by Wale Salami
“When the people fear their GOVERNMENT, there is TYRANNY; when the government fears the PEOPLE, there is LIBERTY.”
— Thomas Jefferson (an American Founding Father, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the third President of the United States (1801–1809))
Before you cast a stone at me please read through this piece. As par the choice of my title, well, I adopted it from a site I ‘stumbled’ on while researching on this piece. Infact, a better title would have been “NEVER AGAIN! . . . remembering the tyranny of General Sani Abacha”. Isn’t it funny that Abacha could be a Hero to some people?
Now that I’m sure we are on the same page, may I proceed to plead my case?
On June 8th, fifteen years ago, Nigeria witnessed a ‘turning point’ with the death of one of the worst tyrants in the history of the world: Gen Sani Abacha. Abacha was a military dictator and de facto President of Nigeria from November 17, 1993 – June 8, 1998 whose regime was synonymous with human rights violations and allegations of corruption. Abacha died of heart failure (some say Idian Chicks did the job but. . .) on June 8, 1998 and was replaced by General Abdulsalami Abubakar who eventually handed over to a democratic elected President thus shutting the doors on the military.
I remembered vividly the ‘weird’ celebratory mood in the country when the news of his demise was announced that fateful day, fourteen years ago. As a teenager then, I was simply confused why the death of the Head of a Nation could provoke such reactions but I was soon cured of my innocence and ignorance by my aged landlord then (Pa Williams Oluoga of blessed memory). Pa Williams took me through what could well pass for a history class on the facts and gory details of the madness Nigeria underwent during Abacha’s regime. All I could say was: “NEVER AGAIN!”
Never again would our country, Nigeria, go through this path again. Not in my lifetime!
I doubt if the Nigerian nation would have walked this path of democracy were Abacha still alive today. History demands that we take a look back at the past and understand where are coming from or where we used to be (past), as a nation; where we are presently (now) and where we are headed (future).
What I try to achieve with this piece is to document the unbroken will of a people against all odds, the tenacity and willingness to ‘begin all over again’ at the task of nation building, fourteen years ago. The never-say-die Nigerian spirit which refused to give up in the face of one of the deadliest tyrants the world has ever seen. The triumph of a people who refused to give-in to the pettiness of those days nor give-up on a nation in dire need of the patriotic energy of its people. But above all, the amazing grace of a loving God!
I have attempted to catalogue the pains and the joys, the challenges and the victories, the uphill task of building and nurturing a nascent democracy. A democracy we seem to be taking for granted given the recent happenings in our nation.
Abacha’s Dark Era: NEVER AGAIN!
Abacha took over power from the caretaker 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 millions of Nigerians.
As a measure of exercising his iron grip on power, 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. To many activists, this singular act signified a death sentence. And many paid with their lives!
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.
Gen. Sani Abacha: Their hero!
Perhaps as a demonstration of his innermost feeling of insecurity, Abacha surrounded himself with approximately 3,000 armed men loyal to him. An African adage says: ‘The man whom the gods would kill, they will first make dumb.’ His government compared to other Nigerian governments was characterized by an inconsistent foreign policy: He supported the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) 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.
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. Peter Lewis in his book ‘Growing Apart: Oil, Politics, And Economic Change in Indonesia And Nigeria’ (2007) listed Abacha as the world’s fourth most corrupt leader in recent history.
In what is considered as sheer hypocrisy in some quarters, it is worthwhile to note that 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 (although being a Muslim) 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.
The world watched helplessly as Nigerians lived with terror. Being an activist was a wrong job in those days. If you didn’t die through a ‘letter bomb’ like Dele Giwa, be sure to be kidnapped or simply incaserated for daring to insult his Lordship, the Commander in Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces.
The military Provisional Ruling Council (PRC) under Abubakar commuted the sentences of those accused in the alleged coup during the Abacha regime and released almost all known civilian political detainees. The rest, they say, is history.
ABACHA: A Hero?!
History of nations is nothing but the biographies of men: great men and women, the victors and villains, the history makers and the victims of history. A wise man once said: “In life, we would only be remembered for two things: (1.) The Problems we created; and (2.) The Solutions we proffered.” Hate him or like him but the history of Nigeria’s march towards Democracy and the 4th Republic cannot be complete without the mention of the name ‘Sani Abacha’.
Whether he is a hero or not is still being debated but one thing is clear: Abacha was never a Leader! Addressing him as one is an insult to great leaders everywhere in the world.
Although Abacha remains a hero to some select few like his family members and of course the few beneficiaries of his wanton madness. Infact, some of these people believe Abacha was not a demon afterall.
Some of the achievements recorded during his ‘rule’, according to his fans, are:
(1.) Stability of the Naira during his regime, between 1994 and 1998 the value of the Naira against the US Dollar fluctuated between 17.30-21.89 at Official Rates and 21.90-84.70 at the Parallel Market respectively (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigerian_naira);
(2.) Unavailability of ethnic, regional or religion crisis and upheavals like Boko Haram and thus absence of monumental bloodletting and insecurity that we currently face (yes, we were safe but not ‘free’!);
(3.) He was able to create more states and address some imbalances, e.g. Ekiti, Ebonyi and Bayelsa without the scandals and noise we witness in a democratic setting;
(4) The infamous ‘Failed Bank Tribunal’;
(5.) The somewhat historic ‘Two Million Rally’ in Abuja led by one Daniel Kanu (I wonder where such men are these days. It seems some of them (sycophants) have since taken a permanent residence in Aso Rock) to mention but few.
One thing common to all these achievements is Corruption! Many would argue that the only people who seemingly benefitted from his rule are the ones who would see something good in Abacha’s days at the helms of affairs of our nation. Well, not really. I think the strength toughness and character of the Nigerian nation was tested during his regime and it passed albeit with bruises.
15 Years After . . .
Some may argue about the essence of this piece, they may ask: ‘why remember the life of a brutal dictator whose stock in trade was political assassination of vocal opposition?’ While many may question my intention to elaborate on this dark but defining chapter in our national life and may want us to quickly ‘turn the page’; I think it is expedient that we take a look back in order to appreciate how far we have come in our journey as a democratic nation.
Whether we appreciate those sacrifices or not is a debate for another.
Fellow Nigerians, all that our matyrs and patriots fought and died for are still with us today. The insensitivity of a government that says we, as a people, do not matter. That our voice do not count, eventhough our votes got them into office!
Fifteen years after Abacha, we have successfully built one of the most expensive democracies in the world in which our lawmakers allegedly earn more than the President of the most powerful nation in the world, Barack Obama. Our people live under the most primitive conditions known to man: roads with potholes and craters, schools with unmotivated teachers and dilapidated facilities, hospitals with insufficient medical amenities, a government that is out-of-touch with the governed, a judiciary swimming in corruption and political manipulation, a political class seemingly jinxed with corrupt enrichment, politicians who are integrity-deficient and morally bankrupt; and religious institutions that have abandoned their responsibility as a symbol of socio-political and community renewal. These days, there are more men of God and ‘less of God’ in men!
ALL Hope Is Not Lost!
However, all hope is not lost. You will agree with me that Nigeria’s return to democracy has had its fair share of positive developments in Communications, Banking and virtually all other sectors.
There’s nothing WRONG with Nigeria that cannot be resolved with what is RIGHT with Nigeria!
We need to continue in the task of holding our government accountable thus making them fear us. If the ‘Occupy Nigeria’ protests thought us anything, it is that we, the people, are the government! We need to remind the ruling class that whatever power they seem to wield now was ‘democratically’ given to them by us (the people) and can be withdrawn. Gone are those days when we fear our government. That moment in our history is dead and buried!
What we achieved then gives us hope for what we can and must achieve now. Nigeria will SURVIVE. Nothing, no one and no conspiracy theory can defeat the WILL of the Nigerian people.
Lastly, let me close with this inspiring quote from Musiliu, a Lagos ‘Danfo’ (bus) conductor: “Don’t always expect CHANGE to be given to you at all time. . . You MUST bring CHANGE too!” As Mahatma Ghandi said: “You must be the CHANGE you want to see in your world!”
Musiliu. . . Wisdom from the Streets of Lasgidi!
We are the CHANGE that we seek; we are the ones we’ve been WAITING for!
May the LABORS of our (true) heroes past not be in vain!
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Wale Salami