|You are in: Special Report: 1998: 06/98: After Abacha|
Thursday, 2 July, 1998, 11:08 GMT 12:08 UK
From Our Own Correspondent
Events in Nigeria have been moving rapidly since the unexpected death recently of the country's despotic military leader, General Sani Abacha. Our Lagos correspondent, Hillary Andersson reports that the atmosphere has changed dramatically, thanks to the country's new military leader, General Abdulsalam Abubakar.
Nigeria is a deeply religious society. Animinist beliefs mix with Christianity and Islam to ensure that the dead carry massive respect. Fear of offending the spirits guides cultures here, keeps customs, and underlies all that is conservative in this society.
That is why it is so strange that if you mention General Abacha's name in Lagos now people smile, or even laugh openly. And it's quite chilling, because there are no two ways about it. Almost everyone seems to be happy - or relieved - that he's dead. Many people seem to believe his death was an act of God, who came to save them from their misery.
Reclusive dictator died ignominious death
His body was shuffled out of the fortress presidential villa, from where he rarely emerged during his living days, wrapped in a white shroud. The pictures were beamed across the world's television sets.
Mourners who came to his wife to pay their condolences had no words which could comfort. His death, and the four years for which he ruled Nigeria were simply horrible.
New found freedom to talk
Everyone has their story of why - and these weren't tales you could tell while General Abacha was alive, at least not if you lived in Nigeria. The General had built up a security network so good, so extensive, that few dared to speak their minds.
Old friends would even pretend to each other that things weren't so bad, just in case the other had new connections with the government. No-one knew who was being paid to pass on information about dissenting voices.
People who had never dreamed of such a fate - mothers, fathers, sons and daughters - saw the insides of dark cells; rotted in squalor, to pay for the injustice of one man and the many around him who were prepared to be paid to participate.
Now Nigeria is in a sort of honeymoon period, as if a storm has just ended and the skies have cleared. People on the streets speak their minds openly in a new-found freedom. For a while - and it seems incredible - people aren't looking over their shoulders when they speak.
The new government is trying hard to distance itself from General Abacha's rule - not so easy, as most of the men in charge now were amongst his top officers. One of the first things they did was to release key political prisoners. At the home of the first man to be let out - an opposition activist Olabiyi Duronjayi - the joy was so intense that it looked more like pain.
His wife wailed and cried through her laughter, and in between peculiar screams and songs whispered her thanks to God for what had seemed so impossible - that her husband would be freed. His old mother - too frail to even stand up - tried to dance.
As she tottered in front of her son her eyes were so wide with disbelief that she looked as if as if she thought she was in a dream. General Abacha had been preparing to stay on in power for a very long time - hailing himself as a visionary who would guide Nigeria into the next millennium. Some of the detainees families had almost lost hope that they would ever see their loved ones again.
A question of collusion
As with every tale of past dictators there is also the story of those who participated, and a sort of unofficial Nurenberg of Nigeria has begun voluntarily.
Some of the civilians who led General Abacha's political parties are now trying to say they had nothing to do with it, that they were forced to adopt him as their presidential candidate, so that he could be elected in as a civilian leader and claim a spurious veneer of respectability.
The general's soldiers are no longer at his side. Those who had been paid by the general to pretend that he was loved by the masses by printing posters, Abacha badges, by staging rallies in his favour, have all left their hotels now - their bills suddenly unpaid.
This unpleasant story of Nigeria's demise over the last four years has finally come to an end, and the facts stand like this. A small man with dark sunglasses, whose bodyguards performed the goosestep in long black trenchcoats, held a grip on a nation of a hundred-million people.
He justified his style of government by saying Nigeria needed stability at all costs. He often appeared absurd and it was his weaknesses which made him deeply frightening. General Abacha wasn't the first of his kind, nor will he be the last, until someone can answer the question of why Africa allows such men to emerge again and again and again.
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