ON June 8,1997, one of Nigeria’s erstwhile Heads of State and military chief, General Sani Abacha, passed away in Abuja, the nation’s capital. General Abacha passed on whilst still in office as Head of State. The place of Gen. Abacha in Nigeria’s military and democratic history can scarcely be over-emphasized. He was one Nigeria’s finest military officers.
He was immensely popular and highly respected among his peers in the military and among the civilian populace.
General Abacha came into national prominence in the heady days of the second democratic republicanism in Nigeria which spanned from October 1, 1979 to December 30, 1983. It was General Abacha, then a Brigadier-General, who announced the military take-over of the reins of power from the civilians. It was this coup which brought the regime of Major-Generals Muhammadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbor to being.
This military putsch was most celebrated and welcomed across the country. The civilian-to-civilian elections had just taken place. The elections were marred by a lot of irregularities. The elections were massively rigged. There were cases of ballot box snatching, illegal thump-printing of ballot boxes, and declaration of false results and outright manipulation of electoral results.
Victors in the elections were turned into losers in broad daylight. Verdict ’83 became magic ’83. Hell was let loose. There was arson, murder, looting, rampage and brigandage, especially in the Western part of the country. The country was literally at the edge of the precipice. Then the military struck. Abacha was the harbinger of this news. The politicians were all sent packing.
The military, with Buhari and Idiagbon as the helmsmen, held sway. When Buhari and Idiagbon derailed from the charted course, it was again General Abacha who announced their removal and the constitution of the Armed Force Ruling Council with General Ibrahim Badamasi Babahgida, IBB, as the military president.
General Abacha played a key role in saving Nigeria from ruin. He came to the rescue of Nigerians together with other military officers to truncate the prevailing political, economic and social rot and decay on the side of the people and to halt the descent of the Buhari-Idiagbon regime to autarchy.
Whilst the Babahigda government mooted the idea of return to civilian rule, General Abacha stood by that resolve and respected the wishes of generality of Nigerians for a quick return to democratic republicanism. General Abacha played a key role as the Chief of Army Staff and later Chairman Joint Chief of Staff. He helped immensely to stabilize the Babangida administration, especially at its inception.
As Chief of Army Staff, General Abacha introduced a lot of reform in the army. The military were carried along in the government. During his tenure as Chief of Army Staff and later as Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, a lot of reforms were introduced in the military as an institution. Many barracks, office blocks and senior staff quarters were established across the military formations in the country. The welfare of the military men and their families were enhanced.
The military began to have a sense of belonging and well-being. General Abacha contributed greatly to the restoration of the lost glory of the military in Nigeria.
Even when the Babangida regime was being roundly castigated, General Abacha kept faith with the government and the Nigerian people. After the June 12 debacle and its attendant hullaballoo and political log jam, General Abacha did not lose faith in the Nigerian people.
When General Babangida stepped aside, General Abacha agreed to stay on to help to bring stability, credibility and a sense of purpose to the Ernest Shonekan-led Interim National Government,ING.
There is no gainsaying the fact that General Abacha played a major role in giving the ING a distinctive feature of credibility and acceptance among the wide spectrum of the Nigeria political class and the international community.
It was due mainly to General Abacha’s sagacity, acumen and professionalism that Nigeria was able to weather the storm of the June 12 political commotion. Abacha acted as a mediator between the civilian populace and the political class on the one hand and the military on the other hand.
Perhaps, at no better time than when the storm of the cancellation of the 1993 presidential election was raging did General Abacha show the great stuff he was made of and his statesman-like leadership and dexterity. In a sense, Nigeria remained an indestructible, corporate entity after June 12, thanks to General Abacha’s mature leadership, great skills and prodigious sense of judgment.
As the Shonekan-led ING was subjected to a barrage of criticisms, nationally and internationally, for its lethargy and lack of direction, General Abacha was the Moses who led Nigerians out of the bridge and an uncertain and bleak future. He took the driver’s seat from Shonekan, infused a sense of direction and business to governance and halted the palpable drift to hopelessness.
As Head of State, General Abacha assembled a wonderful cabinet of experienced men and women from the political class. He also enlisted the services of technocrats. His cabinet was a rich blend of the old and young, the politician and the statesmen, the captains of industry and the bureaucrats. General Abacha tried to assuage the feeling of the political class and the section of the country who felt short-changed by the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election.
His government reached out to all shades of opinion in the country in order to move the country forward.
General Abacha believed so much in deliberation and discussion with the political class on the way forward for the country. He set up a Constitution Review Committee. He also constituted the Constituent Assembly. This Assembly attracted a wide array of both old-breed and new-breed politicians.
The Constituent Assembly brain-stormed and deliberated extensively on democracy in Nigeria. It was in the course of the deliberations at the Constituent Assembly that the idea of the six geo-political zone structure which later represented the basis for zoning and geographical spread in the post-1999 political parties and the Federal Government.
During the Abacha regime, many political parties and associations flourished without let or hindrance. Like-minded politicians held meetings freely and formed a plethora of associations. After the Constituent Assembly, Abacha’s government democratised the local government by conducting peaceful and credible elections of councilors and chairmen. Abacha’s government also conducted House of Assembly and National Assembly elections in the country.
Abacha was so popular that politicians who were eyeing the presidency dropped their ambition and openly called on him to continue his good works. All the political parties adopted him as their presidential candidate. Rallies and conferences were held to persuade Abacha to run for the presidential election.
General Sani Abacha’s legacies are there for all to see. His legacies cannot be obliterated. This great son of Nigeria, nay Africa, deserves the nation’s respect and honour. As a worthy leader and compatriot, Abacha’s place in the Nigeria political pantheon should be assured. This great leader’s place in Nigeria’s history cannot be denied.
As we mark the 13th anniversary of General Abacha’s departure from planet earth, it behoves all men of goodwill and history to immortalize this distinguished Nigerian, selfless leader, fine officer, great reconciliator and consummated administrator.
Sleep on, fearless General, for the labours of our past heroes shall indeed not be in vain. And their memories shall be evergreen. Surely General Abacha’s good works keep his memory well alive.
Mr. OLIVER OKPALA, a political analyst, wrote from Abuja.