Abiola's judge quits treason trial

ABUJA - The judge presiding over the treason trial of opposition politician Moshood Abiola walked out of the case yesterday, dashing union expectations he would be freed and prolonging Nigeria's crippling political crisis.

The oil workers unions Nupeng and Pengassan, whose six-week- old strike has paralysed industry and transport, said they would continue their action. 'We are going to intensify the strike until Chief Abiola and other political detainees are unconditionally released,' said Ken Narebor, deputy general secretary of Pengassan.

The blue collar oil union Nupeng said it would not attend talks with the military government scheduled for Wednesday. Nupeng president Wariebe Agamene said: 'The government has not shown the sincerity needed to move this country forward . . . Abiola has to be released before we resume talks with the government'.

Judge Mohammed Mustapha told a packed court in the capital, Abuja, before walking out: 'It has been my desire to see that the accused gets unhindered justice. Now it is clear from all the utterances that they have no confidence in me. I wish to excuse myself from further hearing the case.' His abrupt withdrawal is bound to delay the trial as a new judge will have to be appointed.

Chief Abiola, wearing a traditional white gown, waved as he entered the court. He embraced his wives, family and friends and laughed when the judge read out the charges of attempting to overthrow military ruler General Sani Abacha. Police later led him away.

There was no sign that the authorities were ready to drop charges against the multi-millionaire media magnate, who is widely believed to have won last year's annulled presidential election and proclaimed himself president in June, prompting his arrest which touched off strikes and riots.

'We were expecting a nolle prosequi (application to discontinue the case),' said the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) president, Pascal Bafyau. 'What has happened is a surprise to us, and the central working committee of the NLC will meet immediately to decide what will happen next,' he added. The NLC called off a two-day general strike to negotiate Chief Abiola's release and is under pressure to resume the stoppage.