Nigeria: In Abacha’s Shadows

By Seidu Mulero, 7 December 1998

Lagos — Six months after he took over the reins of power, General Abdulsalami Abubakar appears to have satisfied the international community more than fellow Nigerians. With a disturbing tentativeness, it is doing much less than it could.

The French must have been amused by a curious scenario in Paris on 26 November. Nigeria’s representative at the 1998 Franco-African Summit, Rear- Admiral Mike Okhai Akhigbe had just arrived the venue of a luncheon organised by the speaker of the French National Assembly in honour of the attending African leaders of state.

But Akhigbe’s flowing gown was caught in the works of the doors of the vehicle which brought him to the luncheon. Nigeria’s number two citizen had to struggle to set himself free.

The agile AFP photographer around did not waste time: he immortalised the scenario for the whole world to see. Akhigbe’s entanglement in Paris is indeed a bitter metaphor of the Abubakar regime.

In the six months it has governed, it has been bogged down by inertia, a certain tentativeness, slowness even. It is as though the regime knows it ought to move, but it’s unsure where and how fast.

Thus as evidence of the massive pillage senior officials of the Abacha era mounts, the regime is unsure what to do about the well-placed thieves. Last week, it was announced that a further two million dollar fraud, perpetrated by two ministers and a member of the Abacha family, had been uncovered.

This comes after shaking revelations that N65 billion of looted funds have been recovered from the Abacha family. Information available to The News indicates that Chief Anthony Asuquo Ani, former finance minister is one of the two ministers fingered in the latest fraud.

Yet, the more revelations come, the greater the amazement that the Abubakar regime has not put anyone on trial. Can there be a catharsis without atonement in a nation so brutalised in the five years that Abacha ruled? If anything, the Abubakar regime is clearly unable to shake off its paternity in the now- discredited Abacha era.

When he took over after Abacha’s death on 8 June 1998, General Abdulsalami Abubakar promised to carry out a credible transition to civil rule to uphold human rights, to restore Nigeria’s good image in the comity of nations and to better the lot of Nigerians before handing over to an elected civilian government on 29 May 1999. So far, nobody can deny the fact that the transition to civil rule is on course what with the setting up of an “independent” commission to handle electoral matters, the formation of political parties and the local government election held last Saturday, 5 December 1998.

Despite few hitches here and there, there is no sign that the Head of State is insincere, unlike his two immediate military predecessors, Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha. The observance of human rights is probably where the Abubakar regime excelled, having thrown open the dungeons where human rights activists, journalists, politicians and other citizens were recklessly denied by his immediate predecessor.

The regime also scored a very positive point in inviting home, the legion of exiles most of whom would have thought such a thing impossible early this year. The detainees’ release, coupled with the exiles’ return home have endeared Abubakar’s Nigeria to the international community.

The giant of Africa which become a pariah under Abacha suddenly became the new bride, in the comity of nations. This has given General Abubakar the opportunity to junket round the world to plead Nigeria’s case with various levels of power.

First was South Africa which the new leader visited twice successfully, then came the immediate neighbours of West and Central Africa and later America and Europe, whose leaders were happy to see Nigeria once again on the path of decency. And this further encouraged the legion of exiles to return home.

However, most of the exiles who stormed Nigeria some weeks ago may now have the nightmarish feeling that they were invited home to come and experience the ever increasing economic hardship now prevailing in the country and about which government seems to be doing nothing concrete. The national economy is now near paralysis, thanks to the ever-biting petroleum products scarcity.

As at last week, a journey which used to cost N20 had jumped to between 60 and 120 naira in Lagos, depending on whether it is made during the rush hours. The domino effect of fuel scarcity is that production of goods and services have been adversely affected and prices are now hovering above the stratosphere.

This gives many the impression that the much-publicised relief promised by government to the nation was only meant for the few who benefit from fuel scarcity. As the scarcity bites harder, the only one area where government seemed to have been in a hurry to act was, perhaps, in announcing the new minimum wage package of N5,200 for federal workers, forgetting that state workers and their Federal counterparts buy from the same market.

That issue, together with the bad blood it generated across the length and breadth of Nigeria showed that this, like all military regimes, were experts in putting the cart before the horse: government decided to set up a committee to harmonise the variegated interests only after millions of man-hours had been wasted to strikes across the land; and as at the time of going to press, workers in many states are still threatening to go on strike to protect their interests. As the fuel scarcity and its attendant woes bites harder, many hungry Nigerians have been impatient not only with government, but also with their fellow countrymen; which explains the rising wave of attacks on oil companies which led to a cut in production as well as the bloody communal clashes between and among the Ijaw, Itsekiri, Modakeke and Ife who kill fellow Nigerians with reckless abandon.

And no wonder the people of Jesse near Warri rushed to congregate around a burst pipeline in a bid to survive the hardship in the land. Of course, if there were no petroleum products scarcity, the need to take advantage of a burst pipeline would not have arisen and even if someone had got illegal supply, there won’t be a buyer and thus, no need to try it next time.

That was why many Nigerians were surprised at the Head of State’s faux pas during, on a condolence visit to Jesse, where some one thousand persons burned to death in an oil pipeline explosion a few weeks ago. General Abubakar said there would be no compensation for the victims as they had been warned to desist from such acts.

The statement would have been less insulting if the majority of the victims were not innocent people who happened to live around or passed by the vicinity of the burst pipeline at the time of the inferno. As government seems to do nothing tangible to ease the economic hardship in the land, the only Nigerians who may be said to be immuned to the effects of the scarcity around are undoubtedly those in detention who live on government.

Prominent among these are those involved in the so-called coups d’etat attempts of 1995 and 1997. Though the new Head of State had, through the release of General Olusegun Obasanjo, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti and others, implied that the 1995 trials were a hoax, he, nevertheless, insists that those still languishing in jail were guilty.

But why should Obasanjo, an ex-soldier, whom Colonel Fadile, the man used as ‘prosecution witness’ to convict the retired general-had begged in prison be left off the hook and the others left in jail? Of course, Obasanjo’s release was not to please his fellow countrymen, but the international community which holds the former head of state in high esteem. Those held under the Failed Banks Tribunal Decree are also left in detention, unlike Alhaji Ismaila Gwarzo (former security adviser to the late Abacha) and Hamza Al-Mustapha (the erstwhile chief security officer to same).

The two security chiefs, of course, are Northerners whereas most of the bank chiefs are Southerners. And the fact that they are still in detention whereas Gwarzo and Al-Mustapha from whom billions of naira had been recovered still walk the land as free men has drawn negative comments from various quarters .

In an interview with The News, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti lamented how the military which kept Chief M.K.O. Abiola in detention till he died can afford to allow those who looted the national treasury to go about freely.

“I have not been impressed,” he said, explaining that Gen. Abubakar “is carrying out the agenda of his constituency, the military”. He opined that the aim of the members of the ruling class was to make Abiola renounce his mandate so that they can rule for as long as they want and they have, through Abiola’s death in detention, achieved that “noble” goal.

Also speaking with The News, Barrister Festus Keyamo, a human rights and pro- democracy activist, said failure to prosecute the Abacha family and the indicted persons is bad, not only for the state but also for those accused. He describing the Head of State’s decision as “a political tragedy,” Similarly, Barrister K.S.

Adaramoye opined that: “For government to have come out and say that a specific amount of money was recovered from Gwarzo or from Abacha and his family, Al-Mustapha and his cohorts or allies in looting, it behoves a responsibility on a responsible government to probe that very particular government. We are not party to the clandestine, subterranean probes which were allegedly carried out.” However, Barrister Ajibola Morebise declared Abacha, his wife, Maryam; his security adviser and his CSO were liable jointly and severely since all of them were public officers.

As chairperson of the Family Support Programme (FSP), he said, Maryam Abacha was entrusted with public funds and when such colossal amounts were recovered from her, she must be called to account for all the state money entrusted in her care hence the need for an open trial of the ex-first lady. By refusing to prosecute those from whom such huge amounts of money were found, said Keyamo, “Abubakar is opening himself to all sorts of speculations, attacks and insinvations and it confirms our worst fear that no matter how they try, the military cannot really sanitise our society.” But it is not only the lawyers who think Abubakar’s refusal to try the culprits is bad; religious men do too.

Reverend Father George Ehunsan explained that “however, you are dealing with the military regime, you have to understand that the military cannot commit suicide.” He explained that kleptomania has been in the country for a long time and all military officers from the rank of colonel benefited from it. He, therefore, enjoined Nigerians to make sure the military leave the political stage for the civilians to come and clean the augean stable and do “a radical probe of all the military regimes since General Gowon’s.”

Additional reports: Taiwo Adisa, Charles Oke, Idowu Akinsoroye and Bamidele Adebayo

Publication Date: 14 December,1998

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