Real Heist Stories: Sani Abacha

Worst Plague in the History of Nigeria?

Sani Abacha is a name that will always be remembered in Africa. He was the Nigerian dictator who robbed and killed people on his way to power and while in it. 

But it wasn’t until he died that we found out just how much money he had stolen from Nigeria’s treasury, which was estimated at $2 billion. Some say he stole as much as $5 billion. 

Besides the money stolen, stories and cases related to human rights abuses and how many people he murdered are almost impossible to count. Although many reports have been made public, knowing the full story is barely possible. 

Now, how did such a despicable man rise to the throne in the country? Was he elected or made his way by force since the beginning? 

Nigeria is known for being a country with injustices and abuses throughout the years, and, unfortunately, adding a new dictator wasn’t a new story for them. 

Here, we will be going over everything that went wrong and how Sani Abacha was able to butcher the country. 

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Early Years & Military: Who Is Sani Abacha?

A Kanuri of the Borno tribe, Abacha was raised in Kano, Nigeria, where he was also born on September 20, 1943.  

Before being commissioned in 1963, he attended the Nigerian Military Training College as well as the Mons Officer Cadet School. 

There isn’t much information about his childhood as the story of the future dictator starts with his military career, which influenced how he would achieve his goals later on. 

After he had attended the Mons Defence Officers Cadet Training College, Aldershot, England, in 1963, Abacha was commissioned.

As mentioned before, he had previously attended the Nigerian Military Training College, Kaduna. From the conceptual stage, he was involved in the countercoup of Juillet 1966. He may also have participated in the Lagos and Abeokuta phases in the January 1966 coup. 

He was prominent in the three coups that took place in later decades. The first two brought down General Muhammadu Buhari and removed him from power in 1983. 

Abacha was appointed Chief of Army Staff in 1985 when General Ibrahim Babangida became President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. In 1990, he was appointed Minister of Defence.

Abacha was elected the head of the Interim National Government under Chief Ernest Shonekan on November 17, 1993. 

After the annulment of the 12 Juin 1993 elections won by Moshood Kazhimawo Abiola, Shonekan was appointed head of the Interim National Government. Untold hardships for many Nigerians followed an enormous public uproar.

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Control & Human Rights Abuses: Inside His Dictatorship

Abacha declared his absolute power on September 6, 1994. This placed his government above the court’s jurisdiction. However, he did promise to turn the government over to civilians by 1998.

Abacha’s government was charged with human rights violations, particularly after the Oputa Commission hung Ken Saro-Wiwa. 

This was only one of many executions of Ogoni activists opposing the exploitation of Nigerian resources by a multinational petroleum company, Royal Dutch Shell Group. 

The regime responded by banning all political activity and controlling the press; a substantial portion of the military was expelled. Approximately 3,000 loyal armed men surrounded Abacha.

The US State Department repeatedly condemned the now dictator. However, he had a few ties with American politics. In 1997, Senator James Inhofe (Republican from Oklahoma) traveled to Nigeria to meet Abacha. 

He was a representative for “The Family,” an organization of evangelical Christian political and civic leaders. Abacha and The Family enjoyed a business-political relationship until his death. 

In addition, the dictator also had relationships with other American politicians, such as Senator Carol Mosley Braun and Rev. Jessie Jackson, and Minister Louis Farrakhan. 

The latter was a supporter of the Nigerian regime and visited several African American politicians during his reign. Farrakhan even had a street named after him in Nigeria due to his connection with the military.

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Economy & Corruption: Sani Abacha Regime

But besides all the abuses (which we will dive into a bit more later) and all the connections preventing him from leaving the seat, for what was his regime known? 

In terms of economy, Abacha’s administration saw an increase in foreign exchange reserves of Nigeria from $494 million in 1993 to $9.6 billion by June 1997. 

Sani also built between 25 and 100 km of urban roads in major cities like Kano, Gusau, and Benin and reduced Ernest Shonekan’s 54% inflation rate to 8.5%, while oil prices were average $15 per barrel.

However, more than numbers in terms of inflation, rates, and the country itself, his regimen saw a total of PS5 billion stolen from the country’s coffers, which is over $6.5 billion. 

During his time in the country’s seat, Alhaji Ismaila Gwarzo was Abacha’s national security advisor who played an important role in ruling and making decisions and allowing the money stolen to be transferred to overseas accounts. 

Abacha also had his son Mohammed Abacha involved in the money laundering and transfer to foreign accounts. The process was described in a preliminary report by the Abdulsalam Abubakar interim government, and it was published in November 1998. 

Sani Abacha instructed Ismaila to submit fake funding requests approved by him as the head of the country. The funds were sent by the Central Bank of Nigeria in cash or travelers’ cheques to Gwarzo, who then took them to Abacha. 

There, Mohammed arranged everything for the money to be laundered to offshore accounts. In this process alone, the Abacha family and advisor were able to steal about $1.5 billion.

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The End of Corruption & Violence: Sani Abacha’s Death

Abacha declared that elections would take place on August 1, 1998. However, it became clear that Abacha did not intend to allow an honest election. He used the spring to force five of the country’s political parties into supporting him as the only presidential candidate.

A pastor called a press conference a few months before the election. He asked Nigerians not to protest the planned election. He claimed that God had warned him that Abacha wouldn’t be able to become a civilian head state and that Abacha would have to step aside “under mysterious circumstances.” Punch newspapers published this.

Abacha was in Abuja when he died in June 1998. According to Muslim tradition, he was buried the same day without an autopsy. 

The mystery behind Abacha’s death is connected to prostitutes that, arguably, were hired by political rivals to poison him. They made the dictator feel sick around 4:30 AM after making him drink poison. 

According to the government information and diagnosis, he fell asleep in his bed, and he was gone by 6:15 AM by a sudden heart attack. 

Maj. Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar was sworn into office as the head of state of Nigeria after Abacha’s death. Abubakar, who had never held public office before, was quick to announce a transition towards democracy which led to the election of President Olusegun Obasanjo.

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Money & Aftermath: Were the Fund Ever Recovered?

With the dictator’s death and a new government established in the country, the accusations and search of the money stolen by Abacha and his family started. 

The Obasanjo government indicted Abacha’s family in massive looting of Nigerian coffers. 

Post-Abacha sources indicate that $3 (or $4 billion) in foreign assets were traced back to Abacha and his family. $2.1 billion was the amount Nigeria tentatively agreed to with the Abacha family to return. 

The quid pro quo was that the Abacha’s would be permitted to keep the remainder of the money. Although the proposal was met with many protests, the dictator’s son Mohammed Abacha rejected it in the end since he argued the money was obtained without any kind of trickery. 

It was clear the family didn¡t want to take responsibility, nor were they actually being condemned by the crimes. 

Mohammed is not only free, but he continues to mention how the money is theirs and legit. However, The family agreed to return $1.2 million that had been taken from the central bank as in the events we mentioned before. 

The government reported that the names of Sani Abacha and his wife Maryam, and his son Mohammed are frequently used in advance fraud scams. 

He is often “identified” as the source of “money that doesn’t exist.” Later, some of the names used for scams were released by a group of people in charge of exposing scammers and criminals to bring more awareness to scams using the letter method.

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Back to the Crimes: Sani Abacha’s Abuses

After the entire story of the dictator and how he stole billions from the country along with his family, where do their crimes stand? 

Besides all the money stolen, violence and assassinations by the hands of the dictator took place during his regimen. 

Some assassinations to political competitors took place, but one of the main mentions among the crimes involved the giant Shell Oil Company, which was presumptively involved in launder of money together with Abacha. 

In addition, Abacha continuously used military force to maintain his regime, including the violence used over some inhabitants in several towns and cities to control the outburst of public opinion. 

The crushing of dissenting voices was one of the main characteristics of his government, and torture was performed in those who resisted or rejected his regimen publicly. 

Although human rights abuses were clear, there hasn’t been a specific report of all the crimes and people that suffered from them. 

Unfortunately, Nigeria is a country that continuously falls into the hands of dictators and corruption. It is hard to start an official investigation, especially when the former president had connections with political figures in the United States. 

However, over 2,000 people have been killed during his years in power and more tortured and arrested without any fair accusations.

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5 Facts You Must Know About Sani Abacha

  • Abacha is considered the most successful coup plotter in Nigerian history since he participated in every single successful coup conducted in the country.
  • He was known for being of few words by deadly when it came to actions. In fact, Nigeria’s most brutal regime and Head-of-State it ever had is attributed to Abacha due to the massive crackdown on the media and more actions previously mentioned.
  • He was a good economic manager but only worked for his own interests by stealing billions from the country and barely investing in it either.
  • Despite the crimes and dictatorship, it was thanks to his time in power that Nigeria became a perpetual importer of petroleum.
  • Abacha took part in the restoration of peace in Sierra Leona and Liberia.

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Written by Dame Cash

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