By Muhammad Nourah Bamalli
General Sani Abacha, who was born on September 20, 1943, died three months to his 55th birthday on June 8, 1998. Before his death, Gen Abacha had risen to the rank of a full military general, as well as the military head of state of Nigeria from 1993 until his death. He was at various times the GOC 2 Division, Chief of Army Staff; Chief of Defence Staff and Minister of Defence respectively.
During his life-time and long after his death, Gen. Sani Abacha, like all statesmen in history, has remained a subject of discussion and appraisal in various circles. Many described Abacha as isolated and secluded Nigerian who drew worldwide condemnation for being an authoritarian ruler. He was accused of appearing only intermittently in public and would speak briefly or not at all on critical issues, and he was also noted for his tough and quiet demeanor, which usually hid his thoughts on issues of national and international interests. Under this cover, this school of thought believed that Abacha deployed to deal decisively with opposition and jailed several influential Nigerians for various reasons, which made his regime to suffer opposition externally and internally from so many journalists and pro-democracy activists. On the other hand, others see Abacha as firm and fearless, who stabilized the exchange rate and maintained maximum security for all citizens in the country. Many Nigerians still hold a strong belief and optimism that the situation of the security challenges rampant in the country now, would have been totally a different story and a secure country for all, if Gen Abacha was still alive and at the helms of affairs, given his practical achievements and zero tolerance to rebellion and dissention in any form. During his life time, there was a famous quotation purported to have been credited to him, which was also tweeted by his daughter, Ms. Gumsu Sani Abacha on May 8, 2014, that: “if insurgency lasts more than 24 hours, the Government has a hand in it.” Irrespective, the most outstanding quality of Gen. Abacha, as seen and agreed by all and sundry, was his sincerity of purpose and objectivity on national issues and decision making as Head of State, when to the amazement of all Nigerians, Gen Abacha engaged the skills and services of General Muhammadu Buhari, the Head of the Government they disposed in 1985, to meet the economic interest of Nigerians, regardless of their personal and political difference.
The public life of Gen. Abacha is widely documented, with little narrated about his personal life, which many are desirous to know. In 1990 this writer had the opportunity to have met with Gen. Sani Abacha, then a Major General and Chief of Army Staff at a residence in Ikoyi, Lagos. The meeting was a complete co-incidence, because I had gone to see the then Managing Director of United Bank for Africa (UBA), Alhaji Suleiman S. Baffa, who was also the Chairman of the Lagos State Chapter of the Kano State Foundation, where I served as the Secretary of the Lagos Chapter. Part of my duty was to meet with him regularly, to discuss and update him on matters relating to the operations of the foundation in the State. That Sunday in 1990, I was with him from about 11: 00 in the morning up to about 5: 00pm, when his house boy came in a rush to announce the arrival of some important personality in the house. At this point I indicated to my host my wish to take leave, to give them a chance to discuss, but he objected to the request, not even when I offered to move to another sitting room. Alhaji Baffa insisted that I remained seated, and even added that the visit was mainly a social one, to say “hello”. While I was wondering who the guest might be, Gen. Abacha emerged. I stood up to receive him, as he came directly to me, being the only person in the living room, and grabbed my hands with a smile, and politely urged us all to sit down. So, I remained seated, and watching closely at this “impenetrable and hard-to-define” gentleman. It was a rare opportunity to have met Gen Abacha at close range and in a direct contact. My mind swung into action immediately and kept wondering if this was indeed the man who mastered the art of plotting coups and courageously announcing them with no recourse to consequences, yet he decided to take time to visit his friends just to say “hello”, how amazing and astonishing! I continued to snatch closer looks again and again at this smallish, but extremely calm and focused man, who by now had started asking his host after the family. So, this was the “I, Brigadier Sani Abacha of the Nigerian Army……?” The same Abacha we celebrated in our family when we saw him on National TV, in 1987, then Chief of Army Staff, decorating our brother (then Major, now late Gen Bamalli, who died during the military air crash, along with other Generals in 2006) with the coveted Chief of Army Staff Award. There I was, continuing to ponder if this was indeed the stern-looking and no-nonsense Abacha, now sitting happily in a friend’s house on “social visit”? The Abacha who, for the second time in less than two years, ushered yet another successful coup that brought in President Ibrahim Babangida to power? The man was simply sitting down in a friend’s house to say “hello”? Well, I finally came to terms with the fact that here he was doing exactly that.
His host went into the inner house and announced the presence of his august visitor to his wife, who immediately came to the living room to join Gen Abacha and exchanged greetings. Abacha asked the whereabouts of all the members of the family, and went on to discuss family matters that I thought only the lesser mortals remember or pay attention to, or have time to discuss. Otherwise, I said to my hallucination – how else could the Gen Abacha we perceived, be asking about the wellbeing of anybody’s family? I now came to terms that coup plotting and execution still allows for such human consideration! Here was Gen Abacha exhibiting elements of human feeling!
After the greetings, Abacha began to speak on other issues. My attention was immediately drawn to him, listening attentively to his soft voice, monitoring his gestures and watching every posture he posed – just that the dark goggles were missing! As he talked, we were all watching the life-sized TV screen in the living room and the TV program on CNN news, was about the dismantling of the Berlin wall, between the East and Western Germany. Gen Abacha recalled during his visit to Germany around the time, when he insisted in crossing over the broken Berlin wall, to see things for himself. He narrated how he was denied the request, until the officials of the Nigerian embassy intervened with the German officials. In the end he was allowed to pass through and even had the opportunity to ask questions and take pictures! He narrated the episode so well and so interesting that, even afterwards, I continued to monitor the story of the Berlin wall, until it became stale.
After the news report, Alhaji Baffa introduced another topic to his guest, when he presented to Abacha some invitation cards in which his family was inviting well-wishers to the opening of a saloon, belonging to one of his daughters at Ikoyi Hotel. He told Gen Abacha that the cards were actually meant to be sent to Hajiya Maryam Abacha for her attendance. Again, I observed on the polite action of Gen Abacha, who gladly and happily accepted to carry the errands back home, I wondered that Abacha was running errands!
After being served some soft drinks and cakes, Gen Abacha offered to take his leave. We all stood up to bid him farewell and he departed. Talk about Gen Abacha as only being brutal or insensitive!
Since then, I continued to observe Gen Abacha only on TV and on the pages of newspapers. The second time I came in another close contact with Gen Abacha was also memorable to me and our family. It was in December 1992, barely 11 months to his ascension to power. It was on the morning of yet another Sunday, when Abacha came to condole our family over the death of our father, late Alhaji Muhammadu Bamalli Nuhu. Gen Abacha was amongst the early callers to the house in Kano city, as early as 6.30am, and took part in all the burial arrangements of our dear father, before the interment, may their souls continue to rest in peace, Amin. What was significant, was that Abacha joined the crowd like an ordinary man and condoled the family deeply, took part in all activities and departed to Lagos.
Gen Sani Abacha was a man who was generally regarded as elusive and highly misunderstood during the time he lived! As we condole his family members and all well-wishers, we pray Almighty Allah to grant his soul eternal peace and give his family, in particular and the country at large, the fortitude to bear his irreparable loss, Amin.
Muhammad Nourah Bamalli can be reached at email@example.com