To drive the message home that he wanted to be a maximum ruler, he concocted a coup plot to get rid of those he saw as a threat to him. Two of his victims were his former bosses, General Olusegun Obasanjo and Major-General Shehu Musa Yar’adua. The former survived his incarceration while the latter was eliminated in prison by Abacha’s killer squad. Many innocent military officers and journalists were among the victims of the phantom coup plot.
Abacha also loved money and wanted to have lots of it. Having made himself a maximum ruler, there was nobody and nothing stopping him from satisfying his desire.
And there was an easy way for him to do it. He vandalized the national treasury and got the Central Bank to make payment of his insatiable demands for money in hard currencies – dollars, pound sterling and sundry international currencies- its first priority.
By the time he died in June, 1998, the country was broke with the foreign reserve down to less than $10 billion. But he was rich. Very rich. And his family stood to inherit a vast amount of wealth.
There’s no contention that Abacha looted the country. Heartlessly. The estimate of what he, his family and cronies stole range from $4 billion to $6 billion. The government has not been able to give an exact figure of what he stole. Any surprise about that? No, of course. If we can’t count our population, how can we bother about knowing exactly how much the country lost to Abacha’s greed?
What is equally not surprising is that President Muhammadu Buhari, the self-proclaimed ‘nemesis of corruption’ sees Abacha differently from the rest of us and the world at large. Defying the logic of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he says Abacha “was not a thief”.
Keep in mind that he worked for the late dictator as executive chairman of the omnibus Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund, PTF that had so much money that it mismanaged over N25 billion between 1994 and 1998. In today’s naira, that will be close N200 billion or more.
If Abacha wasn’t a thief, as asserted by Buhari who admired and still admires him, at least in death, he has become the country’s ATM and the gift that keeps on giving to Nigeria.
Between 1998 and 2020, Nigeria has received nearly $4 billion of what is now classified as the Abacha loot. Monies that were stolen and stashed away in foreign financial institutions and invested or, indeed, hidden in some safe havens.
The latest installment from the ‘gift of Abacha’ is the $311 million that the US government has just repatriated to Nigeria. The government has promised to adhere to the agreement it signed with the US that the money will be invested in infrastructure development.
But with the government’s finances in tatters because of oil price collapse and no relief in sight, don’t bet on that promise being kept. Not even with the IMF rushing to loan Nigeria $3.4 billion. As it’s characteristic of our government, the story would be k-legged later.
Meanwhile, the anti-corruption general still can’t bring himself to pronounce the obvious: his friend and soulmate in autocracy was an uncommon thief.