Amid conflicting reports about the death last month of Gen Sani Abacha, Nigeria's widely-reviled dictator, a leading diplomat claims the late head of state was murdered.
"I know for a fact he was poisoned," a diplomat with close contacts in the Nigerian military told The Irish Times. "My sources in the army have confirmed this. A small group of officers thought the only solution was to poison him and this is what they did."
A Nigerian newspaper, however, reported yesterday that autopsy results showed Gen Abacha died of natural causes. The independent Thisday said "blood, urine and tissue samples" taken and analysed in Germany soon after his death revealed no evidence of poisoning. "This. . .may douse fears in some quarters that General Abacha might have died of unnatural causes," the newspaper said.
The Nigerian government said Gen Abacha died of a heart attack on June 8th. But there has been widespread speculation that he was poisoned with spiked apple juice while with prostitutes.
"I can tell you Abacha left the presidential villa in the early hours of the morning to go to one of two guest houses in Abuja [the capital]," says the diplomat, who asked not to be named. "This was something he did regularly. He went there to meet two Indian girls in the morning of June 8th and that is where he was poisoned."
The diplomat says the killing was motivated by growing dissatisfaction among junior officers. He believes there was also a growing feeling of insecurity in the army, after the arrest of high-ranking officers for alleged coup-plotting in 1995 and again in 1997.
"A coup d'etat is virtually impossible in Nigeria," the diplomat says. "All the barracks are far away from Abuja. There were rumours of another coup on the way but in the end certain officers thought the best way out would be to get rid of him."
The US government says it has received reports that Gen Abacha was poisoned but that the information is not conclusive.
Gen Abacha's death and his replacement by Gen Abdusalam Abubakar raised hopes that Nigeria would move closer to democracy. There was also growing speculation that Chief Moshood Abiola, jailed after apparently winning the annulled 1993 presidential election, would be freed. But Nigeria's leading opposition figure died while meeting US officials in Abuja on July 7th. An international team of doctors said at the weekend that an autopsy proved he died of heart disease.
Reuters adds from Bonn: One of the widows of Gen Abiola was yesterday quoted in a German newspaper as saying he had been poisoned.
Ms Dupe Onitiri-Abiola, one of Abiola's dozens of alleged wives, was quoted by the Tageszeitung as saying that there was a "conspiracy" against him.