ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Nigeria's new leader, General Abdulsalam Abubakar, took the oath of office early today.
GENERAL ABDUSALAM ABUBKAR: I, Abdulsalam Abubakar, do solemnly swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the Federal Republic of Nigeria-
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The swearing in came just hours after the body of military dictator General Sani Abacha was removed from his residence and flown to his birthplace in the North for burial. Abacha died suddenly yesterday-military leaders said of a heart attack--at age 54. Abubakar is the nation's eighth military head of state since gaining independence from Britain in 1960. About twice the size of California, Nigeria is the African continent's most populous country, with more than 100 million people. It is also potentially one of the richest because of extensive oil reserves.
But tribal and religious divisions and government corruption have produced great instability during Nigeria's 38 years of independence; and oil wealth has largely gone to the few at the top, not the many at the bottom. In recent years, Nigeria, which is one of the world's largest oil producers, has had to import refined fuels. Two hundred and fifty different ethnic groups, including the Ibo of Biafra, the Hausa and Yoruba, compete for political dominance. The North is mostly Muslim, the South--Christian.
Sani Abacha and fellow generals seized power in 1993, annulling the results of presidential elections widely considered the most democratic in Nigeria's history. The businessman who won those elections, Moshood Abiola, has been in prison ever since; and some Nigerians are now calling for him to be released and allowed to rule the country. Abacha's five-year regime was repeatedly criticized by human rights groups and by leaders like South Africa's Nelson Mandela for extreme violations of people's rights. In 1995, Abacha ordered the public hanging of Nobel Prize-winning author Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others who had protested environmental damages they said were caused by oil exploration. Saro-Wiwa adamantly denied the government's charges that the activists had murdered four men.
KEN SARO-WIWA, Author: There is no possibility whatsoever that I or Mossob could have ever planned any such action.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The executions prompted worldwide denunciations of the Abacha regime, and several nations, including the United States, temporarily recalled their ambassadors. The United States also halted most aid to Nigeria and barred its leaders from traveling to the United States. Yesterday in London Saro-Wiwa's son denounced the late dictator and called for change.
KEN WIWA: Abacha has been the worst in a long line of human rights abusers in Nigeria. The thinking has always been that every successive dictator is worse than the previous one, so one hopes that we don't get another dictator because he will have quite a record to better Abacha's appalling record.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Last March, Abacha welcomed Pope John Paul II to Nigeria. Thousands gathered at open-air Masses during the three-day visit to hear the Pontiff repeatedly call for tolerance and respect for human rights. The new leader, 55-year-old General Abubakar, is a former defense chief of staff but until now he has not played a major political role in Nigeria's government.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A spokesman for the government said today it would stick to an Abacha promise to restore civilian rule by October 1st; but the country's main opposition group called for street protests Friday to reject the newly-appointed leader and press for genuine and more immediate democratic changes.