Sani Abacha (20 September 1943 – 8 June 1998) was a Nigerian Army officer and dictator who served as the de facto President of Nigeria from 1993 until his death in 1998. He is also the first Nigerian soldier to attain the rank of a full star General without skipping a single rank.
While he is largely accredited for his economic reforms and achievements, after he died allegations surrounding his administration use of government funds marred the unprecedented growth rates and indices recorded by his administration. He is seen as the most enigmatic leader the country has ever had.
Sani is a popular figure in the Northern region of Nigeria, especially Kano State, Borno State, Kaduna State and Sokoto State. Many still decorate their vehicles with his posters and praise him for the various establishments he laid around the country and for bringing back security to the region. Further south of the country, there is still a disdain for the late military ruler. This can be attributed to the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa after being found guilty, in a controversial trial, of killing four Ogoni leaders.
Abacha's government was accused of human rights abuses, especially after the hanging of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa by the Oputa Commission (only one of several executions of Ogoni activists opposed to the exploitation of Nigerian resources by the multinational petroleum company, Royal Dutch Shell Group.)
Moshood Abiola and Olusegun Obasanjo were jailed for treason, and Wole Soyinka charged in absentia with treason. His regime suffered opposition externally by pro-democracy activists. He however supported the Economic Community of West African States and sent Nigerian troops to Liberia and Sierra Leone to help restore democracy to those countries.
Despite being repeatedly condemned by the US State Department, Abacha did have a few ties to American politics. In 1997, Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) travelled to Nigeria to meet with Abacha as a representative of the "Family", a group of evangelical Christian politicians and civic leaders. Abacha and the Family had a business and political relationship from that point until his death. Abacha also developed ties with other American political figures such as Senator Carol Moseley Braun, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Minister Louis Farrakhan. Several African American political leaders visited Nigeria during his reign and Farrakhan supported his administration. Also, Paul Manafort served as Abacha's lawyer for a brief period of time in 1998.
Early in 1998, Abacha announced that elections would be held in August of the same year, with a view toward handing power to a civilian government on 1 October. It soon became apparent, though, that Abacha was going to continue his presidency; by April, the country's five parties endorsed him as the sole presidential candidate.
They defended this endorsement by citing the unprecedented economic milestones which he had achieved in his regime.
Abacha died in June 1998 while at the presidential villa in Abuja. He was buried on the same day, according to Muslim tradition, without an autopsy. This fueled speculation that he may have been murdered by political rivals via poison. The government identified the cause of death as a sudden heart attack. It is believed that his drink or fruit (apple) was laced with a poisonous substance, making Abacha feel unwell around 4:30am retiring to his bed and died by 6:15am.
After Abacha's death, Maj. Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, Nigeria's Chief of Defence Staff, was sworn in as the country's head of state. Abubakar had never before held public office and was quick to announce a transition to democracy, which led to the election of ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo, who had been detained by Abacha for treason and accused of an attempted coup with Maj. General Oladipo Diya during Sani Abacha's regime.
Abacha was married to Maryam Abacha and had seven sons and three daughters, he became a grandfather posthumously; as of 2018 he had thirty-three grandchildren.