Babangida cancels farewell address: New protests erupt on eve on power hand-over

PRESIDENT Ibrahim Babangida yesterday postponed without explanation a nationwide farewell address he was to have given today before handing power to an interim government. No new time was announced for the speech and there was no indication of how the decision would affect the hand-over.

The announcement came as a new round of stayaway protests was launched in Nigeria by the Campaign for Democracy. Strikes were called for the weekend by the National Labour Congress (NLC) and the oil workers' union, Nupeng.

The pro-democracy activists and the unions have rejected the proposed army-backed interim administration and demanded that Gen Babangida hand over power tomorrow to a constitutional government led either by Chief Moshood Abiola, the winner of the cancelled 12 June presidential elections, or the President of the Senate, Iyorchia Ayu.

'Whatever dressing they give this animal, the interim government, it will still be a bastard,' Chief Abiola said from exile in London yesterday. Predicting that the new administration would last 'a few days', he said: 'No credible person who values his name would be a part of it, because he would go down in history as a traitor to the people's cause.'

The hand-picked interim administration Gen Babangida plans to install today is likely to be the weakest government Africa's most populous nation has seen.

A hugely expensive on-again, off- again transition programme to guide a massive nation riddled with complex ethnic and religious divisions toward an America-in-Africa, complete with a two-party political system and a trim free-market economy, has collapsed into confusion. At no time since the 1967-70 Biafran civil war has Nigeria been closer to an outbreak of fratricidal violence.

Most private banks and shops were shut in Lagos yesterday at the start of the three-day stayaway while traffic was light on the commercial centre's usually congested streets. There was congestion at petrol stations, however, as people queued to purchase cheap fuel before big price rises announced on Monday took effect. The Campaign for Democracy's protests went largely ignored in the north, however, and government offices in Lagos remained open.

The 3.5 million-strong NLC rejected the government's call on the workers to defy the strike due to begin on Saturday. The acting NLC secretary general, Morgan Anigbo, dismissed the government's attempt to undermine union power. 'The colonial masters tried and failed,' he said. 'Segments of the Nigerian bourgeoisie tried it and failed.'

Although Gen Babangida's press secretary, Duro Onabule, announced that the general would be leaving office after eight years in power, there were still no details on the military's role in the new administration. That issue will be the key to acceptance of the new government by pro-democracy activists and Western governments which have conditioned the lifting of mild sanctions against Nigeria on the installation of a civilian administration free of military control.

Western governments have jointly outlined a package of new sanctions, including the simultaneous withdrawal of all heads of mission and the extension of the ban on visas to military officers to include all government officials, if they decide the interim administration is unacceptable. Current military sales, such as a tank contract with the British firm Vickers, would be unaffected.

The military's attempt to assuage Western opinion by obtaining a vote of confidence from the National Assembly failed this week when the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, was reduced to two days of acrimony between supporters of Chief Abiola and Gen Babangida.