Tunji Lardner,

Tunji Lardner,

A weeklong electronic journal.
July 1 1998 3:30 AM

Tunji Lardner,

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       It is clear that I'm late for the carnival. I missed the festivities by about three weeks. Nigeria's biggest block party was June 8, with spontaneous and in some instances riotous celebrations throughout the land.
       Where were you when you heard the news? As with the death of JFK, everybody remembers the precise moment when word came that Abacha was dead. First we celebrate and next ... we figure out what's next. The historical significance of Abacha's demise is not lost on Nigerians, but its practical meaning and consequences are still subject to varied interpretations, as is the cause of death.
       The national fixation with Abacha's death is understandable. For Nigerians, it was deliverance from the yoke of five years of tyranny, deliverance of biblical proportions, with the mighty swoosh of divine swordsmanship bearing down to smite the pharaoh. One joke on the circuit is that a couple of weeks before he died, Abacha called on the Nigerians to pray for him and the nation ... and they did.
       The parallel debate on the nation's future is a classic "whodunit." I see Hollywood potential here, a story line complete with shots fired from the grassy knoll, a tale worthy of an Oliver Stone production, or perhaps even something more magical, à la Fellini.
       In Nigeria, the story is never straightforward. It is usually an exquisite logic-defying tale of magical realism, in which the lines between fact and fiction, physical and metaphysical, blur into a pliable chronicle, revalidated each time the tale is told.
       One intriguing version making the rounds is that Abacha kept a late night tryst with some local beauties, arranged by one of his cronies, the general responsible for the capital city of Abuja. Being a creature of the night in more ways than one, Abacha, after attending to weighty matters of state, kept his rendezvous. He is said to have expired, possibly on the down-stroke, with an assist from Viagra. At this point I am thinking, does the U.S. Food and Drug Administration know about this?
       Even as the nation's new leader, Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar--sworn in a couple of hours after Abacha's death--struggles with the task of reconciling a divided nation and effecting a credible democratic transition, all before Oct. 1, his every move is viewed with suspicion by Nigerians profoundly distrustful of the military. This is a paranoid country, with good reasons to be so. But for now, with the release of some prominent political prisoners and a nationwide consultative outreach, Abubakar seems to be saying to Nigerians and the world: Abubakar is not Abacha; please give us another chance.

Tunji Lardner is a Nigerian journalist who lives in New York and writes for West Africa magazine. He is a consultant for the United Nations on the Internet and the media, and an adjunct professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism's Center for New Media.