described by dependable Newswatch sources as "complicated". Part one of this alleged option was for the four other political parties to field their own presidential candidates for the August 1 election. But feelers sent to the parties indicated that they would likely reject this because "time was already against them", in the words of a Newswatch source.
If the parties refused to field candidates to contest with Abacha who was to accept the UNCP nomination, NECON would be asked to be instructed to conduct referendum August 8 or 9 at which Nigerians would be asked to vote yes or no to Abacha succeeding himself. "The result of the referendum would have been a foregone conclusion," a Newswatch source said.
There was only one problem. How would the international community react to this? Newswatch sources said there were indications that this option would not satisfy the Untied States and the European Union but that there was a grudging feeling that half bread would be better than the full loaf of a continued full-blown military regime in the country.
On February 10, Abacha held a crucial meeting with the five political parties at the presidential villa in Aso Rock for nearly for hours to discuss thorny issues concerning the transition programme. All the party leaders were given an opportunity to speak. Four of the parties in opposition to the UNCP demanded that the result of the house of assembly elections of December 6, 1997 be cancelled. The UNCP had scored a landslide victory with 637 seats and 29 of the 36 state legislatures. But the UNCP opposed the suggestion saying it was a free and fair election. The leaders complained about the delay in the release of the report of the last local government election review panel which probed the controversial verdicts given by election petition tribunals and election appeal tribunals nation-wide. They griped about the delay by the government in setting up the constitutional court it promised to review cases from March local government election.
The four party leaders also made their anxieties known to the late head of state about certain senior government functionaries who manipulated the election results to favour the UNCP. They requested Abacha to stop the sharp practices and deal with the officials involve. Abacha, who had been listening intently and making notes of these and other complaints asked the party leaders to name names. But they refused, because they felt Abacha he knew them.
Abacha avoided making a categorical statement on the issues raised. He only promised to take appropriate steps. He also did not fix a date for another meeting. The party leaders were disappointed. One of them reportedly complained: "If the head of state fails to do something about the four parties demand on the house of assembly elections, we can jolly say goodbye to the transition programme."
Pressure on political parties
It was clear o the four parties that Abacha was not going to do anything about the issue raised because of the influence of the UNCP's chieftains at the presidency and Abacha's favourable disposition towards the party. The four parties divided to boycott the transition programme if nothing was done about their complaints. This leaked to the presidency. It shocked Abacha. According to Newswatch sources, he took the threat seriously.
Abacha's response to this threat was to set up a five-man committee in the presidency to discuss with the parties how best to conduct the remaining elections. Jerry Useni, a lieutenant-general and minister of the Federal Capital Territory headed the committee. The party leaders held several meetings with Useni and agreed on what a source describe as "election victory formula."
Under this formula, the nation was more or less parcelled out among the five parties for the national assembly and governorship elections. The UNCP was given 14 states; CNC was given the middle Belt states minus Plateau because Useni, according to reliable sources, would not let go of his own state. It was, therefore, zoned to UNCP. But CNC was also given "one or two other states" in the south. Full details of the sharing could no be confirmed.
Shortly after this arrangement was concluded, according to dependable sources, the presidency asked the parties to hold their conventions to adopt Abacha as a consensus candidate. The other four parties demurred. Prodded, they said that it was important for them to test the sincerity of the government kept its own side of the agreement, then they would hold their conventions after the national assembly elections and duly adopt the head of state as a sole candidate.
One leader was identified as the brain behind what government saw as the recalcitrance of the four parties. Newswatch sources said the party was then blackmailed. A letter petition written by two of his own people to the presidency had alleged that he contributed money to Diya's coup plot. Confronted with this petition, the party leader vehemently denied it and pointed out that on the date the petitioners claimed he dismissed the coup video in his home town as " a liar", he was abroad and that the head of state was aware of this. Useni was then asked to reconcile them but he made himself unavailable. But the blackmail worked. The party leader relented in his opposition and all the parties duly held their conventions and adopted Abacha.
But in the national assembly elections, the UNCP demolished the four parties put together despite embarrassing voter apathy if not outright boycott of the elections. The presidency had apparently reneged on the agreement. Again, the parties protected and threatening to boycott the remaining elections in the transition programme. They sought another audience with Abacha in vain.
NADECO's opposition to transformation
In fact, Abacha already had a bigger problem to contend with blanket adoption by the five parties had met with howls of protests from within and outside Nigeria.
Adesanya, deputy chairman, NADECO, told Newswatch "Nigeria had been reduced to the unacceptable status of a banana republic where a transient despot called Abacha is greater than the state." Tunji Abayomi, a lawyer and coordinator, Human Rights Africa, HRA, said the adoption of Abacha as a consensus candidate was a coup against the sovereignty of the people.... If Abacha concedes to this proposal, it would be the most wicked conspiracy against the citizens of Nigeria."
The international community believed the transition had in fact failed already. James Rubin, the US state department spokesman, said April 20: "What we have seen so far is the manipulation of the democratic process by General Abacha and his cronies."
Britain said Abacha's nomination could not help the transition programme. A British foreign office spokesman put it bluntly: "Our view," he said, "is that the transition process has reached the end of the road. It has failed. It has not proved to be a democratic exercise."
The European Union, EU, said in a May 5, statement that the transition held out little hope: "The EU had been following clearly the so-called transition to civil-rule in Nigeria and has concluded that it is a failure."
All of these criticisms rattled the Abacha government far more than the four parties complaints and threat. Into this confused situation, group of eminent Nigerians now known as G.34 surfaced. The group, led by Alex Ekwueme, former vice-president, sent a memorandum in which it raised objections to his consensus candidacy on moral, legal, constitutional and other grounds.
The Ekweme group said the parties' conventions in April at which Abacha was adopted were not legally valid because they breached the parties' constitutions. The G-34 also condemned the amendments of the constitution for the adoption of Abacha as illegal.
In response, the presidency organised its own group to attack the G.34. Unable to marshal a convincing challenge to the G.34, the Abacha group resorted to name-calling. Ibrahim Tahir, minister of communications in the Shagari administration and Tanko Yakassai, a politician, dismissed the G.34 as disgruntled men. Yakassai, a member of a pro-Abacha pressure group, Northern Elders, told the Weekly Trust newspaper published in Kaduna that Ekwueme hates northerners and that he did not believe the former vice president was "genuine because if he were genuine, he could have joined others to form a political party."
Among the new formidable opposition was the group of 18 northern elite known as G.18 that also told Abacha it was moral wrong to succeed himself. All the members of this group are also members of the G.34, a pan-Nigerian group of progressives and radicals. Two hundred university lecturers in the north led by Attahiru Jega, former president of ASUU, also opposed Abacha's self-succession. A groundswell of opposition was building up against Abacha locally and internationally.
Although Newswatch sources said the increasingly loud protest over Abacha's self-succession bid "rattled" him, he was determined to go ahead with transforming into a civilian president. A source that wished not to be named told this magazine. "It was clear to me that the general saw himself as being at war with the opposition. As a solider, he was not prepared to retreat. Rather he was prepared to go full steam ahead into the battle and conquer the opposition. He was encouraged by those in and outside government who not only profited handsomely from drumming up insincere support for him but also believed they had much to gain from his continued stay in power. These were the men who urged him to ignore international protests because, according to them, Nigeria is an independent nation which, like other nations, must exercise full sovereignty, no matter what anyone may say."
Role for Maryam?
Newswatch learnt that sometime in April, a new group was set to emerge if Abacha caved into demands not to succeed himself. The group, called MAP, stood for Maryam Abacha for President. According to dependable sources, this group would persuade the former first lady to succeed her husband. However, this group was held in cheek because it was argued that its emergence at that point in time in the transition programme would effectively derail it.
On the moral question, Ekweme and his colleagues drew Abacha's attention to his address at the inauguration of the constitutional conference June 27, 1994. Abacha said then: "We in the present government in Nigeria are committed to ensuring that there is speedy and unimpeded transition to a civil democratic rule in which we shall not be participants.. We are aware that it is neither in our personal interest nor that of the nation to perpetuate ourselves in power." The G-34 said Abacha, an officer and a gentleman, should feel honour-bound to obey his pledge.
In May, Abacha spoke to June Afrique Economic on his self-succession, amongst several other political issues. on whether he would stand for the August 1, election, Abacha said: "I have baken time to consult with members of my family, close collaborators and my colleagues. I will soon make my decision known."
How long was he going to stay in office? Abacha, a past master at subterfuge, replied: "The Nigerian people will decide. It is not a decision that an individual can take alone. Power and authority belong to God and only him can decide the future with certainty but I do not, absolutely speaking, have the intention to perpetuate myself in power."
It was the third time Abacha would speak of his ambition to a foreign news medium. He spoke CNN and The Washington Time without being categorical either way.
The opposition was ready for a fight. On May Day saw a violent protest in Ibadan Oyo State. The protesters destroyed the property of Lamidi Adedibu and Azeez Alao and Arisekola, Abacha's dyed-in-the-wool supporters in the South-West. The protest was organised by UAD which in pressing for the actualisation of June 12.
Bola Ige, former governor of the state, Ola Oni, the Oyo state chairman of UAD; Ayo Opadokun, national secretary of NADECO and Lam Adesina, secretary of Afenifere committee in Oyo state were among those arrested over the riot. Ige was relieved by general Abdulsalam Abubakar two weeks ago.
Friends as enemies
The wind of change gathered force. Muhammadu Buhari, former military head of state and executive chairman of the Petroleum Trust Funds, PTF, said at a public lecture, May 15, in Kaduna that the military should return the country to genuine democracy as promised on October 1.
Also, in a public lecture in Jos at about the same time General Ibrahim Babangida, former president, and Abacha's close friend, dismissed military rule as "authoritarian," and declared that Africa's salvation lay in democracy. Babangida made the statement in Jos immediately after the adoption of Abacha as a consensus candidate.
Newswatch learnt that before his public lecture, Babangida, had met the late general and advised him against self-succession.
These were some of the political problems that Abacha, with his deteriorating health, carried. The situation also increased his siege mentality towards the end.
The Abacha government had always dreaded the month of June. Kudirat Abiola, the activist wife of Abiola was killed by gunmen on June 4. June 12 remains the nation's albatross. Pro-democracy and human rights activists have been observing these days as protest days since then. This time, the Joint Action Committee of Nigeria, JACON, another pro-democracy group, was to lead others to mark them. The dates were also to be marked in the northern parts of the country by other groups.
But ahead of these, security agents were sent by the government to forestall the actions of the groups. Security was beefed up nationwide. Some mobile policemen were deployed to Lagos and other parts of the South-west May 30 to rehearse for crowd control. Commissioners of police and directors of state security services were also detailed to hold meetings with their officers and devise means of making their states violence-free.
Wada Nas, special adviser to Abacha showed the extent of Abacha's worry when he told the nation that pro-democracy activists were trying to destabilise the country. Nas alleged that the US, South Africa and Ghana were funding and providing training for pro-democracy activists. All the countries denied the allegations.
Shortly before Abacha's death, the US planned to send a "senior level delegation to Nigeria" to share its concerns about Nigeria's transition programme with the government. The delegation, according to Robbin, would also discuss "steps we think could lead to democratic civilian government in Nigeria." The team was to be led by Thomas Pickering, undersecretary of state for political affairs and former US envoy to Nigeria. To accompany him were Susan Rice, assistant secretary of state for African Affairs; Joseph Wilson, national secretary council senior director of African Affairs, and James Jamerson, a general, and deputy commander-in-chief, European command.
But Tom Ikimi, minister of foreign affairs told them they would not be welcome until President Bill Clinton fulfilled two conditions. First, he should lift all sanctions barring senior government officials from entering America. Second, Clinton should approve a list of Nigerian envoys expected to visit America for discussions. "We are still waiting for the approval of that list so this means that America has to come to terms with the fact that it is important for us to remove all restrictions," said Ikimi.
Fuel scarcity was virtually unknown in the early days of Abacha regime. In the last days of his administration, it became almost a norm. It was caused by people in his government and it seemed as if the head of state, beyond occasional rhetoric, cared little about it.
His 15 minutes in limelight
But Abacha did have shining moment in his last days too. The only foreign trip he made in his last seven months was to Freetown in Sierra Leone for the reinstatement of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah March 17. Kabbah had been overthrown by Johnny Paul Koroma, a major, May 25, 1997. As chairman of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS Abacha condemned the coup and rallied ECOMOG soldiers to force out the military.
Abacha's intervention in Sierra Leone was a big triumph. At Kabbah's reinstatement jubilant from the Lungi international airport to the city's stadium where the Sierra Leoneans ceremony was held nearly mobbed Abacha. The late Nigerian head of state acknowledged the thunderous ovation.
"Abacha has made history in our continent because, for the first time, a coup was reversed," said Samba Fonah, a representative of the political parties in Sierra-Leone. "We will forever remember him as a lover of democracy in Africa," said a respondent on the BBC in Sierra-Leone after Abacha's death.
Close functionaries of the government cashed in on Abacha's popularity in the ECOWAS sub-region. One of his advisers according to a presidency source, sent a memo to Abacha in which he requested some money to cultivate the friendship of some eastern African countries. The aide said such friendship would earn Abacha more respect at the Commonwealth, OAU and UN meetings. He requested Abacha to approve $80 million dollars (N6.88 billion, £40 million (N5.881 billion) and N250,000,000.00 for expenses. Abacha approved it. It was not clear if the entire fund was released by the Central Bank of Nigeria.
Abacha received the Catholic pontify Pope John Paul II May 21. The pope was in the unity for the rectification Cyprian Micheal Iwene Tansi, a Nigerian Cistercian monk, who died in 1964 at 61. Abacha received the pope at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, and later gave him audience at the presidential villa. There he was given a list of 60 detainees which the Vatican wanted him to set free. The head of state made a second public appearance when the pope was set to leave the country, March 23.
Abacha treasured the visit for two reasons. He and his family and some members of his cabinet were blessed by the holy father. The visit, to Abacha, also seemed a reassuring counterpoise the visit of Clinton of the US to six African countries. Nigeria was excluded. Nigeria with contempt.
Abacha's last known visit outside Abuja, was to Kaduna, Tuesday, May 26. The later general with his panoply of ministers and 13 state administrators from the northern states went to commission the Sani Abacha International Trade Development and Investment Centre in the city. Ahmed Ali, a colonel and military administrator of the state named the city's International Trade Fair Complex after him, and urged the late head of state to continue in office as the next civilian president.
"I am further encourage to rededicate myself to the service, welfare and progress of our great nation," replied Abacha. Those knowledgeable in the affairs and mysteries of Aso Rock argued this was evidence that the head of state had finally succumbed to the campaign for self-succession.
The Lagos State government, headed by Mohammed Marwa, a colonel invited Abacha to commission a number of projects, June 2. Among the projects were the N1.5 billion housing estate and the new asphalt plant of the direct labour agency, DIA. Abacha was also to lay the foundation stone of the Sani Abacha Centre for Malaria Research at the Ikeja General Hospital.
Abacha disappointed his hosts. He apoligised and promised to made it "in the not-too-distant feature."
The man died
Abacha took his spiritual advisers seriously. It is difficult, if not altogether impossible, to record a parallel in all history. Maybe Heinrich Himmler, chief of the state security police in Nazi Germany, comes closest. Himmler brought around himself astrologers, Rosicrucians, Freemasons and spiritualists of varied complexions to divine the future for him as the situation arose and the necessity dictated. They flattered Himmler's vanity with the existence of a thousand years of Nazism, the religion of the German revolution which nearly shipwrecked a civilised world.
Many of Abacha's marabous came from Chad, Sudan, Mauritania and Niger. He had them accommodated in his Aso Rock guest houses and at the Abuja Sheraton Hotels and Towers. But the one who commanded Abacha's blindest obedience was Haruna Maiyasin Katsina, the Sarkin Sasa, a small Hausa community on the outskirts of Ibadan. Katsina, Newswatch learnt, played a major role in Abacha's decision to shun the much publicised visit to Lagos. Newswatch was unable to confirm this.
How and why Abacha died remained, up till last week, a matter of intense speculation, fabrications and embellishments. Some of the information received by Newswatch has, however, confirmed that the former first lady believes that his close friends killed her husband. Newswatch gathered that when a federal government delegation led by Ibrahim Coomassie, inspector-general of police, paid a formal condolence visit to Mrs. Abacha, she accused a prominent member of the delegation of being responsible for Abacha's death. A Newswatch source said she asked Coomassie to arrest him.
The man vehemently denied the charge and insisted that her husband died of natural causes. Our source quoted the man as saying: "I have worked for your husband to my own detriment in the last four and half years. He knew that I supported and was committed to him one hundred and ten per cent. No one has worked harder or committed himself more totally to him than me. I challenge anybody. He was my closest friend for 30 years. I am as grieved as, if not more, than even his family over his death."
Like his four and half years in power, Abacha's last days were days of
controversies most of which centred on his self-succession plan. He died
without giving anyone an answer either way although every evidence pointed
to the fact that he was set to succeed himself. His actual decision will
remain a guess work for ever.