Remember Abacha and reject poverty

Sani Abacha. Photo: All Africa

“In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of.” —Confucius

I had a relatively happy, middle class childhood. People complained about “country no good no more, country hard”, but for us, that was a world away, until the dark goggled one came. I was 13 at the time, and I was old enough to understand what was happening. I remember very clearly, the first time he faced us on our television screens. I remember my parents getting visibly poorer.

Soon after the five existing political parties at the time, “five fingers of a leprous hand” as someone famously called them, endorsed the dark goggled one. The same man, who no one could see, found validation, because people just wanted something to eat, and the surest way of getting that something was to be friendly with those close to power. I have been reading, with horror, supporters of the current government, not only glorifying the Abacha era, but implying that Nigeria needs a “poverty reset.” One of them went so far as to say that “as a nation we are being weaned off our excesses” and that “must we eat rice”, and that “16 years of PDP created a culture of waste of resources.”

Some months ago, a government functionary told me that Nigeria was better before the PDP came to office in 1999, as in his words, “a 50kg bag of rice was N2,500, petrol cost ₦11 per litre, $1 exchanged for N20, a bag of cement cost N400, there was no Boko Haram, there were no armed bandits, and the people of Odi and Zaki Biam were living happily.” My problem with this line of reasoning is that it attempts to whitewash our fairly recent history, and presents the era, just before the return to civilian rule, as some sort of El Dorado.

Under Abacha’s regime, human rights abuses in Nigeria were at an all-time high. It was Abacha who had Ken Saro-Wiwa and others executed on trumped up charges. I will never forget what happened after Dr. Dimowo, ASUU chairman in UNIBEN at the time, criticised the government. We came home from church the next Sunday to find that the SSS had showed up at Dimowo’s house, arrested him, kicked his family out, and sealed the building. It was raining heavily. Dimowo and family lived in B56, we lived in B57. The SSS goons did not let us provide them shelter.

Given that foreign reserves are a weapon of choice, it is worth noting that Abacha left our foreign reserves at $3.7 billion, and the “16 wasteful years of PDP” gave the current government foreign reserves of $30 billion, $2 billion in the Excess Crude Account, and $1.5 billion in the Sovereign Wealth Fund, the last two which did not exist when Obasanjo took the oath of office in 1999. Parallel USD/NGN rates under Abacha for each year of his reign were₦N21.9/$, N56.8/$, N71.7/$, N84.58/$, N84.58/$, and N84.7/$. I think it is quite wacky when people tout the artificial exchange rate that Abacha enforced for five years, because that fake exchange rate created arbitrage opportunities, of the type that we did not see again until now.

The cost of living kept rising under Abacha and things got worse for the average Nigerian. Inflation per year under Abacha was 57.2%, 57%, 72.8%, 29.3%, 8.5%, and 10%. For those who will say “it improved in the latter years”, I will encourage you to read about base effect. GDP growth per year under Abacha was 0.43%, 0.91%, -0.31%, 2.8%, 2.72%, and 0.47% for each year of his reign. A report by the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, released on 30 January, 1998, showed that Nigeria’s per capita income was $260! 71 cents per day! Per capita income is the average income earned by each individual in a given country in a specified year. The average Nigerian earned the equivalent of ₦93,080 in the entire year of 1997!

How is that “strengthening of character”?
Life in Nigeria under Abacha was brutish, unless you had a direct connection to those in power. Those were my growing up years and I remember those years very vividly. Those were years that people could not afford kerosene, and had to use sawdust stoves. Since 2015, salaries have not gone up, but the naira has lost half its value, and inflation has been double digits. The middle class has thinned out. Every one of you reading this now have more people calling you to beg for money, so what are we weaning people off?

What is this utter disregard that justifies the non-delivery of progress to the people?
Only recently, Bobrisky was videoed donating a load of money to a mosque, with the Imam singing his praises. That singular incident proved what I always say, “In Nigeria, the only crime is to be poor.”

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ASUUBoko Haram
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