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Sani Abacha

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]

While he is largely accredited for his economic reforms, achievements as well as his human rights abuses[2], after he died allegations surrounding his administration use of government funds marred the unprecedented growth rates and indices recorded by his administration. He is seen as the most enigmatic leader the country has ever had.

Sani is a popular figure in the Northern region of Nigeria, especially Kano State, Borno State, Kaduna State and Sokoto State. Many still decorate their vehicles with his posters and praise him for the various establishments he laid around the country and for bringing back security to the region. Further south of the country, there is still a disdain for the late military ruler. This can be attributed to the jailing of Moshood Abiola, known as MKO Abiola, a Yoruba and national political figure who ran for the presidency (and was posthumously declared the winner by the Muhammadu Buhari led government in 2019)[3], for which the election results were subsequently annulled. The Abacha regime was also attributed with the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa a Nigerian environmental activist, writer and poet, after being found guilty, by a controversial special military tribunal, of killing four Ogoni leaders. His execution provoked international outrage and resulted in Nigeria's suspension from the Commonwealth of Nations for over three years.

Early life and education

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.[4]

Military career

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.[5]

Participation in coups

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8][9] Abacha became in 1993 the first Nigerian soldier to attain the rank of a full General without skipping a single rank.[citation needed]

Progression through military rank

General Sani Abacha's Rise Through Military Ranks
Year Rank
1963 2nd Lieutenant [Commissioned]
1966 Lieutenant
1967 Captain
1969 Platoon and Battalion Commander, Training Department, Commander, 2nd Infantry Division, Major
1972 Lieutenant Colonel
1975 Commanding Officer, 2nd Infantry Brigade, Colonel
1980 Brigadier

Seizure of power

On 17 November 1993, Abacha took over from the transitional government - being the Minister of Defence and most senior official - after Chief Ernest Shonekan resigned.

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 as a cause of his resignation. 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.[10]


Transforming Nigeria's economy

Petroleum Trust Fund [PTF]

During Abacha's regime, he established under Decree 25, of which Muhammadu Buhari; a former military president, chaired. It was inaugurated on the 25th March 1995. The PTF was formed to undertake major economic issues which Nigeria was suffering from at the time. Between 25-100km of urban road in major cities such as Kano, Gusau, Benin, Funtua, Zaria, Enugu, Kaduna, Aba, Lagos, Lokoja, and Port Harcourt each. A N27.3bn contract was awarded for road rehabilitation in the first quarter of 1996.

Before the disestablishment of the PTF in 1999 by Olusegun Obasanjo, the PTF had undertaken a holistic stance to support the sum of N1.328bn that was awarded to 53 pharmaceutical companies for the supply of drugs, while the importation of vaccines cost N229.9m. As at December 31, 1997, funds available to PTF stood at N115.1bn.

They oversaw the restructuring of major insurance companies that supported SME's across the entire country.[citation needed]

Contrary to many views that the Abacha administration was financially shrouded in secrecy, Abacha had mandated the PTF to publicise its accounts as it was the second largest public corporation at the time. In 1997, the account of PTF showed that it disbursed N24.3bn on roads, N21.2bn on security, N7.8bn on health, and N3bn on other projects. Other disbursements include N2.2bn on water supply, N936m on food supply and N476m on education. It realised a total of N1.049bn from various investment activities.

Foreign reserve and debt

The Abacha administration became the first to record unprecedented economic achievements:[11] 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. He is largely revered for achieving this, in comparison no other administration before or after the inception of the Fourth Nigerian Republic had been able to achieve this.

Policy of privatisation

Sani Abacha brought all the controversial privatization programs of the Ibrahim Babangida administration to a halt, reduced an inflation rate of 54% inherited from IBB to 8.5% between 1993 and 1998, all while the nation's primary commodity, oil was at an average of $15 per barrel.[11]


Between 1993 and 1998, during his presidency, the country cracked-down heavily on crime.

Abacha, being a military man, heavily disincentivized crime on the streets or the formation of any insurgent groups. The Nigeria Police Force underwent a large scale retraining, The term 'Abacha boy' emerged after the success and efficiency of security implementation by security agents of the Abacha administration. In 2013, The Goodluck Jonathan administration launched a recall of able 'Abacha boy' to rejoin the security apparatus of the country but was unsuccessful because a large portion had been retired at the time.

National Constitutional Conference[12]

The 1994-1995 National Constitutional Conference, which sat exactly for one year (June 26 1994 -June 26 1995) had reasonable time to discuss and ponder over many thorny issues that concerned the Nigerian polity at the time. There was anxiety amongst the ranks of member of the National Constitutional Council for a handover to civilian rule at as soon as possible. The work of the was concluded in a two volume report; of which Volume 1 consisted of the draft constitution of 1995.

Eko Hotel Meeting

In December 1996, after the dissolution of the , an all politicians summit' was held at the Eko Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos. The was then formed, this pressurised the government to set a date at which the transition to civilian rule will be made; it was pegged at 1 October 1998.

Provisions of the

The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1995 (with Amendments)" had been finalised and was to have been promulgated by decree to come into effect on October 1, 1998. This constitution introduced some fundamental changes to Nigeria's previous presidential constitutions (1979 and 1989) based on experience garnered over almost four decades of Nigeria's independence, all calculated to bring together a stable Nigerian polity.

Although Sani Abacha's early death made it unfeasible to be promulgated. Many share the view that Abacha's untimely death on June 8, 1998 caused the lost opportunity of having the best constitution ever contemplated to fit Nigeria's context.

Recognition of six geopolitical zones

The entire territory of Nigeria was to be categorised into six geopolitical zones;

North Central: Benue State, Kogi State, Kwara State, Nasarawa State, Niger State, Plateau State and Federal Capital Territory, Nigeria.

North Eastern: Adamawa State, Bauchi State, Borno State, Gombe State, Taraba State and Yobe State.

North Western: Jigawa State, Kaduna State, Kano State, Katsina State, Kebbi State, Sokoto State and Zamfara State.

South Eastern: Abia State, Anambra State, Ebonyi State, Enugu State and Imo State.

South South: Akwa Ibom State, Bayelsa State, Cross River State, Delta State, Edo State and Rivers State.

South Western: Ekiti State, Lagos State, Ogun State, Ondo State, Osun State and Oyo State.

Diffusion of Federal Executive Responsibility

In addition to the offices of President and Vice President and Ministers, the Constitution provides also for the offices of Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. The President was to appoint the Prime Minister; whom would be responsible for general administration of the government of the Federation.

Dissemination of Power

Other laws within the constituency provided for single five-year terms to all Federal and State public officers. That the Office of Governor, Deputy Governor and Speaker of the House of Assembly shall rotate among the three Senatorial districts in the state.

If the above provisions had been incorporated into the 1999 Constitution, two of the three senatorial districts of each state would have already produced governors in every state leaving the third (remaining) senatorial district to produce the Governor at the next election. All the problems that have continued frustrating the electoral process of most states in regard to "power shift" would not have arisen and all parts of every state would have been given a sense of belonging.

The six principal offices were to rotate among the six geo-political zones created, namely;

  1. The Office of the President
  2. The Office of the Vice President
  3. The Office of the Prime Minister
  4. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
  5. The Office of the President of the Senate; and
  6. The Office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives

Had the above provisions been incorporated in the 1999 Constitution, two of the six geopolitical zones would already have produced a President of Nigeria and a third zone would have been looking forward to producing the President in the next dispensation. The present controversy or argument as to which geopolitical zone or group of geopolitical zones or region should present the President in the next dispensation would have been narrowed down to manageable proportions, or be non-existent.

Foreign Relations

South Africa

Following the trial of Ken Saro-Wiwa, South African President Nelson Mandela criticised Abacha's government for executing the activist. Abacha, while hosting Nelson Mandela, admitted he was advised against interfering with the activists trial—but made assurances that he would use his rank in government to commute the sentence if death sentence was pronounced.

was the judge presiding over the proceedings, and judged the activist to death by hanging. The sentence was not commuted.


Directly infringing UN Sanctions on Libya, Muammar Gaddafi's West African Tour in 1997 to Sani Abacha to mark the new islamic year was greeted by thousands of Abacha's supporters whom came out to demonstrate their loyalty to Abacha and the Libyan leader.[13] Although, there was a large disregard of the visit by non-northerners of the country.

The Libyan leader made no commitments to Nigeria but merely sought to strengthen relations with the country, many saw the visit as a way to strengthen his agenda of african unity and self-sufficiency - an ideal Muammar Gaddafi is revered to have embarked on building.


General Sani Abacha's government intervened in the Liberian Civil War against the minority known as the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia

Through the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group, Abacha sent troops to Liberia to fight against the rising insurgency in the country and political tensions. The Civil War, which began in 1989, saw an influx of Nigerian troops from 1990 when Sani Abacha was Chief of Defense Staff [Minister of Defence]

Human rights

Abacha's government was accused of human rights abuses, especially after the hanging of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa[14] 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.[9] 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,[15] 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.[16][17] 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.


Early in 1998, Abacha announced that elections would be held on 1 August of the same year, with a view toward handing power to a civilian government on 1 October. As the year wore on, though, it became apparent that Abacha had no intention of relinquishing power. By April, the military had cajoled the country's five parties into endorsing him as the sole presidential candidate.[18][19]

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.[20] The government identified the cause of death as a sudden heart attack.[21] It is believed by foreign diplomats, including United States Intelligence analysts, that his drink or fruit (apple) was laced with a poisonous substance while in the company of prostitutes[22], making Abacha feel unwell around 4:30am retiring to his bed and died by 6:15am.[23]

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 accused of an attempted coup with Maj. General Oladipo Diya during Sani Abacha's regime.

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.[24]

Corruption allegations

During Abacha's regime, he and his family reportedly stole a total of £5 billion from the country's coffers.[25] In 2004, Abacha was listed as the fourth most corrupt leader in history.[26] 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".[27][28][29] 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.[30] 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).[31] An estimated $1.4 billion in cash was delivered in this way.[32]

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.[33][34]


Abacha's legacy is mixed. His administration oversaw ECOMOG military successes in West Africa that raised Nigeria's military profile.[35] In February 2014, during Nigeria's centenary celebrations, the Nigerian government honoured Abacha for his contributions to the country's development[36] 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'.[37] 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".[37] 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.[38][39]

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.[40][41]

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.[42][43] 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 bid for a second-term.[44]

U.S. forfeiture of Abacha for $480 million

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.[45] 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".[45] “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.”[45]

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.[45]

Jersey forfeiture of Abacha for $267 million

Jersey discovered more than $267 million dollars in funds that were allegedly laundered through the U.S. banking system and deposited in a Jersey account (£210m in British pounds). 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.[46]


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  16. ^ "Junkets for Jesus". Mother Jones.
  17. ^ "A Different Perspective On 'The Family' And Uganda". 22 December 2009.
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  32. ^ Lewis, Peter (2007). Growing apart: oil, politics, and economic change in Indonesia and Nigeria. University of Michigan Press. p. 178. ISBN 0-472-06980-2.
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External links

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