Military keeps lid on protest in Lagos quashed

ROBERT BLOCK

The Nigerian military held Lagos and other cities in a tight grip yesterday to avoid trouble on the second anniversary of annulled presidential elections, and the first anniversary of the arrest of the poll's victor, Chief Mashood Abiola.

Helicopters buzzed the business capital as police and troops in armoured personnel carriers patrolled the city. The streets were largely deserted. The beleaguered pro-democracy movement had called for a day of strike action, asking people to stay at home in a show of protest against the military government of General Sani Abacha.

"Many people are staying away," said a clerk at a virtually empty commercial bank in central Lagos. Oil companies, however, said that they were operating as usual and residents of the capital, Abuja, said business was normal.

A crackdown against anti-government activists that began several weeks ago ensured the 12 June anniversary would pass without incident. General Abacha's government has arrested scores of opponents, drawing criticism from international human rights groups.

The calm of Lagos yesterday contrasted with events on Sunday, which suggested the city was heading towards a repeat of last year's violence. Officers of a mobile police unit, known as "kill and go" cops, waved guns in motorists' faces. At roadblocks throughout the city of 6 million, every car was stopped, every passenger searched. The situation was so tense that people prayed for calm. "Save this nation from the impending chaos," said one priest at a Catholic church in central Lagos on Sunday.

Last year, dozens of people were killed in protests, mostly in Chief Abiola's south-west home region, where support for him is strongest. The chief, a millionaire Muslim businessman, marked the first anniversary of the election by declaring himself president in defiance of the military regime. He was arrested afterward and remains in jail.

His arrest sparked protests, which culminated in a crippling strike last year by oil industry workers. Oil accounts for about 80 percent of Nigeria's foreign revenue.

Most opposition groups are still working for his release. His daughter, Zulikat Wuraola Abiola, said in London yesterday: "My father must come out immediately. His arrest is one year too long." She called on the international community to keep up pressure on the Abacha regime. "Don't let the world forget the struggle for democracy in Nigeria, or my father."

Britain's Overseas Development Minister, Lynda Chalker, last week said Nigeria faced suspension from the Commonwealth. The Parliamentary Human Rights Group called for a temporary ban on Nigerian oil sales, if the military government refuses to step down.

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