On this day, twenty five years ago, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s death sentence was commuted to 15 years in prison, while his former deputy, Shehu Musa Yar’adua’s death sentence was commuted to 25 years in prison.
At least twice in his relatively long life, given that he has reached the octogenarian milestone in a country where life expectancy is barely 50, Obasanjo has sensed the grim stench of death with his bare nostrils, but fortune literarily lifted him from the valley of the shadow of death into a position of influence and authority.
When his friend and boss, Gen. Murtala Muhammed, was assassinated in a coup d’état in 1976, Obasanjo was destined to be exterminated as well, but he survived and, against his will, emerged Nigeria’s leader for the next three years.
In 1995, Obasanjo was dragged into a phony coup attempt, for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment by a military tribunal set up by the late dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha. If Abacha had not died prematurely in 1998, Obasanjo’s chances of living to see the end of the 15-year sentence commuted would’ve been slim. After all, Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, a longtime friend, who was arrested and sentenced to life in prison for the same offenses, died mysteriously in 1997!
Obasanjo not only survived Abacha’s death, but he also benefited from the nearly decade-long struggle to return Nigeria to civil rule, which claimed many lives, including that of Chief MKO Abiola.
The plot of Obasanjo’s future ordeal was set in November 1993, when General Sani Abacha swept the Ernest Shonekan-led interim government from power.
Prior to the coup, Obasanjo called Abacha and pleaded with him not to go down this road. After seizing power, Abacha requested a meeting with Obasanjo. The latter agreed, but refused to back Abacha’s government until it announced its own departure date. Abacha then abolished existing political parties and democratic institutions and invited politicians from various backgrounds to join his Federal Executive Council; Obasanjo refused to nominate anyone for this council.
Obasanjo began warning that Nigeria was on the verge of another ethnic civil war, and in May 1994 he and Yar’Adua formed the National Unity Promoters, a group dedicated to averting this outcome. Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, whose election had been annulled by Abacha’s successor, General Ibrahim Babangda, unilaterally declared himself President of Nigeria and was arrested for treason in June.
Although Obasanjo did not support Abiola’s claim, he advised Abacha not to arrest him. He then led a meeting of traditional leaders in an attempt to start a dialogue between Abacha and Abiola.
Obasanjo visited Denmark in March 1995 for the United Nations Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen. While there, he learned that Yar’Adua had been detained and that if he returned to Nigeria, he would most likely face the same fate. He insisted, however, that he had done nothing wrong and thus agreed to return. His passport was confiscated at Lagos Airport, and the next day, he was picked up by police from his Ota home.
The police accused Obasanjo of being involved in a coup plotted by Brigadier General Lawan Gwadabe against Abacha. Obasanjo was transferred between detention facilities, while former US President Carter personally requested Obasanjo’s release from Abacha.
Obasanjo was then returned to Ota and placed under house arrest for two months, during which he was denied access to the media, the phone, or visitors.
Obasanjo was eventually charged with concealment of treason, a capital offense under Nigerian law. He was then taken to Ikoyi’s State Security Interrogation Centre.
Abacha insisted on Obasanjo’s trial before a military court, which occurred on June 19, 1995. During the trial, Obasanjo denied any involvement in the alleged coup plot, but on July 14, the court sentenced Obasanjo to life imprisonment and sentenced fourteen others, including Shehu Yar’adua, accused of being part of the conspiracy to death.
After US President Bill Clinton stated that if these executions were carried out, his country would impose an oil embargo on Nigeria, Abacha commuted Yar’adua’s sentence to 25 years imprisonment and Obasanjo’s sentence to 15 years.
Obasanjo spent the next four months in solitary confinement at the Ikoyi Centre. He was then transferred to Lagos’ main prison, Kirikiri, where he received treatment for his hypertension and diabetes in the prison hospital.
After a few weeks, Obasanjo and the other alleged conspirators were transferred to Jos prison in Plateau State, where they remained for several months.
Obasanjo was initially only allowed to read the Bible and the Quran, but he was gradually allowed to read a wider range of literature. He was also given writing materials, allowing him to communicate with a variety of people and institutions. Many world leaders, including Nelson Mandela and Pope John Paul II, called for his release while he was imprisoned in Jos, and Indian and German foundations both awarded him international prizes.
Obasanjo was transferred from Jos to the more remote prison of Yola, Adamawa State, in early 1996. Obasanjo was concerned that he would be poisoned, especially given public speculation that Yar’adua’s death was the result of deliberate poisoning.
After Abacha died unexpectedly in June 1998, military commanders appointed Lieutenant General Abdulsalami Abubakar as his successor. A week later, Abubakar ordered Obasanjo’s release and dispatched a plane to transport him back to Ota.
Eager to restore civilian rule in Nigeria, Abubakar disbanded the country’s existing parties and institutions and announced a plan that would result in the installation of a civilian president in May 1999.
Around this time, new political parties were forming across Nigeria, one of the largest of which was the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), an umbrella group that aimed to be broad enough to deter future coups if it came to power. Obasanjo was proposed as the ideal presidential candidate by prominent PDP members. They believed he could command international respect and, as a military figure, keep the country together in the face of future coups and secessionist movements. They also claimed that Nigeria needed a southern president to balance out its previous northern leadership, and that Obasanjo had demonstrated himself to be a southerner with no partisan bias against the north.
Friends and family urged him not to contest, claiming that he would tarnish his good name or be killed. Obasanjo initially appeared hesitant, but on October 28, he joined the PDP and announced a week later that he would be the party’s presidential nominee.
The PDP was gaining ground in Nigeria, emerging as the most successful party in the December 1998 local government elections, the January 1999 state elections, and the February 1999 Senate and House of Representatives elections. On February 14, 1999, the PDP called a convention to choose its presidential candidate. Obasanjo received 1,658 votes, while Alex Ekwueme received 521 and the other five candidates received 260.
Obasanjo chose Atiku Abubakar as the PDP’s vice presidential candidate in search of a northerner to balance the country’s political equation. The presidential election was held on February 27th, and Obasanjo’s only opponent was the APP’s Olu Falae. Obasanjo was declared the winner of the 1999 Presidential election after receiving 63 percent of the vote.
On May 29, 1999, General Abubakar drew the curtain on the military adventure in Nigeria and Obasanjo ushered the country into a new era.