Doctor wants to dose Nigeria with democracy: Karl Maier in Lagos meets Beko Ransome-Kuti, who is trying to rid the country of military rule

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The Independent Online
RESISTANCE to military rule and police abuses runs in the family of Beko Ransome-Kuti, leader of Nigeria's Campaign for Democracy.

His mother, Funlayo, was a political activist, beginning in the 1940s, when she organised a campaign to stop police taxing women farmworkers among the Yoruba people of south-western Nigeria. She died of wounds suffered in 1977 when troops raided the complex of Dr Ransome-Kuti's brother, the singer Fela Kuti, and threw her from a second- floor window.

Today, as president of the two-year-old Campaign for Democracy, the soft-spoken Dr Ransome-Kuti, 53, leads an unwieldy coalition of about 40 human-rights, women's and student groups which opposed the military regime of the former president, Ibrahim Ba bangida, before his resignation on 26 August and which is trying to force another soldier, Sani Abacha, from office.

'We will always be opposed to military rule,' Dr Ransome- Kuti said in an interview at his clinic in Lagos. 'People are coming from all over the country, asking where we stand. Now that the military is here again, our job is to build up the organisation and make sure they leave as soon as possible.'

But the Campaign for Democracy is in disarray, split over the traditional love-hate relationship Nigerian reformists have with the military, especially in the early days of a new regime, when big promises of anti-corruption drives and lasting political changes are made. 'When Babangida came in in 1985, some of us danced, jumped for joy,' Dr Ransome-Kuti said. 'But this time we are very wary.'

The next big test will be the Abacha government's promise to hold a constitutional conference early this year that would be similar to the 'sovereign national conference' demanded by Dr Ransome-Kuti and the Campaign for Democracy to discuss Nigeria's future, whether its 90 million people and 250 ethnic groups should remain one country or be split up, and how it should be run.

Although he doubts it, it could be that the military finally has come around to seeing things from his point of view. 'It depends on what the content is. Because some of them (in government) have said it will be more all-encompassing than a sovereign national conference. But if it is flawed, if it is an exercise orchestrated by the military, we will boycott it.' In a sense, Dr Ransome-Kuti and his campaigners are victims of their own prophecy. The Campaign for Democracy had said all along that General Babangida's plans to set up a democratic government were designed to fail.

Then the presidential elections held on 12 June produced something unique in Nigerian politics: a southern candidate, Moshood Abiola, who not only won the election but attracted heavy voter support that cut across the country's ethnic and religious frontiers. Suddenly it appeared that General Babangida's programme for transition to civilian rule, which cost up to pounds 1bn, had been a success after all.

Eleven days after the polls closed, however, General Babangida cancelled the election, tried to hold on to power and was finally forced to hand over to a handpicked civilian administration headed by a businessman, Ernest Shonekan. 'From the very start, we said Babangida's transitional programme was meant to self-destruct,' Dr Ransome-Kuti said. 'Unfortunately that is what happened.'

General Babangida had vowed that his eight-year government would be the last in a long line of military regimes that have ruled Nigeria for 23 of its 33 years since independence. His prediction held for 82 days. On 17 November General Abacha, General Babangida's long-time deputy, overthrew the deeply unpopular civilian administration.

Since then General Abacha has moved quickly to shore up military and political support by co-opting significant pro- democracy activists, such as Dr Ransome-Kuti's lawyer, Olu Onagoruwa, and Chief Abiola's running-mate, Baba Gana Kingibe.

Junior officers, angry at the collapse of military standards and conditions, have welcomed General Abacha's sacking of pro-Babangida officers. The Campaign became so influential that just days before General Abacha overthrew the interim administration, he sent emissaries to Dr Ransome-Kuti. 'There were consultations, about the state of the nation, about what to do,' he said. 'I said the army should not come in. Unless we had a national conference, this country would not settle down.'

Dr Ransome-Kuti's involvement in politics dates from 1972, when he and other doctors, angered by the degradation of the hospital system, began to lobby for a better set- up. He plunged into Nigeria's political fray in 1989, when he helped set up the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights. Two years later the Babangida government appointed him chairman of the University Teaching Hospital but he was sacked after 10 months because of his attacks on General Babangida's human-rights record.

Troops of General Abacha raided offices of Nigeria's most critical and popular magazine, Tell, and seized 50,000 copies criticising the return to military dictatorship, the editor, Nosa Igiebor, said yesterday, AP reports. 'The Return Of Tyranny: Abacha Bares His Fangs', the latest edition of Tell said in a headline.

(Photographs omitted)