TOPICS > Politics

Uncertain Future

July 8, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Yesterday, Moshood Abiola, the most prominent opposition figure in Nigeria, died unexpectedly. He was stricken while meeting with US Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering to discuss his imminent release from jail, where Abiola had been imprisoned by Nigeria’s military government shortly after winning the 1993 presidential election. Government doctors said yesterday he suffered a heart attack. A heart attack was also the reported cause of death last month of the country’s military ruler, Sani Abacha.

We have a report on the reaction to Chief Abiola’s death from Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The mourners are bewildered, suspicious, and angry, as well as racked by the grief. In Nigeria there’s always talk of people being poisoned. And recent years of military rule have seen many political murders. Hundreds came to sign the condolence book. Western pathologists are on their way to do an autopsy. But mourners say Chief Abiola looked healthy when Chief Anyoko of the Commonwealth saw him last week and this wasn’t a heart attack.

KAYODE FAYEMI, Opposition Activist: How common? They saw him last week. Chief Anyoko graciously provided photographs of Chief Abiola last week. He was in broad smiles. He was in good health. Nothing happened to him in four years under the vicious regime of General Abacha. And all of a sudden-I mean people are dying of heart attacks.

LINDSEY HILSUM: But Chief Abiola was in poor health. In 1995, his American doctor said he had high blood pressure and was at risk of a stroke or a myocardial infarction, a heart attack. Just three weeks ago, physicians for human rights warned the chief was suffering from life-threatening conditions, which, if untreated, would be fatal.

HAFSAT ABIOLA, Moshood Abiola’s Daughter: It’s either because of the medical neglect-my father has now suffered a heart failure, or that they poisoned him, and he’s dead. Either case, it’s their complete responsibility.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Last night’s riots in Lagos left about a dozen people dead. This morning’s demonstrations were more peaceful, but democracy supporters may not expect the commonwealth secretary-general’s idea that Nigeria’s military leader, Gen. Abubakar, should be given six months to restore democracy. In the address he’s just given the nation, Gen. Abubakar said they were on the brink of releasing Chief Abiola, but his words were vague. He said nothing specific about releasing other political prisoners or stepping down.

GEN. ABDULSALAM ABUBAKAR, Head of State, Nigeria: I have resolved to address these challenges in an organized, deliberate, and orderly fashion, always putting the highest national interest before all else. Chief Abiola would have contributed his own quota to this process.

LINDSEY HILSUM: With no timetable for the ruling military council to resign, Nigerians remain fearful that Chief Abiola’s death may mark the death of their hopes for a rapid return to democracy.

MARGARET WARNER: Joining us now are Chief Abiola’s daughter, Hafsat Abiola. She founded the Kudirat Institute for Nigerian Democracy, named for her mother, Kudirat, who was killed in 1996. And Walter Carrington, who was the US Ambassador to Nigeria from November 1993 until October 1997. He’s now a resident fellow at Harvard University’s WEB DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research. We invited Nigerian embassy officials to participate, but they declined.

First, Ms. Abiola, my deepest sympathies on the loss of your father.

HAFSAT ABIOLA, Moshood Abiola’s Daughter: Thank you.

Hafsat Abiola: “We’re holding the military completely responsible. My father died under their custody. They were responsible for his welfare. They have failed my family. They have failed the country.”

MARGARET WARNER: Do you have any new information on what caused his death?

HAFSAT ABIOLA: What I know I gathered from my family members that saw my father a night before he was killed. From all indications-my family had not been allowed to see him for maybe two years-and a night before he died, they were allowed to see him for two hours. They were panicked at his condition. He was critically ill. His words were incoherent. And the next day-the military didn’t provide a doctor then-and the next day my father went in to see the US State Department delegation, and he collapsed. It is clear to me that maybe my father was ill the night before, but the military should have provided a doctor the night before, or, you know, they should have provided a doctor for all the years that he’s been in solitary confinement in Nigeria, which they refused to do. So it’s either a case-a clear case of medical neglect or they poisoned him, and they caused him to die the next day in front of the US State Department delegation, so that it would look like there was no foul play.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Carrington, does the family of Chief Abiola have reason to be suspicious?

WALTER CARRINGTON, Former U.S. Ambassador, Nigeria: Well, when you are dealing with a military government that has kept a prisoner in the kind of isolation that Chief Abiola has been kept in and which continually refuse any kind of appeal to allow him to have outside medical help, then I think one has to be suspicious and worried about what happened.

MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Abiola, General Abubakar tonight did announce that international pathologists are coming in to assist in the autopsy from the US, I believe, Britain and Canada. Is that what the–I know that’s what the family was asking for. Does that satisfy you, that you’re going to get an honest autopsy report?

HAFSAT ABIOLA: Yes. At least we will know whether he was poisoned. But even if we find that he was not poisoned, we’re holding the military completely responsible. My father died under their custody. They were responsible for his welfare. They have failed my family. They have failed the country. They-we’ve always known that they were traitors and that they could not-they were not working in the national interest, but now it is clear.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Carrington, turning today to the riots that were in Lagos and elsewhere throughout Nigeria, what’s your view of what’s behind them? The rioters have an agenda, or this is just a spontaneous outbreak of grief? Help us understand the riots today.

WALTER CARRINGTON: Well, I think it is a result of real frustration. They had looked forward to the release of Chief Abiola. And then for him to die on the eve of his supposed freedom I think caused great consternation; however, as bad as the riots were, it seems to me they were nothing like they might have been had this happened while Abacha was still alive. I think that there has been tremendous frustration building up in the Southwest of the country. They feel that they are under-

MARGARET WARNER: Excuse me. Where Chief Abiola was from.

WALTER CARRINGTON: Yes. The Southwest part of the country, the Aruba part of the country, which is Chief Abiola’s homeland. They have felt for a long time that they have almost been under foreign occupation with the armed forces there, many of whom are from the North. And I think that the sudden death of Chief Abiola was sort of the last straw, and I think that these were spontaneous eruptions of showing the real depth of feeling that people in that part of the country have.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that assessment?

HAFSAT ABIOLA: Yes. When my father won the election in 1993, it was the first case of a person from the Southwest of the country being elected to be president of Nigeria. Before that time, all the military rulers that we’ve had, all the civilian presidents that we’ve had have come from the North. When we got-we were first colonized by the British, they put together ethnic nations of different histories, languages, and cultures.

And the whole idea of Nigeria-what we’ve been testing since 1960, the time of our independence, is can we make Nigeria work for all-when my father won that election and the military leadership, most of whom come from the North, cancel the election results. They were saying to the people, no, Nigeria does not belong to all of you, even they were saying to the people of the North-told my father that Nigeria does not even belong to them, that they-the military leadership-own the country. With my father’s death it is now clear to us that it is either that Nigeria belongs to all or to none, and those demonstrations we can expect will continue until the military steps down in terms of other government to the people.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, Mr. Ambassador, that these demonstrations are going to go on, that they’re going to put pressure on the government?

WALTER CARRINGTON: Well, I think there’s a very good possibility of that. Remember, back in 1994, right after Chief Abiola was arrested, there were demonstrations and general strikes that went on for eight weeks and almost brought the government down until Gen. Abacha intervened with overwhelming force. This kind of thing could happen again, especially if the results of the autopsy are not accepted by the population or if the results show foul play. Then there is no telling what will happen. It’s sort of like a wildcat strike. They have seen the removal of the one personality that can unite the Yorba nation and who could speak to them and whom they could negotiate. Now he is no longer there. It is going to be very difficult for them now to negotiate with that part of the country.

MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Abiola, do you see anyone positioned to take on your sort of father’s mantel both with the Yorba tribe but also with the country and opposition movements in the country?

HAFSAT ABIOLA: No, because my father was the one chosen by the people of my country all over the country to be president. He was the one that said give the military this message that power belongs to us. He went into the prison. He gave them the message. He was consistent. He never renounced the mandate given to him by the people of my country, and the military in response killed him.

MARGARET WARNER: Staying with you for a minute, Ms. Abiola, what do you think this current government needs to do now to keep these disturbances from spinning out of control?

HAFSAT ABIOLA: They should pack up their bags and go back to the barracks where they belong. Gen. Abubakar was chosen by a 15-member provisional ruling council at 4 AM in the morning, while the country slept. The people were not consulted-that this is not the man-he should go. The pro-democracy movement is there and can speak for the people of Nigeria.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ambassador, what do you think the government should do now?

WALTER CARRINGTON: Well, I think Hafsat Abiola has put it very well. That’s what in an ideal situation ought to happen, but if that does not happen, then it seems to me that they have got to go ahead with their promise to release the prisoners. I cannot understand-

MARGARET WARNER: The other political prisoners-

WALTER CARRINGTON: The other political prisoners who are still there-I cannot understand why they are not releasing-I could not understand why Chief Abiola was not released, if not immediately after Abubakar took power, certainly after the meeting with Kofi Annan, and the fact that they kept him in prison, it seems to me, makes them accessories in his death.

MARGARET WARNER: And how committed do you believe General Abubakar is to a transition to civilian rule? I mean, he did talk about that tonight in his address.

WALTER CARRINGTON: Yes, this is the great paradox. I have known Gen. Abubakar and I still believe that he is the one member of the serving military who is really committed to returning the military to the barracks. I think the problem now for him is that he is finding all kinds of pressures from the hard-liners who were-who served under Gen. Abacha. I think it is a very good sign that he has sacked the old cabinet of Gen. Abacha, but the Abacha loyalists remain deep into the civil service, in some of the foreign missions, all throughout the country, and he has to, it seems to me, remove these people so that he can get people who believe the way I think he still believes that the military ought to get back to the barracks as soon as possible.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you share that assessment of General Abubakar?

HAFSAT ABIOLA: All I know is that my father died while General Abubakar was leading the country. He’s responsible, as far as I’m concerned, whatever anyone says. You know, people expected my father to be released on Thursday. General Abubakar was not released then. He kept on stalling. Why? And on the eve of his release my father dies. I blame him for it.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you both very much.

HAFSAT ABIOLA: Thank you.