Babangida retires but army still holds reins: Nigeria's unelected interim government may provoke protest strikes and is unlikely to satisfy Western demands for democracy

AFTER eight years as Nigeria's military ruler, General Ibrahim Babangida retired from the army and stepped down as commander-in-chief of the armed forces yesterday, relinquishing office to a hand-picked interim government headed by the businessman Ernest Shonekan.

The Defence Chief, General Sani Abacha, who with Gen Babangida led coups d'etat in 1983 and 1985, was named as deputy head of government, while the remainder of the 32-member 'interim federal executive council' were civilians, including several former secretaries of the outgoing eight-month-old 'transitional council' chaired by Mr Shonekan.

The announcement left unanswered key questions, such as the duration of the new administration, the fate of the ruling National Defence and Security Council, who would be Nigeria's head of state and who would head the armed forces. A government committee recommended this month that the 'interim federal executive council' would answer to an 'interim governing council', to include the service chiefs, the Chief of Defence Staff, and the national security adviser. But there was no word yesterday about the governing council.

The new government appeared to fall short of Western demands that a civilian government unhindered by the military be installed before they consider lifting mild sanctions imposed after the cancellation of the 12 June presidential elections won by Chief Moshood Abiola.

State radio reported that Gen Babangida would return to his mansion in his home state of Niger today. In a farewell speech, he said: 'I believe the time has come for me, my service chiefs, deputy chief of Defence Staff and Inspector-General of Police to give way to a new set of leadership to propel our march towards lasting civilian democratic governance at all levels of our country.'

Mr Shonekan, 57, a British-educated former chairman of Nigeria's biggest conglomerate, the United African Company, served for the past eight months as chairman of the largely powerless civilian 'transitional council' set up in January when Gen Babangida delayed his departure for the third time.

The announcement of the new government was repeatedly delayed amid reports of strong opposition among senior officers. Nigerians did not know who the members of the government were until they were sworn in.

Pro-democracy groups, which organised strikes in south-western Nigeria this week, rejected the interim government as a perpetuation of military rule. 'It is not acceptable,' said Olisa Agbakoba, head of the Civil Liberties Organisation. 'It is clear that the guy had a hidden agenda to retire and then re-emerge as a civilian to begin a campaign for the presidency.'

Nigeria's commercial centre, Lagos, was largely shut down yesterday as a stayaway called by the Campaign for Democracy entered its second day. Most private shops and banks were closed, and traffic on the normally congested streets was light.

Leaders of the 3.5 million-strong National Labour Congress meet today to decide whether to start a national strike tomorrow to press the military to hand over either to Chief Abiola or the Senate President, Iyorchia Ayu. Workers in the nation's strategic oil industry planned to walk out tomorrow. 'This is civil society waging an independent struggle to weaken the military autocracy and its interim government,' said Chima Ubani, general secretary of the Campaign for Democracy. 'We have to go from passive resistance to bring people out in a more active form of struggle.'

The new administration takes power amid the worst crisis since the 1967-70 Biafra civil war. Human rights leaders and lawyers, including Beko Ransome-Kuti, chairman of the Campaign for Democracy, are in jail without trial. The robust press is fighting a sustained attack of arrests and outright bannings.

Leading article, page 27

(Photograph omitted)

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