The author, a retired general of the Nigerian Army, was president of Nigeria from 1976 until 1979, when he handed over power to the winner of a national election, the only Nigerian military leader to have done so. Arrested and imprisoned by General Sani Abacha in 1995, he was recently released from prison following General Abacha’s death this June.

For over four and a half years—from November 17, 1993, to June 8, 1998—Nigeria, which had been under military rule since the end of 1983, was reduced to a police state: a big prison with gallows, where intimidation, assassination, and deprivation were the instruments of misgovernance of the state by General Sani Abacha, a sadistic, apparently mentally deranged, corrupt, incompetent, arrogant, and ruthless military dictator. The question on almost everybody’s lips was:Why? What went wrong in a country of well over one hundred million people which used to take pride in its large educated and cultured population?

The answer lies in the gradual but steady erosion of moral and ethical standards that took place during the earlier military administration of General Ibrahim Babangida, who carried out a military coup at the end of 1984 and ruled between 1985 and 1993. It was at this time that, facing the gun, civilian political leaders acquiesced and abandoned their responsibility.

Some adopted the attitude of “sit down and look on.” Others joined in the pillaging of the country by seeking patronage, recognition, and easy money from the ruling military cabal. As a result, the economy was shattered during the 1980s. Whether you were a politician, a businessman, an intellectual, or a retired military man, the seemingly easy avenue for personal economic gain was to accept a job from the military or to seek favor from or support by the military. Some academics abandoned their lecture rooms or research laboratories where they could only make a pittance; they accepted the cozy, cushy embrace of a corrupt, deceitful, and unscrupulous military administration.

Previously independent and respected intellectuals became mouthpieces and apologists for the military; they made excuses for General Babangida and his fellow military leaders, and helped them deceive and confuse the people. Respected social critics accepted money from the government and became compromised. To take an independent stand became an exception and an extremely risky one. Many outspoken critics of the government were assassinated. Dele Giwa, the founding editor of the weekly Newswatch, was killed by a letter bomb in 1986.

The Nigerian military men, who once could claim to be officers and gentlemen, became men of double-talk, unkept promises, and devious actions and behavior inimical to public order and proper military conduct. But what was most deplorable was that with the pillaging of the society and the destruction of moral and ethical standards, those who might have been expected to try to sustain such standards—the by-now bought-up, co-opted, and corrupted members of civil society:politicians, intellectuals, journalists, business people—made excuses. They became defenders of a military administration which consciously or unconsciously embarked on systematic destruction of all that matters in a society—politically, economically, socially, morally, ethically, and culturally. The press and publishers who were not directly under government control were corrupted; they in turn hired and corrupted writers who pretended to be objective and independent, but who vigorously and viciously attacked opponents of the military regime.

In this way Nigeria became a nation of “anything goes,” where anything could be rationalized and justified. Babangida shifted his ground and broke his promises so often that he earned the popular nickname “Maradona” for his fancy dribbling; his deceitfulness was widely defended and even praised as political cleverness, dexterity. There was no moral standard left in public life. Corruption and fraud became habits that trickled down to every level of society.

Nonetheless, the citizens of Nigeria persisted in calling for democracy. And Babangida, who had been promising a return to civilian government since September of 1987, and who was also facing increasing pressure to relinquish power, both from the international community and from members of his own divided military regime, finally seemed to be taking steps in that direction late in 1992. In December of that year he replaced his Council of Ministers with a civilian Transitional Council, headed by the businessman Chief Shonekan, which was given the task of monitoring and overseeing a return to democratic government by August 27, 1993. And on June 12 a presidential election was indeed held, although the only parties allowed to compete in it were two that had been created by the military regime in 1989. This election was apparently won by Moshood Abiola, of the Social Democratic Party.

Even though the election was considered a fair one by international observers, however, it was annulled a week later without any plausible excuse being given. Although both a national commission monitoring the voting and one of the Nigerian courts were involved in the rigamarole of challenging the election, it was General Babangida who acted to invalidate it. Riots broke out in Lagos, and there followed a chaotic summer in which a number of possible solutions to the situation, including promises that the election would be rescheduled, were floated and then quickly canceled; no one seemed sure what would happen next. Finally, at the eleventh hour, Babangida decided to relinquish power. On August 26, the day before the deadline he had set himself the previous year, he stepped down, naming Chief Shonekan the head of an Interim National Government. On the same day, General Sani Abacha—who had been intimately associated with the Babangida regime since 1983—was promoted to minister of defense.


The responsibility of leading Nigeria was too much for Shonekan; he had had power thrust upon him only because he posed no serious threat to the continuing power of the military. The real power in this government belonged to Abacha, and Shonekan had neither the savvy nor the backing to challenge him. Within a month, Abacha had arranged to replace all the chief supporters of Babangida within the new government. Then, on November 10, the High Court pronounced the Interim National Government unconstitutional. A week later Shonekan stepped down, in favor of Abacha.

It had been clear to many discerning observers well before Abacha struck that he had his own ambitions. But even after he took power, there was also a great deal of confusion about his intentions and abilities. Many Nigerians thought him nothing more than a lightheaded and empty-minded military officer who wanted nothing more than to occupy the presidency long enough to enrich himself and reward his supporters. But in the confusion surrounding the annulled election, some politicians and their followers looked for a “messiah,” who, they believed, would proclaim the annulled election valid after all. That was the situation in which Abacha was able to take power. Some of the people who gave him encouragement and support believed that he would act in the public interest; that they could successfully use undemocratic means—the installation of a military government—to attain democracy. They ignored the fact that the man in charge was undemocratic at heart, as his record clearly indicated.

For his part, Abacha showed an unexpected capacity for deception. He brought the key men in the two political parties he had disbanded into the government he appointed, apparently with the promise that he would hand over power to Abiola within three months. But he made sure that he never committed himself to any definite date for the transfer of power; he used the nebulous phrase “brief period.” Meanwhile he consolidated his position.

As could be expected, through all this time some people stood firm, unpurchasable, advocates, despite all intimidation and discouragement, of truth, good governance, and the interests of the country. But by November 1993—when lying and deception of the people by the government, and deprivation of the rights of the people, and pervasive corruption had been made into an art—there was no critical mass, not enough of such men and women of integrity and conscience, to stand solidly against Abacha.

His model, as it soon became clear, was Mobutu of Zaire; it was his ambition to be the richest man in black Africa and the longest-ruling Nigerian leader. He could not achieve these two objectives without silencing the opposition of anyone who might stand in his way. Babangida had tried the tactics of domination through patronage, corruption, acquisition, deceit, and selective elimination of his opposition. Abacha had learned that these methods were insufficient; they had not worked for his tutor and they would not be enough for him—and in any case, he did not have his predecessor’s knack for subtlety.

So he used those people he thought could help him, and then, particularly if they seemed capable of questioning him, discarded them. His first cabinet, for example, included many important figures from the civilian government of the early 1980s, and even human rights activists; but within a year Abacha felt secure enough in power to replace almost all of these people. After that he embarked on a ruthless campaign of oppression, directed not only against those who opposed him but against those he believed uncompromising enough that they might oppose him. In this way Abacha stole the property he was meant to guard and prevented the promised rescheduling of the annulled election. In the end he brought about both his own death and that of the presumed winner of that election. But before he died this summer, he managed to become the worst affliction suffered by Nigeria since it became an independent nation in 1960.

I fell into the group of those whom he could not corrupt and who would not make a deal with him. He knew this from my criticism of Babangida for holding onto power through terror and intimidation. He decided to take preemptive action, and manufactured claims that I was plotting an impending coup. He used this fiction as a pretext for jailing, in addition to myself, some forty of his potential opponents, including my former deputy, Major General Shehu Yar’Adua; Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, head of the Campaign for Democracy; prominent journalists; and some of the most capable middle-level officers of the army.


At my secret military trial, Colonel Bello Fadile falsely accused me of connivance in planning a coup, although Icould prove during the trial that I had been in the US on the days of the alleged meetings. Later, after I was imprisoned, Colonel Fadile sent me a handwritten letter of apology, passed from prison cell to prison cell. He said that he had been tortured almost to death to bear false witness against me (and he was the only witness). In his somewhat incoherent letter he wrote:

I was put under unbearable threats to my life and by torture and other dehumanizing treatments during the investigation. Noting that I have a first-degree heart blockade that has put me on daily medication for the past ten years; and realizing that a heart attack could be induced under the situation and of course put an end to my life at that stage. Thus as a human being I had no option but to succumb to the whims of the interrogators and made the statements they wanted about you and General Shehu Yar’Adua. I had hoped for a fair trial under the law which would have cleared all of us arrested as Iwas not planning a coup d’etat. Sir, the rest of the stories you know and it is better left for posterity. Therefore sir, it is my wish and personal desire (to borrow your words spoken some twenty years ago when I was a second lieutenant)that you accept your current situation as your further contribution to democracy on a strong footing in the country where our children can live in peace and freedom without fear.

The trial was a mockery. Iwas not allowed to have my own lawyer whether military or civilian. The military lawyer assigned to me had only seven minutes’ discussion with me before he commenced his defense. I was jailed.

Instructions were given to the prison authorities to treat me as a common criminal. I was handcuffed on being transferred from one prison to the other. I was made to sleep on a bare floor. Until Iprotested vehemently, I was not allowed to see or be seen by any member of my family. It was only after Iprotested that Iwas allowed to use my own funds to buymedicine for my diabetes and hypertension.

Attempts were made to inject me with a deadly virus. Imanaged to refuse to have my blood taken when I was told the authorities wanted to give me a physical examination and take blood for tests. My doctor, who had connections with the local hospital, was able to make his own arrangements for the tests. Later Icame to realize that such tests were probably used to poison General Shehu Yar’Adua. Christine Anyanwu, the editor of The Sunday Magazine who was one of those jailed at the same time Iwas, lost an eye in Abacha’s prison.

There is no way that Abacha’s government can be absolved from responsibility for Abiola’s death. If Abiola had not been unjustly detained for over four years, he could have had good medical attention and he would not have died. I received from other political prisoners many accounts of torture by interrogators and prison officials. Although Iwas not beaten or physically tortured, I was mentally tortured by isolation and strict instruction to prisoners and wardens never to have anything to do with me, even talk to me. They were threatened with death if they did so. I had no access to news or information. I was only allowed to read the Bible, the Koran, and religious books.

How does one maintain sanity and balance in such a situation? I realized very early that the people in charge of my treatment meant to break my spirit and kill me slowly if quick and direct killing by poison was not possible. Idecided that three types of exercise were essential. Each day I took physical exercise for at least an hour—running or jogging indoors or outdoors. Spiritual exercise took the form of Bible study, prayers, and regular fasting in solitude; the closest companion one has is God, through faith and trust in him. The third type of exercise was mental. With no intellectual companion, hardly anyone to talk to, I wrote on whatever pieces of paper I could get my hands on. I had a small garden, and occupied myself watering, weeding, planting, or harvesting vegetables.

As we came to realize later, those of us who were imprisoned could count ourselves lucky. Abacha himself said this to a well-known foreign visitor:”They are lucky to be alive.” He meant that. He soon found ways to assassinate other enemies, including Mrs. Kudirat Abiola and Chief Alfred Rewane, to mention only two. In my case it was obvious to me that God saved me; but the outcry of my international friends gave Abacha no peace, and being in prison actually provided some limited security from hired assassins when he started to use that method.

Abacha did not restrain his mad pursuit of power. Seeking popularity in Africa in order to compensate for his rejection by the West and to divert attention from his ruthless oppression at home, he embarked on murderous ventures in Cameroon to claim the Bakasi peninsula—whose status was more controversial than he claimed. Last year he launched a military adventure into Sierra Leone, eight days after a coup in that country, on the pretext that he was fighting to install democracy. What a ridiculous irony for the most oppressive military dictator who had ever emerged in Nigeria to claim to be fighting for democracy in a sister West African country. A man who can creditably fight for democracy elsewhere must be able to provide an example of democracy in his own country.

Abacha also promised Mobutu his full support when Kabila had taken over more than 75 percent of Zaire. He boasted that he would cause trouble for Kabila if ever Mobotu was removed. It took all the political and diplomatic experience and ingenuity of President Mandela to get Abacha to desist from his intended murderous adventure in Zaire. If not for the timely intervention of God, Abacha would have succeeded in continuing to rule by terror in his own country while exporting murderous oppression and conflict and confrontation to other African countries.

With the death of Abacha, where is Nigeria today? We have to hope that the administration of General Abubakar, the new head of state, knows that Nigerians cannot be taken down the path leading to nowhere again. Nigerians have been twice subjected to vicious military rule. They want democracy, true and genuine democracy, and most of them will tell you that they cannot count on the military to be an honest midwife for democracy in Nigeria. That is the reason why some people are clamoring for a transitional government of national unity excluding military leaders. They want such a government to be charged with responsibility for conducting free and fair elections that are not manipulated by the armed forces. They also hope it would supervise a national conference to consider the relationship between the peoples who make up Nigeria and the central government.

Many believe that the central government is too powerful and appropriates to itself too many resources. This makes it attractive for constant military intervention—intervention not for altruistic reasons but for selfish motives and self-aggrandizement. Whatever method is adopted for arriving at a democratic process, the military has not much time. The longer the military leaders linger on in power the more unstable the situation will become in our country. Whatever the precise democratic method adopted, an absolutely independent national election commission is a sine qua non. The military in Nigeria must know that. They have lost reputation and prestige and they must devote their time and ability to relearning their profession, and to becoming efficient as soldiers, and to eliminating corruption within their ranks. People will always outlast any government no matter how oppressive and wicked it is.

I have had two discussions with General Abubakar. I have told him that in spite of all that has happened in Nigeria during the last twelve years or so Ibelieve that most of our people are committed to genuine democracy and that this commitment will steadily grow in strength. Nigerians have endured much in the quest for democracy and I believe that it will come sooner rather than later. After my prison experience, I am committed more than ever to the ideals for which I have lived and suffered—democracy, peace, human rights, alleviation of poverty, transparent government, and popular participation.

The reality of Nigeria is that we need a stable base for our development; and the only kind of government that can give us stability and involve all citizens is one that is based not only on formal elections but on a continuous democratic process in which all can participate and upon which all can continue to build.

Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria
August 25, 1998

This Issue

September 24, 1998