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Nigerians Mourn First Lady

Nigerians are paying respects to their late First Lady, Stella Obasanjo. Mrs. Obasanjo, who had a sometimes-rocky relationship with the president, died in Spain of apparent complications from a surgical procedure.

Mourners waited in line at the State House in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, in order to sign the book of condolences for Stella Obasanjo.

A portrait of the 59-year-old first lady was placed in the State House's banquet hall and adorned with decorations of white and green, Nigeria's national colors. National television reported she died Sunday in Spain.

The former minister for women's affairs, Rita Akpan, says the death is a tragedy for Nigerians.

"And when I say Nigerians, I am not talking about the children that she reached out to help. I am not talking about the women that she empowered. I am not talking about the young girls for whom she became a role model. I am talking about all Nigerians. I want them to feel that they have lost a mother," said Ms. Akpan.

The deputy governor of Anambra, Ugochucku Nwankwor, says, like many Nigerians, he was shocked by the news, especially since the first lady was apparently in good health.

"We least expected it," he said. "We did not have any indication that she was ill. In recent times, she has exuded with life. So that, to think that she is now dead, it beats everybody's imagination."

No reason for Mrs. Obasanjo's visit to Spain has been given by the president's office.

Local media have reported Mrs. Obasanjo died from complications while undergoing cosmetic surgery. This version of events also was conveyed to VOA by a source within the presidency.

President Obasanjo has had children with several women. He and his wife, Stella, separated at one time. They got back together during a sentence Mr. Obasanjo served in prison under the rule of the late General Sani Abacha.

Nigerian journalist Gilbert DaCosta says the relationship has been smooth, at least publicly, since President Obasanjo became a born-again Christian.

"We have heard rumors about sometimes difficult relations. But, in public, the president has often demonstrated tremendous affection towards his wife," recalled Mr.DaCosta. "I remember, there was a time when he was going on a trip outside the country, and he had to leave a public event. And, before he left, he went to the wife and kissed her. People were clapping and all that."

Authorities in Spain are expected to perform an autopsy on the body before it is returned to Nigeria. President Obasanjo has called for three days of mourning for his wife.

That will coincide with the mourning period for more than 100 passengers and crew of a Bellview Airlines flight, who were killed when their plane crashed late Saturday after taking off from the airport in Lagos.

In May 2005, Mrs. Obasanjo appeared on VOA's Africa Journal. Click the above links to download or listen to the VOA exclusive interview on the hour long program.