Nigerian court denies Abiola bail

A NIGERIAN federal high court yesterday denied bail to Moshood Abiola, the millionaire businessman who won last year's aborted presidential elections, and who has been charged with treason. A ten-day strike by oil workers to demand his release continues to run the economy into the ground.

Judge Mohammed Mustapha, presiding over the High Court in Abuja, the capital, said that he had rejected the application for bail because there was no proper affidavit to support it.

'Facts have not been adduced to show me why the accused should be granted bail,' he said. He remanded Mr Abiola in police custody until 28 July.

The flamboyant Yoruba chief told the judge that the police cell in which he was held was unhygienic and full of mosquitoes. 'It is not conducive to sustain life in the type of place and environment I am kept,' he said. 'So, I plead judge, sending me back to such a place will amount to sending me to an early grave.'

Mr Abiola, one of Africa's wealthiest men, looked sickly, and he frequently coughed in court when he appeared for the bail hearing.

General Sanni Abacha's military government arrested Mr Abiola last month after he proclaimed himself president. He based his claim to be president on the wide lead he held in last year's 12 June elections, which were organised by the army.

The then president, General Ibrahim Babangida, annulled the election. Dozens of human rights activists and pro-democracy politicians have since been locked up.

The strikes have crippled the oil sector, which accounts for 90 per cent of Nigeria's exports, and the commercial capital, Lagos. Fuel shortages have shut down public transport and most factories.

Diesel, crucial to trucking and power generators, has been scarce. Electricity supplies, which depend on gas, have been cut in Lagos since the beginning of the week.

Most banks and shops have been shut. Several embassies said that they were running out of fuel because a pump for a special diplomatic supply provided by a Lagos military barracks had broken down.

The strikes have caused ripples on the international oil market, where prices for Nigeria's Bonny Light, equivalent to Britain's Brent crude, have a year high of dollars 18.50 ( pounds 12) per barrel.

The value of the Nigerian currency, the naira, has plummeted recently to 53 to the dollar, compared to its official value of 22 to the dollar.

The commanders of the armed forces were meeting in Abuja yesterday to work out a strategy to end the strikes, called by blue collar and white collar oil workers to demand the release of Mr Abiola.

Military analysts in Nigeria said that there was growing unease in the armed forces over the crisis, and over the lack of decisive action by General Abacha. 'He is rather like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming car,' said one. 'He is completely mesmerised.'

There were unconfirmed reports that the tough stance taken by the labour unions, unparalleled in recent years, was showing signs of cracking. State radio reported that workers at the Warri refinery in eastern Nigeria were returning to work. Newspapers reported that branches of the Nigerian Labour Congress in the northern cities of Katsina and Kano had refused to joint the labour action.

Support for Mr Abiola, who was born in the south-western city of Abeokuta, has been weakest in the more conservative north, the region which has dominated the Nigerian political leadership since independence from Britain in 1960.

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