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Sani Abacha: 20 Years After

Nigeria’s 10th Head of State, Sani Abacha, was born on this day in 1943. On what would have been his 75th birthday, we take a glimpse back into his life and the legacy he left behind.

In 1963, Abacha passed out of the Nigerian Military Training Centre in Kaduna, receiving further training in the UK. He married Maryam Jiddah two years later, and they had 10 children together.

Sani Abacha. Photo: All Africa


Abacha fought for Nigeria in the civil war against Biafran secessionists from 1967-72, rising through the army ranks.

On 31 December 1983, he staged a coup that toppled the civilian government of President Shehu Shagari. General Muhammadu Buhari was installed as military ruler. He supported a coup to overthrow Buhari in 1985 and helped install General Ibrahim Babangida.

Abacha was appointed Minister of Defence in August 1993 after Babangida stepped down, and created an interim government headed by civilian president Ernest Shonekan. Shonekan resigned on 17 November 1993, transferring power to Abacha in a move widely believed to be another coup. His regime was marred by human rights abuses and the crushing of dissenting voices.

In 1995, the Abacha regime went under worldwide condemnation. Because of this, Nigeria was suspended from The Commonwealth after the execution of the Ogoni Nine, environmentalists who were protesting against the activity of the government and oil giant Shell. Among them was Ken Saro-Wiwa, a poet and Nobel Prize nominee.

1996 saw Abacha elected chairperson of The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional economic bloc. Two years later, in February 1998, he deployed Nigerian forces to Sierra Leone in a bid to oust the military regime and restore the civilian government overthrown the year before.

Abacha died on 8 June 1998 from a suspected heart attack. He was buried the same day.

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