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Babangida's tactics prompt opposition groups to unite: Karl Maier reports from Lagos on signs of weakness in the President's ploy to divide and rule

THREATS by Nigeria's military government against an invigorated labour movement and a clampdown on the press and human rights groups appear to be bringing unity to a society long racked by ethnic and religious divisions.

In the past, President Ibrahim Babangida's eight-year-old military government has split the opposition by playing on ethnic and regional differences and, critics claim, by offering bribes to sway opinion.

So far, the focus of the anti-military protests has been south-west Nigeria, home of the Yoruba people of Chief Moshood Abiola, the Muslim tycoon who won the annulled 12 June presidential elections. When a boycott called by pro-democracy groups shut down the main cities of Lagos and Ibadan from 12 August to 14 August, the key northern cities of Kaduna and Kano, where the Hausa-Fulani people dominate, ignored the protest. That could change if Gen Babangida attempts to hold on to power.

Nigeria, cobbled together from more than 250 ethnic groups by British colonial engineers, remains today much as it was described in 1947 by the leading nationalist Obafemi Awolowo: 'Nigeria is not a nation. It is a mere geographical expression.'

Pro-democracy organisers in the mainly Christian Yoruba heartland have admitted that they have failed to spread the protests nationally. 'Babangida is playing the ethnic card, saying to the north that if you guys do not support me, you are going to have a southern president,' said one activist. The failure of south-western Nigeria to join with the Christian east, dominated by the Igbo people, against the largely Muslim north in the 1967-70 civil war, has also undermined the opposition. 'The east is saying to the west, look you did not help us, so we are not helping you,' the activist said.

Just four days before the military's promised handover to a civilian government, opposition to the Babangida administration and its plan to install an army-backed interim government has reached unprecedented levels. The 3.5 million- strong National Labour Congress (NLC), the oilworkers' union, and the largely middle-class Campaign for Democracy have called strikes for tomorrow to try to force the military to quit office.

Hundreds of journalists in Lagos, the commercial centre, began a one- day strike yesterday to protest at new decrees banning at least 10 publications, imposing stiff sentences for anyone publishing 'false reports', and forcing newspapers to undergo a rigid registration process.

The Information Minister, Uche Chukwumerije, responded to the strike calls by threatening to abolish compulsory union membership.

The Nigerian government announced late last night a 900 per cent increase in prices for top-grade fuel, a move human rights groups had predicted the authorities would make to create chaos and justify an extension of military rule.