Nigeria at standstill as strikes bite deeper

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ECONOMIC activity in Nigerian cities came virtually to a halt yesterday, as 16-day-old pro-democracy strikes led by oil unions bit deeper. The strikes are aimed at forcing the military government to hand power to the detained politician, Moshood Abiola, who is widely believed to have won the annulled June 1993 presidential election.

But ethnic and regional divisions have undermined the campaign to oust Nigeria's military rulers. Although the south-west, where the Yoruba people dominate, including the commercial capital, Lagos, has been hit by strikes and fuel shortages, the Ibo-dominated east and north, where the mainly Muslim Hausa people dominate, remain calm. Labour unions in the northern cities of Kano and Katsina have refused to join the strikes.

Yoruba delegates walked out of a military-run 'constitutional conference' in the capital, Abuja, yesterday after a traditional ruler, Oba Dapo Tejuoso, was shouted down when he called on the meeting to discuss last year's presidential elections.

Chief Abiola, held in Abuja on treason charges following his decision last month to declare himself president, would have been the first Yoruba to have been elected to the office.

Nigeria's military ruler, General Sani Abacha, has become hated in south-west Nigeria for failing to give way to Chief Abiola, after he overthrew the interim civilian government installed by the former military ruler, General Ibrahim Babangida.

But his image in other parts of the country is better. Last week he received the title of 'peacemaker of Nigeria' from a gathering of Ibo traditional rulers in the east of the country.

But his attempts to break the crippling strikes by workers in the oil industry, the source of 90 per cent of Nigeria's export earnings, have failed. Lagos, a sprawling city of about 6 million people, was paralysed yesterday. Pro-democracy demonstrators clashed with police in Lagos on Monday, and at least several people were killed. The Campaign for Democracy, an umbrella for human rights, women's and student groups, said that there had been 20 fatalities.

Police also dispersed student protesters in Akure, the heart of Nigeria's cocoa industry, after they set up bonfires in the city.

The strikes have failed to shut down the oil industry, and expatriate workers have been blamed for keeping the it running. The Campaign for Democracy has issued a deadline of tomorrow for expatriates to stop working.