Abubakar, Abdulsalami 1942–
Abdulsalami Abubakar 1942–
In the late 1990s Abdulsalami Abubakar briefly served as president of Nigeria and helped lead his country out of a troubled period of military rule and horrific human rights violations. To many in the international community, the man who had spent his career with the Nigerian Air Force seemed an unlikely harbinger for the restoration of democracy, but Abubakar proved worthy of the task. "Thrust suddenly under the world's gaze was a tall, stocky figure who seemed, with his nervous demeanor and owlish eyeglasses, something like a startled night creature caught in broad daylight,” wrote James Walsh for Time International. However, Walsh noted, the veteran military officer "surprised just about everyone by pledging one reform after another and, more important, keeping his word."
Abubakar was born on June 13, 1942, in Minna, the provincial capital of the Niger state in Nigeria, and was educated at the Government College not far from his home. During his time there, Nigeria achieved its independence from Britain and became the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 1960. In 1963 Abubakar joined the ranks of the newly sovereign nation's military forces as a candidate in the officer training program of the Nigerian Air Force. He trained at a flight school in Germany, was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1967, and served in Lebanon as part of a United Nations peace-keeping force. By the time he reached the rank of major-general in 1991, Nigeria had been plagued by years of unrest, including a brutal civil war and a series of coups. In 1985 a bloodless coup placed Major-General Ibrahim Babangida in charge, who was both a personal friend and neighbor of Abubakar's. Babangida promised reform, but an even worse period of political repression began for the country. Finally, in the late spring of 1993 Babangida permitted elections, and a business leader named Moshood Abiola was believed to have won at the polls on June 12. However, Babangida's government refused to release the final tally, and courts beholden to Babangida annulled the elections. Rioting followed, and in November of 1993 General Sani Abacha, the country's defense minister, took control of the government.
General Abacha established the Provisional Ruling Council (PRC), which permitted him dictatorial powers, and all political activity was banned. When supporters of Abiola conducted a symbolic inauguration ceremony for the putative leader on the first anniversary of the annulled elections, the thwarted candidate was jailed for his part in the action. Over the next four years Nigeria suffered under serious human rights violations, including the death of the famed author and dissident Ken Saro-Wiwa. Meanwhile, Abubakar had become Nigeria's defense chief of staff and was given a seat on the PRC.
Legislative elections held in April of 1998 were considered so transparently undemocratic that most Nigerians boycotted them, and plans were made to boycott the presidential elections after General Abacha became the candidate for each of the five parties that had been allowed a spot on the ballot. Fate intervened in Nigeria's descent into permanent authoritarianism, however, when General Abacha died of a heart attack on June 8, 1998. The PRC met and selected Abubakar as the head of state. There were rumors that he had been reluctant to accept the job, and his appointment even startled members of the international community, for he "was long reputed to be a prim professional among Nigeria's politicized and immensely rich generals,” noted New York Times correspondent Howard W. French.
A few days later the anniversary protests of June 12 loomed again, and, as expected, Nigeria's military responded with force and arrests. The prisoners were released a day later, however, and within a week even more detainees were freed. There was also talk in the Nigerian capital of Abuja that Abiola would be released and allowed to lead a new government. Abubakar met with supporters of Abiola and representatives of other groups that called for the restoration of democracy, and discussed the possible transfer of power; it was reported that Abubakar hoped to ensure that Nigeria's military officials would not be targeted by a new government determined to avenge the wrongs of the past five years.
Another stunning turn of events came less than a month after Abubakar assumed office, when on July 7 Abiola collapsed in his jail cell. He was taken to a hospital and died the next day. In the absence of concrete evidence to the contrary—combined with a lack of reliable media sources—foul play was immediately suspected and rioting erupted in several Nigerian cities. Again, Abubakar surprised many by announcing that an independent autopsy would be conducted; the team of international investigators found no foul play and judged that Abiola had died of a heart attack.
Abubakar continued to surprise Nigerians long used to abuses of power at the highest levels of government by releasing the twenty activists who had been detained with Saro-Wiwa. On July 20 he appeared on national television to outline a schedule for the transition to civilian and democratic rule. "Nigerians want nothing less than true democracy in a united and peaceful country,” a report in the British newspaper the Independent quoted him as saying in the broadcast. He also said there would be no interim transition period, either, citing previous attempts that were plagued by political gamesmanship as outgoing officials moved to retain power. "This administration has no desire to succeed itself, and is steadfastly committed to hand over to a democratically elected government,” he noted, according to the Independent.
Over the next ten months Abubakar's government instigated a legal case against the estate of General Abacha and managed to reclaim a much-needed $750 million that had been pilfered from the national treasury. In February of 1999 parliamentary elections were held, and international observers were permitted at polling stations and judged the process to have been fair and free. A week later Nigerians returned to the polls to cast their vote in the presidential race, and Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military officer, was elected. Abubakar stepped down from office on May 29, 1999. Married and the father of six, he went on to a distinguished diplomatic career as a chief mediator for the Economic Community of West African States and was instrumental in helping resolve the long-running crisis in Liberia.
At a Glance …
Born Abdulsalami Alhaji Abubakar on June 13, 1942, in Minna, Nigeria; married Fati; six children. Education: Attended Government College at Bida, 1957-62; Kaduna Technical College after 1963; trained at a flight school in Germany, 1964-66, and again at a U.S. military base.
Career: Entered officer training program of the Nigerian Air Force, 1963; commissioned as a second lieutenant, 1967; achieved rank of major-general in October 1991 and named defense chief of staff; appointed member of Nigeria's Provisional Ruling Council, and head of state, June 1998-May 1999; Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), chief mediator for the Liberian crisis, c. 2003-05.
Addresses: Office—ECOWAS, 101, Yakubu Gowon Crescent, Asokoro District P.M.B. 401, Abuja, Nigeria.
Economist, June 13, 1998.
Guardian (London, England), July 4, 1998.
Independent (London), July 7, 1998; July 21, 1998.
New York Times, June 9, 1998; June 17, 1998.
Time International, December 28, 1998.
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Abubakar, Abdulsalami 1942–