General Sani Abacha GCFR (About this soundpronunciation (help·info); 20 September 1943 – 8 June 1998) was a Nigerian military general, kleptocrat, and dictator who served as the military head of state of Nigeria from 1993 until his death in 1998.

He was also Chief of Army Staff between 1985 to 1990; Chief of Defense Staff between 1990 to 1993; and Minister of Defence. In 1993, Abacha became the first Nigerian soldier to attain the rank of a full military general without skipping a single rank.

His rule saw the achievement of several economic feats and also recorded human rights abuses and several political assassinations.

Early life

A Kanuri from Borno, Abacha was born and educated in Kano, Nigeria.

Military career

Abacha was commissioned in 1963 after he had attended the Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershot, England. Before then, he had attended the Nigerian Military Training College in Kaduna. In 1969, he fought during the Nigerian Civil War as a platoon and battalion commander. And later became, commander of the 2nd Infantry Division in 1975. In 1983, Abacha was general officer commanding of the 2nd Mechanised Division, and was appointed a member of the Supreme Military Council.

Coup d’état’s

The military career of Abacha was marked by involvement in all the military coups in Nigeria. 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.

In addition, Abacha played a prominent role in the 1983 Nigerian coup d’état which brought General Muhammadu Buhari to power; and the 1985 Nigerian coup d’etat which removed Buhari and brought General Ibrahim Babangida to power. When General Ibrahim Babangida was named President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 1985, Abacha was named Chief of Army Staff. He was later appointed Minister of Defence in 1990.

Military ranks

  • 1963 Second Lieutenant (Commissioned)
  • 1966 Lieutenant
  • 1967 Captain
  • 1969 Major
  • 1972 Lieutenant Colonel
  • 1975 Colonel
  • 1980 Brigadier General
  • 1983 Major General
  • 1987 Lieutenant General
  • 1993 General

Seizure of power

Main article: 1993 Nigerian coup d’état

On 17 November 1993, Abacha, being the Minister of Defence and most senior official within the military hierarchy, forced interim president Ernest Shonekan to resign. In his nationwide broadcast, Abacha citied the socio-political uncertainties under the Interim National Government as a cause of for his resignation.


Consolidation of power

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. He further abrogated Decree 691 of 1993.

Moshood Abiola proclaimed himself president, he was jailed for treason, tortured and subsequently died in custody. Also, former military ruler Olusegun Obasanjo was jailed for treason and accused of plotting a coup together with General Oladipo Diya. In 1997, General Shehu Yar’Adua who was also jailed died in custody.


Abacha imposed an authoritarian police state controlled by his chief security officer Hamza al-Mustapha. The state cracked down ruthlessly on criminals and dissidents, the National Democratic Coalition was attributed with several bombings across the country, and several members were arrested. Abacha assembled a personal security force of 3,000 men trained in North Korea; and the Nigeria Police Force underwent a large scale retraining.


Abacha’s administration oversaw an increase in the country’s foreign exchange reserves from $494 million in 1993 to $9.6 billion by the middle of 1997, and reduced the external debt of Nigeria from $36 billion in 1993 to $27 billion by  Abacha also constructed between 25–100 km of urban road in major cities such as Kano, Gusau, Benin, Funtua, Zaria, Enugu, Kaduna, Aba, Lagos, Lokoja and Port Harcourt. Abacha brought the privatization programs of the Ibrahim Babangida administration to a halt, reduced an inflation rate of 54% inherited from Ernest Shonekan to 8.5% between 1993 and 1998, all while the nation’s primary commodity, oil was at an average of $15 per barrel. GDP growth, despite being estimated to be higher than the 2.2% growth in 1995, was largely limited to the petroleum sector.


The unprecedented economic achievements coincided with the rapid expansion of corruption. Abacha’s national security adviser, Alhaji Ismaila Gwarzo, was accused by the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo to have played a central role in the looting and transfer of money to overseas accounts. Abacha’s son, Mohammed Abacha and best friend Alhaji Mohammed M. Sada were also involved. A preliminary report published by the Abdulsalam Abubakar transitional government in November 1998 described the process. The report mentioned that Sani Abacha told Ismaila Gwarzo to provide fake national security funding requests, which Abacha approved. The funds were usually sent in cash or travellers’ cheques by the Central Bank of Nigeria to Gwarzo, who took them to Abacha’s house. Mohammed Sada then arranged to launder the money to offshore accounts. An estimated $1.4 billion in cash was delivered in this way.

In 2004, a list of the ten most self-enriching leaders in the previous two decades was released; in order of amount allegedly stolen, the fourth-ranked of these was Abacha and his family who are alleged to have embezzled $1 billion – $5 billion. In 2002, false rumours circulated that Abacha’s family purportedly agreed to return $1.2 billion. Sources in the Obasanjo administration disclosed that the whole Abacha loot was a politicised by the administration for his re-election bid. On 7 August 2014, the United States Department of Justice announced the forfeiture of US$480 million, the largest in its history, to the Nigerian government. Jersey discovered more than $267 million dollars in funds that were allegedly laundered through the U.S. banking system and deposited in a Jersey account (£210m in British pounds). The U.S. Justice Department, Jersey courts and the government of Nigeria completed a civil asset forfeiture against the funds and they will be divided between those countries.

National politics

Abacha oversaw the reorganisation of Nigeria into six geopolitical zones, in order to reflect cultural, economic, and political realities of the regions;

  • North Central: Benue State, Kogi State, Kwara State, Nasarawa State, Niger State, Plateau State and Federal Capital Territory, Nigeria.
  • North East: Adamawa State, Bauchi State, Borno State, Gombe State, Taraba State and Yobe State.
  • North West: Jigawa State, Kaduna State, Kano State, Katsina State, Kebbi State, Sokoto State and Zamfara State.
  • South East: Abia State, Anambra State, Ebonyi State, Enugu State and Imo State.
  • South South: Akwa Ibom State, Bayelsa State, Cross River State, Delta State, Edo State and Rivers State.
  • South West: Ekiti State, Lagos State, Ogun State, Ondo State, Osun State and Oyo State.

Abacha held a constitutional conference between 1994 to 1995. Early in 1998, Abacha announced that elections would be held on 1 August, with a view toward handing power to a civilian government on 1 October. It later became apparent that Abacha had no intention of relinquishing power. By April 1998, Abacha had coerced the country’s five political parties into endorsing him as the sole presidential candidate.

Human rights

Abacha’s regime was accused of human rights abuses, especially after the hanging of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa (only one of several executions of Ogoni activists opposed to the exploitation of Nigerian resources by the multinational petroleum company, Royal Dutch Shell) Wole Soyinka was charged in absentia with treason. Abacha’s regime suffered opposition externally by pro-democracy activists.

Foreign policy

Following the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations. While hosting Nelson Mandela, Abacha admitted he was advised against interfering with the Saro-Wiwa’s trial—but made assurances that he would use his rank in government to commute the sentence if death sentence was pronounced. Justice Ibrahim Auta was the judge presiding over the proceedings, and sentenced Saro-Wiwa to death by hanging. Abacha did not commute the sentence.

Directly infringing UN Sanctions on Libya, Muammar Gaddafi’s West African Tour in 1997 to Sani Abacha to mark the new islamic year was greeted by thousands of Abacha’s supporters whom came out to demonstrate their loyalty to Abacha and the Libyan leader in Kano. The Libyan leader made no commitments to Nigeria but merely sought to strengthen relations with the country, many saw the visit as a way to strengthen his agenda of Pan-Africanism.

Abacha intervened in the Liberian Civil War. Through the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group, Abacha sent troops to Liberia to fight against the rising insurgency in the country and political tensions. The Civil War, which began in 1989, saw an influx of Nigerian troops from 1990 when Abacha was defence minister.

Despite being repeatedly condemned by the US State Department, Abacha did have a few ties to American politics. In 1997, Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) travelled to Nigeria to meet with Abacha as a representative of the “Family”, a group of evangelical Christian politicians and civic leaders. Abacha and the Family had a business and political relationship from that point until his death. Abacha also developed ties with other American political figures such as Senator Carol Moseley Braun, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Minister Louis Farrakhan. Several African American political leaders visited Nigeria during his reign and Farrakhan supported his administration.


On 8 June 1998, Abacha died in the Aso Rock Presidential Villa in Abuja. He was buried on the same day, according to Muslim tradition, without an autopsy. This fueled speculation that he may have been assassinated. The government identified the cause of death as a sudden heart attack. It is believed by foreign diplomats, including United States Intelligence analysts, that he may have been poisoned. His chief security officer, Hamza al-Mustapha, believed he was poisoned by Israeli operatives in the company of Yasser Arafat.

After Abacha’s death, General Abdulsalami Abubakar became head of state. General Abubakar’s short tenure ushered the Fourth Nigerian Republic into existence.

Personal life

Abacha was married to Maryam Abacha and had seven sons and three daughters; he became a grandfather posthumously; as of 2018 he had thirty-three grandchildren.


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