Abubakar, Abdulsalam

Abubakar, Abdulsalam
▪ 1999

      On June 9, 1998, following the sudden death of Nigerian military ruler Gen. Sani Abacha the previous day, Maj. Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, Nigeria's defense chief of staff, was sworn in as the country's head of state. Although Abubakar had never before held public office, his appointment by Nigeria's ruling military junta was not unexpected. A high-ranking career soldier from the country's northern region, Abubakar fit the profile of former rulers of Nigeria, which for 28 of its 38 years of independence had been controlled by military regimes.

      Abubakar was born June 13, 1942, in Minna in north-central Nigeria and went to secondary school in the neighbouring town of Bida. In 1963 he attended the Kaduna Technical Institute. He served in the air force and then joined the army in 1975 but received his formal training in the United States. Rising steadily through the ranks of the Nigerian army, he commanded Nigeria's contingent of the UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon in 1981. By the late 1980s he had become a senior officer, and in 1993 he was named defense chief of staff by Abacha.

      As the new head of state, Abubakar inherited a host of long-standing problems, including ethnic and regional strife, political corruption, widespread poverty, and mismanagement of the country's oil industry. In his first address to the nation in June, he stated that "all hands must be on deck to move this nation forward," but he provided no detailed plan of action. By July, Abubakar had announced that he would follow a program that would restore the country to democracy. He had freed a number of political prisoners and announced the dissolution of the political parties and structures set up by Abacha. Abubakar also addressed economic issues, promised to assemble a Cabinet that would represent Nigeria's ethnic diversity, and outlined a plan for multiparty elections, setting May 29, 1999, as the swearing-in date for a new civilian president.

      By October, Abubakar had succeeded in convincing the European Union and the United States of his commitment to a transition to civilian rule—a step that was crucial for the restoration of much-needed aid for Nigeria's crippled economy. Support from Nigerians was more difficult to obtain; promises of democracy made by previous military rulers had often been broken. Abubakar's standing with his countrymen, however, improved substantially when Nigerian author Wole Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature, returned home on October 14 after a four-year exile. The fact that Soyinka, a highly regarded advocate of democracy and a fierce critic of Nigeria's military governments, would return was viewed as a major vote of confidence for Abubakar.

ELIZABETH LASKEY

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Universalium. 2010.

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