Abiola rallying-call falls on deaf ears

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SUPPORTERS OF Moshood Abiola, who proclaimed himself president of Nigeria on Saturday, failed to bring Lagos to a halt yesterday but he was still at large last night despite a large-scale police search.

Mr Abiola, usually known by his initials, MKO, announced at a secret meeting that he had formed a government of national unity and said he was commander-in- chief and president. He said the dismissed National Assembly was reconvened and the dismissed governors reinstated. He went into hiding and was immediately proclaimed an outlaw by the military government of General Sanni Abacha and a price put on his head.

It seemed that the battle for power in Nigeria between civilians and the military had finally been joined but it was business as usual in Lagos, the commercial capital, yesterday. Troops and armed police in riot gear patrolled several other cities but there have been few clashes reported so far from the scattered protest marches. General Abacha's government says acts of 'subversion and confrontation' will be punished and several leading pro- democracy activists are in prison.

Mr Abiola and the National Democratic Committee that supports him seem to have failed to build enough support among a populace notoriously sceptical of politicians, whether in uniform or civilian dress. The week-long stay- away protest he called for has failed to happen even in Mr Abiola's home state. However, his move has put pressure on the military government of General Abacha and severely damaged his attempts to set up another democratic process that would supposedly return Nigeria to civilian rule next year. Mr Abiola, a 57-year-old businessman, was the winner of the general election held a year ago, which was proclaimed free and fair by international observers.

President Ibrahim Babangida annulled the result and appointed an unelected civilian government, which was overthrown in November, when General Abacha, a veteran of coups and military rule, made himself president.

Mr Abiola was criticised for fleeing Nigeria after the annulment of his election victory, but since his return to Nigeria last September, he has built support among those who formerly opposed him. Several heavyweight Nigerian politicans, such as Anthony Enahoro and retired Major-General Shehu Yar'Adua, have lent their names to the campaign for an end to military rule.

This has given Mr Abiola the courage to take on the government head-on and change his tone. Last year his demand to be given the presidency was tempered by calls to avert bloodshed. 'Why should I be ready to die?' he asked in January. 'Was that part of the qualification?'

That has now changed. Calling for a national uprising and using slogans from the African National Congress in South Africa, Mr Abiola said on Saturday: 'Do not let us fear arrest . . . People of Nigeria, our time is now . . . No one can give you power; it is yours. Take it]'

Within hours the police declared him a wanted man and offered pounds 1,200 for information about his whereabouts. If caught, he will face treason charges. According to an aide, Mr Abiola planned to hold a meeting with friends and political associates yesterday. On Sunday night he slipped past police outside his house and has not been seen in public since.

A checkpoint has been mounted on the road to the area that contains several Western embassies, including the British High Commission, raising the awkward possibility in the mind of several diplomats that Mr Abiola or his colleagues may seek asylum on diplomatic soil.

This would be deeply embarrassing. Britain, other European Union countries and the United States have imposed limited sanctions against the Nigerian military and called for a return to the democratic process but they have done little to back Mr Abiola, whose election they declared democratic and fair.

Western policy has been to allow events to take their course and back the winner. But if Mr Abiola and General Abacha become deadlocked, outsiders may be forced to take sides.