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Monday, June 8, 1998 Published at 22:14 GMT 23:14 UK

Special Report

Abacha dies at 54

General Sani Abacha inspecting Nigerian security forces in March

Nigeria's military strongman, General Sani Abacha, has died at the age of 54 after reportedly suffering a heart attack.

Nigerian radio announces death of Abacha
A special announcement on Nigerian radio said that "the head of state, General Sani Abacha, passed away in the early hours of Monday morning".

The general's body has been taken to his home state of Kano for burial according to Muslim rites, Nigerian TV reported, quoting an official statement.

The BBC's former West Africa correspondent Liz Blunt: "We should watch the army"
A uniformed officer stood before the State House in Abuja to announce the general's death to the public. Martial music filled the state-controlled radio airwaves, officially marking his passing.

Some of Abacha's myriad critics and opponents celebrated on the streets of Lagos, Nigeria's biggest city.

Government leaders are reported to have convened an emergency meeting.

General Abacha made few public appearances since greeting Pope John Paul on his visit to Nigeria in March, and recently failed to attend a special function in Lagos.

But a report by Nigerian radio on Sunday said visiting Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, had met General Abacha for two hours of talks.

Accompanied by General Abacha, Mr Arafat also inspected a guard of honour and heard a 21-gun salute before being seen off by the president at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport.

It is not immediately clear who will succeed General Abacha.

Nigeria under Abacha

The general seized power in 1993 after cancelling presidential elections.

He steadily consolidated his grip on power, with purges of the army and restrictions on political activity.

After the execution in 1995 of nine opposition activists, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, and with the presumed winner of the 1993 elections, Chief Moshood Abiola, still in jail, Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth and became diplomatically isolated.

Yet it spearheaded the African military intervention that restored Sierra Leone to civilian rule in March 1998.

Government members portrayed General Abacha as the only man who could unite such a diverse nation.

But his opponents in Nigeria saw him as part of a military elite desperate to hang on to power.

While repeatedly promising to oversee the country's return to democratic civilian rule, in April he became the only nominated candidate for the presidency and was expected to keep hold of power.

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1998 Contents
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 -  04/98
 -  Pope in Cuba
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06/98 Contents




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Surprise death prompts calls for democracy