People & Money

Abacha’s ruthlessness and the hospitality of his erstwhile victims

It is a rare instance that one substitutes ruthlessness for hospitality to anyone’s advantage.

It is a rare instance that one substitutes ruthlessness for hospitality to anyone’s advantage. Nonetheless, Shettima’s main failing might simply be a bad case of foot-and-mouth disease: He can’t open his mouth without promptly sticking his foot in it. Still, because General Sani Abacha’s case fits neither attribute, the possibility of a more harmful malady ought to be entertained.

When Kashim Shettima, vice-presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in next year’s general elections, said (amongst other things) that Nigeria needs “a leader with a dose of ruthlessness and taciturnity of general Sani Abacha”, he inadvertently raised far more questions than he meant to answer. Gaffe-prone (others argue that these are but Freudian slips ― windows onto his inner thoughts), Shettima (a former governor of Borno State, and currently representing the state as a senator at the National Assembly) was seeking to fix a previous blooper. He had earlier, at the 96th anniversary celebration of the Yoruba Tennis Club, Ikoyi, apparently suggested that the country needs the “hospitality” of Abacha. Or so the News Agency of Nigeria reported him as having said.

It is a rare instance that one substitutes ruthlessness for hospitality to anyone’s advantage. Nonetheless, Shettima’s main failing might simply be a bad case of foot-and-mouth disease: He can’t open his mouth without promptly sticking his foot in it. Still, because General Sani Abacha’s case fits neither attribute, the possibility of a more harmful malady ought to be entertained. The stories that emerged after General Sani Abacha’s death in office on 8 June, 1998 (as Nigeria’s military head of state) were of a homicidal administration bent on perpetuating itself in office at whatever cost.

There was the wet operation that was Alhaja Kudirat Abiola’s assassination. And there was Barnabas Jabila Mshelia’s (whose operation’s moniker was “Sergeant Rogers”) hit squad. I knew neither. But I still feel pain for the former. However, Bagauda Kaltho was both a friend and colleague. His gruesome death, apparently because something on his person exploded, remains one of the many unsolved mysteries of the Abacha administration.

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On paper, the goal of the newspapers published by the Independent Communications Network Limited (TheNewsTempoAMNewsPMNews) was to hold governments to proper governance standards on the path towards returning the country to democratic rule. That the Abacha government did not agree with any of this was hardly surprising, then.

At the personal level, Sani Abacha touched me most poignantly through work. I joined the editorial board of the AMNews newspaper two years into his administration. Anyone who was with any of the titles in that stable has stories to tell aplenty of his benighted rule. On paper, the goal of the newspapers published by the Independent Communications Network Limited (TheNewsTempoAMNewsPMNews) was to hold governments to proper governance standards on the path towards returning the country to democratic rule. That the Abacha government did not agree with any of this was hardly surprising, then.

No week passed, therefore, without the offices of the newspaper being besieged by security forces in the two years that I worked there. It did not matter what agency of state it was. So long as the officers of that arm of government bore firearms, it was de rigueur to cordon off the newspaper’s offices. The newspaper ran a piece on improprieties in the Nigeria Customs Services (NCS), and officers and men of the customs services were at the office the next day to shut the place. Harassing everyone in sight. Understandably, staff were perpetually on the run as a result. Coordinating meetings clandestinely. Watching their backs all the time. Paranoid about the company they kept.

I recall one such day at work. Staff of the state security services came calling. As usual they rounded up everyone in the office into a space not designed for incarcerating ― however temporarily ― that number of persons. In order to get out of jail, each one of us had to present some form of identification. I still do not know who it was these officers and gentlemen were looking for that fateful day. But Odia Ofeimun was unlucky to be there. Odia was chair of the newspaper’s editorial board. And you could tell how uncomfortable he was from the minute these men began rounding us up like cattle. I don’t know whether it was the claustrophobic accommodation of the make-shift jail, but at a point he was livid with rage.

Today, I can understand that some Nigerians still struggle to place the Abacha administration along with Pol Pot (Cambodia), Idi Amin Dada Oumee (Uganda), and Jean-Bédel Bokassa (Central African Republic). Disagreeable, though, his native instincts are in anyone seeking higher officer. But I do not get how journalists who were at the short end of Abacha’s rule can remain schtum in the face of so obvious a provocation.

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He asked of the officer leading the bashibazouks how it was possible without a warrant to restrict liberties so gratuitously. “Can you contemplate a situation in which the police in the United States of America would invade the offices of the Washington Post and lock up staff as you have just done?” Odia went on and on and on. Exasperated, the officer in charge turned to him sad said “Owaren (Esan for “elder”), if you don’t stop talking, I will shoot you!” I had no doubt that he could and would have. Ruthlessness is that simple. Of course my chairman, similarly convinced, shut his mouth thereafter. Then, I became editorial page editor of the newspaper because my predecessor in office (a fine gentleman who couldn’t hurt a fly if his life depended on it) was locked away as a coup plotter. That was how hospitable and ruthless the Abacha government was from my vantage. In the end, it was the case that journalists had to flee the country on exile. Most ended up in Canada or the United States of America.

Today, I can understand that some Nigerians still struggle to place the Abacha administration along with Pol Pot (Cambodia), Idi Amin Dada Oumee (Uganda), and Jean-Bédel Bokassa (Central African Republic). Disagreeable, though, his native instincts are in anyone seeking higher officer. But I do not get how journalists who were at the short end of Abacha’s rule can remain schtum in the face of so obvious a provocation.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.

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