General Abacha was not partial to democracy. When Moshood Abiola was the rightful winner of presidential elections in 1993, General Abacha had him jailed for treason.
In 1995, Nigeria defied the Commonwealth by hanging the writer and environmental campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa. Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth as a result and threatened with expulsion.
Theoretically at least, the dictator's death paves the way for Nigeria to return to the community of nations. Opposition protests have been growing in recent months. One person is reported to have died and 60 were arrested during protests last week in connection with the anniversary of the unexplained death two years ago of the wife of Moshood Abiola.
This Friday will mark the fifth anniversary of Abacha's military takeover. Even before Abacha's death, large protests were planned.
Abacha's death does not mean that democracy is automatically on the horizon. His surviving colleagues in the junta will be keen to ensure that power remains in their hands. But the protests against military rule now seem likely to grow.
According to Muslim custom, Abacha must be buried within 24 hours. According to some reports, he was buried immediately yesterday, after his death in the early hours. Large numbers of soldiers sealed off his residence early yesterday, though the official announcement of the death came only in the evening.
There had been many rumours in recent weeks about Abacha's ill health. He failed to turn up to a special function in Lagos last week. He has made few public appearances since greeting the Pope in March.
Abacha had pledged to hand the government over to an elected administration. But few believed his promises: in April, he became the only candidate for the presidency. The question of succession is unclear.
Robin Cook last night issued a statement on behalf of the EU presidency: "We hope that following the death of General Abacha, there will be an opening for a stable transition to an early return to democracy with the election of an accountable civilian government, which will restore and respect human rights."
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