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Sani Abacha : profiles

Former President of Nigeria

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Profile 1 (commissioned)

25 Jan 2003, by Victoria Robson - PhD research student

General Sani Abacha, military officer and Nigerian head of state, was born on 20th September 1943 in Kano, Kano State in Nigeria. Abacha attended school in his home state before joining the army and enrolling at the Nigerian Military Training College in Kaduna (1962-63). He obtained further military training in the United Kingdom at Mons Defence Cadet College, Aldershot in 1963 and the School of Infantry at Warminster in 1966 and 1971. Abacha fought in the Nigerian civil war that started in 1967. By 1975, he had obtained the rank of colonel. Abacha later attended the Command Staff College at Jaji (1976) and the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies at Kuru (1981). As brigadier, Abacha travelled to Montery, California, USA to take an international defence course in 1982.

A member of the military elite, Abacha was involved in the overthrow of elected president Shedu Shagari, and the installation of Muhammadu Buhari as a military ruler in December 1983. Abacha announced the change in government via television and radio broadcasts marking the beginning of his public prominence. Unusually for a military officer, Abacha had held no political position up until this time. By 1984, Abacha was a member of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) with the rank of major-general. Abacha also participated in the ouster of Buhari two years later in another military coup that brought General Ibrahim Babangida to power in 1985. Abacha became both a member of the Armed Forces Ruling Council (formerly the SMC) and Chief of Army Staff in the same year. Abacha assumed the de facto second most powerful person in Nigeria usurping the official deputy position of Chief of General Staff held by Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe. He presided as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989 before he assumed the post of Minister of Defence in August 1990. In 1992, Abacha was made a full general.

Abacha's role in the Babangida regime is not clear. Some speculate that he was the actual political force behind that government as well as a prominent associate of the president. In February 1993, Abacha delivered an important speech at the Murtala Muhammad Annual Lecture outlining the government's commitment to the end of military rule and democratic reform. Babangida permitted free elections in Nigeria in June 1993. When it appeared that candidate and Yoruba businessman, Chief Moshood Abiola, had won, Babangida nullified the results. During this political upset, Abacha staged his own coup. In November, Abacha assumed power as the head of state replacing the quasi-civilian interim government that followed Babangida. He became both President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.

Early in his presidency, Abacha dissolved all civilian democratic institutions at national and state levels and replaced government and elected officials with military officers. A Provisional Ruling Council of senior army officers, of which he was chairman, was formed. Unofficial political parties and any form of political opposition was suppressed including the pro-democracy movement the National Democratic Coalition. The new and as yet unimplemented constitution crafted in 1989 was abandoned. Abacha's regime enforced its rule through the arrest, imprisonment and execution of dissenters, press censorship and the development of a police state. Amongst the more notable individuals detained by the regime were Chief Abiola, the would-be head of state who died in prison in July 1998; former head of state Olusegun Obasanjo; and environmentalist and journalist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was executed in 1995 despite intense international demand for his release. Saro-Wiwa was killed with eight other Ogoni colleagues from Nigeria's oil rich region who objected to the government's oil policies. Abacha's control of the army was maintained by purging army officers including a former vice president, Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, who died in prison in 1997.

Abacha's regime was resistant to both internal and international insistence on human rights reforms, seemingly unaffected by the impact of international sanctions, diplomatic isolation, United Nation's condemnation and Nigeria's suspension from the Commonwealth. Abacha seldom travelled or made public appearances, but when he did was never seen without his trademark dark sunglasses and a throng of soldiers from the 2000 to 3000 strong Special Bodyguard Unit. In 1998, the last year of his life and rule, Abacha appeared from seclusion to greet Pope John Paul II when he arrived on a visit to Nigeria. Abacha also met and held talks with Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat in the same year.

In 1995, Abacha announced a programme to return Nigeria to civilian rule by October 1998 and elections were planned for August of that year. Abacha died unexpectedly, officially of a heart attack but other rumours persisted, in Lagos in the preceding June. The election outcome would have been foretold as the only five sanctioned political parties had declared him as their sole candidate. General Abacha was quickly replaced by a close colleague General Abdulsalam Abubaker, who himself was succeeded by elected president and former Abacha detainee, Olusegun Obasanjo.

Abacha was given a Muslim burial in his home city of Kano. He was succeeded by his wife Maryam Jidah and his ten children.

Opinions of Abacha and his military regime vary across Africa and the international community. He is credited with leading the African military intervention in the civil war in Sierra Leone that resulted in the restoration of civilian rule in that country in March 1998. His supporters see him as a strong leader and centrifugal force that sustained ethnically diverse Nigeria as a cohesive state and regional power. His opponents maintain that he was a cruel despot that embezzled almost three billion dollars of public funds into private bank accounts in Europe and the Persian Gulf.

In 1999, the Nigerian Federal Government began efforts to recover the stolen funds. Mohammad Abacha, the late president's eldest son was arrested on related charges of fraud, money laundering and embezzlement and for the murder of Cheif Abiola's wife, Alhaja Kudirat. Later, a deal was struck between the Nigerian government and the Abacha family in which all criminal proceedings against Mohammad were dropped in return for eighty percent of the family's liquid assets. It has been reported that the Abacha family has been allowed to retain $100 million of the looted money as part of a protracted settlement.

Professional Categories

Society, Politics & Governance : National Governance : Heads of Armed Forces
Society, Politics & Governance : National Governance : Heads of State or Government

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