General Sani Abacha (20 September 1943 – 8 June 1998) was a Nigerian military dictator and politician. He was the de facto President of Nigeria from 1993 to 1998. His regime was tied to human rights violations and allegations of corruption.
Early life and education
A Kanuri from Borno by tribe, Abacha was born and brought up in Kano, Nigeria. He attended the Nigerian Military School and Mons Officer Cadet School before being commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in 1963.
Abacha was commissioned in 1963, after he had attended the Mons Defence Officers cadet Training College in Aldershot, England. Before then, he had attended the Nigerian Military Training College in Kaduna. He took part in the countercoup of July 1967, from the conceptual stage, and may have been a participant in the Lagos or Abeokuta phases of the January 1966 coup. He was also a prominent figure in three coup d'etats of later decades, the first two of which brought and removed General Muhammadu Buhari from power in 1983. 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.
Abacha took over power from the interim government of Chief Ernest Shonekan, who was put into place by General Ibrahim Babangida after his annulment of the 12 June 1993 elections (won by Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola), this caused a massive popular uproar, which in turn caused untold hardship for some of Nigerians.
Human rights abuses
On 6 September 1994, Abacha declared that his regime had absolute power, placing his government above the jurisdiction of the courts. He did, however, promise to hand the government over to civilians in 1998.
Despite his stated commitment to returning the country to democracy, 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); Abiola and Olusegun Obasanjo were jailed for treason, and Wole Soyinka charged in absentia with treason. His regime suffered stiff opposition internally and externally by pro-democracy activists who made the regime unpopular, and responded by banning political activity in general and by controlling the press in particular; a significant fraction of the military was purged. Abacha surrounded himself with approximately 3,000 armed men loyal to him. His government compared to other Nigerian governments was characterised by an inconsistent foreign policy: He supported the Economic Community of West African States and sent Nigerian troops to Liberia and Sierra Leone to restore democracy to those countries while denying it at home. Abacha scoffed at the threat of economic sanctions on account of the world's dependence on petroleum, of which Nigeria is a major producer.
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 Mosley Braun, Rev. Jessie Jackson and Minister Louis Farrakhan. Several African American political leaders visited Nigeria during his reign and Farrakhan supported the regime, while it was seen as an international pariah. Farrakhan also had a street in Nigeria named after him. The street name was changed back to its original name after Abacha's death.
During Abacha's regime, a total of £5 billion was reported siphoned out of the country's coffers by the head of state and members of his family. At that time Abacha was listed as the world's fourth most corrupt leader in recent history. 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.
Early in 1998, Abacha announced that elections would be held on 1 August. It soon became apparent, though, that Abacha had no intention of permitting an honest vote; during the spring he 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 foul-play was involved and that he may have been poisoned by political rivals via prostitutes. On the contrary, Nigerian military rulers cited his cause of death as a sudden heart attack. It is known that he was in the company of six teenage Indian prostitutes imported from Dubai. It is thought that these 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 his death, Maj. Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, Nigeria's defense chief of staff, was sworn in as the country's head of state. Abdussalam 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.
Recovery of stolen funds
After Sani Abacha's death, the Obasanjo government implicated Abacha and his family in a wholesale looting of Nigeria's coffers. According to post-Abacha governmental sources, some $3 or $4 billion USD in foreign assets have been traced to Abacha, his family and their representatives, $2.1 billion of which the Nigerian government tentatively came to an agreement with the Abacha family to return, with the quid pro quo being that the Abachas would be allowed to keep the rest of the money. Although this proposal caused a massive outcry at the time for seeming to reward the theft of public funds, it was subsequently rejected by the late dictator's son, Mohammed Abacha, who continues to maintain that all the assets in question were legitimately acquired. In 2002, Abacha's family agreed to return $1.2 billion that was taken from the central bank. He has fifteen grandchildren — eight girls and seven boys.
False representation of name
The names of Sani 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. One website that is dedicated to exposing advance fee scammers and similar schemes, ebolamonkeyman.com, exposed one use of the Abacha family name -- resulting in a wider exposure and awareness of these type of scams in general.