…Over death of Sani Abacha, MKO Abiola
By Onyedika Agbedo
the irrepressibility of truth is an undeniable fact of life. But many a time, those who fear the truth for whatever reason lose sight of this fact and seek to suppress it. Nevertheless, it contends with them until it finally finds its way out and wins ultimately.
This appears to be the case among ‘Generals’ and top officers of the Nigerian Army, who more than 18 years after both Nigerian despot, Gen. Sani Abacha, and the presumed winner of the 1993 presidential election, Chief M.K.O Abiola, died in mysterious circumstances, have seemingly kept the true facts of their deaths to themselves and rather remained at ‘war’ over who played or did not play what roles. Issues surrounding the death of the duo have continued to resonate among then top military officers from time to time as Nigerians watch. It’s either someone is trying to explain what happened and the level of his involvement, denying complicity, pointing the fingers at another person or admitting full knowledge of how both men died with a promise to reveal the truth in the course of time.
Without fully rewinding back to the circumstances that brought Abacha into power, it could be recalled that he overthrew the transitional government of Chief Ernest Shonekan on November 17, 1993, which was put in place by former military president, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, after he annulled the results of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections. Early in 1998, Abacha announced that elections would be held in August of the same year, with a view to transferring power to an elected civilian government on October 1. However, the events that followed showed that he had no intention of allowing the conduct of a credible election as by April, the five political parties in the country then had endorsed him as the sole presidential candidate. On June 8, 1998, he died while at the presidential villa in Abuja. He was buried on the same day, according to Muslim tradition, amid strong speculation that political rivals may have poisoned him using prostitutes. It was widely rumoured that he was in the company of two Indian prostitutes imported from Dubai, who laced his drink with a poisonous substance that prompted his death.
There was widespread jubilation in the country following Abacha’s death, especially among associates of the late Abiola, who was accused of treason and thrown into detention in 1994 on the orders of Abacha after he (Abiola) declared himself the lawful president of Nigeria in the Epetedo area of Lagos State. They were upbeat that Abacha’s successor in office, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, would end his incarceration in no time. Nonetheless, Abiola too died under suspicious circumstances on July 7, 1998, the day that he was due to be released. The official autopsy, however, stated that Abiola died of natural causes. But the final autopsy report, which was produced by a group of international coroners, has reportedly never been publicly released.
Almost 19 years after both men died, the questions surrounding their demise have largely remained unanswered, as those who were supposed to be privy to the facts and circumstances of their passage claim not to know or have decided to keep mute over the issue.
In his book titled, Vindication of a General, which was presented to the public recently, former Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi, stoked fresh controversy over the death of Abiola. Bamaiyi categorically stated that Abiola could not have died of natural causes, noting that former Head of State Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar should tell Nigerians what killed Abiola. “I believe only Gen. Abubakar and those he used to handle Abiola’s death can tell Nigerians how Chief M.K.O Abiola died. Abiola could not have died the way he reportedly died,” he wrote.
On the circumstances surrounding Abiola’s death, Bamaiyi, who served as COAS from March 1996 to May 1999, narrated: “One evening, the Head of State, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar called while I was in Lagos to tell me we had a problem. I asked him what was wrong and he told me Chief Abiola was dead. I was shocked and asked him what we were going to do about it. He told me he was handling the situation. I was disturbed because I expected problems in Lagos. But nothing happened.
“I was directed to lead a delegation to Abiola’s house to commiserate with the family and was told Abiola had some visitors, including some Americans. He had taken tea, which raised suspicion about his death.”
Bamaiyi said the late business mogul never relinquished his mandate in spite of the pains of incarceration.
“At no time did Abiola relinquish his mandate. His death came as a surprise to me because he had been healthy when we met,” he added.
Abubakar was yet to respond to Bamaiyi’s claims as he was reportedly out of the country. But analysts have been quick to point out that former Director of Military Intelligence (DMI), Brig-Gen. Ibrahim Sabo had also pointed the fingers at Bamaiyi over the death of Abiola. Testifying before the Justice Chukwudifu Oputa led Truth and Reconciliation Committee in 2011, Sabo had alleged that the day Abacha died, Bamaiyi said Abiola must also be killed in a similar way to balance equation. Bamaiyi’s new book was silent on the allegation.
Nonetheless, one of Abiola’s children, Abdulmumuni, has commended Bamaiyi for coming out to speak the truth about what he knows about his father’s death. He also urged enjoined others involved in the matter to come out and speak the truth, with specific reference to Abubakar.
“As far as I am concerned and the family of Chief MKO Abiola is concerned, nothing has been let go. We are still interested in getting justice done. Justice delayed will not be justice denied in unravelling the real cause of my father’s death.
“My father is not somebody that should die and there is mystery surrounding his death. I am looking forward to a day when a leader of this country will find out the real cause of my father’s death.
“Since Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar was in charge of the country when my father died, I believe he has a case to answer. He needs to come out and tell Nigerians the truth. All the people involved in my father’s death should come out and apologise for what they did and did not do.”
Interestingly, the Abachas had also suspected foul play in the death of the late Head of State and would welcome an explanation any day. His widow, Maryam, had in a chat with the media in the recent past, insinuated that her husband was eased out of office via death. “My husband’s death was like a coup,” she said, adding: “It was sudden and shrouded in confusion. General Abdulsalami Abubakar just called me, telling me to come and collect the dead body. We buried him like any other ordinary Nigerian. It was quite unfortunate the way he died. Allah knows best and unto Him we shall all return. May his soul rest in peace. I’m yet to fully recover from the shock of his death,” she said.
But Abacha’s known closest ally while alive, Gen. Jeremiah Useni, had told a national newspaper during an interview some years back that contrary to the speculation that his friend was poisoned to death, he died of natural causes, as he had been ill. Useni said: “People said all that, about apple poisoning him; that some women poisoned him and all that. There is an autopsy report on what killed him. They cut his body and sent to Germany. The report that came back said Abacha died of natural causes. They cut his body again and sent to the United Kingdom, the report that came back said he died of natural causes. The man had been ill any way.”
The clarification notwithstanding, former Chief Security Officer to the late Abacha, Major Hamza Al-Mustapha, would not align himself to that. Al-Mustapha, who addressed journalists in Lagos on a number of issues relating to his 15-year travails in detention in May 2016, had claimed that Abacha and Abiola’s deaths were from the same source, stating that he would make the comprehensive revelation in a book, Mustapha’s Memoirs, which was still in the works.
“What killed Abacha is what killed MKO Abiola. But I would reveal that after my court case, still at the Supreme Court. I would publish a book which has three volumes— the Mustapha’s Memoirs, which will tell what happened under Abacha and how he died,” he said.
Meanwhile, Al-Mustapha had in 2008 while facing charges of attempted murder and arson before an Ikeja High Court, over the assassination of one of Abiola’s wives, Kudirat, told the court that Abiola was beaten to death. He had made the declaration in a sworn affidavit dated May 20, 2008 and filed at the Ikeja High Court Registry before Commissioner for Oaths, Mr. E. O. Ajiboye.
The 14-paragraph affidavit deposed to by himself said that Abiola died as a result of severe beatings he received from agents of the state after he was denied medical assistance by those in whose custody he was.
Al-Mustapha had further averred in his affidavit that arrangements were subsequently made to “settle some” National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) leaders to ensure that the fallout from his death did not precipitate crisis in the South-west from where Abiola hailed.
He further claimed to be in possession of audio/video tapes and other documents showing, among others, how Abiola was beaten to death. These tapes, he averred, “are part of the items contained in the 11 Ghana-must-go bags confiscated by the State Security Service” from the house of Brig.-Gen. I. Sabo (retd), the former Director of Military Intelligence (DMI) in whose care he claimed to have left them.
With different accounts from the same people on the same issue at different occasions, it is clear that the controversy over the death of Abacha and Abiola would linger until the truth finally finds its way out. But that would only happen when one of those currently in the business of suppressing it decides to divulge it or hires someone to do so. Whatever happens, the key actors in the saga would probably need to apologise to the nation any day the bubble would burst for keeping it secret over the years.