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Nigeria's Would-Be President Abiola Dies of Heart Attack

By James Rupert
The Washington Post
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast

Nigeria's imprisoned political leader, Moshood Abiola, died Tuesday of a heart attack as he talked with Nigerian officials and senior U.S. diplomats about how to resolve Nigeria's five-year-old political crisis, the Nigerian government said.

Abiola, 60, who was the apparent winner of Nigeria's annulled 1993 presidential elections and had been jailed since the following year, was a focus of hopes for ending 15 years of military rule in Africa's most populous nation. His release had been expected imminently as a key step in efforts to restore civilian rule and end Nigeria's international isolation, and his unexpected death deepened Nigeria's political uncertainty. Within hours, as the news spread, rioting was reported in the country's largest city, Lagos.

U.S. officials said Abiola collapsed not long after he began a meeting with U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering and other diplomats.

Pickering in a CNN interview said that Nigerian officials had taken the U.S. delegation to meet Abiola at the government guest house in Abuja, the capital, where he has been held recently. Abiola had halted the meeting, Pickering said, "asking to restore his thoughts. He took tea and had trouble breathing." A doctor was called and Abiola was taken by car to the clinic that serves the country's military leadership, where doctors worked for an hour and a half to save him, said Pickering, a former ambassador to Nigeria.

In Washington, President Clinton expressed regret at the "sudden and untimely" death. Pickering, a former ambassador to Nigeria, said in an interview with National Public Radio: "It's a great tragedy, and we are deeply concerned by the situation, not only with the disappearance of a political leader of some great note here in the country, but also for the potential for disturbances that that might bring."

The death of Abiola - seen by many Nigerians, especially those of his Yoruba ethnic group, as a political savior - appeared certain to damage prospects for political reconciliation and cooperation between the new military government of Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar and the heavily Yoruba political opposition. Abubakar replaced Gen. Sani Abacha, who jailed Abiola in 1994, when Abacha died suddenly one month ago after five turbulent years in power. His death immediately sparked rioting by politically embittered Yorubas in the southwest.