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Friday, July 10, 1998 Published at 22:25 GMT 23:25 UK

Writer brands Abiola death 'heinous crime'

Writer and democracy campaigner Wole Soyinka has warned that the death in detention of opposition politician Chief Moshood Abiola could unleash forces that would bring about the end of Nigeria as a united state. In an "address to the nation" broadcast on Nigerian opposition Radio Kudirat, he said Chief Abiola's death had to be branded the political crime of the 20th century:

Text of address as broadcast by Nigerian opposition Radio Kudirat on July 9:

A heinous crime has been committed against the Nigerian nation and its people.

It is too early to say that a fatal blow has been dealt to the corporate existence of the nation, but such blows as these bring the moment of truth ever closer.
[ image: Wole Soyinka:
Wole Soyinka: "The present rage will not burn itself out"

And, it may be that forces have been unleashed that make the end of nation near inevitable despite the uttermost resources of will and persuasion that most of us can muster.

The regime of Abdulsalam Abubakar bears immediate responsibility for the death of Moshood Abiola even as that of General Sani Abacha was justly held responsible for the murder of the late Yar'adua, a soldier-turned-politician-and-democrat, whose life was also extinguished in prison captivity.

It is not a question of whose hand actually administered as was then strongly suspected the gradual dosage that weakened the vital organs of Yar'adua and led inexorably to his death.

Price of victory was prison

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It is not even a question of whether or not sufficient care is taken of a prisoner to forestall such dire eventualities.

What matters, what indicts and convicts the men in control of Nigerian affairs was that the two victims were guilty of no crime whatever, that they should never have been in the places where they met their deaths.

The case of Moshood Abiola is, however, in a special category of its own.

Here was a man who won an election fairly and unambiguously and who courageously demanded the mandate that the people had thrust upon him.

The price of his victory, however, was to be thrown in prison and subjected to such an inhuman, inhuman regimen that he did not even know that there was a new secretary general of United Nations, in the person of Kofi Annan.

This was the testimony of the secretary general himself, when he visited Moshood Abiola in detention last week: Who are you, Abiola asked him.

And, when informed, Abiola next queried: What happened to the Egyptian? The damning question, however, is: Why was the secretary general obliged to visit Moshood Abiola in prison detention and not in his own home?

'Piecemeal' releases

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Abdulsalam Abubakar has been in power for nearly a month. During that period, he had the option to release not only Moshood Abiola, but all these unjustly detained prisoners unconditionally, indeed, directly upon taking office.

Instead, he chose to release them piecemeal, tantalizing the nation with unfulfilled expectations.

And, of course, the central prize of all, Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, he kept in continued captivity, hoping to wring from him confessions that reached down to the very roots of the Nigerian crisis, and that he relinquish the electoral mandate freely bestowed upon by the Nigerian people.

In this process, he was aided by representatives of the international community - the United States Government, the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the European Union, et cetera - all of whose emissaries saw nothing wrong, nothing politically immoral in presenting the agenda of the military to Moshood Abiola, and pressuring him for its acceptance while he remained a prisoner.

His release is imminent, was the smug, self-satisfied, indeed, sanctimonious refrain; never the question: Why is this man still being held?

Comparisons with Nelson Mandela

Why has he not been released to consult with his colleagues and with the people whose mandate he bore? Why is he not in the best clinic undergoing a long withheld medical examination and receiving treatment for his complaints?

Four years in Abacha's hellhole, but they all felt that it was the appropriate time and place to pester him on a crucial national issue from which he had been isolated deliberately all of those years.

We need only compare this with the treatment that Nelson Mandela received in the crucial stages of negotiations that brought down the equally detested and inhuman regime of Apartheid.

Nelson Mandela did not negotiate from a condition of ignorance or of neglected health.

If, therefore, we place part of the responsibility of Moshood Abiola's death on that community - from the Commonwealth to the United Nations - it is not out of a desire to expend our rage and frustration in needless direction.

We have a duty to ensure that there is no blotting of the facts.

The agenda of the military which requires that Abiola remain in prison until those political concessions were obtained was the immediate cause of his death.

Those who favoured that agenda, who pursued and provided its legitimation by operating under conditions laid down by the military, for respecting them must be held equally guilty, albeit to a lesser degree of what we must now brand as the political crime of the 20th century.

US 'partner in crime'

Additionally, the eagerness of the State Department of the United States to assure the world that Moshood Abiola died from natural causes, a premature inappropriate acceptance that was baseless and indecent to the point of obscenity, clearly indicates that the US government had become so committed to the military agenda that it simply could not wait to exonerate its primary partner in crime.

The US delegation had discussions with the leader and representative of opposition groups including Nadeco before its departure, where their commitment to the Nigerian military agenda was fully articulated and every effort made to persuade the opposition to abandon the 12th June 1993 electoral mandate, the very heart of a five-year struggle that has witnessed assassinations, arson attacks on media houses, imprisonment and disappearances.

In short, a catalogue of human rights abuses unprecedented in the history of Nigeria.

The man on whom millions of Nigerians put their hope for an end to these nightmare years through the restoration of democratic rule was Moshood Abiola.

The international community beat a path to his prison door demanding that he relinquish that mandate, even after the death of Sani Abacha who had imprisoned him in the first instance.

'Crocodile tears'

In the presence of one such delegation, that of the United States, the man collapsed and died.

What a relief they must all have felt, never mind the crocodile tears.

There was a signal victory for Abiola's murderers, for such a prestigious delegation conveniently placed as witnesses in a diabolical opportunism of timing.

If the American Government does not yet know it, it has been used, and the delegation should have been far more circumspect in attributing the causes of death to natural causes without the benefit of an autopsy.

However, for the benefit of all those who are nervously crossing their fingers awaiting the results of the autopsy, whose conduct by an international team of pathologists has been reluctantly conceded by the military, please even if no clear evidence emerges of foul play, the sadistic background of Abiola's confinement, the constant denial of medical treatment for evident illness, and the failure of Abdulsalam Abubakar to release him a month ago, even on health grounds, convicts the Nigerian military of murder, and history will forever vilify them as such.

No lessons learnt

Has Abubakar's regime learned any lessons from this needless tragedy? No.

Even as I speak hundreds of thousands of Nigerians remain behind bars either charged with no crime whatever or convicted by kangaroo courts that have been roundly denounced as such, both internally and by the world community.

Like Frank Kokori, the recently released secretary general of the Petroleum Workers Union, Nupeng , they are all in various stages of physical decay.

But Abubakar's Provisional Ruling Council continues to meet to debate their fate, as if there is anything to debate about justice and liberty.

In reality, what they are debating is the desperate strait into which their military agenda has run, how to let go without really letting go, how to continue to ensure the spoils of office while ostensibly transferring control to the civic polity.

The more tragic mistake, however, would be for the US Government and the international community to believe for a moment that with the death of Abiola the military agenda has triumphed.

The contrary is closer to the truth, the military has failed.

Instead of being a bulwark for the protection of the people, it has done nothing but eat up the best and the finest, destroy a national trust, all national sense of belonging and participation, and turned itself into a mammoth incubus that suffocates the aspirations and potential of a vastly talented people.

The present rage will not burn itself out.

On the contrary, when its appears to have subsided, it would be found only to have coiled us into a force for change that would either sweep out the military with ignominy or exploit its innate contribution, its competitive lust for power and its sectional injustices - in short, irrigate the very seed of destruction that it carries within its own fragmented body.

Let the military leave now with its tattered and battered image so that the people can mourn Abiola befittingly and with dignity.

A plan for restoring democracy

We have outlined ad nauseam a programme for the restoration of the nation to democratic rule: Instant disengagement of the military together with the setting up of a government of national unity and reconciliation.

This, to be accompanied by the convening of a sovereign national conference that will address the numerous ills of the nation, adopt a constitution, and oversee the next political elections.

The military must stay out of such a programme.

It is the government of national unity that will oversee the authentic programme of a transition to democracy.

Warning to the military

Now, with the death of Moshood Abiola, the military are regrouping, pumped up with vain aspirations.

They believe they are now free to pursue their agenda. That, we guarantee, will prove a costly miscalculation. The programme for Nigerian democracy retains its validity.

If anything, urgency in the execution of that programme has become paramount.

We can learn from the lessons of our smaller, less pretentious neighbour, the Republic of Benin, which chose a respected member of the religious order to preside over its assembly.

Nigeria is not short of fully credible individuals from all walks of life - from the business world to the judiciary, the academia, religious institutions, and trade unions.

Agreement on a new leader of an interim civilian government is the most urgent task that faces the democratic opposition and the political class.

That the military will have an input into such a choice is to be expected, but the military had better understand that such an input carries no more weight than attaches to all other civic contributions to the search.

If the military attempts to dictate such a choice, however, then it lends even greater credence to the belief that the death of the president-elect at its hands, was indeed, no accident, but a ground-clearing operation for the installation of a surrogate and the commencing manipulation of yet another phoney and wasteful exercise in Nigeria's transition to democracy.

In such a case, and in the event that the military rejects or tries to subvert or circumvent the two central pillars for a truthful and enduring democratic dispensation, then the opposition has no choice but hit back.

BBC Monitoring (, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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