Nigerian Leader Dies; Military Picks Successor

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The abrupt death Monday of Nigerian leader Gen. Sani Abacha, one of Africa’s most notorious and reclusive dictators, leaves the continent’s most populous nation at a critical crossroads, U.S. officials and Africa experts said.

The Clinton administration and international human rights groups immediately called on the military-led Provisional Ruling Council in Nigeria to seize the opportunity to launch a long-delayed transition to civilian rule.

However, the ruling junta named a general as Abacha’s successor early today, moving quickly in an apparent bid to maintain its grip on power.


Abdulsalam Abubakar, a major general in the army and chief of the defense staff, was promoted to the rank of general during a predawn ceremony, then sworn in as leader of the West African nation.

Without political movement, the oil-rich nation could succumb to new strife and possibly open warfare between the country’s long-standing religious and ethnic rivals, Africa experts warned.

“Abacha’s death could be an opportunity to salvage the country’s political future. Or it could lead to a near-certain dead end with a significant chance of real violence,” said Adotei Akwei, director of Amnesty International’s advocacy program for Africa. “Any effort by military hard-liners to stay in power will result in economic decline, increased ethnic tensions and a potential breakdown in the state.”

After rumors of Abacha’s demise swept the country, the military issued a two-sentence communique Monday confirming that the 54-year-old leader had died and would be buried the same day, according to Muslim custom. No cause of death was given, but news reports said he died of heart trouble.


Abacha, Nigeria’s seventh military head of state since independence from Britain in 1960, seized power after the presidential election in 1993 was annulled and the constitution suspended.

Moshood Abiola, the wealthy businessman who was widely assumed to have won that election, has been imprisoned for treason since he declared himself president in 1994 on the anniversary of the disputed vote.


Abacha’s promise of a new election in 1996 went unfulfilled. He issued a subsequent pledge to hold an election Aug. 1 of this year as part of a transition to civilian rule set for Oct. 1.

But after hinting that he would run for the presidency, all five state-approved political parties listed Abacha as their “preferred consensus candidate.”

As a result, human rights groups and Western diplomats discounted the possibility of significant political change any time soon.

After receiving word of Abacha’s death, the United States called on the junta to restore democratic rule, which has prevailed only twice, and in flawed form, during only 10 of Nigeria’s 38 years as an independent state.

“We believe there should be a civilian transition in Nigeria, a transition that allows for a genuine democratic process including allowing opposition parties to operate, allowing the media to cover the work of opposition parties and allowing the transition that Gen. Abacha promised to take place,” said State Department spokesman James P. Rubin.


Abacha, a former defense minister whose trademark dark glasses symbolized his silent and icy character, gained international notoriety on several counts, including the 1995 execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a distinguished playwright, environmentalist and human rights activist.


Abacha’s deputy, Lt. Gen. Oladipo Diya, was sentenced to death by a military tribunal just two months ago for plotting against the government.

The United States, the Vatican and governments worldwide condemned Nigeria when Saro-Wiwa and eight others who protested environmental problems produced by Nigeria’s oil industry were put on trial by a military court for murder and quickly hanged.

South African President Nelson Mandela led a subsequent campaign for sanctions against the junta, while the 53-nation Commonwealth linking Britain to its former territories suspended Nigeria.

But Abacha, a career officer trained in the United States and Britain who had played a role in every successful military coup since 1975, ignored repeated international criticism, a widespread arms embargo and foreign aid cutoffs in his quest for total personal power over a deeply divided population estimated at 104 million to 115 million people.

With the greatest oil wealth on the continent, Nigeria’s military junta reacted by gradually shifting its focus from Europe and the West to Asia and China.

During Abacha’s five-year rule, his regime also charged Wole Soyinka, the 1986 Nobel laureate for literature, in absentia for treason.


And he ordered the arrest of former military leader Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo and 50 other military officials for allegedly plotting a coup against him.

Since October, the number of detentions in Nigeria, especially of human rights activists and journalists, has risen “alarmingly,” according to Human Rights Watch, a New York-based monitoring group.

Tensions among Nigeria’s ethnic groups, and between northern Muslims and southern Christians, had been mounting in the run-up to the election. At least seven people were killed in May during protests against the regime; several other demonstrations had been planned.


Despite promises of political openings, the press and opposition groups have functioned under draconian constraints, according to human rights groups. Even criticism of the transition-to-democracy program has been a crime.

The political imprint of Abacha, who favored the elaborate, embroidered robes of northern Muslims, was a deep one.

Although he rarely spoke in public, the Abacha cult was epitomized by products ranging from televisions to soap and rice named after him.


Human rights groups called on the Clinton administration Monday to take a more active role in urging change in Nigeria.

“This is a time of great uncertainty in terms of what will follow,” said Janet Fleischman of Human Rights Watch. “We have to hope that the international community will take the opportunity of Abacha’s death to state in clear and unequivocal terms that a credible transition has to be initiated.”


A s one of his first official acts in power, Abubakar declared seven days of mourning for Abacha.

Abubakar, 55, was born in the northern Nigerian town of Minna and attended the Kaduna Technical Institute in 1963 before enlisting in the air force.

A career serviceman, he transferred to the army in 1975 and received military training in the United States. In 1981, he served with Nigerian troops assigned to a United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon. He was appointed chief of the defense staff in 1993 by Abacha.

“I appeal to all Nigerians to put all hands on deck to move our nation forward,” he said in a statement issued shortly after his appointment, which came less than 12 hours after Abacha’s death was announced.



Associated Press contributed to this report.