'Democracy' pledged as police hunt Abiola

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LAGOS - The military ruler, General Sanni Abacha, yesterday pledged to steer Nigeria towards democracy as police pursued a manhunt for his rival, Moshood Abiola, who escaped from house arrest after proclaiming a rival government a day earlier.

In a national television and radio address on the first anniversary of the annulled presidential elections - widely believed to have been won by Mr Abiola - General Abacha pledged his 'determination' to establish a lasting democracy in Nigeria.

Mr Abiola, a millionaire businessman, remained in hiding yesterday after apparently evading some 100 police deployed to guard him at his Lagos home, as the authorities promised a reward for information leading to his arrest on charges of trying to overthrow the government.

Late on Saturday Mr Abiola declared himself president, army chief and head of a rival government. Calling on General Abacha and his administration to resign, he told a crowd of some 3,000 people at a secret meeting: 'A new government of national unity is in power . . . led by me . . . as president and commander-in-chief.'

An aide said yesterday that Mr Abiola was in 'perfect health' and he was preparing a 'programme of action'.

General Abacha, during his address yesterday, made no specific mention of Mr Abiola or recent events, but said his administration had 'undertaken to lay a solid foundation for the growth of genuine democracy in our country' and was 'determined to accomplish this historic task'. He warned, however, that opponents of his regime 'engaged in acts of confrontation (and) sabotage . . . must be prepared to face the full force of the law of the land,' adding that 'such acts will be sternly punished'.

The government has offered a 60,000-naira ( pounds 1,800) reward for information on Mr Abiola's whereabouts, Nigerian television reported. National radio, quoting a police statement, alleged that Mr Abiola's activities 'include well- laid-down plans' to force the 'overthrow of the federal military government'.

The statement also said that Mr Abiola was being helped by 'a certain foreign mission in Lagos'.

Police hunting for Mr Abiola yesterday mounted a checkpoint on a road leading to a number of foreign missions. The road, Eleke Crescent, leads to the diplomatic missions of the United States, Britain, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Russia, India, Bulgaria and Finland, as well as their respective residences. Passengers and drivers were questioned about the missions to which they were heading.

The Campaign for Democracy, a militant wing of the opposition movement, has called for a week of civil disobedience, starting today.