Why did a U.S. magazine label Nigerian leader Sani Abacha as ‘Thug of the Year’ in 1995?

General Sani Abacha is perhaps Nigeria’s most enigmatic head of state. He reigned from 1993 until his death in 1998. General Abacha was born in Kano state, northern Nigeria on September 20, 1943. He hails from Kanuri in Borno state.

He passed out of the Nigerian Military Training Centre in Kaduna where he proceeded to Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershot, England before being commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in 1963.

He is held by some as Nigeria’s most successful coup plotter. When he was still a Second Lieutenant with the 3rd Battalion in Kaduna, he took part in the July 1966 Nigerian counter-coup from the conceptual stage. He could well have been a participant in the Lagos or Abeokuta phases of the coup the previous January as well.
General Sani Abacha was a Nigerian army officer and dictator between 1993 until his death in 1998.
General Sani Abacha was de facto president of Nigeria until 1998 (Picture: Rex Shutterstock)

Abacha fought for Nigeria in the country’s civil war against Biafran secessionists continuing to rise through the army ranks.

He was instrumental in the 1983 Nigerian coup d’état which brought General Muhammadu Buhari to power as well as the August 1985 coup which removed him from power. He announced the coup which removed the government of Shehu Shagari.

When General Ibrahim Babangida was named President of Nigeria in 1985, Abacha was named Chief of Army Staff. He was appointed Minister of Defence in 1990. With Babangida’s resignation, an interim government headed by civilian President, Ernest Shonekan was formed.

Abacha became the first Nigerian soldier to attain the rank of a full General without skipping a single rank in 1993. In the same year he moved for the ultimate.

Shonekan resigned and transferred power to Abacha in a move widely believed to be another bloodless coup. In September 1994, he issued a decree that placed his government above the jurisdiction of the courts, effectively giving him absolute power. Another decree gave him the right to detain anyone for up to three months without trial.

Abacha is noted for helping restore peace and democracy to Sierra Leone and Liberia after the civil wars.

On his administration of the Nigerian state proper, he established The Petroleum Trust Fund aimed to address major economic issues facing the country at the time. Between 25-100km of urban road in major cities such as Kano, Gusau, Benin, Funtua, Zaria, Enugu, Kaduna, Aba, Lagos, Lokoja, and Port Harcourt was planned to be constructed each. A N27.3bn contract was awarded for road rehabilitation in the first quarter of 1996.
Maryam Abacha via dailyadvent.com

There was a restructuring of major insurance companies that supported SMEs across the entire country.

Abacha mandated the PTF to publicise its accounts as it was the second largest public corporation at the time. In 1997, the account of PTF showed that it disbursed N24.3bn on roads, N21.2bn on security, N7.8bn on health, and N3bn on other projects. Other disbursements include N2.2bn on water supply, N936m on food supply and N476m on education. It realized a total of N1.049bn from various investment activities.

It’s curious the sums which emerged after his death that he stashed in overseas accounts as the Abacha administration became the first to record unprecedented economic achievements overseeing an increase in the country’s foreign exchange reserves from $494 million in 1993 to $9.6 billion by the middle of 1997.

He also reduced the external debt of Nigeria from $36 billion in 1993 to $27 billion by 1997. His Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund is also hailed for infrastructural projects and interventionist programmes in education, water and health.

His wife is credited with setting up the National Hospital in Abuja viewed as Nigeria’s foremost national hospital, which was initially set up as a hospital for women and children before its upgrade.

Nonetheless Abacha was ruthless with groups he considered hostile to his administration between 1993 and 1998. There was a crackdown on the civil rights groups, media and pro-democracy groups.

It was also under him that Nigeria became a perpetual importer of petroleum products as the refineries packed up. The emergence of the ‘foul fuel’ which damaged car engines and released a repugnant smell was in his time.

Abacha earned the title ‘Thug of the Year’ from the Time magazine in 1995 after the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Abacha developed the habit of working only at night. Availing himself to be seen publicly rarely while being averse to granting interviews.

The events of his death on June 8, 1998 at the presidential villa in Abuja are murky and while the official account is that he suffered a heart attack, other accounts say he was in the company of two Indian sex workers flown in from Dubai when he died. He was buried on the same day, according to Muslim tradition, without an autopsy. This fueled speculation that he may have been murdered by political rivals via poison.

Foreign diplomats, including United States Intelligence analysts, believed that his drink or fruit (apple) was laced with a poisonous substance while in the company of prostitutes.

Abacha was married to Maryam Abacha with whom he had had seven sons and three daughters.

In March 2014, the United States Department of Justice revealed that it had frozen more than $458 million believed to have been illegally obtained by Abacha and other corrupt officials.

On 7 August 2014, the United States Department of Justice announced the largest forfeiture in its history: the return of $480 million to the Nigerian government.

Stashed sums in other accounts have been discovered with the Nigerian government working to have the funds returned.