Magazine article Newsweek

Death of a Prisoner

Magazine article Newsweek

Death of a Prisoner

Article excerpt

Politics can be a very dangerous profession

NIGERIANS WERE TINGLING WITH expectation. Last Tuesday they packed into their neighborhood taverns, where every television was tuned to the World Cup semifinal. The Nigerian national team, talented but raw, had disintegrated in the second round. No problem. The crowds at the bar cheered and shouted anyway, as Brazil faced off against the Netherlands. But the excitement was about something more than great football. Prevailing rumors said the country's most famous political prisoner, Moshood Abiola, was about to be set free after four years in detention.

The release never came. At sunset, a bulletin stopped the fun: Abiola was dead. The news hit Nigerians all the harder because their hopes had flown so high. Almost anything had seemed possible after the country's corrupt dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, died of a heart attack in early June. His replacement, Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, was said to support a return to civilian rule. In quick order the new leader had freed dozens of detainees. Letting Abiola go would have convinced many that the nightmare was over.

Instead the country seems bound for new depths of violence. The government said Abiola suffered a heart attack in the midst of a meeting with foreign envoys. An independent autopsy over the weekend concluded that he probably died from long-untreated heart disease. But millions of Nigerians blamed his military captors. "They either poisoned him or killed him from neglect," daughter Hafsat Abiola told NEWSWEEK. "Either way, they killed him."

By midnight, Lagos was awash in rage and blood. Angry civilians filled the streets, setting bonfires and throwing rocks. In a panic, riot cops fired live ammunition into the crowd, but the mob kept surging onward, furiously chanting: "Won fiku sere! 0 won fiku sere!"-- "They play with death! Oh, they play with death! …

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