December 21, 1997, marked the day the Deputy Head of State, Lieutenant-General Oladipo Diya, Major-General Tunji Olanrewaju, Major-General Abdulkareem Adisa, and eight others had been arrested over an alleged coup plot without a piece of solid evidence under General Sanni Abacha’s military regime (UN, May 1, 1998; NYT, Dec 22, 1997; IPS, Dec 22, 1997).
The two major-generals had both been Ministers under that very government. Also, all but one had been army officers– Professor Femi Odekunle, Diya’s political advisor (UN, May 1, 1998; IPS, Dec 22, 1997). Only two of them weren’t from the Yoruba ethnic group (ibid.). After the original eleven arrests, by the middle of January, over sixty more people had been arrested (UN, May 1, 1998).
In Nigeria, coups were very common. In fact, Gen. Sanni Abacha had ousted the interim President, Chief Shonekan with the palace coup (“Sani Abacha,” n.d.; NW, July 26, 2007). The alleged 1997 coup, however, was not the first alleged coup against Gen. Sanni’s government. The alleged 1995 coup which involved the former head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo, and many others was the first. They had been arrested, tried, and even sentenced to death, but with international outcries, the sentences had been commuted to long jail terms ( IPS, Dec 22, 1997; UN, Jan 1, 1996; BBC News, Feb 14, 1998).
• Circumstances surrounding the alleged coup.
As mentioned earlier, the alleged 1997 coup had no concrete basis. According to multiple studies, it might have been a ploy by Gen. Sanni Abacha to achieve different purposes.
One, to ensure his smooth transition from the military (Head of State) to the democratic government (President), keeping in mind that Moshood K.O. Abiola from the Yoruba ethnic group was the acclaimed winner of the June 12, 1993 election. M.K.O. had been jailed without trial, also under Gen. Sanni Abacha’s government (ibid.; NHC, March 2008). The transition to be the next President on Gen. Sanni’s part would have been met with oppositions from the Yorubas.
Diya had been said to be deliberately silent on the issue of Abacha’s presidential aspirations which Inter Press Service described as “disloyalty”, as probably seen by his boss, Abacha (Dec 22, 1997; UN, May 1, 1998). The alleged coup might have been set up to wipe out the Southerners that could have been a hindrance to his plans.
Major-General Shehu Musa Yar’adua, former Chief of Staff during Olusegun Obasanjo’s regime had also been jailed in relation to the alleged 1995 coup and had died on December 8, 1997, while still serving his life sentence ( M&G, Dec 12, 1997; University of Pennsylvania-ASC, Jan 7, 1998). “The death of this eminent northerner had embarrassed Abacha, angered the northerners, and reportedly split the northern solidarity. There is speculation that Abacha, himself a northerner, may have used the alleged coup plot as a ploy to regain the support of northerners” (UN, May 1, 1998, para. 4).
The New African Magazine as cited by the UN reports the insiders as saying that “Abacha had to concoct a coup attempt led by ‘Southern’ Yoruba officers to make it appear as if the South was out to get the north … out of power” (ibid., para 4). Inter Press Service mentioned Abacha’s health as a challenge, and that if he should die, Diya, a Southerner would have become the next Head of State (Dec 22, 1997). This unsettled the northerners and was yet another reason for the ploy.
On December 13, 1997, “Diya had allegedly narrowly missed becoming the victim of a bomb explosion at Abuja Airport when he was on his way to represent President Abacha at the funeral of the mother of Major-General Lawrence Onoja in Benue state” and hence unlikely for him to start the coup the following week as alleged (ibid.; UN, May 1, 1998, para. 2;).
• Trials and Penalty.
“A 12-person military board was established and charged with questioning the suspects and making recommendations to the government within four weeks as to which suspects should be charged. The board was headed by Major-General Chris Abutu Garuba, a well-respected officer” (ibid., para. 3). Next, the trials began– “the federal government of Nigeria (FGN) led by general Abacha commissioned a panel of seven military officers headed by general Malu” (“Victor Malu Military Tribunal,” n.d.). Undocumented sources have it that the panel was named the Okuta (stone) panel.
The trials began on the weekend of 14 February and lasted for two months as mentioned by many sources, and the sentences were; death penalty– firing squad for six of them including Lieutenant Diya, the two Major-Generals, and a civilian– was issued on April 28, 1998 (ibid.; “Abdulkareem Adisa,” n.d.;” Oladipo Diya,” n.d.; BBC News, February 14, 1998; LAT; NYT; GW, April 29, 1998; UN, May 1, 1998).
Los Angeles Times reported Malu saying, “four people were sentenced to life imprisonment for participating in the plot and that 14 were released. The rest were sentenced to terms of between two and 14 years” (April 29, 1998).
• Abacha’s death.
Here is the point that makes the alleged 1997 coup intriguing, the twist of fate. Gen. Sanni Abacha died on June 8, 1998. However, the prosecution of the alleged ‘coup plotters’ through the firing squad should have been on the next day. “In June 1998, he was on death row when Abacha died suddenly” (“Abdulkareem Adisa,” n.d., para.6).
“On 3 March 1999, Major General Oladipo Diya, who had been sentenced to death, but whose sentence was later commuted to a 25-year jail term, and his colleagues were reportedly released after General Abdulsalam Abubakar granted them amnesty” (UN, April 1, 1999, para.1, The Guardian, March 5, 1999).
“A 9 March 1999 P.M. News report corroborated the release adding that Major General Diya, and his colleagues including… , were not only released but henceforth dismissed from the service, stripped of their ranks, and reportedly prohibited from using their military titles”(ibid., para.2).
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- United Nations (UN). (Jan 1, 1996).Nigeria: Information on a March 1995 coup attempt by the military, including who was involved and what happened to them and to their families. Retrieved from: https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6ad8824.html
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- University of Pennsylvania- African Studies Center (ASC). (Jan 7, 1998).
Nigeria: Civil Liberties Organization, 1/2, 1/7/98. Retrieved from:
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- _. Sani Abacha. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sani_Abacha
- _. Victor Malu Military Tribunal. Retrieved from: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_Malu_Military_Tribunal