Nigerian representative dies during corruption row

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ABUJA, Oct 17 (Reuters) A member of Nigeria's House of Representatives died today after exerting himself during a parliamentary row over contracts worth 5 million dollars which has paralysed the lower chamber for weeks.

The death of Aminu Safana came on the second day of pandemonium in the House, when opposing forces within the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) tussled on the floor, waved handkerchiefs, shouted insults and sang the national anthem.

The chaos began yesterday when Speaker Patricia Etteh refused to call a vote on whether she should step down while members debate the issue of the contracts she awarded to renovate two official residences and buy 10 official cars.

An in-house panel has said Etteh broke the rules in awarding the contracts, worth 628 million naira (5 million dollars).

Safana was one of several Etteh supporters waving white handkerchiefs and shouting, before he sat down and asked colleagues to take him to hospital.

''He is dead. It is very devastating,'' majority leader Tunde Akogun told journalists.

The head of the National Hospital said the cause of death was not known. Safana, 46, was diabetic.

The contracts row has halted all other House business, delayed the presentation of the 2008 budget and undermined President Umaru Yar'Adua, who has tried to project an image of integrity since taking office in May.

Etteh's opponents, who chanted ''thief'' at her today, said they would not back down until she allowed members to vote on a motion that she should step down to avoid chairing the debate about her own indictment by the in-house panel.

''The death of the honourable member cannot sweep this struggle under the carpet. There is simply no way of moving forward without the speaker stepping aside for the report to be debated,'' said Emmanuel Jimeh of the PDP.

Etteh made no public comments today and adjourned the session with a bang of the gavel.

The row has embarrassed Yar'Adua, who came to power pledging a restoration of moral values and zero tolerance for corruption in one of the world's most tainted countries.

Although there is a separation of powers between executive and legislature in the Nigerian system, Yar'Adua is still head of the PDP and many Nigerians are waiting for him to step in.

The devout Muslim has cultivated an image of austerity and simple living in an effort to curb the culture of profligacy among Nigeria's ruling elite, but his message has been lost in a daily flow of headlines about the speaker's lavish renovations.

In her defence, Etteh says she is the victim of a vendetta by veteran members who are angry because she did not name them chairmen of the House committees they coveted, choosing newcomers instead.

Some members privately agree, but they say Etteh should face the consequences of her actions even if the those who revealed the contracts were motivated by revenge.

REUTERS RSA RAI2149

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