Sani Abacha

Sani Abacha

Sani Abacha

Army General, Head-of-States

September 20th, 1943

September 20th, 1943

Nigerian Military Training College, Mons Officer Cadet School

Kano, Kano State



Sani Abacha was a Nigerian military leader, who served as the Nigerian Head of State from November 1993 to June 1998.

Background and Military Career

Sani Abacha was born in Kano city in northern Nigeria in 1943. He was raised in Kano by his Kanuri parents who were originally from Borno State, Nigeria. Abacha attended primary school in Kano before joining the Nigerian army in 1962. He would later enroll in the Nigerian Military Training College in Kaduna where he began his military education. A year later, he attended the Mons Defense Cadet College in the United Kingdom to obtain further military training. In 1976, Abacha attended Command Staff College, Jaji, Kaduna State and later on took courses at the National Institute for Policy and Strategy Studies at Kuru, Plateau State in 1981. On a personal note, Abacha married Maryam, who is also from Borno State, in 1965. They had seven sons and three daughters.

Sani Abacha
A young Abacha and his wife, Maryam

Military Administration

Starting in the 1960s, Sani Abacha started gaining influential roles as part of the military elite in the Nigerian army. As a 2nd Lieutenant, many believed that he was very much involved in the July 1996 counter-coup which led to the death of the then head of state, Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi. Over time, he gradually attained the reputation of a coup strategist and was involved in plotting later coups in Nigeria. In 1983, Abacha fully came to the limelight when he announced the coup that brought an end to the democratic government of President Shehu Shagari on December 31st, 1983. A year later, he was appointed as a member of the Supreme Military Council, and promoted to the rank of Major General. In 1985, Abacha was once again instrumental in toppling the government of General Muhammed Buhari, and was the person who announced Major General Ibrahim Babangida, the then Chief of Army Staff, as the new military President and commander-in-chief of the Nigerian armed forces.

Under the administration of Babangida, Abacha was appointed as the Chief of Army Staff and also maintained his status as a member of the Supreme Military Council. His new position afforded him higher administrative powers and he became the de-facto second in command in running the affairs of the country. Abacha was the Chief of Army Staff from August 1985 to August 1990 and in August 1990, he became the Chief of Defense Staff. It is also important to note that Abacha became a General in 1990 becoming the first Nigerian soldier to attain the rank of a full General without skipping a single rank.

Sani Abacha
Abacha and Babangida

Leading up to Babangida’s final months as President, he announced plans to hand over power to a civilian government, and once again, Abacha was the person who made the announcement. He gave a speech in February 1993 outlining the administration’s plan to end military rule and usher in a civilian or democratic government. However, after elections were held in June 1993 and Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, a Yoruba businessman from western Nigeria, emerged as the winner of the elections, Babangida failed to accept the election results and annulled the election. This tyrannical action threw the country in disarray and in the midst of it all, Abacha saw a looming opportunity for him to seize power.

Life as Head of State

In August 1993, Babangida decided to relinquish his position as President and hand over the reins of government to Ernest Shonekan in order to quell the rapid increase in the frequency of nationwide protests and strikes that nearly brought the economic activities of the country to a halt. After only three months as leader of the transitional democratic team, Abacha ousted the regime of Shonekan and seized control of the government and immediately set a tough tone as the supreme military leader of Nigeria.

One of his immediate actions shortly after he took office was the dissolution of all democratic institutions at major levels of government administration and the replacement of elected government officials with military personnel. He also ordered a massive crackdown on the media, pro-democracy groups and civil rights organizations; a move many believed he made to silence his critics and control what kind of information about him was released by the media to the public. Abacha showed more of his autocratic form of governance when he abandoned the implementation of the constitution drafted in 1989 and also sought to reduce the chances of him being toppled from power by retiring and imprisoning several high ranking active and retired military leaders including former Nigerian President, General Olusegun Obasanjo.

While he did a lot of things that branded him as an authoritarian, his regime was noted for two major human rights catastrophes that further made his susceptible to international disapproval by pro-democracy advocates. The first was the 1994 arrest and protracted imprisonment of Abiola, the acclaimed winner of the annulled June 12 elections, on charges of treason. Despite evidence of Abiola’s failing health and pleas from world leaders such as Pope John Paul II, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, Abacha refused to release Abiola. Furthermore, he was widely believed to be behind the 1996 assassination of Alhaja Kudirat Abiola (Abiola’s wife) who was very vocal in expressing public support for her husband and in declaring his innocence.

Sani Abacha
Abacha and Abiola

Abacha also set up a military court that tried and convicted environmentalist and journalist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, sentencing him to death despite local and international pressure to release him. Saro-Wiwa was executed alongside eight other Ogoni chiefs who opposed the government’s policies with multinational Oil & Gas companies. The execution of the “Ogoni 9” infuriated the international community and in response, Nigeria faced multiple sanctions including suspension from the Commonwealth of Nations for over three years. Unfazed by the international sanctions, diplomatic isolations and suspension from the Commonwealth, Abacha’s administration ignored pleas across the globe for human rights reforms. Even though he faced global condemnation from many world leaders and renowned activists, Abacha was still able to form alliances with a few world leaders and politicians such as Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Yasser Arafat of Palestine, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Minister Louis Farrakhan.

Despite allegations of corruption and embezzlement of public funds, the Abacha administration oddly enough led Nigeria through of a period of economic achievements. Abacha oversaw an increase in Nigeria’s foreign reserves from about $500 million to about $10 billion over a four year period. In addition, Nigeria’s external debt shrunk from $36 billion to $27 billion over the same time period and the inflation rate dropped from 54% in 1993 to 8.5% in 1998 even though global oil prices were relatively low at $15 per barrel.

Sani Abacha
Sani Abacha

Nearly three years into his regime, Abacha announced plans for the military to give democratic governance another chance. He scheduled elections for August 1998 and indicated a possible handover in October 1998. However, Abacha still dictated every key detail crucial to the potential transference of power. In April 1998, he mandated that all five political parties recommend him as their only candidate. At this point, it was clear to the Nigerian public that Abacha had no intention to relinquish power. Several weeks later after Abacha’s plans were made clear, the political climate in Nigeria took an unexpected twist. On June 8, 1998, General Sani Abacha died suddenly at the age of 54 at his official residence in Abuja. Official records indicate that he died of a heart attack, but rumors continue to persist that his death came about via other despicable means such as a claim he died after eating a poisoned apple that was fed to him by foreign prostitutes. He was given a Muslim burial in his home city of Kano.

Following his death, Abacha was succeeded by General Abdusalam, who kept Abacha’s “precarious promise” to hand over power from military administration to a civilian democratic leader. Elections were held in May 1999 and Olusegun Obasanjo, who was previously imprisoned by Abacha, emerged as the winner of the elections. The new government investigated the Abacha administration and implicated the former leader and his family for massive looting of government funds. The Nigerian government then initiated efforts to recover stolen funds stashed abroad and prosecuted Abacha’s sons for their involvement in embezzlement and money laundering schemes. However, a settlement was reached between the Nigerian government and the Abacha family and criminal proceedings were dropped against them in exchange for 80% of the family’s declared liquid assets.


General Sani Abacha continues to be a key figure in Nigerian history as a controversial leader with a mixed legacy. Known for making rare public appearance and foreign trips, Abacha was regarded as one of the most corrupt leaders in history. When he did appear in public, he was always in dark sunshades and travelled in a large entourage of military personnel he called his Special Bodyguard Unit. Abacha played a key role in influencing the policies of the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) to bring peace to the West African nations of Sierra Leone and Liberia which were both ravaged by civil wars. The military success of ECOMOG, largely led and run by Nigeria’s military personnel and funds, further raised Nigeria’s military profile in West Africa and further gave Abacha confidence that neighboring nations will not challenge his authoritarian rule because doing so will mean disregarding all the good he has done for the region. Over time, his name and the names of his family members will become synonymous with scam letters (also known as 419 scams) requesting for money with the false promise of a huge return on investment or contribution. Regardless of how people feel about Abacha, if there is ever a conversation of who is Nigerian’s most feared leader, his name will surely be mentioned more often than that of any other leader.


  1. “Sani Abacha”. Web. 18 November. 2016. <>.
  2. “Sani Abacha: Nigerian Military Leader”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. Web. 12 November. 2004. <>.
  3. “Biography of Sani Abacha”. African Success. Web. 07 July. 2012. <>.
  4. “20 Things to Remember About Abacha”. The Cable. Web. 08 June. 2016. <>.