Crunch time for Nigeria as general strike looms

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A GENERAL strike is set to go ahead in Nigeria today, setting the scene for a showdown with the military dictatorship which could end in economic and political catastrophe.

Despite rumours that Moshood Abiola may be released and treason charges against him dropped, his trial was adjourned until today by a court in Abuja yesterday. Mr Abiola, whose election to the presidency last year was annulled by the election's military organisers, is charged with the intention to 'remove or overawe otherwise by unconstitutional means, the head of state . . . ' and to have 'solicited, incited, addressed and endeavoured to persuade people to take part in unconstitutionally overthrowing the head of state'. He was arrested in June when he publicly declared himself president on the first anniversary of his electoral victory.

Yesterday, General Sani Abacha, the military ruler, presided over a meeting of the Armed Forces Consultative Assembly, the ruling junta, to discuss the growing political and economic crisis but no public statement was issued after the talks. The trade union body, the National Labour Congress, which has a membership of 3.5 million and 41 affiliated unions, said it would go ahead with a general strike today unless Mr Abiola was released.

Strikes by oil-workers have already brought Lagos, the commercial capital, almost to a halt and those who choose to go to work have to walk because there is no fuel. The strike was begun by Nupeng, the blue-collar oil-workers' union, on 4 July and it was later joined by white-collar workers from the sister union, Pengassan. The oil-production of Shell, which extracts half the country's oil, has fallen by one- third.

Wariebe Agamene, president of Nupeng, yesterday warned those who intended to carry on working: 'If they don't stop their treacherous activities, the next option will involve body-bags. A few people will be caught up in the melodrama. We are prepared to deal with these people violently.' A Shell spokesman said local workers but not expatriates had been intimidated so far.

Meanwhile, the economy is being suffocated by the strike and more and more investors and traders are being frightened off by the possibility of a catastrophic political explosion.

Anti-military forces have coalesced around the oil-workers' action and they now include senior political figures, human-rights activists, and most of Mr Abiola's fellow Yorubas from the south- west of the country. Against them are ranged the military, which has ruled Nigeria for all but 10 of Nigeria's 34 years of independent statehood, and much of the Hausa- speaking Muslims of the north, many of whom regard the leadership of Nigeria, military or not, as a northern birthright. The increasing regional polarisation of Nigerian politics is breeding fear that the country may become embroiled in ethnic, regional and religious civil strife.

Despite broad statements in favour of democracy and national reconciliation by Western donors, there is no co-ordinated policy from the rest of the world. The United States Congress is threatening to freeze Nigerian assets in the US but Britain is keeping a low profile, preferring to watch events. Its visa sanctions against the country's military rulers have not prevented several senior Nigerian army officers, including Mohammed Chris Alli, the Chief of Staff, from visiting Britain.