A death in Nigeria Moshood Abiola: Heart attack of imprisoned leader adds urgency to demands for democracy.

July 08, 1998

HOPES for a smooth transition to democracy and respectability for Nigeria were dashed with the death of imprisoned Moshood Abiola, the presumed winner of the canceled 1993 election.

The official report that the opposition leader suffered a heart attack while meeting with U.S. officials is plausible. His family had warned of his deteriorating health. U.S. officials confirm the Nigerian government's account. An autopsy is promised.

Nonetheless, Nigeria's 115 million people are not accustomed to hearing the truth from their government and are not likely to take this at face value. The news sparked unrest in the streets of Lagos, the capital.

His death lends additional urgency to the need for interim president, Maj. Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, to fulfill his promise to hold elections next year.

Since the death of the dictator Sani Abacha last month, also of a heart attack, General Abubakar has been making the right noises. But so did predecessors, who later welshed on their promises.

Recent visits by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, The Commonwealth Secretary-General Emeka Anyaoku, and U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering ended Nigeria's ostracism. They had hinted at a deal by which Chief Abiola, 60, would be released from prison while dropping his claim to the presidency.

Nonetheless, many critics of the oil-rich, populous country had demanded that Chief Abiola be brought into a transition government. That would have given it credibility for ethnic and political diversity. Now that cannot occur.

Chief Abiola's apparent victory in 1993 was in a less-than-free election. His death makes a credible transition from military and northern rule all the more urgent. Nigeria's regime must be made responsive to cultural complexity and the need for honesty. Corruption has denied the potentially great country its rightful prosperity. General Abubakar has a chance to put things right.

Every legitimate pressure should be put on him to do so.

Pub Date: 7/08/98

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