The same day abacha died – Orji Ogbonnaya

Friday June 5, 1998, was a cool bright day. Before we left the Villa,
the Press Corps was informed that the leader of the Palestinian
Liberation Organisation, Yasser Arafat, would be making a brief
stop-over at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja,
enroute Morocco. And he was expected to hold a brief discussion
with the General Sani Abacha. We were therefore expected to be at
the airport to cover the event on Sunday, June 7. It was a topical
assignment in view of Nigeria’s neutral position in the Middle East
conflict. Besides, the rest of us were keen to meet Mr. Arafat, the
man at the centre of the storm.
That Sunday morning, the Press Corps headed for the airport to
await the arrival of Yasser Arafat. We did not have to wait for too
long before the Palestinian leader arrived, accompanied by a very
modest delegation. President Arafat and General Abacha
immediately went into private discussion at the VIP lounge of the
Presidential wing of the airport. The Press outside waited curiously
for the possible outcome of the talks between the two leaders, a
kind of joint press conference, on all issues involved in the Nigeria-
Palestine relations.
After the meeting, which was very brief, there was no press
conference. Rather, Yasser Arafat inspected a guard of honour
mounted by a detachment of the 3 Guards Brigade of the Nigerian
Army, and departed for Morocco. The whole airport ceremony
lasted about two hours and we all returned to the Villa (Aso Rock).
Before leaving the Villa, I decided to cross-check with protocol
officials if the Head of State would still be traveling to Burkina
Faso to attend the OAU Summit, which was already at the
Ministerial Session in Ouagadougou. The advance team of the
Head of State’s entourage had already left on Friday night. I was
to be in the main entourage expected to leave for Burkina Faso on
Monday morning, after Abacha would have declared open an
International Information Conference expected to begin in Abuja
Monday June 8. The Federal Ministry of Information organized the
conference. It was normal during General Abacha’s regime, that
his movement was always kept topmost secret. As a matter of
fact, those of us who used to travel with him would not know until
few hours to our departure. So was our trip to Burkina Faso. They
told me it was still on course.
With that assurance, I drove straight to NICON Hilton, Abuja where
I had passed the previous night as a member of the Organizing
Committee of the Information Conference. Six o’clock in the
morning, Monday June 8, 1 1eft for the Villa, with my luggage to
join the delegation to Burkina Faso for the OAU Summit. General
Abacha was to head the Nigerian delegation. At the time I got to
the Villa everything appeared quite normal. I met some of my
colleagues who were also to be in the Head of State’s entourage to
Burkina Faso. At 7 a.m. that fateful day, we all assembled at the
Press Centre waiting for the necessary directives. However, when
it got to eight o’clock, and no signal was forthcoming about our
movement, we decided to go and have our breakfast and
reconvene in the next one hour. At that point everything in the Villa
still appeared normal. Various officials were seen in their duty
posts doing their routine jobs.
From the Villa, I drove straight to my house, had a quick breakfast,
and decided to go through NICON Hilton hotel to inform my
colleagues in the Organizing Committee about the uncertainty of
our trip. On getting to the hotel, I saw people standing in groups,
discussing. But I did not give a thought to their attention. I
imagined that some of them were delegates or participants at the
conference. So I quickly dashed into my room, returned
immediately to the Villa to join my colleagues, to wait for further
developments.
On driving to the Villa gate, a new atmosphere had taken over. The
first gate had been taken over by new set of security operatives. I
was not familiar with virtually all of them, except one Major whose
name I could not remember immediately. The Major knew me by
name. He was fully in charge of the new security arrangement,
dishing out instructions in a very uncompromising manner. Initially,
I did not take it as anything very serious. As a well known person
in the Villa, I was confident that my entrance was just a matter of
time moreso when I was hanging my State House identity card
around my neck. All my expectations were wrong as I was bluntly
ordered to go back. All explanations and introductions on my
mission to the Villa were helpless. The instruction was clear go
back! go back! they shouted at all visitors. At that delay many cars
had formed long queues. My immediate reaction was to seek the
assistance of the Major, whom I had identified earlier, to save me
from the tyranny of his men. Before I could approach him he
shouted, “Ogbonnaya go back!” While I was still battling to wriggle
out of what was seemingly a hopeless situation, I noticed a
woman right behind me, almost hysterically screaming, that she
had an early morning appointment with the First Lady, Mrs.
Maryam Abacha. The woman apparently must be coming from the
National Council of Women Societies from her dressing. My shock
was the way she was instantly assaulted by those stern looking
security operatives. At that point, I quickly got the message; I
drove away from the scene as quickly as possible. Though my
mind was everywhere but my immediate conclusion was that there
was a coup because I could not imagine any other thing that could
have caused such a high level of security alert. I therefore decided
to drive straight to the International Conference Centre to alert my
Director General on the latest development. He was attending the
conference as a participant.
At the International Conference Centre, I saw some Ministers
standing at the lobby in anticipation of the arrival of Abacha and
his team. Immediately they saw me, they became very agitated,
and almost simultaneously asked me, “is the C-ln-C already on his
way?” I said, “no, I am not really sure he is coming. But let us hope
he will still make it”. I knew, as a matter of fact, that I had not
really provided them with the desired answer, but that was the
much I could tell them. While they were still pondering on the
uncertainty of my reply, I left and quickly walked into the hall
where I met my Director-General, Alhaji Abdulrahaman Michika. He
was already seated with other participants. I called him aside. “Sir,
I don’t really know what is happening in the Villa. I suggest that
you leave this place now!” Without betraying any emotion, he
quickly asked me what was the situation in the Villa like, I told him
all that I saw. I repeated my advice and that I had not been able to
confirm what exactly was happening. I then made it clear to him
that it was no longer safe for him to continue staying in the
conference, and so should quietly take his leave. Alhaji Michika
immediately went back to his table, took his pen and papers and
followed me out of the hall.
The moment we were outside, I asked him if he came with his car.
He said yes, but because of the extraordinary security
arrangement put in place in anticipation of the arrival of the Head
of State, it was difficult locating his driver. I then suggested that
we should use my car which he obliged. I drove him straight to his
house instead of the office. Both of us agreed that he should
remain at home for the time being, while I promised to keep him
informed about the development. This panic measure was as a
result of the usual trauma which Radio Nigeria Management Staff
often pass through each time there was a military coup d’‚tat in
Nigeria. The first target usually is the FRCN Broadcasting House.
The management and staff on duty usually pass through hell in the
hands of the military boys in their desperate effort to gain entrance
into the studios at record time for the usual “Fellow Nigerians”
broadcast.
From my Director-General’s residence I decided to get to NICON
Hilton Hotel to assess the situation there before heading back to
the Villa. At the hotel the atmosphere was rather sombre. There
were a few cluster of people; some of them who recognized me,
rushed and demanded to know what was happening at the Villa.
“Orji, is it true that there is a coup at the Villa?”, they asked. I said,
“well I don’t know”. At that time, the BBC, CNN and International
Media had begun to speculate on the confused situation.
From their countenance I could see they were not satisfied with my
answer. They thought probably that I was withholding some
information. But they never knew I had none. I felt very
uncomfortable. As a reporter covering the State House, I was
equally restless that I could not give a valid answer on what was
happening on my beat. I recognized too that it was utterly wrong to
depend on others for information about events unfolding in my
beat. I instantly felt challenged to get back to the Villa. I was
equally aware that such an adventure was fraught with a lot of
risk. But that is the other side of journalism as a profession.
On getting back to the Villa, I decided to avoid the main gate
because of the heavy security presence there. Instead, I used the
maintenance gate through the Asokoro District. I was amazed that
no single security man was there at the time. There was therefore
no difficulty in passing through into Aso Rock. I drove my car to
the Administrative Gate and parked there, and decided to walk.
Initially everything had appeared normal in some parts of the Villa
until I met a Body Guard (BG). I queried, “old boy wetin happen?
Why una boys full everywhere?” It is easier to obtain information
from other ranks with informal English. “Ah! Na wa oh! You no
know say Baba don quench?”. The boy answered also in Pidgin
English. “Which Baba?” I shouted. “Baba don die, Baba don quench
just like that. Na so we see am,” the boy concluded, clutching a
cigarette in his left hand. I still could not understand what he was
saying. “Which Baba do you mean?”, I queried further. “Abacha
don die! You no hear?” He shouted at me angrily. It was a very
funny way of announcing the passage of a man who was feared
and dreaded by all. I was nonetheless confused by its reality. My
immediate reaction was that if truly General Abacha was dead, it
meant the end of an era. What future does it hold for Nigeria? I
pondered over the development as I advanced further into Aso
Rock. As I moved down, the reality became evident. The
environment was cold, cloudy with uncertainties among the faces I
met.
They confirmed it was a reality. General Abacha was truly dead. All
were in groups discussing it with fear and subdued silence.
I quickly reached for a telephone to relay the sad story to my
Director-General who must be anxiously waiting to hear the latest.
Moreso, I was still far away from my news deadline at 4 p.m. But I
was disappointed to discover that all the telephone links to the Villa
had been severed. There was no call coming in or going out, the
Villa at that critical moment was almost totally isolated from the
rest of humanity. It was a deliberate measure. When I could not
get through on telephone, I decided to drive out fast to break the
news. But on reaching the gate through which I had earlier
entered, I discovered that some fierce looking soldiers who told me
that nobody was allowed to go out or come in had effectively
barricaded it. This was happening at about 9.30 a.m. I was
helplessly trapped in the Villa from that time till about 5 p.m. when
we conveyed the remains of General Abacha to Kano for burial.
I felt particularly disappointed that I could not break the news to
anxious Nigerians early enough. It was even more embarrassing
and certainly very disheartening to learn that some foreign
broadcast stations like the BBC and CNN, which had no accredited
correspondents in the Villa, were the first to break the news of
General Abacha’s death. It did not entirely come to me as a
surprise because the system we operate in Nigeria respects the
foreign media more than the local ones. It is equally a well-known
fact that most foreign media subscribe to policy makers in our
country, who always feed them with first-hand information about
any event or issue in the country. The foreign media organizations
are no magicians. They pay for news sources especially in
situations where they have no correspondents. The pay is usually
so attractive that the source is efficient. Thus, generally, access to
information in developing countries is fraught with discrimination
against local media in preference to foreign ones.
That morning, June 8, 1998, Major Hamza Al-Mustapha, the Chief
Security Officer to General Abacha, was said to have called key
members of the Provincial Ruling Council (PRC) including strategic
military commanders for an emergency meeting. We learnt he
refused to disclose that Abacha was dead. At about 11a.m.,
members of the PRC had begun to arrive at Aso Rock for an
emergency meeting. Most of the members were informed only on
arrival for the meeting except the very powerful ones.
That day, Major Al-Mustapha looked very sharp and smartly
dressed in his Army tracksuit and white canvas. The Major was
simply too busy running from pillar to post, looking confident but
certainly confused about the future without his boss. He was
finally in charge, distributing orders to the rank and file to get the
Aso Council Chambers ready for the meeting. We watched at a
distance in utter disbelief of the turn of events. For Mustapha, the
situation was a bleak one. The fear was a possible fall from grace
to grass for a man who was dreaded and respected by both the
lowly and the mighty. But that morning, he conjured such a pitiable
image as he presided over the wreckage of a collapsed regime.
Emotions took over the whole environment. One of the female
Ministers worsened the situation when she arrived the Villa by
shouting and weeping openly. Nobody looked her way to console
her as everybody was simply on his/her own. Cigarettes were a
scarce commodity that morning, the only immediate source of
reducing tension and grief. Most PRC members who were
informed on arrival immediately asked for cigarettes, but none was
easily available. Those who had some hoarded them jealously.
Elsewhere in the Villa, a gloomy atmosphere, mingled with subdued
excitement and relief pervaded. Flurry of activities were taking
place at breathtaking speed two crucial meetings were in progress
simultaneously. One was a meeting of Principal Officers in the
Presidency and the venue was Aso Rock Wing of the Chief of
General Staff. The other meeting of members of the Provincial
Ruling Council (PRC) was shifted to Akinola Aguda House. The two
meetings later merged at Aso Council Chambers for another
crucial session. The joint session began at 2 p.m. and ended at
4.45 p.m. I imagined that the items on the agenda of that meeting
were:
_ Selection of a new Head of State and Commander-in-Chief.
_ Arrangements for the burial of General Abacha.
While the separate meetings were in progress, we in the Press
Corps were held hostage. We had all the information but no means
of communication. Hunger was also a problem. However, for the
first time we were free to assess the regime openly and
objectively. The open discussion and arguments centred on what
Abacha did and did not do.
While the meeting at Aso Council Chambers was in session, Major
Al-Mustapha sat in the chair at the entrance, holding a newspaper
in his hands, which he occasionally glanced at. He looked rather
relaxed after ensuring that every necessary arrangement had been
put in place. He occasionally responded to our discussions with
selected and reserved comments. His aides quoted him as saying
that nobody would leave the Council Chambers unless a new
Military Head of State was selected by the meeting. His fear, I
learnt, was that a vacuum was dangerous before General Abacha’s
burial later the same day. Mustapha declined all efforts by the few
Pressmen around to narrate how General Abacha died. All efforts
to bring him fully into our discussion also failed. Insiders at the
“red carpet” revealed that shortly after Abacha died, Major Al-
Mustapha took some strategic decisions that were of national
significance. One of such decisions was the immediate evacuation
of the condemned coup plotters in Jos Prison to a more secured
place. The measure was probably to pre-empt any intention to
summarily execute the plotters by possible overzealous forces.
From morning till 5 p.m., no official press statement on the death
of General Abacha from any quarters was issued, even when the
incident was already known all over the world. It was difficult to
reconcile how such a major sad event could happen in the country
and up till that time, nobody deemed it necessary to issue an
official statement. We then decided to mount pressure on the then
Minister of Information, Ikeobasi Mokelu, to make a
pronouncement. It was after much pressure that an official
statement was eventually issued. The press statement was five
paragraphs in all, issued at about 5.25 p.m.
The atmosphere in the Villa then was overcast. On June 8 in Aso
Rock, hierarchy of command collapsed. It was a day everybody
was free. Shortly after the statement was issued, people began to
troop towards the Red Carpet area (official residence of the Head
of State). I immediately imagined that the body of the General
might be Iying in state. I quickly followed, not certain if it was
going to be possible to be allowed to have a glimpse of it.
However, on getting to the house, I quietly walked in and saw the
body of General Abacha wrapped in white cloth and laid in a small
private sitting room in the residence. And I said to myself, “vanity
upon vanity”. His death to me was as dramatic as his ascendancy
to power, equally evoking tragic memories of a nation that was
unsafe of itself.
I returned to the Aso Council Chambers to wait for the outcome of
the special session of the Provisional Ruling Council. The outcome
of the meeting was all that the media was awaiting. The meeting
was to answer the question “who succeeds Abacha?” But before
long, the picture of who succeeds General Abacha began to
emerge. Shortly after the meeting at Aso Council Chambers had
ended, I saw General Abdulsalami Abubakar walk out of the
meeting ahead of other senior military officers. This immediately
conveyed the message that he had been chosen as the new leader.
My conclusion was based on the tradition in the military, there is
much respect for hierarchy and seniority. All other military officers
and PRC members lined behind Abdulsalami, confirming the saying
in the military that appointment supercedes rank. Besides, I
watched and saw that he was dishing out orders which all
complied to, even his seniors. He took control of the ad-hoc
arrangement to convey the body of General Abacha to Kano for
burial. He was seen giving orders to both high and low to arrange
vehicles for movement to the airport.
The journey to Kano was already far behind schedule, given the
fact that the burial must take place that same day in keeping with
the Islamic injunction. We left Aso Rock for the airport at about 6
p.m.
It was indeed a big tragedy for the members of former first family
as they packed their belongings to join the convoy which took the
corpse of the once powerful General home. I wept when I saw
Madam, Mrs. Abacha being helped into the waiting car. She stared
at Aso Rock in tears, a most difficult and tragic way to say good-
bye. Tears rolled freely from all gathered as Madam was driven
out of the Villa with her husband’s corpse in front of her in a
moving ambulance. The ambulance is normally one of the last
vehicles in the usually long Presidential convoy. But on June 8,
1998, the ambulance was in the front with General Abacha’s
corpse. All other vehicles lined behind in a day-light reversal of
history. The ambulance drove through the IBB bye-pass
connecting the airport link road as the entourage made its way to
Nnamdi Azikiwe airport. I was surprised that there was instant
jubilation by passersby. Taxi drivers lined up at major junctions
shouting shame! shame!! as the convoy drove past. Men and
women ran after the convoy in utter disbelief of the turn of events.
Some other people formed queues in groups with green leaves in
their hands singing solidarity songs in a loud tone that suggested
liberation from bondage. It was a day in which my biro refused to
write and the lines in my jotter went blank. The journalist in me
was overtaken by emotions as most of us in the convoy found it
difficult to speak to one another. We simply lacked the words or
the topic for discussion as our minds went blank and our brains
went asleep.
On our arrival at the airport, the body of General Abacha, which
was still wrapped in white cloth was carried into the hold of the
presidential aircraft, zero-zero one. There was no particular
arrangement on who should be in the aircraft, except that
members of the first family and some PRC members were given
priority. I however noticed that most PRC members at the airport
were not even keen in accompanying the corpse of the late General
to Kano.
While the aircraft was being positioned, Madam and her children
waited at the Presidential lounge with a cluster of relatives and
very few associates. The usual crowd around the first family had
begun to disappear. That day, it was as though the Abacha family
was for the first time in many years on a lonely journey to an
unknown destination, even though the aircraft was heading for
Kano. It was incredible to imagine the Abachas without General
Sani Abacha. As the saying goes, “when the big tree falls, all the
birds will fly away”.
The aircraft ready, Madam and her children left the lounge with the
heavy burden of making their last flight on the presidential jet, with
the corpse of the former Head of State on board. Mrs. Abacha
climbed into the aircraft in tears with measured steps. Her children
joined too, then some few friends and relations.
Inside, the plane was taken over by grief, tears and open weeping.
We had already boarded the aircraft and almost getting set to take-
off when General Abubakar curiously asked, “where is the corpse?”
He was told that it was kept in the hold. “No, no, no, bring it inside!”
the General commanded. And it was brought in and kept few seats
away from where I sat. As the journey progressed, whenever there
was turbulence, the body would shake, exposing the legs, which
were partially covered. I sat in that aircraft speechless. My
reflections were on life, death, power, influence and the vanity of
human desires.
Our flight to Kano was barely thirty minutes, but I felt it was more
than two hours. The usual conversation and jokes in zero-zero one
was overtaken by subdued silence, grief, pain and weeping.
Everybody on board was on his own. I could imagine how other
people’s mind worked at that sober period. But mine went into a
comprehensive review of the Abacha era beginning from the night
of November 16, 1993 when the General took over. Within my
reflections, my mind was everywhere, the good, the bad, the very
bad and the ugly. My mood was interrupted by a sudden
announcement from the cockpit that we were few minutes away
from Aminu Kano International Airport.
The situation on our arrival at Aminu Kano International Airport
was rather chaotic. There was no precise arrangement to receive
the corpse on arrival. Apparently, our arrival caught Kano and the
people unaware. Apart from the first family, and few officials,
everybody was expected to sort out his/her own transport
arrangement out of the airport. Eventually I had to arrange for an
airport taxi to convey me and two others to the private residence of
the late Head of State. Unfortunately, there were few taxis at the
airport. While this arrangement was on, the main convoy had left
with the corpse. We therefore quickly hired a taxi at a high fare
dictated by the driver, who was very rude and uncooperative. We
were shocked that the driver showed little or no sympathy, but was
rather quick to explain that he never benefited anything from the
Abacha regime. In his view, his condition had even worsened. We
discontinued the discussion as it was becoming volatile.
The Abacha family house on Gidado street, GRA, Kano is a modest
twin duplex located in a rather small compound. By the time we
arrived there, the place was already besieged by a large number of
sympathizers struggling to gain entry. As there was no time to
start identifying who was who, we were all being pushed by the
security officials who had a very hectic time trying to contain the
rapidly surging crowd. In the midst of the pushing. and kicking, I
suddenly realised that the person who was being pushed against
me was the highly respected Governor of Lagos State, Col. Buba
Marwa. It therefore became clear to me that at that moment,
everybody was regarded as equal, courtesy of the security at the
gate. I was then encouraged to continue pushing, until I finally
managed to squeeze myself inside the compound.
Inside the compound, I observed scanty presence of newsmen,
because security was deadly. I also discovered that the grave was
still being prepared, an indication that no proper arrangement was
made. Earlier, the body of General Abacha was taken to Kano
Central Mosque for prayers. From the Central Mosque, the body
was laid on the floor of his private mosque just by the gate with
two soldiers standing on guard. I peeped several times to assure
myself that it was actually the former powerful Commander-in-Ch
ief of the Armed Forces that was on the bare floor. One was
expecting a more dignified presidential burial, with due respect to
the modest way the Muslims conduct their burials. Even at a point,
a soldier asked, “Why is there no burial party here?” I immediately
wanted to know what burial party was all about. I was told that it
was the usual twenty-one gun salute line-up of soldiers will give to
a fallen officer as his last military respect. But before any of such
arrangement could be made, the body of General Abacha had been
lowered into the grave. There was certainly no fanfare in the burial,
it was simple and brisk. In simple comparison, I had accompanied
General Abacha himself to the burial of a top military officer and
member of the Provisional Ruling Councils who had died sometime
ago and was buried in Minna during his regime. I observed that all
the procedures at that burial in all consideration was better
managed, more respectful and dignified than that of the former
Head of State, their difference in rank and position notwithstanding
.
There were quite a number of very important personalities who
witnessed the burial. But I particularly took notice of former
Military President, General Ibrahim Babangida and his wife
Mariam, who were seen talking with Mrs. Abacha, probably trying
to console her. There were also some Emirs and other top
Northern leaders who were able to make the trip at such short
notice. At about 9.48 p.m. when Abacha’s grave was being
covered with sand, a powerful businessman from one of the South
Eastern States who was very prominent in Abacha’s campaign for
self succession arrived and broke down weeping and wailing
openly. Some faithful Muslims who dominated the burial reacted
negatively to such an un-lslamic approach to the dead. They
threatened to whisk the man out of the premises if he failed to
comport himself. The businessman was among those who
threatened to proceed on exile or commit suicide if General Abacha
failed to become President.
As the burial ended at about 10.05p.m., we hurriedly left for
Abuja. I expected that there could probably be some other
ceremonies. But I was wrong as we left barely twenty minutes
after the body had been interred. We arrived Abuja a few minutes
to twelve midnight and drove straight to Aso Council Chambers in
the Villa for the swearing-in of General Abdulsalami Abubakar as
the new Head of State, Commander-in-Chief of the Nigeria Armed
Forces.
The swearing-in ceremony was rather brief. It was preceded by a
formal announcement by the Principal Secretary to the former
Head of State, that General Abubakar had been appointed to
succeed the late General Sani Abacha. General Abubakar was then
invited to step forward and take the oath of office and allegiance at
about 1.43 a.m. on June 9, 1998. That ceremony marked the end
of the Abacha era.
After the oath-taking, General Abubakar signed the register to
herald the beginning of the new era. That era ushered in a new
dawn, a brighter future and hope for a sustainable democracy in
Nigeria. The rest is now history. Back to the newsroom at 3 a.m.,
June 9, with series of events that had taken place in the past 24
hours, my diary was full. It was difficult to decide a headline for
the 7 a.m. news bulletin. I do remember that, that morning, at the
FRCN Network News studio there was a problem over which of the
two important stories should come first; that Abacha was dead or
Abubakar has been sworn-in as the new Head of State. Coverage
of the events of that day without food and water was among my
most challenging assignment.

2 Comments

  1. Sorry

  2. Hmmm.

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