Political Prison

excerpted from the book

Deliver Us from Evil

by William Shawcross

Touchstone Books, 2000, paper



In Nigeria, the army was the state. At about seventy-five thousand men, it was much the biggest in Africa. Defense absorbed 9.2 percent of total recurrent spending and 3.3 percent of capital expenditure. The military had dominated and abused Nigeria since it seized power in the sixties, never more so than in the last five years under Abacha. The military was now loathed, yet it was almost the only national institution in this vast and disparate country. The Yoruba in the southwest, the Hausa in the north and the Ibo in the southeast have always had difficulty in forging a common purpose. The Biafran war of secession by the Ibos in 1967 was only the most tragic example of the tendency to irredentism. One former leader once said, "West and East Nigeria are as different as Ireland from Germany, and the north is as different from either as China."

The army had always been controlled by the Hausa, and in recent years, as it abused power more and more, the people of the southwest suffered disproportionately.

Abacha had been the eighth military dictator that Nigeria had endured since independence in 1960 and the most intransigent. He had lived a life which can best be described as weird and which depended heavily on caricatures of despotism. His rule showed very clearly how difficult it is for the outside world, the international community, to intervene and change a government which is determined to pursue its own interests, however obnoxious these seem to much of the rest of the world.

Abacha's career path in Nigeria had been in the army. By the early 1990s he had become both army chief of staff and minister of defense. By now Nigeria was in a state of chaos, particularly because its succession of military dictators had used their power to ensure that the country's vast oil wealth profited themselves above all and no one else. Oil is Nigeria's most important industry, providing about 80 percent of government revenue, not to mention the personal revenues of top military officers. Corruption was not part of government in Nigeria; it was the object of government. The ruling clique had become more and more deeply involved in every stage of the petroleum business. Officers took kickbacks from foreign companies seeking to prospect for oil; they were bribed by the construction companies that won the contracts to build rigs and pipelines; they controlled almost every sale of Nigerian crude oil; and as if all this was not enough, in recent years they also had begun to siphon off the money used by Nigeria's oil refineries to turn crude into gasoline. As a result, the people of one of the world's largest oil-producing countries suffered crippling shortages of fuel.

The most important moment in Nigeria's descent into misrule came in 1993. General Ibrahim Babangida, the current dictator, was under huge international pressure to move the country back toward democracy, and he staged elections that year that were intended, the military said, to return the country to civilian rule.

Moshood Abiola's name was a byword for the extravagant acquisition of wealth in Africa. In the early nineties, he was so close to the military rulers of Nigeria that it was difficult to say which needed the other more. With their help, he bought an airline, farms, factories, a publishing house, a fifty-room ranch in a suburb of Lagos, with swimming pools, marbled halls and stretch limos, all protected by razor wire stretched atop high concrete walls.

In 1993, Babangida persuaded Abiola to use his position to run in the elections demanded by the outside world. He became leader of a newly formed Social Democratic Party, fighting the equally novel center-right party. The early returns showed him to be the winner, with support cutting across religious and tribal lines in a way which was unprecedented in Nigeria. The military then seemed to panic; the northern Hausa generals decided they could not bear the idea of a southern Yoruba president, even one as entrenched in the murkiness of the system as they were. Before the votes were all counted General Babangida canceled the elections, citing irregularities. No doubt some had taken place, but the election was thought to have been the fairest in Nigerian history. Abiola went back to making money.

Later that year Sani Abacha forced out President Babangida and made himself head of state. At once he dissolved the federal parliament, the thirty state governments and all local councils, and declared all political parties illegal for the next two years. But at first there were some reasons to hope, as he promised an early return to democracy. Nigeria was then in a chaos of corruption. Inflation was wildly out of control, some $8 billion of oil revenue was lost (stolen) according to the central bank, the country was at least $8.4 billion in arrears in paying just the interest on its huge debt, and the international price of oil (which accounts for 98 percent of Nigeria's exports) was at a ten-year low.

Abacha's prescriptions provided no cure. The financial crisis worsened, and he began to exhibit more and more of the paranoia which eventually consumed him and the country. Unrest grew, but the opposition was split and weak. Trade unions, once very powerful, were diminished by increased unemployment and falling real wages as well as poor leadership. In stepped Moshood Abiola again. On the first anniversary of his canceled election win, he appeared before a large crowd in Lagos and declared himself president, head of the army and head of government. He was arrested and charged with treason. Nigeria's oil workers then went on strike demanding his release. Abacha resisted them. Twenty people were killed in riots in Lagos. Public shootings took place all over the country. Abiola remained in jail, mostly in solitary confinement. He was mistreated if not tortured. He already suffered from diabetes and a weak heart. He was never given adequate medical care. . Nigeria plunged to ever lower depths of corruption and misrule. In January 1995, Abacha announced there had been another coup attempt and he let loose hit squads. Eighty or more army officers were killed. One general, Lawan Gwadebe, who was alleged to be a ringleader of the alleged plot, was hung upside down, had his fingernails torn out and was smeared with excrement. c Then, in another snub at the opinion of the international community, Abacha arrested General Olusegun Obasanjo, head of state from 1976 to 1979 and the only military ruler ever to leave office voluntarily. He also intensified a campaign against the Ogoni tribe from southern Nigeria, which was protesting the exploitation of their land and resources by the Shell Oil Company. Protestors were shot or locked into detention camps, where the men were beaten and the women raped. General Obasanjo was sentenced to death along with many other senior former officials. Eventually most of these sentences were commuted to life imprisonment.

That October, Abacha announced a new three-year transition to civilian rule. But only a month later he committed the act which brought the furious condemnation of the outside world. He executed Ken Saro-wiwa, the Ogoni playwright and environmental activist, and eight other Ogoni activists. They had been tried on trumped-up charges of murdering their political opponents. Appeals for clemency came from all over the world, including from Boutros Boutros-Ghali and from the leaders of the Commonwealth, in particular South African president Nelson Mandela.

To show his contempt for outside opinion Abacha had the men executed while the Commonwealth heads of government were meeting in Audkland, New Zealand. As a result, Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth.

Abacha's brutality increased rather than diminished his sense of paranoia. Throughout 1995, 1996 and 1997 more military officers were dismissed or arrested on suspicion of disloyalty. Abacha spent much of his time secluded in the marble fortress he had built himself in the midst of the military complex of Aso Rock in the center of the new capital, Abuja. He trusted only the presidential guard; other brigades were deprived of ammunition so that they should not be threats. In December 1997, Abacha announced he had foiled another coup attempt, led by the deputy head of state, Lieutenant General Oladipo Diya, who, with eleven other officers, was arrested, tried, found guilty and sentenced to death.

Oddly enough, however, outside Nigeria, Abacha's rule had some good effects. In 1996, Nigeria brokered a peace agreement to end Liberia's appalling, nihilistic seven-year civil war. And in Sierra Leone, an intervention by ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, was led by Nigeria and proved vital in helping restore the democratically elected government and overthrowing the vicious rebel junta which specialized in cutting off the hands of peasants, though Nigeria suffered heavy casualties among its troops.

Many foreign interlocutors found Abacha reasonably pleasant to meet. He always asked after people's families, and he did not behave in a bombastic manner. He was deeply superstitious and spent a general's ransom scouring Africa for the best marabouts, or fortune tellers.

Abacha depended heavily on a small coterie of foreign businessmen who made fortunes during his regime and, in turn, serviced his needs. Those he favored had helped him accumulate a vast fortune abroad, said to be over $6 billion. There was a Lebanese "mafia" that is said to have made billions of dollars from its deals with the military. Its members would fly in and out of Abuja on private jets, bringing girls or whatever else Abacha and his cronies ordered. Other prostitutes came in on state aircraft including, I imagined, the one on which we were now flying.

Abacha functioned only at night. In the early hours the anterooms of the garishly marbled statehouse would be lined with cabinet ministers, senior civil servants, foreign officials and businessmen all waiting nervously for an audience with the dictator, who would very often be drunk and occupied with his imported prostitutes.

As we flew over the Sahara, Annan said he had been concerned about Nigeria since becoming secretary general. Realizing that Abacha was impervious to public criticism and deaf to public pleas, he had tried to deal with him quietly.

A few weeks after his appointment, in January 1997, Annan had flown to Lome, the capital of Togo, to take part in a mini-summit convened by President Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo on the Zaire crisis. At that time the rebels against Zaire's president, Mobutu Sese Seko, backed if not controlled by such neighboring countries as Rwanda and Uganda, were marching toward the capital, Kinshasa.

It was an odd encounter, Annan's first experience of President Eyadema's cult of "authenticity." "You go to these meetings," Annan said, "and the room is packed with more dancers and singers than delegates. Whenever the president speaks they get up and cheer and sing and dance, and cry that he is the greatest, and so on. The same thing happens for other speakers, too. So it takes a long time."

Sani Abacha was taking part in the Togo summit and Annan used the time to get into long discussions with him on the release of prisoners and the transition to democratic rule in Nigeria. I asked the secretary general what Abacha was like to deal with. He said he "was very mild mannered; you wouldn't think he had it in him to do all the things he had done. But then Saddam was equally calm, and so you wonder if their sensitivities get numbed."

With Abacha in Lome was General Abdulsalam Abubakar, an officer who had served with UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping force in South Lebanon. Annan thought him clearheaded; he spoke well and came across as a serious professional officer. When Abacha left the room, Annan told Abubakar that Nigeria had to break with the past, come back into the international community and play its role in Africa.

After that meeting in Lome, Annan took to telephoning Abacha at regular intervals to try to persuade him of the need to release prisoners. Abacha would speak to him always very late at night Nigerian time. "He used to say, 'Maybe next year,' and I would say, 'Next year is too late,' " Annan related.

When Annan asked for clemency for General Diya and the other officers sentenced to death with him, Abacha replied that clemency was a mistake. If he had not shown clemency to Obasanjo and others arrested in the last few years then General Diya might not have plotted against him. Annan hastened to assure him that leniency had been right.

By now it was dear that Abacha's plans for the transition from military to civilian rule were devised so that he could "succeed himself." The five presidential parties he had allowed to be created had all adopted him as their presidential candidate. He had weathered the visit of and protests by the pope. He had arrested more critics without problem. The country's oil, squandered though it was, still allowed him to ignore the world. But then, suddenly and unexpectedly, on June 8, Abacha died.

The next day General Abubakar was installed as president. Annan called to congratulate him. The secretary general had agreed with Abacha before his death that he should send his foreign minister, Tom Ikimi, to New York to discuss the release of political prisoners. He now suggested to Abubakar that Ikimi should still come. Abubakar agreed. Annan went to sign the condolence book at the Nigerian mission at the UN.

A week after Abacha's death Abubakar began to release political prisoners. In a television broadcast he asked Nigerians to "give peace a chance. There is no nation in the world that does not make mistakes. When such mistakes are made there is no use crying over spilt milk." In the outside world he was knocking at an open door. The West considered the stakes in Nigeria enormous.

On June 22 Tom Ikimi came to see Annan secretly at the secretary general's residence on Sutton Place. He was a changed man. Gone was the arrogant spokesman of the military who would lecture all critics on the need not to interfere in Nigeria's internal affairs. Ikimi was now almost meek. He said that Abubakar thanked the secretary general for the two phone calls he had made and noted that Annan had signed the condolence register at the permanent mission. The death of General Abacha had been a shock to the entire country whatever one may have thought of him as an individual. Annan said Abacha had played an important regional role. He had in mind the Nigerian army's intervention on the side of the elected government in Sierra Leone.

Ikimi said Abubakar felt the secretary general could help Nigeria put behind it the difficult experiences of the last three or four years. He wanted to use the "window" of General Abacha's death to resolve Nigeria's fundamental concerns. Nigeria took seriously the comments of those who said it should resume its rightful place in Africa and play a role in the world. General Abubakar, he said, was committed to a transition to democratic rule but had to engage in "consultations" before proceeding. But Abubakar wanted the secretary general's support for an extension-not to extend his time in power but to ease the transition.

Looming over everything was the question of Abiola. When and under what conditions should he be released? And what then? His supporters, mainly from the southwest of the country, insisted either that he should assume the presidency as soon as he was released or at the very least that he should head a government of national unity. But an Abiola-led government would be hard if not impossible for the military and the five political parties that had agreed to support Abacha's presidential candidacy on August 1 to accept.

Annan asked about a government of national unity involving Abiola. Ikimi thought the idea unrealistic.

No one knew what Abiola himself felt about it all. In 1995 he had turned down the offer of being released on bail on condition that he play no part in politics. One of the last people to see him in detention, his doctor, was quoted as saying that Abiola was singing religious songs to himself. Annan said that Abiola should be released as soon as possible. He said that General Abubakar had already generated quite a lot of goodwill. The Canadians, as head of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, were prepared to let bygones be bygones and work with him, and so was the United States. Ikimi said that if Annan went to Abuja to give Abubakar his blessing, Abiola would be released. Annan said that he wanted to help Nigeria's transition to democracy.

The foreign minister offered to send Annan a plane. We were now on it.

After about a six-hour flight from Vlenna, over the Mediterranean, Algeria and Niger, a country I had once crossed by car in search of the camel caravans which still carry salt across the desert, we arrived in Abuja, the purpose-built and thus rather aseptic capital in the center of Nigeria. On the usual airport red carpet Annan was met by Ikimi. Rather to Annan's surprise and the disappointment of some of his staff there were no press or television cameras at the airport-no one to whom he could read the statement which they had carefully prepared, stating that he was here to help the transition to democracy. There was then a forty-minute drive along good, wide empty roads into the town. In his suite Annan gathered his staff; they marveled at the low-key nature of their arrival. There were not even any messages from any leaders of civil society, heads of nongovernmental organizations or human rights groups. Annan said he wanted to be sure he saw such people, but he wanted to choose them himself, not have the government select them.

His principal objective was to promote "an early, credible and genuine return to civilian rule." He would ask the general how he planned to implement the commitment to return Nigeria to democracy, emphasize the importance of adhering to the October 1, 1998, transition date, encourage specific confidence-building measures and offer UN support for advancing these objectives.

Annan believed that Abiola's release posed a dilemma for Abubakar. If Abiola was to become a conduit for "people power," Abubakar might either repress it, which would damage his standing, or permit demonstrations, which would undermine his authority with the military. In any case there would be considerable legal grounds to say no to any move to make Abiola president at once, as his followers wished. The 1993 election, held under the 1989 constitution, had been annulled by decree before the final results could be tabulated or announced. The claim that Abiola was the winner was based on partial results. He had never taken the oath of office. Even if he had been elected and sworn in, his term of office would have ended in 1997. There was no legal, constitutional basis for declaring him president now. However, he should be released and allowed to play a part in the transition to democracy. Annan believed that if the military were to be persuaded to leave, some kind of protection had to be offered to them. The amnesty given to Chilean officers when the military relinquished power at the end of the 1980s offered a precedent.

Now in the gossipy atmosphere of Abuja, we began to hear more rumors about the circumstances of Abacha's death. Officially, he was said to have suffered a heart attack. Unofficially, Nigeria was alive with rumors that this attack was caused by overexertion in bed. Among the more lurid tales was that Abacha was on this occasion in bed with two women, one of whom ran screaming from the bedroom when he started having convulsions. There were other stories that he had taken an overdose of Viagra or that his Viagra had been laced. In early July one Nigerian magazine, Newswatch, reported that some of the rumors about Abacha's death "stretched the imagination quite a bit" and that his widow was sure that dose friends had killed her husband.

The New York Times subsequently reported that U.S. intelligence analysts thought there was evidence that Abacha was poisoned by enemies in the military elite while in the company of three prostitutes The Times reported that the poisoning might have been done by an officer or clique of officers "who believed that the general's hold on power was destroying what little good name the army had left " The cause of death was now less important than the effect. The end of Abacha had enabled Nigeria to come in from the cold.

The next morning Annan and his party were taken in a convoy of black Mercedes into the sprawling suburban fortress of Aso Rodk, Abacha's heavily fortified lair. Behind white walls in carefully manicured gardens where gazelles and ostriches grazed, a series of huge white hydraulic gates blocked the road against cars and attack by armored vehicles. While Abacha was alive the gardens were studded with tanks and armored personnel carriers. The gazelles and ostriches had shared the grounds with what seemed like legions of men in trench coats and dark glasses, toting submachine guns. They were gone now. The mood inside the complex was relatively relaxed.

In the center of the fortress was a low building, white and slightly Moorish on the outside, heavily and garishly marbled inside. Annan and his team of UN officials were brought through a group of Nigerian photographers into an extraordinary paneled council chamber where Annan and Abubakar sat on twin-throned leather chairs on a raised podium; Abubakar's people sat at a long desk running down one side of the room, Annan's on the other.

The first part of the meeting included senior military and police officers, secretaries of state and ambassadors. Nothing of interest was said. But when all the others were cleared out for the two principals to meet alone, the conversation was, said Annan later, "very frank." Annan became convinced that Abubakar was ready to hand over power, feeling that fate and historic accident had landed him in this job. The general said that only when he took over did he realize what a desperate situation Nigeria was in. The country was on the edge of explosion, he thought.

Annan asked Abubakar about his wife, a judge. Abubakar replied she was a judge, but there would have been an obvious conflict of interest so she had stepped down when he became president.

In the last three weeks Abubakar had consulted widely, with women's groups, trade unions, churches. Annan encouraged him to move fast; he told the general that he had done very well so far, and should now create a sense of momentum and inevitability. Abubakar said he was concerned that Nigerian civil society does not know what it wants. (But when does it ever? asked Annan later of his staff.)

Abubakar said he wanted to move ahead as soon as possible, but feared that October 1 would be too soon for credible elections. Annan responded that if he delayed them, he must set out clearly the reasons and establish a new timetable at once. The general said he was prepared to release Abiola, but only if he gave up his dreams of becoming president. If he would confirm in writing that he would renounce the mandate of 1993, he could be out tomorrow. Abubakar evidently hoped that Annan, the magician of the Iraq crisis, would try to persuade Abiola to do this. Annan said he hoped he could see Abiola quickly.

That evening Annan was secretly driven from the hotel back into Aso Rodk and led to a villa near the statehouse where he had seen Abubakar. There he found Abiola watching the World Cup quarterfinal between England and Argentina, but with the sound turned off.

Annan shook hands and asked about his health. Abiola said he was fine, despite his long incarceration. Then he asked, "Who are you?"

"I am Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations."

"What happened to the Egyptian?"

Annan explained that he had taken over as secretary general from Boutros Boutros-Ghali at the beginning of 1997. Abiola rushed toward him and kissed his hand. He said he had been told only that he was being brought to meet "an important person."

Abiola's isolation had been almost total. He did not know that the pope had recently visited Nigeria and pleaded in vain for his release. And it was only the day before that he had been told that Abacha had died of a heart attack in early June. Annan asked a security guard to turn up the sound on the television so that he and Abiola could talk with less risk of being overheard. The guard fiddled with the remote control; nothing happened and he said the set was faulty. (It turned out that this was not true.) Abiola told Annan that he had had no radio since the summer of 1994. He had seen no one in his family since 1995. His guards refused to talk to him, so long ago he had given up trying to find out from them what was going on in the world. AD he had to read were the Bible and the Koran. But he had been shown one newspaper story. It was about the death of one of his wives, Kudirat, who had campaigned for his release and was assassinated in 1996.

Annan asked Abiola what he would do if and when he was released. Would he claim the presidency as of right since 1993, and as many of his supporters demanded? Abiola said he had no such intention-that he knew the world had moved on since 1993. "I want to go to Mecca to give thanks for being alive," Abiola told Annan. "I do not have to be president to live my life." Annan was greatly encouraged, believing that he would be able to get Abiola quickly released.

Abiola astonished Annan. He seemed both humble and realistic despite his long and cruel isolation. But he did not want to make any commitments in writing at this stage. He said that if he signed anything rather than just give his word, he would be accused of cowardice "and I will be destroyed socially and politically. I'll become a leper." He said he would prefer to meet with Abubakar and give him the same assurance, on his word of honor, as he had given Annan.

The lobby of the Hilton began to fill with people eager to see Annan. His surprise arrival was greeted with enormous enthusiasm by opponents of the regime. Everyone he met-the fabulously costumed traditional rulers; leaders of nongovernmental organizations; Nigeria's former leader General Yakubu Gowon, who had defeated the 1967 Biafran rebellion and been generous in victory; newly released political prisoners-was elated by his presence.

Staying in the same hotel were President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone and President Charles Taylor of Liberia. They had been invited to a "mini-summit" by Abubakar, particularly to see if they could, with Annan's help, bring an end to Sierra Leone's civil war, in which Liberia was aiding the nihilistic rebels. It was easy for me to arrange to see Kabbah, who explained the difficulties of rebuilding his country while the terror wrought by the rebels persisted. When I went down the opposite corridor to try to ask for a meeting with Taylor, the way was barred abusively by the thugs with whom he surrounds himself. Taylor, unlike Kabbah, is intransigent. The "mini-summit" was unable to resolve the crisis.

By Thursday morning it seemed that Abubakar was unable or unwilling to release Abiola while Annan was in Nigeria. Annan had a final meeting with the general. "I told him that he should release all political prisoners, including Abiola, at once and that I was about to announce in public that I expected him to do so," Annan said to his staff. Then, at a parting press conference Annan said, 'A11 Nigerians insist on a return to democracy and . . . a peaceful, credible process leading to free and fair elections." He said that Abubakar had agreed to release all political prisoners, including Abiola, promptly. He revealed that Abiola had told him he would not seek the presidency as of right. In an oblique reference to some of Abiola's militant supporters, Annan said, "I found him in some ways more realistic than some of us outside."

We left Nigeria as we had arrived-on a Nigerian presidential jet-bound for Ghana, Annan's homeland. Half an hour into the flight, the plane shuddered and slowed as the flaps extended and stuck. The pilot rushed into the cabin and announced that we had to turn around at once and land again in Abuja as quickly as possible. Some members of the party were visibly anxious. Not Annan, who continued talking and reading. When the plane landed safely he said, "I often tell my wife I am a happy fool."

Not much worked under the Nigerian military, but they had made sure of their own comfort. Another executive jet was available within minutes to carry us on to Accra, Ghana, where a full dress guard was lined up to meet the country's most famous son. He was then driven to the beautiful but run-down fort on the ocean where President Jerry Rawlings has his domain. After a long talk with Rawlings, and a night at a government guesthouse, we left on the Nigerian jet for London, where Annan reported to the British foreign secretary, Robin Cook, on the partial success of his visit and his belief that Abubakar was committed to ending military rule. They also discussed the secret moves in which Annan had been involved to find an end to the UN's impasse with Libya over the Lockerbie bombing. Shortly afterwards the British and American governments announced that they would now accept what they had hitherto always refused- a trial under Scottish law in a third country, the Netherlands.

General Abubakar was not as prompt in releasing Abiola as he had given Annan to believe. A week later, on July 7, while Abiola, still imprisoned, was meeting with Thomas Pickering, the US. under secretary of state, he collapsed. Pickering attempted artificial resuscitation, but Abiola died. There were inevitable suspicions among his family and supporters that he had been murdered, perhaps by poison. An autopsy conducted by an international team of pathologists found that his death was, in fact, caused by heart disease. But conspiracy theories remained rife and led to riots in which scores of people died.

What was clear was that by their malign neglect of Abiola's medical condition his jailers had hastened his death. If General Abubakar had released him to Annan as he had indicated, Abiola would have had medical attention which might have identified the gravity of his condition. The good offices of the secretary general had not been used well enough.

In other respects, General Abubakar kept his promises in a remarkable manner. He was indeed a bridge to democracy. Assembly elections were held at the end of 1998, and in May 1999 presidential elections followed. They were won by former military ruler and former political prisoner Olusegun Obasanjo, and he was inaugurated president.

General Abubakar faded into the background a year after he had unexpectedly come to power and sought Annan's assistance. The days of roadblocks manned by soldiers with submachine guns demanding bribes, of coups and rumors of coups, of international sanctions and pariah status, were gone. Obasanjo began to attack corruption. Nigeria was accepted back into the world. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank resumed lending and the country was readmitted to the Commonwealth.

In June 1999, General Obasanjo became the first Nigerian leader in more than ten years to address the United Nations.

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