#YNaijaEssays: June 12 and the legacy of Nigerian Leadership III

Last week, Nigeria as a nation celebrated the post-humous honour granted to Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola and the recognition that was given to the 1993 elections. However, much of this joy seemed restricted to certain age demographics. Specifically, only the people who had lived during his own run for the presidency seemed to suggest there was a widespread lack of context and historical knowledge especially when our former military leaders are discussed. Remarks made by President Muhammadu Buhari a few months ago praising now dead dictator General Sani Abacha and the lack of outrage that followed seemed to suggest that, we knew as little about how legacy as a nation than anyone could have predicted.

This inspired our Weekly Essay at YNaija this week. We have asked all our writers to research on and write about our past military leaders, the often less discussed aspects of their time in leadership and the legacy of their decision making. We hope it enlightens you as much as it did us. Here is the third article in this three-part essay.


Before Olusegun Obasanjo returned power to civil rule in 1979, Nigerians had experienced military rule for thirteen years after the first coup in 1966. The 1966 coup, led by Major Kaduna Nzeogwu had fellow majors, Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Timothy Onwuatuegwu, Chris Anuforo, Don Okafor, Humphrey Chukwuka, and Adewale Ademoyega as co-conspirators. This was the beginning of military rule and the introduction of coups to the Nigerian political system.

In 1979, General Obasanjo, a beneficiary of a coup (the 1976 coup) himself handed over power to Shehu Shagari on October 1, who became Nigeria’s first and only president of the Second Republic.

Shagari’s time as president was cut short on the eve of 1984 when Major General Muhammadu Buhari removed him from office in a coup, citing dismal economic conditions and the corrupt nature of politicians. Buhari’s military rule was short-lived as he was ousted on August 27, 1985, by his then Chief of Army Staff, Major General Ibrahim Babangida. In a speech read by Brigadier General Joshua Nimyel Dogonyaro to justify the coup ousting Buhari, the military said the present state of uncertainty and stagnation cannot be permitted to degenerate into suppression and retrogression.”

This was the beginning of Babangida’s eight-year rule as Nigeria’s ruler. But Babangida’s participation in military coups date as far back as 1966. Then a lieutenant with the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron in Kaduna, Babangida was one of many officers of northern extraction who participated in what is known as the Nigerian Counter-Coup of 1966 which resulted in the death of Nigeria’s first military Head of State, General Aguiyi Ironsi. He also played a huge role in the 1983 coup that toppled Nigeria’s Second Republic. According to Karl Maier’s ‘Midnight in Nigeria’, Babangida noted that Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola participated in the coup with the use of his media and financial muscle.

On ascension of office in 1985, Babangida became the first military ruler to declare himself president and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. His military predecessors were known as Head of State. He established the Armed Forces Ruling Council and held the positions of President, Chairman of the Armed Forces Ruling Council, Chairman of the Federal Executive Council and Commander in Chief – Nigerian Armed Forces.

On October 18, 1986, a letter bomb was sent to Dele Giwa, editor of Newswatch magazine, which criticised the government. Reports have accused the Babaginda-led government of killing the journalist. According to Ray Ekpu, a journalist and co-founder of Newswatch, Giwa was invited by the State Security Service (SSS), now the Department of State Service (DSS) days before his assassination. Ekpu said he accompanied Giwa to the meeting at the SSS headquarters were he was accused by Lt. Col Togun of plotting to published a cover story titled, “Power Games: Ukiwe loses out”, in its edition of October 20, which was on sale on October 13, 1986. Ebitu Ukiwe had just been recently removed as the Chief of General Staff to General Babangida.

A day before his assassination, Giwa’s wife, Funmi received a call at their Ikeja home from a staff of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), requesting for directions to their house. Colonel Halilu Akilu of the DMI later spoke with Giwa’s wife. When asked why he needed the directions, according to Ekpu, Akilu said he wanted to see Giwa before he left Lagos for Kano later. He also offered that the President’s ADC had something for Giwa, probably an invitation. This was nothing new, according to Ekpu, as Giwa had received advance copies of some of the President’s speeches in the past through Akilu. The next day a letter bomb was sent to Giwa’s residence, resulting in his death. Giwa’s death remains a mystery and a stain on Babangida’s administration. Officials of Babangida’s regime have denied any knowledge of the assassination.

In 1999, President Olusegun Obasanjo set up the Human Rights Violation Investigation Commission to investigate human rights abuses during decades of military rule in Nigeria. The Commission was headed by Justice Chukwudifu Oputa. One of the cases brought before it was Giwa’s death. The panel invited Babangida to appear before it, but he rejected the summons and failed to honour the invitations. He challenged both the legality of the commission and its power to summon him. In 2001, Nigeria’s Court of Appeal ruled that the panel did not have the power to summon former rulers of the country.

When delivering in its report on the case, the Oputa Panel concluded that: “On General Ibrahim Babangida, we are of the view that there is evidence to suggest that he and the two security chiefs, Brigadier General Halilu Akilu and Col. A. K. Togun are accountable for the untimely death of Dele Giwa by letter bomb. We recommend that this case be re-opened for further investigation in the public interest.”

Babangida’s time as Head of State will be incomplete without delving into his annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election, termed the freest and fairest in Nigeria’s history. Shortly after assuming office, in 1986, Babangida declared that power will be returned to a civilian government in 1990. He later extended this date by two years to allow for adequate preparation. For this to happen, he declared that no politicians from the civilian regimes or military officials holding positions could run for elections. He banned political parties during the transition period and gave his approval to only two parties, the National Republican Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) – both creations of Babangida’s government. As the transition grew closer, Babangida dissolved the Armed Forces Ruling Council – only Sani Abacha, Joshua Dogonyaro, Augustus Aikhomu, Murtala Nyako and Babatunde Elegbede were still members when Babangida stepped down in 1993.

Babangida annulled the election citing irregularities. His decision sparked outcry and widespread protests across the country. He will be remembered as the man who denied Nigeria of a president – Abiola – who was voted by Nigerians from all divide, regardless of religion, ethnicity and class.


The line up of Nigeria’s leaders from 1966 to date collectively ravaged Nigeria, ripping to shreds her status as ‘Giant of Africa’ as they went along, keeping her consistently on the rung of third world countries.

Olusegun Obasanjo, however much he has tried to project himself as the best democratic leader Nigeria has ever had has his hands stained with innocent blood. But the most brutal military despot Nigeria has been unfortunate to have sat at the helm of affairs is General Sani Abacha. Abacha was a maximum dictator of the cruellest sort. Crooked in an unprecedented way, Abacha siphoned most of Nigeria’s wealth during his short stint as Head of State, a position he came to by an in-house palace coup, effectively reversing Nigeria’s economic gains. Sani Abacha’s legacy is hydra-headed, but we’ll spotlight just three. Corruption, press repression and judicial killings.

James Rupert writing for the Washington Post Foreign Service in 1998 said,

“In nearly five secretive years in power, Nigeria’s Gen. Sani Abacha built a reputation for authoritarian, sometimes brutal rule. He was less known — but in terms of his legacy to Nigeria, perhaps more important — for overseeing a web of corruption that Nigerians and oil industry sources say plundered billions of dollars from the country. While he ruled Nigeria from a fortified presidential villa in Nigeria’s capital, the sources said, he and a circle of aides and business partners tapped virtually every stage of the oil business, Nigeria’s most important industry and the source of 80 percent of its government revenue. They took kickbacks from foreign companies for licenses to search for oil in the basin and delta of the Niger River and offshore. They got bribes from construction firms that won contracts to build drilling rigs and pipelines.

And, in a business that generated a daily river of cash, Abacha and several associates supervised every sale of Nigerian crude by the state-owned oil company, the sources said, slicing off an unknown percentage of the $10 billion a year that Nigeria earns on average in oil sales.

In recent years, Abacha, his allies and top officials have added a new form of corruption that is killing the Nigerian economy — the syphoning of money used by Nigeria’s oil refineries to turn crude into gasoline. Finance and Oil Ministry officials argue openly in the Nigerian press over who is responsible for diverting more than $2 billion from the four state-owned refineries in recent years, but the refineries ruin creates an artificial fuel shortage for this nation of more than 100 million people. Nigeria is thus forced to import refined fuels, such as gasoline, and, traders say, Abacha and his cronies controlled that trade too, skimming off a percentage”

Abacha was so notorious for corruption, it’s been reported that he stole between $3-5billion, hidden in London, Swiss and US Banks, effectively sending the economy into near depression. In fact, foreign reports have it that during the time of Abacha’s rule, Nigeria’s annual per capita income compared with that of Haiti despite its natural resources and the windfall that occurred as result of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which saw oil prices skyrocket.

There’s more from James Rupert’s story.

“The former trader, a European, said he participated in three oil purchases in recent years — technically from Nigeria’s state oil company but negotiated with Abacha aides at the presidential villa. Each contract specified a “commission” to be paid to a specific beneficiary, he said.

He declined to name the beneficiaries on the contracts he helped negotiate. He said other traders had noted that sometimes the beneficiary is a well-known Nigerian, and at other times “it’s a completely unknown person” who traders believe is a front for someone else. He said the contracts he dealt with ordered the commissions paid to bank accounts in Singapore, Bermuda and Switzerland”

Since the death of the maximum ruler, successive governments have tried to recover the stupendous loot. President Olusegun Obasanjo took the lead upon the assumption of office. Having inherited a paltry $3.7 billion naira in reserves and grappling with a $9 dollar per barrel prices for liquid gold, he set about recovering looted assets and funds by Abacha.

According to news reports, “In November 2003, the Nigerian government recovered $149 million from the Island of Jersey. On August 19, 2004, the Swiss Federal Office of Justice transmitted to Nigeria, all the assets in Switzerland owned by the Abacha family, amounting to $500 million. A year later, Okonjo-Iweala announced the recovery of Abacha assets to the tune of $2 billion and an additional sum of $458 million. Similarly, under President Jonathan, Switzerland repatriated $380 million to Nigeria in March 2014. Three months later, Liechtenstein announced the return of $227 million to Nigeria. In August 2014, the US announced the forfeiture of $480m of Abacha funds and the return of the money to the Nigerian government. President Buhari also acknowledged receipt of $322,515,931.83 on December 18, 2017, from the Swiss government, 10 years after defending Abacha as wrongly accused of corruption.

While Abacha spent his rule enriching his pockets, things went to the dogs. Nigeria’s refineries all shut down, electricity was little or non-existent in Lagos (and the rest of the country), neither was the landline telephone network. And the rate of unemployment had risen to about 25 per cent.

According to Nigeria’s Oil and Gas Monthly, a trade journal during the Abacha dispensation, Nigeria planned to spend in the region of $600 million to import refined fuels between January and September. The journal noted that “paradoxically . . . less than half of that amount would have breathed life into two of the four” Nigerian refineries. “

Meanwhile, Abacha built grand, opulent homes in the Northern city of Kano and Abuja and made his friends – like the Chagoury’s very rich and influential, pushing the family business from a modest construction business to a multinational company dabbling in many production sectors.

Following the death of its taskmaster, Nigerian leaders swallowed Abacha’s manual on How To Bleed Nigeria Dry hook, line and sinker and have plundered the country without apology, perpetuating the legacy of corruption. It’s the norm for Nigerian leaders to build palatial homes while in government yet ignore the deplorable roads in their state – and elsewhere. “Kickbacks” and “commissions” are still very much a thing and yes, no one, not even Obasanjo or Buhari has succeeded in resurrecting Nigeria’s refineries or electricity. It appears to be rocket science.

“In case the western world has forgotten the rule of law, we in Nigeria are prepared to teach them.”

– Nigerian Minister of Information and Culture Walter Ofonagoro, interviewed in Tell magazine, August 19, 1995.

Abacha was also unsparing of his critics. He was so conscious of his image, he paid handsomely to present a well-laundered image in International media by hiring PR firms based overseas. Local media houses and their employees and foreign journalists who wrote against him received the full brunt of his wrath, some of them paying with their freedom and even their lives. Interestingly, when Abacha seized power, he postured that the press would enjoy more freedom by de-proscribing five media institutions affected by IBB’s clampdown of July 1993. However, Abacha soon began to show his hand in sadistic ways. A battery of statutes such as the (Special Military Tribunal) Decree 1 of 1986; Offensive Publication (Proscription) Decree 35 of 1993, Transition to Civil Rule (Political Programme) Decree 1 Of 1996, Treason and the State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree No. 2 of 1984 gave “Thug of the Year” (christened thus by Time Magazine) the leeway to crack down on erring journalists.

A sentence of a five-year imprisonment was the punishment for anyone who, “organises, plans, encourages, aids, cooperates or conspires with any other person to undermine, prevent or in any way do any act to forestall or prejudice the realisation of the political programme”, aka Abacha Forever and Ever. The same punishment awaited any person “who, or attempts to do any act to counsel, persuade, encourage, organise, mobilise, pressurise, or threaten another person to join with him or with any other person or persons to misrepresent, accuse, or distort the details, implications or purports of any item of the political programme.”

Decree No. 2 of 1984 further provided as follows:

  • a detainee has no right to be informed of the reasons for his or her detention;
  • he or she has no right of access to family, lawyers or private medical treatment;
  • detention orders are renewable, thus permitting indefinite detention on grounds of “state security” without charge or trial;
  • the courts’ jurisdiction to review detention orders has been ousted, so that no civil proceedings may be brought in respect of anything done in terms of the decree, nor may the constitutionality of any action be inquired into by any court.

The information minister, Dr. Walter Ofonagoro regularly threatened to muzzle the press through the use of state apparatus. Ayo Olokutun in his book, Repressive State and Resurgent Media Under Nigeria’s Military Dictatorship notes that in January 1997, Ofonagoro “threatened to institute a special press court to try journalists for “false reporting,” as well as resurrect the obnoxious Newspapers Decree 43 of 1993, which had been declared “null and void” by a Federal High Court in 1994.”

The conditions under which the Press of the day worked were so repressive, many newspapers and Magazines were driven to operate underground. Tell Magazine, News Magazine, Guardian are a few of the media institutions which suffered this fate.

Members of the Fourth Estate who saw the other side of General Abacha include Kunle Ajibade, a founding editor of Concord Press and News Magazine, who was jailed from 1995 -1997 in the coup frame up that implicated General Olusegun Obasanjo, General Oladipo Diya and General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua. Publisher of The Sunday Magazine Chris Anyanwu was sentenced to life imprisonment thereafter commuted to 15 years for “publishing false information” when she reported that the coup plot was a barefaced lie. She was detained from July 1995-1998. Editor of Tell Magazine Nosa Igiebor spent six months in detention between late 1995 and 1996 and afterwards took refuge overseas to escape assassination, Babafemi Ojudu, Managing Editor of News Magazine was also detained and severely beaten in August 1996, as well as Godwin Agbroko, editor of The Week. Guardian publisher, Mr. Alex Ibru, nearly lost his life in a gun attack. Bagauda Kaltho of The News was abducted in 1996 and died in jail, although this was only discovered two years later after General Sani Abacha had died. Dapo Olorunyomi, the founding editor of The News, had fled abroad in 1996 to escape assassination, his wife joining him a year later.

Foreign journalists did not fare any better. Paul Adams, a correspondent for the London-based Financial Times, was detained in Ogoniland for a week in January 1996. Wall Street Journal correspondent, Geraldine Brooks was deported on April 7, 1994. According to Olokotun, she was on a fact-finding mission in the  Niger Delta, trying to unearth the source of conflict between the Ogoni people and the oil companies in Rivers State. Abacha held her “incommunicado for several days” and confiscated her notes, before deporting her back to the states.

British journalist Nick Aston June was worse off. He was detained in June of the same year by Major Paul Okutimo, the dreaded chairman of the Internal Security Task Force charged with “restoring peace” in Ogoniland. Aston was writing a report on the victimisation of the Ogoni people. On August 26, 1994, two reporters from CNN apprehended in the lobby of their hotel, “bundled into an unmarked vehicle and driven to a waiting chartered aircraft at the Murtala Mohammed International and deported”.

The literary community did not have it easy either. Playwrights and poets like Wole Soyinka, Chief Lanre Adepoju, a prominent Ibadan poet and Kunle Ologundudu who dared turn their pen in the direction of Abacha’s missteps were swiftly dealt with and had to go underground or flee the country entirely.

Other critics were not so lucky. Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, a staunch critic of the Abacha administration and wife of MKO Abiola, was taken out by a hit squad along Lagos/Ibadan expressway, on her way to a meet with the Canadian High Commissioner at Victoria Island, Lagos on June 4, 1996. Curiously, members of the Abiola household were arrested over her assassination eight days after it occurred, including Abiola’s son, Kola Abiola. This was shortly after she was arrested by the administration on the 8th of May for “conspiracy to cause misdemeanour and making false publications with intent to cause fear to members of the public.”

Chief Alfred Rewane who was every bit a guardian angel to many journalists was also assassinated. He bankrolled National Democratic Coalition, put the dependants of arrested journalists on a stipend and gave advert backup for press releases to these underground media houses.

Winner of the June 12 elections, MKO Abiola was arrested for treason and jailed. He did not make it out alive. General Musa Yar’Adua suffered the same fate. However, the murders that really stoked the International community’s indignation was that of the Ogoni 9. Ken Saro-Wiwa had sprung up in the place of Isaac Adaka Boro, the first Niger Delta native and activist to rattle the government by speaking out against the injustices of government in the oil-rich region. But where Boro resorted to arms, Saro-Wiwa travelled around the world, using his pen and voice to draw attention to Shell’s complicity with the government to pollute the lands of the Ogoni people, and the human rights the suffering of his people. Abacha did not take it lightly. He arrested Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP): Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine for incitement to murder (4 Ogoni Chiefs had been killed earlier). After being tried in camera at a Special Military Tribunal, they were found guilty and hung in October 1995 – execution which the British Prime Minister dubbed “judicial murders”.

Human Rights Watch compiled a comprehensive report of Abacha’s human rights violations, it is amazing that some Nigerians – including our President – have attempted to whitewash the Maximum dictator’s reputation and remember him through rose coloured glasses.

Abacha’s legacy of gagging the media and silencing the opposition continues today, built upon by certain lingo such as “crossing national red lines”. Last year, the National Broadcasting Commission released guidelines for radio and TV houses. Audu Maikori and Ahmad Salkida are a few of many who have been made scapegoats.

As we move toward the 2019 election cycle, it is important that we remember and understand the legacy of our past leaders and how their action and inaction has helped transform the national into the impoverished hellscape it has become for people who do not have any privilege. Let us look towards the election armed with a deeper understanding of our history and an appreciation for how the decades of uncertainty and human rights abuse have turned us into the country we are today.

Read Also: #YNaijaEssays: June 12 and the legacy of Nigerian Leadership I

Read Also: #YNaijaEssays: June 12 and the legacy of Nigerian Leadership II

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