Professor Sadiq Suleiman Wali, General Sani Abacha’s personal doctor recently spoke to the press, revealing the details of Abacha’s sudden death seventeen years after his mysterious demise.
Sani Abacha's sudden death caused lots of rumours
An event in 1998 that changed the Nigerian history. By June 1998, Sani Abacha had ruled Nigeria for almost five years. Isolated by the West, Abacha promised elections and a transition to civilian rule by October 1998, but with just months to polls, all the political parties nominated General Abacha as their candidate for president.
Professor Wali describes Abacha as “a quiet person, calm person. He could be really firm on some issues, but normally he didn’t talk much”.
He served as physician to the three previous Nigerian heads of state after being reluctantly recruited in that role in the early 1980-s. He considered himself politically neutral and lived outside the sprawling heavily guarded presidential complex known as Aso Rock in the capital Abuja. But he was always in the presidential entourage.
Professor Wali says Abacha’s health was not so serious before his death. “Abacha was generally healthy though he had some health issues, he was treated, he’s responded [to that treatment] very well. He didn’t have any heart-related diseases at that time.”
On the 7 of June, 1998 Wali’d been with Abacha, as he hosted the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat and all seemed well. The next morning General Sani Abacha was due to fly to the OAU summit being held in Burkina-Faso and professor Wali was due to go with him.
Professor Wali recounts that “around 6 am I had a phone call from his security officers, and they said, "please come, come to the villa, come urgently!" Before I even could get ready, they came and picked me. I had no idea what it all was about.”
The car carrying the doctor sped towards the presidential villa through a special entrance – a shortcut which only the president was allowed to use.
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The doctor realised something was seriously wrong.
“I arrived then I saw chief security there and he said “doctor come in, please, come in!” We all rushed and I just saw the president. There was another doctor who came earlier, resuscitating him. Abacha was in the sitting room. He was on the couch. He was in his normal work clothes. I didn’t panic. I’ve seen a lot of serious problems before in my practice, but to affect him was very tough, definitely. I joined and we did as much as we could to resuscitate him. But I realised that he was dead because he was fuming. We just continued resuscitation and even injected some things, but it didn’t work.”
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After 40 minutes trying to resuscitate the stricken general, Professor Wali said General Abacha had died. “I said, sorry – there’s nothing we can do”.
There was no immediate public announcement, in a country prone to coups, Abacha’s head of security first increased the guard around the presidential complex and then called the heads of the armed forces to gather to decide on his replacement.
“Immediately the security officer took over, and he invited all the service chiefs to come to Abuja, by then most of them were based in Lagos.” says doctor Wali.
When the service chiefs arrived, some of them asked to see the body to pay their respect to their former leader.
“They wanted to make sure, that he is dead. And some of them were crying” – tells Wali.
Professor informed the family of what have happened. Obviously, the sudden death of an apparently healthy head of state raised a few questions.
Professor Wali was determined that there should be an autopsy to find out what caused the sudden heart attack. After much deliberating, the family declined, preferring the quick burial in line with Islamic tradition. But the doctor was determined to find some clues as to what have happened.
“I still try to take some samples of blood and urine and hair and things like that, just thinking for the future chemical tests,” Professor Wali said, adding that “it’s very difficult to say [whether he died of natural causes]. What I can see. The blood test we did, has shown some raised cardiac enzymes [proteins that are released into the blood by dying heart muscles].That’s why we thought maybe it was cardiac attack."
Every Nigerian has his own theory about what happened to General Abacha. There are rumours that he was poisoned, or that he spent a night entertaining young ladies. Speaking on the rumours, Professor Wali said: “when I entered [Abacha’s premises], there were no ladies. It might be true but I did not see them. Concerning the poison, as I said no post-mortem has been done, so I couldn’t assure whether he was poisoned or it was a heart attack.”
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While the generals deliberated on who would take over, plans were made to take Abacha’s body to his hometown in Kano later that day. It was decided to finally tell the public what had happened. But the mystery around Abacha’s death still remains seventeen years after his sudden and unexpected demise.
Earlier Major Hamza Al-Mustapha, Chief Security Officer (CSO) of General Sani Abacha, who was Nigeria’s military Head of State from November 1993 to June 1998, told the press his own version of Sani Abacha's last days.