Nigerian leader seeks a strategy: Abacha's coup protected military elite from being overthrown by lower ranks, Karl Maier reports from Lagos

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NIGERIA was drifting without effective government yesterday as the new military rulers cast about for a political strategy to rescue Africa's most populous nation from a deepening crisis sparked by the annulment of presidential elections last June.

The 17 November coup d'etat by General Sani Abacha was designed to pre-empt action by radical junior officers who were plotting a complete overthrow of the political and military elite, whom most Nigerians blame for running what was once one of Africa's richest countries into the ground through misrule and corruption.

Diplomatic sources said a group of disgruntled brigadiers and colonels, including two key officers in Lagos, the nation's commercial centre, were planning a bloody overthrow of the unelected interim government installed by the former military President Ibrahim Babangida before his departure from office on 26 August. 'Abacha himself would have been swept aside,' said one diplomatic source. 'He is now treading a very fine line, with a narrow base of support, and it will be difficult for him to come through it.'

The lower ranks of the army have been increasingly frustrated by the lack of payment of salaries and poor conditions, and by a rising wave of secessionist feeling fostered by General Babangida's decision to abort the 12 June presidential elections and deprive Chief Moshood Abiola, a Muslim millionaire from the Yoruba-dominated south-west, of certain victory. No Yoruba has ever been elected president, and resentment in the south-west at what is perceived as domination by northern politicians is running at an all- time high.

General Abacha, who became Nigeria's third leader in as many months, gained some breathing space on Sunday by reaching an agreement with the 3.5 million- strong trade union umbrella organisation, the Nigeria Labour Congress, to call off its week-old general strike in return for reducing a fuel price rise from 600 to 360 per cent. Raising the fuel prices was one of the last measures taken by Ernest Shonekan's interim government. It followed a ruling by a Lagos high court that the interim administration was illegal.

It became clear that Chief Shonekan's plans to hold fresh elections on 19 February were untenable after a voter registration drive met with a complete boycott in south-western Nigeria.

General Abacha and Chief Abiola met yesterday in an attempt to heal the deep political wounds inflicted by General Babangida's decision to scrap his eight-year transition programme to civilian rule.

General Abacha has been working to set up a military-controlled 'provisional ruling council', which would include some prominent civilians, to run the country. He was expected to name the current Chief of Defence Staff, Lieutenant-General Oladipo Diya, a Yoruba Christian, as his deputy, and put Lieut- Gen Jerry Useni, who comes from a politically important military clique known as the 'Langtang mafia', in the ruling council's number three position.

But many observers doubted that the new council, effectively a carbon copy of General Babangida's defunct Armed Forces Ruling Council, would placate the more radical junior officers clamouring for a complete break from the past. General Abacha is widely perceived as a continuation of the Babangida government. He was a key player in both the 1983 coup, which overthrew Nigeria's last elected government headed by Shehu Shagari, and the 1985 military putsch, which installed General Babangida as head of state and General Abacha as his deputy.

Last week General Abacha dissolved all elected institutions, including the Senate and National Assembly, and sacked elected state governors. His pledge to appoint civilian administrators to run the 30 states appeared to be weakening, however, with reports that junior officers were pushing to take over the governorships.

General Abacha has promised to meet a key demand of pro-democracy groups for a national conference of all interest groups to decide the country's political future before Christmas. He has described it as 'a constitutional conference with full constituent powers' that would 'determine the future constitutional structure of Nigeria'.

While pro-democracy groups remained sceptical, they refused to reject the notion out of hand. 'We have heard all of this before,' said Beko Ransome-Kuti, president of the Campaign for Democracy. 'You can never trust these people, so you just have to wait and see.'

General Abacha remains under pressure from both disgruntled junior officers and the Nigerian public to make a clear statement on his plans. Pressure for radical reform from the lower ranks of the armed forces, which have ruled the country for 23 of its 33-year history, has been building since General Babangida annulled the June elections. The decline of the once vibrant economy, saddled with a dollars 30bn ( pounds 20bn) foreign debt, has accelerated in recent months, with strikes and fuel shortages.

(Photograph omitted)