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Human Rights Violations in Nigeria: Is Sani Abacha Back?

To be fair, Sani Abacha and Muhammadu Buhari share a whole lot in common. Beyond being colleagues in the military, participating in several coups and shared religious and cultural backgrounds, both men appear to have the same kind of deficit: inadequate cognitive capacity required for high leadership positions and a provincial world view.

He was the most dread man in Nigeria between November 1993 and June 1998. He was an army general who had no tolerance for “rubbish.” For him, distractions and inconveniences are to be “summarily dealt with,” most times, with “immediate effect.”

None who encountered him remained the same

Ken Saro Wiwa and eight of his kinsmen, Kudirat Abiola, Alfred Rewane and Shehu Musa Yaradua paid the ultimate prize for saying things or behaving in certain ways the emperor did not approve of. Others like Olusegun Obasanjo, Kunle Ajibade, Chris Anyanwu, Ben Charles-Obi, George M’bah, Onome Osifo-Whiskey, Babafemi Ojudu and so many others were sent to jail for writing “nonsense .”

Ken Saro-Wiwa and his kinsmen were hanged by the Abacha military Junta

Others like Wole Soyinka, Alani Akinrinade, Dan Suleiman and so many intellectuals who raised questions about the legitimacy of the government of the day were forced to flee the country for fear that remaining within its borders could spell doom.

The tyrant’s name is Sani Abacha.  Like Ibrahim Babangida and Muhammadu Buhari before him, he leveraged on the power of the gun to climb to the highest office in the land and employed the reign of terror to keep would-be rivals away from his perch.

Oladipo Diya, Tajudeen Olanrewaju, Abdulkareem Adisa, EI. Jando, Yakubu Bako, O.O. Akinyode, A.A. Fadipe,B.M. Mohammed and  Galadima Tanko came face to face with death when insinuations emerged that they were eyeing the dictator’s seat. For daring, they were given long prison sentences and forgotten by all except close family members.

Gone but not forgotten

An event described in Karl Mier’s “This House Has Fallen” as a “coup from haven,” saved Nigeria further agonies when in early June 1998, Abacha mysteriously joined his ancestors- allegedly in the middle of a fleshly feast with women of the night. While it is not within the purview of this presentation to probe the circumstances surrounding the death of the military strongman, what is not in doubt is that 21 years after the demise of Abacha, his shadow still looms large in a supposedly democratic society.

Many people gave their lives to see Abacha leave the seat of power. Some were incarcerated for opposing him; thousands sacrificed their personal comfort that they might live in a free society without having to watch over their shoulders when making remarks critical of the government of the day. Who could have thought that patriots gave their lives for democracy in order to have an Abacha-incarnate in power?

Two men, shared history

To be fair, Sani Abacha and Muhammadu Buhari share a whole lot in common. Beyond being colleagues in the military, participating in several coups and shared religious and cultural backgrounds, both men appear to have the same kind of deficit: inadequate cognitive capacity required for high leadership positions and a provincial world view. Both men have questionable academic qualifications, they are said to have little interests in intellectual conversations and are in fact turned off by rigorous debates. They get hysterical whenever the word “press” is mentioned. Both generals hardly speak to journalists and taking questions from newsmen in front of TV cameras may well be a taboo.

Abacha yes but Buhari 2.0?

While Nigerians can be excused for the emergence of Sani Abacha since he shot himself to power in an age you can call the era of darkness, how does anyone justify the election of Buhari in the second decade of the 21st century to lead a modern Nigeria?

Sadly, several of those who vehemently fought Abacha gave their imprimatur to Buhari’s emergence. What made Wole Soyinka turn from his long standing opposition to Buhari to endorse him for the top job in 2015?  Tunde Johnson in 1984 was arrested and jailed by the Buhari military junta under the obnoxious Decree 4. He was imprisoned alongside Nduka Irabor for publishing a news article the Buhari regime disliked. Curiously, the same Tunde Thompson announced to the world 31 years later that Buhari would earn his vote in the 2015 presidential election. To do what exactly? Torture more Nigerians I guess.

Time for serious introspection

As the world marks the International Human Rights Day today, an auspicious opportunity is presented to interrogate Nigeria’s human rights records in the last 5 years.

Why is Nigeria retrogressing on the human rights index when other nations including those being ruled previously by military and civilian oppressors are encouraging citizens to get involved in matters of governance?

Omoyele Sowore has been in DSS detention since August 2019

Perhaps Omoyele Sowore offers an interesting metaphor here. Sowore is the publisher of the online news platform- Sahara Reporters which has for years carved a niche for itself when it comes to exposing government underhand dealings, corrupt activities of government officials and saying things the conventional media would be reluctant to report.

Sowore was a torn in the flesh of late President Yaradua. The man had no moment of respite from the medium till he breathed his last. Sahara Reporters followed every detail of Yaradua’s ill-health which they fed raw to their readers as regularly as they become available.

When Yaradua joined his ancestors in May 2010, Sahara Reporters beamed its searchlights on his successor, Goodluck Jonathan. Stories about Jonathan’s alleged drunkenness, his wife’s health challenges and the untidy plots of his senior aides were regular diets on the stables of Sahara Reporters. The founder and publisher of Sahara Reporters openly campaigned against the re-election of Goodluck Jonathan and just recently, pictures of him celebrating Jonathan’s loss at the poll littered social media platforms.

Things are no longer the same

Omoyele Sowore was allowed to carry out his job unmolested by Presidents Yaradua and Jonathan. At no point was he hounded, arrested or harried before a judge for publishing whatever his reporters presented in the form of leaked documents or plain rumours.

A lot has since changed between the Yaradua/Jonathan years and 2019 Nigeria.  Sowore may have missed the signs of the changing times when in July this year, he called for a nationwide revolution to demand better deals for Nigerians from the authorities. For daring to raise a few questions about the way Nigerians are governed, Sowore was picked up by the men of the State Security Services (SSS) and as at today, has spent more than 130 days in detention. Sowore is held alongside a compatriot- Olwole Bakare.

Last week at a Federal High Court in Abuja, the Nigerian government under Muhammadu Buhari took impunity and disdain for democratic institutions to a level even Sani Abacha could not have imagined.

Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu who was the presiding judge on that fateful day owes Nigerians a memoir when she is done with active service to give a first person account of what happened in her court on Friday, 6th December 2019. The judge was forced to scamper for safety when men of the SSS invaded her court in a bid to re-arrest Sowore who was released less than 12 hours earlier from the detention facilities of the secret police.  It was an action that drew global condemnation with US Congressmen telling Buhari in no uncertain terms that he had crossed the line of what is morally acceptable in a democratic society.

Too many political detainees

Beyond Sowore, several other Nigerians- especially journalists have been in and out of detention at the behest of federal and state authorities. Dadiyata Abubakar Idris, Stephen Kefas, Agba Jalingo and Jones Abiri are all being held on the orders of the Kaduna and Cross Rivers State governors respectively on allegations bordering on weak charges of terrorism and “attempts to disrupt public peace.”  

Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, Leader of IMN

How about Ibraheem El Zakzaky and Sambo Dasuki who have spent several years in detention despite countless court orders to release them? Was this what the NADECO chiefs had in mind when they risked their lives fighting Abacha? Did Nigerians sacrifice their lives to hand power to a man who has zero understanding of the tenets of democracy?

Beyond the harassments and illegal detentions

If Buhari’s limited education and poor understanding of the democratic culture is to be blamed for the gangster behaviour of his administration, what do you say of Ben Ayade and Nasir El Rufai? Are they also cursed with provincial mindsets? Something has really gone wrong with Nigeria’s democracy and the conversation must shift to these anomalies.

Close a hundred million Nigerians live below the poverty line

Hounding and harassing opponents, detaining journalists, disrespect for court orders and judicial officers and commissioning the reign of terror in the land are not the only instances of human rights abuses in Nigeria today.   

The bastardisation of the electoral process, the liberalisation of hunger and poverty, constant harassment of citizens by security agents, extortion by police officers and negligence by health and medical officers all account for instances of human right abuses in the country.

How about the abuse of house helps by their guardians, the rape of minors by teachers, clerics, guardians and family members?  Isn’t it about time we began to pay attention to the fundamental rights of the human person in Nigeria?

The hard questions we must confront

Let us spare time today and contemplate along these lines: why should nearly 100 million Nigerian citizens go the bed hungry every night? Why should more than 12 million Nigerian children loiter the streets when they should be in their classrooms? Why should Nigerians lose their lives at polling units each election day? Why should an accident victim who was rushed to medical facility alive be taken away in corpse simply because the emergency care givers made silly demands of outrageous financial deposits or a police report before basic first aid could be administered?

Do we hate ourselves so much that the death of compatriots now mean nothing to us or have we simply become numb to the pains of another? More importantly, we should find out why a senator of the federal republic would prescribe death sentence for Nigerians who express strong opinions on the internet.

Lastly we should ask: will Abacha’s ghost ever be buried?  

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect ROOT TV's editorial stance.


Okafor Chiedozie
Okafor Chiedozie is an economist, political writer and amateur Igbo historian. He pursues these and other interests out of Abuja.