Abacha purges heads of state companies

GENERAL Sanni Abacha, Nigeria's military ruler, has raised the stakes again in his attempt to crush opposition to military rule by sacking the directors of all state-owned companies and agencies and dissolving their boards.

It is not clear whether they are to be replaced by soldiers, but some observers say the move is part of an expected reorganisation of government. Last week General Abacha sacked the army and navy chiefs who are suspected of being political moderates and who urged a deal with the democracy movement. Some of the leaders of the two oil workers' unions on strike have been detained while others have fled into hiding.

The government said yesterday that striking oil workers who did not turn up for work were sacked. But the threat did not deter the strikers, and less than 10 per cent were reported to be working yesterday.

Yesterday's sackings demonstrate General Abacha's instinct for head-on confrontation which makes his government so different from that of his military predecessor, Ibrahim Babangida. President Babangida, who ruled for eight years, was a skilful manipulator of politicians and the broad desire of Nigerians for a return to civilian rule. General Abacha, on the other hand, is a man of little charm who proclaims on every occasion his intention to return the country to civilian rule but is choosing the path of brute strength and intimidation.

Yesterday, two people were seriously injured when the houses of two prominent democracy activists were attacked by gangs of gunmen. They sprayed bullets and set ablaze a car at the houses of Gani Fawehinmi and Daniel Suleiman, a retired air force general. They hit two unarmed guards at Mr Fawehinmi's house. 'This is state terrorism,' said General Suleiman, a member of the National Democratic Coalition, while Mr Fawehinmi said: 'Who else would attack me but the junta?'

The National Democratic Coalition has widespread backing in the south but it is matched by the Movement for Unity and Progress, a northern-based democratic movement. Support for Moshood Abiola, the man deemed to have won last year's presidential election, is strongest in the south-west, his home base, but the existence of the MUP indicates that the desire for an end to military rule is nation-wide and bridges the perceived gulf between the north and the south.

Next week may prove crucial in the struggle for Nigeria. On Monday, Mr Abiola's trial is due to resume after the judge in Abuja resigned from the case last week, while in Lagos the courts are to rule on whether or not to uphold the government's decree replacing the leaders of the trade unions of oil workers.

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