Nigerian Ruler Dies After Brutal Reign
By James Rupert
Nigerian journalists in the capital, Abuja, said early today that top military officers had sworn in the military chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, to succeed Abacha. The elevation of Abubakar -- a northerner like Abacha and almost every previous leader of modern Nigeria -- will likely reinforce opposition among Nigeria's second-largest ethnic group, the Yorubas of the southwest.
A government statement issued Monday did not say how Abacha died, only that he "passed away in the early hours of this morning. . . . May his soul rest in peace." Nigerian sources and foreign diplomats said reports filtering from the presidential villa suggested that Abacha had died of a heart attack.
The senior officers acted quickly in naming Abubakar, "above all, to keep power in the upper echelon" and to forestall any attempt by lower ranks to seize power, declared Dapo Olorunyomi, a Nigerian news magazine editor living in exile near Washington.
At the announcement of his death, political opposition groups called for the immediate installation of a civilian government under Moshood Abiola, a Yoruba businessman who appeared to have won a 1993 presidential election that was nullified by military authorities. Abacha's regime arrested Abiola the following year for allegedly proclaiming himself president, and he has been imprisoned without trial since.
Nigeria's military has ruled the country for 28 of its 38 years of independence, developing a reputation for corruption and authoritarianism. Abacha, Nigeria's seventh military ruler, was a consummate strongman who brushed aside all protests to this authoritarian, ruthless rule.
His death reopens the question of whether the military should continue to rule. The officer corps is divided, analysts say, between supporters of a return to civilian governance and those, including Abubakar, who apparently wish to prolong the army's grip on power.
The country, which has been in political turmoil in recent months, was reported calm throughout the day Monday. Nigerian state radio announced that Abacha had been buried before sundown, in accordance with Muslim ritual, at his adopted home town, the northern city of Kano.
Rumors of his death began circulating Monday morning after troops ringed the vast grounds of Aso Rock, the presidential villa at the edge of Abuja, cutting off access to all but senior officers. Lagos, a teeming southern port, is Nigeria's commercial capital and a Yoruba-dominated hotbed of opposition to the northern, Hausa-speaking establishment to which Abacha and Abubakar belong. There, people honked horns in the streets and cheered the news of Abacha's death, the Associated Press reported.
Abacha, who was born Sept. 20, 1943, was a career soldier, enlisting as an army infantryman at age 18 and attending military training colleges in Britain and the United States in addition to Nigeria. It was Abacha who appeared on national television on New Year's Eve 1983 to announce that a military coup had toppled Nigeria's last elected government; two years later, Abacha went on state-run TV again to say that Gen. Mohammed Buhari was being replaced by Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida.
Three months after Babangida's government annulled the 1993 elections and installed a civilian-led interim government, Abacha seized power. Since then, he helped keep himself there by implicating subordinate officers and retired rivals in alleged coup plots against him, invariably leading to their conviction in secret trials.
Under political pressure in 1995, Abacha promised to hand power to a civilian government by October of this year. Purportedly to that end, he began a serpentine transition process toward elections this summer and, in his final weeks of life, forced each of the country's five political parties -- the only ones he would permit to operate -- to nominate him for the presidency.
Technically, Abacha ruled Nigeria as chairman of the Provisional Ruling Council, a committee of top army officers. There was no clear second-in-command at the time of his death, leaving other senior military officers to decide among themselves for now who shall rule and how. In December, Abacha's top security aides arrested his council deputy, Lt. Gen. Oladipo Diya, on allegations that he was plotting a coup; last month, a secret military tribunal sentenced Diya and several other top officers to death.
Beside Abubakar, those whom analysts had considered prospective successors included Maj. Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi and the officer who effectively is governor of Abuja, Lt. Gen. Jeremiah Useni. A key Abacha loyalist in the new calculus of power will be Maj. Hamza Mustapha, Abacha's top security aide, who heads the Special Bodyguard Unit, a force numbering 2,000 to 3,000 men who are based at the presidential villa and who have served as Abacha's political enforcers and palace guard. Another key officer -- seen as an Abacha loyalist, but also as a politically sophisticated pragmatist -- is Col. Muhammad Marwa, the military administrator of Lagos state.
"Most officers feel the military has been the biggest losers from military rule," said Isawa Elaigwu, a political scientist who has taught officers for years at the Nigerian War College. Still, "there are officers, both junior and senior, who are looking for the ego trip and the power and wealth" that go to those who reach the top, Elaigwu said in an interview last month. "Even within the military, [officers] don't know" which constituency is the stronger.
[At the United Nations, where President Clinton was addressing a conference on the international war on drugs, White House press secretary Michael McCurry said Monday "the United States government is interested in what type of opportunity exists for a democratic transition in Nigeria," correspondent Douglas Farah reported. McCurry said the United States has long supported democracy in Nigeria and hopes "an accountable civilian government able to lead the Nigerian people" will emerge from "a very horrific episode in which basic, fundamental rights have been suspended."
[Exiled Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, speaking in Jerusalem, called Abacha's death "an opportunity for Nigerian civic society, an opportunity for the Nigerian military and an opportunity for the international community," according to the Associated Press.]
As soon as Abacha's death was announced, leading democracy advocates in Lagos began telephoning Western news organizations to vow a renewed push for a transition to civilian rule. "Thank God that evil man is gone," said Gani Fawehinmi, a Lagos human rights lawyer and head of the Joint Action Committee of Nigeria, a recently founded coalition of opposition groups.
Fawehinmi repeated the opposition's call for the military to permit Abiola, the presumed winner of the 1993 elections, to head a "government of national unity" that would organize the writing of a new constitution and arrange for new elections.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company