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Nation ruled by its divisions

David Orr goes to Kaduna to meet one of northern Nigeria's 'big men'
The desk and tables are covered with chrome executive toys. Downstairs in his garage, Alhaji Lema Jibrilu keeps an even more impressive collection of playthings: shining Mercedes and four-wheel-drives.

Mr Jibrilu, a former presidential candidate, is a member of Nigeria's northern establishment, a man of wealth, influence and friends in high places. He is the archetypal oga or Big Man. His ante-room is filled with a constant stream of petitioners and favour-seekers.

His home - all white marble and gleaming gilt - is in Kaduna, built by the British early in the century as capital of the northern region. Kaduna is noticeably cleaner than other Nigerian cities and there are imposing villas on the outskirts.

Mr Jibrilu denies belonging to the city's "mafia", a clique of northern power-brokers which many southerners believe dominates Nigerian politics. It may be - as Mr Jibrilu insists - a myth, but it is, nonetheless, a potent one.

There is no denying the influence of the north on Nigeria's political stage. Maybe "stage" is not the appropriate word here for, under the military regime, the business of government is conducted far behind the scenes. Notions of public accountability do not figure in the thinking of the Provisional Ruling Council which has been in control for nearly two years and which, it was announced at the weekend, is set at least for another three.

Soon after seizing power in the wake of the annulled presidential election in 1993, General Sani Abacha set about dismantling all democratic institutions, and arrested and detained journalists, members of the opposition, and civil rights activists.

The Abacha regime is the latest in a long line which centres on the north, home of the Hausa-Fulani ethnic group and cradle of Nigerian Islam. Only three out of 10 leaders since independence in 1960 have come from the Christian south. The Yoruba of the south-west and the Ibo of the south- east have long felt themselves disenfranchised by northern political domination.

Mr Jibrilu is far from being an apologist for the Abacha regime, which he says took power by force. He hoped for a shorter transition period to democracy than three years, but is unapologetic in championing northern virtue and supremacy.

"The politicians from the north are more dynamic in their approach", he said. "Southerners are lazy. They just want the presidency on a golden platter." There is no irony in his smoky voice. He sets little store by the fact that Chief Moshood Abiola, a Yoruba and a Muslim, is believed to have won the 1993 election which, as soon as the results became clear, was annulled by the then military ruler, General Ibrahim Babangida. Mr Jibrilu has no sympathy for Chief Abiola, who has been in jail since last year for proclaiming himself President in defiance of the ruling council and who faces a charge of treason. New presidential and legislative elections are not to be held until 1998.

Mr Jibrilu is intolerant not only of pushy would-be presidents but of southern politicians who have been jailed for opposing the dictatorial regime of General Abacha. "There is no infringement of human rights in Nigeria", he insisted. "The pro-democracy movement is nothing but a gang of tribalists and anarchists." His stern views are not representative of all the north, for there are moderate voices here as well. But they are indicative of a perspective which sees the south as divisive and unruly.

"Northerners regard southerners as people they don't know well enough to trust with their fate", said Adamu Ciromu, another Kaduna oga and a minister in the Abacha government until he was sacked earlier this year. The Yoruba and the Ibo are seen to be divided and unstable.

Like most northerners, Mr Ciromu knows that the ruling council had no option but to accept the proposals of a government-sponsored constitutional conference for the rotation of the presidency between north and south. General Abacha has taken the recommendation further, and, from October 1998, six key positions, including those of president and prime minister, are to be rotated among six newly created zones over a 30-year trial period. Whether this represents a victory over northern dominance remains to be seen. Chief Abiola's constituency is not just among the Yoruba of the south-west. His Muslim faith gave him national appeal - and a majority in the north.

For the time being, the primacy of the north remains an unescapable reality, deeply-rooted in political tradition. It was fostered by the British colonial policy of divide and rule, and was continued after independence by leaders who put the interests of their region before those of the federation.

Perhaps most significantly, the north is the power-base of the military. And Nigerians are only too aware of the military rulers who have failed to deliver on their promises of a return to civil rule.