Nigeria: Abacha bonapartism - five years on

Five years after the fall of the hated military dictator of Nigeria, General Sani Abacha, we look at why he came to power and why in the end the same ruling elite that had supported him was forced to intervene to remove for fear of the mass movement that was building up from below.

June 8, 2003, marked exactly five years since the late Nigerian and notorious dictator, General Sani Abacha died. Abacha's death was widely celebrated in Nigeria and beyond. This was due mainly to the fact that his five-year reign represented a period of unprecedented brutal and dictatorial rule in Nigeria, characterised by numerous cases of assassinations, incarcerations, proscription of trade unions and other mass organisations, and closure of opposition newspaper houses among other acts of repression. To this extent his demise was certainly a big relief to the repressed Nigerian Populace.

Abacha's reign typically represented a modern example of bonapartism, where the ruler (Abacha), who originally was supported in his coming to power by the ruling capitalist class, rose clearly above society, while balancing his reign of terror between the oppressing ruling class and the oppressed working class and other poor layers of society.

Like his death, Abacha's five-year reign of terror has been subjected to all kinds of mythical explanations as per how he emerged and why he lasted so long in the face of widespread opposition that spanned through all sections of society. The purpose of this article is to place the Abacha era in its proper historical context, using the Marxist tool to scientifically analyse how he emerged, why he was able to manipulate his regime to survival while it lasted, and why he had to die suddenly to pave the way for the present civil rule arrangement in Nigeria.

The emergence of Abacha

General Sani Abacha came to political prominence in December 1983 when he announced the General Mohammed Buhari-led military coup that signalled the end of the Second Republic, and the demise of the civilian rule headed by President Shehu Shagari. He subsequently rose to become Chairman, Joint Chief-of-Staff, and the de facto second-in-command, during General Ibrahim Babangida's rule (1985-1993). Babangida with Abacha and co., had ousted Buhari as head of state in a palace coup in August 1985.

Abacha ascended to power in November 1993 at a time when Nigerian society was undergoing an intense crisis of uncertainty, where the preceding months had witnessed turbulent protests and violent demonstrations against the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections by the Military regime led by General Ibrahim Babangida. This was particularly so in the south-west, where the assumed winner of the election, and a prominent member of the capitalist class - a top executive of the multinational telecommunications company, ITT, Moshood Abiola - hailed from.

It is noted that the annulment of the June 12 election was rightly seen, and rejected, by a wide layer of the protesters as a plot by the Babangida-led regime to further extend military rule beyond the then August 27, 1993 scheduled handover date to civilian rule in Nigeria. It is however important to acknowledge the fact that there also exists to a large extent palpable ethnic chauvinist currents in the southwest, where the anti-annulment protests mostly occurred.

The anti-annulment demonstrations invariably became too much for the ruling military elite to flagrantly continue their rule in the same old way. Babangida eventually "stepped aside" on August 26, 1993 and instead of relinquishing power to the "acclaimed" winner of the election, appointed a civilian head of state, Earnest Sonekan - the former Chairman of the regime's Transitional Council - to head the Interim National Government (ING), and left General Abacha as the No. 2 person and head of the Defence Ministry.

However, the advent of the ING only worsened the state of uncertainty in the country with its attendant negative effects on business and profit-making. The situation was approaching a breaking point for the country. This was the prevailing situation when Abacha led the 'Palace Coup' that sacked Ernest Sonekan's ING, together with the elected parliamentary chambers and the elected state Governors, among others, thus signalling the establishment of another fully fledged military dictatorship three months after Babangida had left the scene.

The support of Abiola and co.

The significant thing here is the fact that all sections of the ruling capitalist class, regardless of whether they belonged to the Pro-June 12 or anti-June 12 factions, threw away all pretences to democratic norms and declared their support for the new military regime led by General Abacha. The Cabinet of Ministers that was later formed by Abacha had "heavyweight" representatives from all the factions.

Examples of Pro-June 12ists in the cabinet were the following: Baba Gana Kingigbe (Abiola's Vice-Presidential candidate) who became the Minister for Foreign Affairs and a member of the Provisional Ruling Council; Iyorcha Ayu, former Senate President of the truncated Third Republic who became the Minister for Education; Lateef Jakande, high ranking member of Abiola's Social Democratic Party, who became the Minister for Works. In a similar vein, prominent leaders of the opposition-National Republican Congress, like Adamu Ciroma, Tom Ikimi and Bamanga Tukur among others, became Abacha's cabinet members. Quite significant, in the course of event, was also the fact that Moshood Abiola himself openly expressed support for the new military dictatorship with a "congratulatory embrace of Abacha" during a courtesy visit to him in the early days of the regime.

In other words, members of the capitalist ruling class in Nigeria, with the tacit support of their imperialist Godfathers in the west, faced with the threat of an overwhelming mass movement with the potential risk of national disintegration and further risk to big business and profit making, found it very convenient to form a "Government of National Unity" under Sani Abacha - a Military Dictator!

As we shall explain later, this open collaboration and endorsement of Abacha by Abiola and co., led to a great disillusionment cum disappointment among the mass layer of supporters in the June 12 movement. On the other hand, this development also clarifies to others the inherent reactionary and opportunist character of all the members of the capitalist class, who will compromise any principle in order to maintain the present oppressive capitalist system.

Another side to the scenario was the treacherous position and the open complacence of the leadership of the trade unions, particularly that of the Nigerian Labour Congress, who incidentally at the time of the coup were leading a nationwide general strike against the then increase in the price of petroleum products of over 700%. The NLC, then having Pascal Bafyau as President and Adams Oshiomole as Deputy President (now the NLC President), refused to widen the demands to include an immediate opposition to the new Abacha-led military dictatorship; for a genuine multiparty democracy, including the right to form a trade union-based workers' party etc. With the workers on strike, the new dictatorship would have been defeated at its very inception, but NLC leadership insisted that the strike was purely an economic strike! This complacence was soon to be regretted when Abacha clamped down on the NLC and the Trade Unions leadership the following year.

With support and lack of opposition, respectively from the aforementioned above; the regime settled down to map out its strategy to stabilize the political situation for big business, particularly as regards the further exploration of the multibillion dollar oil fields in the southern Niger Delta by the multinational oil companies - Shell, Chevron, Mobil, Total, Elf, etc. This explained the silent support of Big Business for the regime, while it lasted. For example, in spite of the seeming antagonism of the imperialist western governments towards the regime, a huge 33% of the total investment from the West to all of Africa still went to the Nigerian oil fields alone, during the Abacha era.

Still aiming to stabilise itself, the Abacha regime sold the idea of a constitutional conference that was expected to map out a political course for the country and also determine the life span of the regime. The conference was largely unrepresentative with almost half of its membership nominated by the regime. And although the election of the other members was very liberal with no Voters' Register, voter turnout was very poor with less than 10% voting.

Not withstanding the official goals of the constitutional conference enumerated above, the regime had its own hidden agenda for the conference. It was ultimately to serve as a bait to deceive the sceptical populace and a diversionary tactic to give the regime time to stabilise itself. This was soon revealed by subsequent developments; the conference was unable to achieve any of the outlined objectives. It proved incapable of determining the lifespan of the regime and neither did any constitution see the light of the day throughout the five years that the regime lasted.

The constitutional conference agenda was followed by the non-committal "Transition to Civil Rule Timetable" that was to terminate with a handover to an elected civilian President in 1998. We shall come back to this, in a more detailed analysis, and the ulterior motives behind this agenda.

The 1994 oil workers' strike

Events that followed the elections to the constitutional conference remained the most turbulent in the life of the Abacha regime. It tallies with the period when the alliance between the regime and a section of the Pro-June 12ist faction broke down, leading to a renewed agitation for the swearing-in of M.K.O. Abiola and the return of the previously sacked elected civilian politicians. Significantly, this renewed agitation had the powerful Oil Workers' Unions - NUPENG and PENGASSAN - well incorporated in the struggle, backing the demands later with strike action that lasted more than two months before it was defeated with serious repercussions.

The oil workers' strike was defeated not because of the much acclaimed mythical might of the regime but due largely to the internal contradictions of the strike action itself, and the prevailing conditions that had existed a long time before the strike commenced.

For one, as mentioned earlier, the prior collaborationist action of Abiola and co. towards Abacha had led to a major disillusionment in the June 12 movement, and less people now believed in the "sanctity" of the demands of the strike. Similarly related is the fact that the previously sacked elected officials were known to be highly corrupt and very few were ready to stick their necks out for the return of these largely discredited politicians.

Another reason for the defeat was that the June 12 movement's class characterisation was largely petty bourgeois under the leadership of a faction of the capitalist ruling class. The Nigerian workers did not orient to this movement as a class. This situation subsequently fragmented the support of the individual workers according to other different considerations - particularly along religious and ethnic lines. Worst still, the NUPENG-PENGASSAN strike was largely isolated; the other Unions in the NLC refused to be a part of the strike, claiming that the demands of the strike would divide the ranks of their members. This underlines the major undoing of the 1994 Oil Workers' Strike.

With the above scenario, notwithstanding the initial enthusiasm that the strike started with, it was only a matter of time before the indefinite strike action would collapse of its own volition and this was what occurred with the two month old strike. By the time the action was formally called off, the striking unions were much weaker than when the strike had started, having bowed down under the pressure of the aforementioned contradictions.

Abacha rose above society

By the time the strike was called off, the balance of power had tilted greatly in favour of Abacha. The defeat represented a very important factor in the transformation of the Abacha dictatorship into a fully fledged naked military-police bonapartism, with Abacha rising clearly above every class in society while always maintaining the capitalist system of course.

Like a military sharp-shooter that he was, with the ebbing of the strike movement came the clampdown on the opposition. Abacha rolled out decrees dissolving the National Executive structures of NUPENG and PENGASSAN as well as the national structures of the hitherto docile NLC and replaced them with government appointed undertakers called "Sole Administrators". In the same vein, Moshood Abiola and some opposition members were arrested and thrown into jail, together with the leaders of NUPENG and PENGASSAN.

In a related development, untrustworthy members of the Provisional Ruling Council were removed and replaced with trusted loyalists. Victims of this "purge" included the Army Chief-of-Staff, General Chris Ali and Naval Chief-of-Staff, Admiral Allison Madueke among others.

More repression

With the above developments, Abacha consolidated his one-man rule, that was subsequently based on endless repression of the opposition, bribery and corruption of opposition newspapers, etc. In this respect countless numbers of individuals were thrown into jail; many were assassinated by agents of the regime as later confessions, after Abacha's death, by some of his past agents have revealed.

Having consolidated his rule, Abacha soon made true the old maxim that "No dictator leaves power voluntarily, except when faced with an opposition mass action or the threat of one". Here lies the logic of Abacha's desperate hold on to power. This flows from the fact the man and his cohorts started to imagine what terrible things could occur to them after leaving power. Hence they were willing to do anything to stay in power and as the saying goes: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely".

The role of the economy

The defeat of the oil workers' strike and the subsequent endless clampdown on the opposition did not alone explain the absolutism and the transient stability of the Abacha dictatorship. Particularly from 1994 through to 1998, Abacha would have found it difficult to maintain his dictatorial rule, if not for the "buoyant oil economy" that characterised most of the period we are looking at.

Lenin said a long time ago that "politics is concentrated economics". Abacha's reign of terror was balanced on the above dictum. It should be noted that the Nigerian economy is monolithic; the prime mover of the economy being the oil sector. Revenues from the sale of crude oil account for more than 90% of the country's total earnings.

Incidentally, the period 1994-1997 representing the time of acute repression of the Abacha reign in Nigeria also tallies with the time when the price of crude oil was on the high side on the international markets. Whereas, the price of crude oil before then had been on the low side; from 1994 up to 1997 there was a relative boom in the international oil market. An indication of this was the fact that the regime was getting more than 25% over its own projected revenue from crude oil sales, consistently during this period.

Thanks to this situation, in spite of the massive corruption that characterised the reign of Abacha - more than one billion US dollars were estimated to have been stolen and stashed away in foreign banks alone - he was still able to keep more than seven billion dollars in the country's foreign currency reserves.

On the other hand, the resurgence of the opposition movement in late 1997 up to the time of Abacha's death also tallies with the downturn in the international oil market. This incidentally was the period when the so-called South-East Asian Tiger Economies went down, and this was reflected in the crisis in the oil market.

From the foregoing, we can see that there was nothing mythical about Abacha's dictatorship that cannot be explained rationally. Abacha was only a personality filling a space in the historical axes of the then political and economic interplay.

Re-emerging opposition

Suffice it to say that the methods of rule of Abacha soon resulted in open conflict among members of the ruling class. Different opposition platforms (e.g. the National Democratic Coalition, NADECO), the Joint Action Committee, JACON, United Action for Democracy, UAD, the G34, etc.) were declared illegal. This conflict also led to a clampdown on those erstwhile friends of the regime, who had initially welcomed it to power.

In the middle of 1995, the regime accused some of its critics, and prominent members of the ruling class among others, of plotting a military coup against it. Individuals like the former military head of state and present civilian President, General Olusegun Obasanjo and his erstwhile deputy, General Musa Yar'adua, were arrested, tried by a military tribunal and sentenced to life imprisonment and death respectively. Others included in the trial, and sentencing were military officers, journalists, civil right activists, etc. However, subsequently due to the widespread condemnation of the trials, the death sentences were commuted to prison terms.

Coming after these developments was the acting out of Abacha's self-written script for an indefinite extension of his personal rule. This was to be achieved through the so-called Transition-to-Civil-Rule agenda which had been formulated at the end of the Constitutional Conference. Towards this end, all the then five government-registered political parties had individually chosen Abacha as their presidential candidate at the election slated for August 1998. Thus the whole operation appeared clearly as a sham. Abacha had personally decided which parties could stand as long as they all chose him as their candidate. This way he could not lose and would thus be able to present himself as the "democratically elected" leader rather than the dictator. This development led to growing discontent within sections of the ruling class itself, which were beginning to see Abacha no longer as the guarantor of their interests but an element that could provoke a mass movement from below.

The Diya frame-up coup

The situation leading to the time Abacha died was such that the conflict within the top echelons of the military rulers had reached its peak, with the arrest of the second-in-command, General Oladipupo Diya, and others accused of plotting a coup against Abacha. The credibility of this allegation has been variously sensationalised in the media. Diya, for one, denied the allegation, claiming that it was a "set-up" orchestrated by Abacha himself, using some other members of the Provisional Ruling Council.

The "Diya coup" confirmed the age-long assertion of Marxism that when the wind of revolution blows, it first blows the tops of the tree before it blows the lower parts. In other words in order to prevent the revolutionary current from below, a division emerges among the ruling elite on how to continue to rule over society, developing into an open conflict at the top usually on the eve of the mass movement of the oppressed class from below. Hence arising from the above is the fact that, regardless of the denials and counter-denials concerning the authenticity of a coup plot, a coup nevertheless did take place among the ruling elite. As was commonly repeated, "If truly Diya did not plan a coup against Abacha, then Abacha successfully carried out a coup against Diya".

The major lesson here is that such a development represented a point of bitter disagreement among the ruling elite on how to continue to rule Nigeria. The nation-wide mass celebrations that witnessed Abacha's death in June 1998, further confirmed the mass anger against the then existing military dictatorship in Nigeria and the desire for a change from the existing order of repression and mass deprivation.

Was Abacha assassinated?

There have been various explanations about how Abacha died so suddenly. Here, a brief attempt will be made to give a rational viewpoint. One month before he died there was wide speculation about Abacha being terminally ill and this could have led to a natural death. However, with the way events moved after his death, it appears that Abacha was probably "helped to his grave" by his colleagues at the PRC with the support of some outside powers, locally and internationally. Some of the events that occurred after his death were probably also predetermined before he died, in order to prevent further degeneration in the political situation, particularly with regard to the potential regional civil strife and national disintegration.

Thus the situation came full circle. Abacha was brought in to power to save the nation from disintegrating and he was also "helped out" to save the country from disintegrating less than five years later.

Events that occurred after the death included the dismantling of Abacha's five personally selected political parties, the extension of the Transition to civil rule timetable to May 29, 1999, the release from detention of political detainees, including General Olusegun Obasanjo - who later became the civilian president in May 1999 - and the "accidental death" of Moshood Abiola, and the mass protests that followed. All the above mentioned events point to a sequence that could well have flowed from an a priori anticipated death of Abacha.

The lesson form the short but highly detestable 5-year reign (followed by the death of Abacha) is that the ruling class will ultimately compromise all pretences and commitments to democratic government in order to save their capitalist rule of the few oppressing rich over the downtrodden majority of the poor.

However, we have to stress that in the immediate period the option of another Abacha-like dictator is unlikely. Other options will be tried first, instead of "risking" another Abacha that could put the whole ruling elite in danger. Various other options that might be tried include other forms of "civil rule" such as a Government of National Unity or a civilian dictatorial rule (i.e. a parliamentary bonapartist rule). But we always have to remember that once these options fail, the idea of putting in place another naked military dictator like Abacha, will once again be raised by the ruling class.

The only alternative to such a potentially unholy return to naked military rule, is to be found in the channelling of an independent political line of action for the Nigerian working class and the other poor layers of society. The path to genuine progress is to be found in the setting up of a mass Workers' Party based on the Trade Unions, armed with the programme of the socialist transformation of the society.

Such a development would lead to a leap in the political consciousness of the working class and the ordinary people in society. For it is only a politically conscious working class that can ultimately prevent the enthronement of naked military dictatorship or any other forms of dictatorial rule for that matter.