Muslim millionaires ready to fight Nigerian presidency

TWO millionaire Muslim businessmen on good terms with President Ibrahim Babangida's military government appeared set yesterday to win the nominations of Nigeria's army-created political parties to contest presidential elections scheduled for 12 June.

Bashir Tofa, 45, an influential northern Muslim and banker who once called for the extension of military rule, captured the nomination of the right-wing National Republican Convention at a party meeting in the south-eastern city of Port Harcourt. Moshood Abiola, 55, was leading the former ambassador, Baba Gana Kingibe, 48, in balloting of 5,000 delegates at the convention of the liberal Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the northern city of Jos.

Mr Tofa hails from the ancient city of Kano and is believed to enjoy the backing of the Sultan of Sokoto, Ibrahim Dasuki, the nominal spiritual leader of Nigeria's Muslims. A relative political unknown, Mr Tofa emerged as a candidate following the banning of more established politicians by General Babangida's eight-year- old military government late last year, when it extended army rule for the third time.

Name recognition is no problem for either Mr Abiola or Mr Kingibe. A British-trained accountant, Mr Abiola rose from humble beginnings in Abeokuta, in the south-west, to become a vice- president of the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation, founder of a shipping line and owner of the prominent publishing house, Concord Press. He has led a campaign for reparations from the West for the slave trade and is considered Nigeria's biggest philanthropist. Mr Kingibe, from the north-eastern state of Borno, was chairman of the SDP until his sacking last year after two rounds of primaries were cancelled amid charges of vote-rigging.

Many Nigerians still harbour grave doubts, however, that the election in June and the scheduled handover to civilian rule on 27 August will take place. Amid runaway inflation and the value of the national currency, the naira, locked in a spiral of decline, tension is growing over the government's plans to increase domestic fuel prices, among the cheapest in the world, to cover the administration's massive budget deficits.

'Our nation may be heading for an upheaval of unpredictable, but potentially calamitous proportions,' the human-rights activist, Beko Ransome-Kuti, wrote 10 days ago in a letter to Chief Ernest Shonekan, chairman of a civilian 'transitional council' set up by the military in January. Dr Ransome-Kuti, who has been repeatedly detained for his outspoken criticism of the military, warned that many Nigerians view a planned fuel-price rise as part of the overall plan of the Babangida regime to precipitate a national crisis 'that would provide it with the excuse to perpetuate itself in power'.