Welcome death of a Great African Dictator

Abacha was different. Immediately it became apparent that he was a sadist, a psychopath and a control freak
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The Independent Culture
MOST NIGERIANS are overjoyed. All over the world, we are celebrating the sudden death on Monday of our president, General Sani Abacha.

He died young, in his prime. He was 54 and looked 45. Many of us gloomily assumed that he'd be around, making our lives a complete misery, for another decade at least. Many of those who actively opposed Abacha were regarded as heroes. But it was widely believed that they didn't stand a chance of getting rid of him.

And then a heart attack struck the Great African Dictator, out of the blue. Sure, there had been rumours about his health for ages. But nobody seriously believed that he'd croak this side of the millennium. And we simply cannot believe our luck.

Depressions have lifted. Champagne corks have been opened. Parties have been thrown. More are planned. If I was Mrs Abacha, I'd conceal the exact whereabouts of the grave - because there is a possibility that pilgrims will dance or spit on it.

Yes, it is unseemly and ghoulish - shameful and evil, even - to rejoice when any man dies. But, hell, we're only human. And, as Abacha himself proved, there is a dark side to human nature.

General Sani Abacha was, by far, the worst president Nigeria ever had, and that's saying something in a country which has been dominated by a series of military bootboys since it broke away from British colonial rule in 1960.

When Abacha grabbed the reins of power in 1993, some Nigerians were delighted because he had toppled a despised regime and was making altruistic noises. He said that he wouldn't stick around for long. He would just keep the throne warm until the country had prepared itself for the transition to democracy.

Supporters of MKO Abiola - a sociable, kind, clever millionaire whose presidential election victory had been annulled by Abacha's predecessors - felt that they had cause for optimism.

I was, in 1993 - and still am, in 1998 - a supporter of Abiola. And I'd have liked to believe that Abacha was capable of giving Abiola his due. But since Abiola was a taciturn, tight-lipped soldier with chilling, unsmiling eyes and access to lots and lots of tanks and truckloads of guns, I couldn't understand why so many people took his democratic promises seriously.

Abacha didn't strike me as the pluralistic type who would care about popularity and willingly step down for anybody. I expected him to cling to power for as long as he could.

He turned out to be much, much worse. I hate to sound as if fascism is remotely acceptable. But you have to put things into perspective, and, if the truth be told, until Abacha came along, Nigerian dictators had never been quite so thorough.

Sure, they were allergic to elections and the rule of law. Sure, they harassed their enemies. Sure, they weren't intellectuals with a firm grasp of economic theory. Sure, they looted the Treasury and enriched their relatives and strumpets. Sure, they were so amazingly vulgar that it was hard to believe that many of them had been trained at Sandhurst.

But, during the pre-Abacha era, most Nigerians never felt truly oppressed. Nigeria never felt like Chile under General Pinochet or Uganda under General Idi Amin. Government critics didn't mysteriously disappear in the middle of the night. Journalists generally got away with whinging. And it was fine to make rude remarks about the authorities over a few beers in your favourite bar.

Until Abacha, Nigerian dictators were more laid-back than their counterparts in other countries, and some attracted genuine affection and respect.

Murtala Muhammed is remembered as a reformer. Gowon and Babangida were frequently described as nice guys, because they rarely resorted to cruelty, and tried hard to be genial and were almost democratic in their desire to be liked.

Abacha was different.

Almost immediately, it became apparent that he was a sadist, psychopath and control freak. He took pleasure in humiliating, hurting and killing people. He had no conscience and never expressed remorse or guilt. He never listened to advice or reason. He had no real friends and hardly ever left his presidential fortress.

When he sentenced Ken Saro-Wiwa - the Ogoni writer and activist - to death after a kangaroo court hearing, the world was shocked. Africans often (unreasonably, in my opinion) resent "imperialistic" and "sanctimonious" interventions from Europeans.

But this wasn't just a case of a whole bunch of patronising white folk telling Abacha what to do. Other African leaders condemned him. Nelson Mandela - a black icon - begged him to reconsider the terrible fate he planned for Ken.

Abacha was unmoved. While Mandela and other leaders were debating the issue at the Commonwealth Conference in New Zealand, Abacha hanged Ken, who had not been allowed to appeal against his sentence.

Abacha also ignored the Pope's request for the release of political prisoners. No wonder some people see his demise as his punishment from the Almighty.

Abacha did something no other Nigerian dictator has ever wanted to do. He frightened the hell out of Nigerians, who are notoriously noisy, irreverent, arrogant and uncrushable. He made us wear badges with his nasty little face on it.

When I went home at Christmas, everybody was talking about him in hushed tones. Critics looked over their shoulders nervously. Many gushed about the Great Leader's magnificence, refusing to meet your eye as they lied through their teeth.

It was like living in Big Brotherland. Now that he's dead, we are like delirious victims of post-dictator syndrome. Street vendors are giving away food for nothing. We have been holding our breaths for too long. Now we can exhale, with enormous relief, and echo the words of Martin Luther King: "Free at last, free at last, thank God we are free at last."

At long last, we've got our country back. Of course, utter chaos may ensue. And maybe Abacha's successor will not be a barrel of laughs.

But I stubbornly maintain, nobody could be as bad as Abacha. And I look forward to a brighter future for Nigeria.

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