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Wednesday, June 17, 1998 Published at 14:14 GMT 15:14 UK

World: Africa

Former Nigerian ruler home from prison

The new government still faces opposition

Stella Obasanjo, wife of General Olusegun Obesanjo comments on the release
The former Nigerian head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo, has arrived home following his release from prison by the new military government.

The state-run media said he was flown into Lagos aboard a presidential jet. A family member said he arrived back at his farm in the southwestern town of Otta.

[ image: Former military leader, General Olusegun Obasanjo]
Former military leader, General Olusegun Obasanjo
General Obasanjo is one of nine prominent political prisoners whose release was ordered by the new military leader, Abdulsalam Abubakar.

The BBC Lagos correspondent says the releases have distanced the new regime from that of the previous ruler, the late General Sani Abacha, and raised expectations that it will seek a national consensus on the best way forward for Nigeria.

The mood on the streets

The BBC's correspondent in Lagos, Hilary Andersson, says: "These are major political prisoners."
The correspondent says the releases have changed the mood on the streets, where people say they feel safe speaking their minds for the first time in four years.

Opposition figures in Nigeria welcomed the releases. Nigerian officials said General Obasanjo, who was serving a 15-year sentence for taking part in an attempted coup, had been released on compassionate grounds and confined to his farm.
The Nigerian Government announcement was broadcast on radio (20")

The eight others released included union leaders, a journalist, and human rights activists.

Many of the prisoners complained of health problems associated with the rough conditions of their detention, and some of the detainees were only allowed infrequent visits by family members.

Health concerns

There have been concerns about the former head of state's General Obasanjo's health and that of Chris Anyanwu a prominent journalist whose release has also been ordered.

Prisons in Nigeria are notoriously grim and over-crowded establishments, with rampant diseases, poor food and dirty water.

Although most of the political detainees were held separately from criminal inmates, this did not imply better conditions of imprisonment.

[ image: Abiola: not on the list]
Abiola: not on the list
A veteran opposition activist, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, expressed delight but demanded the release of all political detainees, including the presumed winner of the annulled 1993 elections, Moshood Abiola.

Mr Abiola was detained for declaring himself president of the populous West African nation in 1994.

The US administration said it hoped the decision to free General Obasanjo and the other prisoners would help the planned transition to civilian rule.
Human rights activist, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, reacts to the news

The country's new leader, General Abdulsalam Abubakar, said he hoped those who had been released would reciprocate by co-operating with the government on Nigeria's political transition programme.

Mr Obasanjo, in power between 1976 and 1979, stands out as Nigeria's only military ruler voluntarily to have handed over to elected civilians.

He and 43 other soldiers and civilians accused of plotting a coup against General Abacha were handed lengthy jail terms by a special court martial in 1995.

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