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Abdulsalami : How I was kept waiting after Abacha’s death, opens up on Abiola’s demise



Former military head of state, General Abdulsalami Abubakar (rtd), has narrated how he was kept waiting for several minutes following the death of ex-Nigerian military leader, General Sani Abacha.

Abdulsalami said he was kept in the dark that the military ruler had passed until he was informed by Ibrahim Coomassie.

Speaking in an interview with Trust TV, the Niger State-born Abdulsalami also debunked reports in some quarters that the winner of the 1993 presidential election, MKO Abiola, was killed by agents of his government.

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Asked on what really transpired on the day Abacha’s died, he said, “A lot happened the day General Abacha passed away. He died I think the day he was to travel to Togo for, I think, the ECOWAs or AU summit.

“Now I got a call from the Villa that General Abacha wanted to see me. So, immediately what came to my mind, I said; I hope he had not changed his mind about going to this Togo and was going to send me because at that time when he passed away, already I was the de facto number two man because at that time General Diya and others were having problem on this alleged coup.

“So I suspected that the General had changed his mind and he was going to send me because in a lot of times, I am called upon to go and represent the head of state.

“So I took my time, when I went to the bathroom and I told my wife, “look I think I might be going to this AU Summit, so help me prepare my bag” but before I finished then there was another call.

“Then there was another call; “look the president is waiting for you,” I said “okay I am coming”.

“So I casually put on my tracksuit since there was no time to dress in uniform and so on, since there was agitation that I was wanted immediately.

“So I came with my tracksuit, I think I was even wearing slippers. When I entered they said, “General is in the office”; so naturally when I come to the office, no matter who was with General Abacha I normally just go in and meet him and maybe he would say “Okay, wait, let me finish with this gentleman or he will ask the fellow to give us chance”.

“To my surprise when I came, as I was climbing the steps, somebody said “No, he said you have to wait in the waiting room”.

“To my surprise, I was in the waiting room for over 30, 40 minutes, then I kept wondering what was happening. Any time I wanted to go up, they said no, the General said I should wait.

“So after about 40 minutes waiting, then Late Coomassie, (Ibrahim Coomassie), who was the inspector general of police came to where I was sitting and he said “Please come”. Instead of going up to the office, we followed out, he said “No, we are going to the house”.

“It was in that process he told me, “Look, unfortunately General Abacha has passed on in the night”. So that was how we went to the villa where General Abacha was living and as we entered, they showed me on the right where his corpse was, so I entered and prayed for his soul and so on.

“Then we entered the parlour where I found some gentlemen including I think…Coomassie of course was there then the chief justice of the federation, I think Ambassador Babagana Kingibe and one or two security operatives, I can’t remember everybody.

“Was it clear this was just natural death because as you know there was a lot of speculation.

“Well at that time I was told he passed away and so on and at that time all these speculations did not arise until later on. All we were concerned was that okay, that the head of state has passed on, how do we now break the news to the country and so on and so forth.

“We were guided by the then chief justice of the federation saying that “Look, so much as there is the need to inform Nigerians about the passing away of the head of state, you cannot leave a vacuum, there must be a substantive head of state before you can go ahead with other things”. So I think that set up the chain of events.

“So immediately, as the chief of defence staff then, I quickly summoned for the council of state meeting.

“I was still in my tracksuit because there was no time, because it was really a shocking and devastating period we found ourselves. So it was later when we set up the meeting, that I had to go home and really get properly dressed.

“So now when I came back well dressed, by that time members of the military ruling council had started arriving, when we all assembled then we went to the meeting. Of all course we had to break the news although it had become a common knowledge between the members that his Excellency General Abacha had passed on.

“We had to tell the council of his demise and the advice given by the chief justice of the federation, that before we did anything there must be somebody to take over, so that he is in charge.

“It took time before the members of the council of state arrived. Of course in the chamber, there was a lot of interactions. Finally it was decided that okay we had General Useini who was then the most senior officer, so to speak, but he was in the administration, he was then minister of FCT and I was the chief of defence staff, so the issue was one of us should emerge as the head of state.

“There was a stalemate in the discussion, somebody raised an issue, “Look, we should tell the world General Abacha has passed on, before it was too late, let’s please go and bury the gentleman before we come back and sort out ourselves”.

“Meanwhile as all this was going on, it was decided by the family he was going to be buried in Kano and while we were still talking, arrangements were being made for his burial in Kano. So I think this took us to night time, when we all then decided, okay, let’s leave this and then go and bury him and come back and this was what happened.

“So we went to Kano and buried him and came back and resumed the issue of who will take over. Of course as the chief of defence staff, I was presiding on the meeting; so finally after votes and so on, the council members decided that I take over as the head of state.”

Asked on his alleged involvement in the death of Abiola, the retired General dismissed such reports as untrue.

His words: “There were lots of allegations here and there that we killed Abiola. As always when I am talking about late Abiola, I still thank God for directing me on things to do when he gave me the leadership of this country.

“On the day Moshood (Abiola) passed away, may he rest in peace, two to three things make me always say I thank my God for the guidance He gave me. One was I received a delegation from America headed by Pickering (Ambassador Tom Pickering) who was then, I think, the secretary of state or so. In his team I remember very well, was Susan Rice. I remember her very well because of the role she played later.

“So after the normal courtesy and discussion we had, when they were leaving my office, Pickering said “Your Excellency we made a request to see Moshood Abiola but we were denied”, so I said “Why were you denied? who denied you?” There and then I made a decision, I said “Look, you will see Moshood definitely, I overruled whoever said you cannot see him”. So I now called my chief security officer, I said “Please make arrangement for this team to see Abiola,” that is one point.

“Now during the incarceration of Moshood Abiola, except his personal doctor, to my knowledge, no member of his family saw him. So when I became head of state, based on consultation and interaction together with Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, I gave the family a date that they could come and see him.

“So a day before he died, his family came to Abuja to see him. For one reason or the other, the whole family could not see him at the same time, so it was agreed that when this group of his family will see him today, tomorrow the next team will see him. So they saw him like yesterday, now this team from US came to see me and I said they could see him. Normally it was in the evenings the family go and see him. So because I had authorized the American team to see him, so the other part of the family were waiting to see him.

“So, it was at this meeting when the American team was meeting Abiola he fell sick and suddenly the security officers called the medical team to come and attend to him, and when they saw the situation they said it was severe and they needed to take him to the medical centre. So it was the medical team plus the American team that took him to the medical centre, unfortunately at the medical centre he gave up.

“Then my security chief called and said “I have bad news for you”, I asked what it was, he said “Abiola is dead”. I was shocked. He told me he was there with the American team, at that time I was staying in the barracks, I had not moved to the villa, so I said okay, let him take the American team to my house, I will meet them at the house; so I closed from the office, and went there.

“The issue now was how do I break the news to Abiola’s family and how do we tell the world Abiola had passed on. I must be thankful to God and again to Ambassador Kingibe because we called on him and asked him to bring the family of Abiola. So when they came I broke the news, that unfortunately this is what has happened.

“As you would expect, the family broke down and they started crying, I can’t remember which of the ladies, I held her, she was crying, sobbing, it was then Susan Rice, that is why I always remember her, said “Mr President that is not your job, let me do it”, so she now held this lady until she settled down and she calmed down a little bit. Then we had to summon my second in command and other people and then strategized on how to break the news.

“That is why I always say I thank my God for guiding me, if I hadn’t said the American team should go and meet Abiola certainly I don’t know how I would explain to the world that Abiola had died, and the American team will they believe me that we had not killed Abiola at that time when they were requesting to see him?”


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