Sani Abacha was found dead on a chair with an inhaler for asthma on the floor, according Gidado Idris, who was secretary to the government of the federation when the former head of state died.
Idris died on Friday without writing his memoirs, but a revealing interview he granted Weekly Trust on his 80th birthday in 2015 has continued to provide valuable information on his distinguished civil service career.
Asked if he thought Abacha died a natural death or was eliminated, Idris replied: “The General was found on a chair with an inhaler for asthma on the floor. I never knew he was asthmatic until that day. When I met him two days before he died, he seemed normal even if he was coughing a bit. I knew he was ill, but I didn’t know what was wrong. I wouldn’t say he was targeted.”
He also said Jeremiah Useni, who was a lt. general, nominated himself to succeed Abacha because he was the highest ranking officer “politically” but Abdulsalami Abubakar, also a lt. general, was chosen despite opposition from a number of members of the Provisional Ruling Council (PRC), the highest government organ at the time.
After Abacha’s death, Idris presided over the council meeting that picked Abdulsalami as the new head of state.
He narrated to Weekly Trust: “It was the 8th of June, 1998, the day Sani Abacha died. Of course I didn’t know he had died until I got to the house. At about 8:00 am, I got a phone call from the Inspector-General of Police Ibrahim Coomassie and he told me that he wanted me there with them urgently at the Villa. I took breakfast and drove myself there at about 8:30 am. When I got to the gate, I was allowed to pass through but on getting to the main building, I was barred even though they knew I was the SGF.
“They told me that the meeting wasn’t taking place there. I then argued that I was told by the IG that the meeting was taking place inside the Villa but they insisted it was in the office and directed me there. On reaching the office, I met Lieutenant-General Abdulsalami Abubakar sitting and he asked why I was there and I told him I was invited by the IGP. He then told me he was invited too, and that was why he was waiting. Others came, as well.
“Then-Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant-General Ishaya Bamaiyi came in and asked me to go up and see if the head of state had come so that we could have the meeting. I did, but there wasn’t anyone, not even the soldier who intermittently checked on us. I came back and told them something strange is happening.
“Eventually, someone came and apologized for keeping us waiting. We were led into the house by Lieutenant-General Abubakar and taken to the sitting room where we usually sit with General Abacha. We did not see him, though they said the meeting was with him, instead we saw the first lady Maryam Abacha, Mohammed Abacha, Alhaji Gwarzo (national security adviser) and Buba Marwa (military governor of Lagos state). We sat down and then the shock came when Gwarzo said the reason why they had invited us was because the head of state died that morning. He added that Abacha’s body was upstairs and they were waiting for the Chief of Defence Staff to go and identify it. Just like that, out of the blue, we were told he’d died.”
He said he suspected something was amiss when there was so much delay, even though initially no such thoughts crossed his mind.
ABDULSALAMI’S ABORTED RETIREMENT
Idris recalled: “Every weekend, either Saturday or Sunday, I usually meet with the head of state. You know his death was announced on Monday. Now, the Thursday before the announcement, I was home when the Chief of Defense Staff, General Abubakar, came and said he wanted to say goodbye to me, that he was leaving for Minna. I asked him what was wrong and he asked if I was not aware that he was going to be retired on Monday. I thought he was joking. He added that the Chief of Army Staff and the Chief of Air Staff would all be retired on Monday, too.
“He then told me that rather than being disgraced, he had packed up his things and he was leaving immediately so that they could announce his retirement on Monday while he was home in Minna. I then advised him not to behave that way, as a general. I told him that it was a Thursday and we still had some days before Monday and that I was going to see the Head of State on Saturday and find out what the problem was.
“I then pleaded with him with the name of God to return to his home and after some time he obliged. So he did not go to Minna. I tried to find out what being discussed in the house, but I really didn’t get anything from anyone. I found it unusual and when I had a meeting with General Abacha, I couldn’t extract any information.”
The former SGF, who schooled at the University of Leeds, UK, and joined the civil service before Nigeria’s independence in 1960, also gave details of the drama that went into appointing Abacha’s successor.
“When we came down, we sat as we didn’t know what to do and some of the workers asked what the next step should be. I then said the next step is the announcement of his death. And we couldn’t do that without telling Nigerians who would step into his position because this was sort of new. And I said, I didn’t know how to go about it. I then said as far as I know, we did not have a problem with who will step into his position,” he said.
“Normally, we have a number 1, 2 and 3. In an instance where there is no number one, number two will step in. I said that we have a situation because we did not have a number one as we had just lost him and we did not have a number two as Diya was in jail but we have a number three, which is General Abubakar. He was very reluctant, and said ‘SGF, I do not agree with you’ and asked if I could organize a meeting of the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) by 1:00 pm that same day. I said I would try.
“I got all the aircraft, all the pilots and in any case the only people who would be coming from outside Abuja were people from Lagos and Enugu. The ones from Kaduna normally preferred to drive. And you know military men have their way of doing things, so by 1:00 pm they were all there.
“Before then I had anticipated everything that would happen and had already prepared the oath of office for the new Head of State. I then summoned Chief Justice Mohammed Uwais and explained to him what he needed to do with the oath of office, so he went and dressed up for the task ahead.
“By 1:00 pm we were all there, seated and I told Lieutenant-General Abubakar, who was also to preside over the meeting, to go and welcome them, which he did. He then told them the situation at hand and that the next step to take was to produce a new head of state and that it had to be done immediately because the body of the late head of state was still upstairs and had not been buried. So we started the meeting immediately. Lieutenant-General Jeremiah T. Useni was there and he spoke first. By the time we got halfway into the meeting at about 5:00 pm, only half of the members of the council had spoken.”
HONOURING THE DEAD
Not everybody was sold on the succession drama, though. One of the generals was actually unhappy that Abacha’s body was still upstairs while all these discussions were going on.
Idris said: “Brigadier-General Bashir S. Magashi questioned why the body of the former head of state was being treated with disrespect. He was furious that time was fast going and he hadn’t been buried yet. That got me thinking and I felt that there must be some kind of conspiracy going on. I then went to Lieutenant-General Ishaya Bamaiyi and asked to see him for a few minutes and I asked him if it was possible for us to quickly fly to Kano and bury him then come back and finish the meeting. He then asked if the body was prepared for burial and I said I would check. I did and I was told from inside the house that it was ready.
“I then arranged for two aircraft, one to take his body and a few of us and the others to bring other members of the AFRC. Military men being who they are, were very fast about it and after ten minutes I was told that they were ready to receive us at the airport. So I called Al-Mustapha and told him that we would go to Kano and bury the head of state first and come back for the meeting.
“We reached Kano and quickly did the burial and by 1:00 am we were back in Abuja. From the airport we went straight to the council chamber to finish our meeting. We had earlier done more than half of it, so it was easier finishing. The Chief of Army Staff, Bamaiyi, was the last person to speak and he asked why we were wasting time and said by tradition we have got two hierarchies, political and military. He said Useni had already spoken and he said if we go by hierarchy, he was the highest military officer today to take over from Abacha, but he quickly added that he was prepared to abide by whatever decision the council ruled.
“He recommended that we appoint Abubakar as the new head of state. As he was a Lieutenant-General, Useni also recommended Abubakar’s promotion to a full general with immediate effect. He immediately got up and saluted General Abubakar. All I did was to ask Justice Uwais to administer the oath of office and allegiance to him. I took him to the office, opened it, set the chair for him and he sat down and that was how he assumed his status as head of state.
“Of course there was opposition at the end. The most senior officers in the army then didn’t want Abdulsalami to succeed Abacha. But with the persuasion of Bamaiyi, everyone came on board. Contrary to what many people feel and think about Bamaiyi, he saved the day.”
Idris, meanwhile, could have been a prophet — and a successful one at that.
He recalled a particular encounter in which he predicted, even if jokingly, that Abacha would rule Nigeria someday.
He recounted: “I was lucky Sani Abacha was my friend. We were very close since when he was a Major in Kaduna. We played tennis together at the Kaduna Club, with General Buhari, late Shehu Yar’adua and General T.Y Danjuma.
“We once shared a joke, which oddly enough became reality: One day, at the Kaduna Club, after tennis, we were talking and I said ‘Sani, the way I see you, you look like somebody who would one day stage a coup and become head of state. I want you to remember me when you eventually become head of state.’ We were just joking, but here we are today.”
On October 17, 1995, Abacha appointed Idris as SGF, a position he held till May 28, 1999 when Nigeria returned to civil rule.
Idris, who served as private secretary to Ahmadu Bello when he was premier of northern region, was permanent secretary in Kaduna state from 1971 to 1975, secretary of the constitution drafting committee in 1975, secretary of the constituent assembly that produced the 1979 constitution and clerk of the national assembly in 1979.
He was at various times secretary and director of administration of the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Affairs in Kuru, permanent secretary, ministry of police affairs, chairman of Productivity, Prices and Income board, permanent secretary ministry of aviation and permanent secretary ministry of finance.
Idris, though originally from Zaria, Kaduna state, was buried in Abuja on Saturday.