Nigerian workers strike to demand democracy: Military leaders fight among themselves for power after Babangida resigns

NIGERIA'S oil workers planned to go ahead with an indefinite pro-democracy strike today as senior military commanders were locked in a power struggle over the appointment of new armed forces commanders.

The 50,000-strong oil workers' union, Nupeng, said it would attempt to shut down production in the world's fourth biggest oil producer to demand the installation of a constitutional government. The National Labour Congress also planned to strike. The oil workers said they rejected the non-elected interim government installed by the outgoing military president, Ibrahim Babangida, who left Abuja, the capital, yesterday for his mansion in his home state of Niger. Oil provides more than 80 per cent of Nigeria's export earnings.

In London yesterday Chief Moshood Abiola, winner of the cancelled 12 June presidential elections, announced that he would return to Nigeria by the end of next week and form 'a real government'. He fled from Nigeria earlier this month saying his life was in danger. But he said yesterday the moment of his return would be determined by discussions with his supporters in Nigeria and added that nothing was to be gained from 'false heroism'.

At a press conference in London Chief Abiola described the interim government as a 'non-event' and said: 'How the democratic world reacts to the so-called annulment of the 12 June elections, will forever decide the fate of democracy in Africa.'

The democratic world yesterday did not seem to be rallying to him. The Foreign Office issued a statement saying it 'wished to consider carefully the implications of the creation of the new Interim National Government when we have seen full details'. It made no mention of the 12 June election or of the sanctions imposed on Nigeria when the election was annulled. The EC is likely to follow Britain's lead while Washington, which has been more vocal in its demands for democracy in Africa, is unlikely to give Chief Abiola absolute support.

The announcement of Chief Abiola's return drew a sharp reaction from the Attorney-General and Justice Minister, Clement Akpamgbo, who said such a move would be considered 'an act of rebellion attracting the necessary sanctions'.

Gen Babangida stepped down as commander-in-chief yesterday and announced the retirement of the three service chiefs - army, navy and air force - as well as the deputy defence chief of staff and the inspector-general of police. The move unleashed a power struggle between senior commanders who support Gen Babangida and those backing his long-time deputy, the Minister of Defence, General Sanni Abacha.

Gen Abacha, who was named as the deputy head of the interim government, was a key organiser behind the 1985 coup which brought Gen Babangida to power. In recent months, however, the two soldiers have clashed over Gen Abacha's pressure on Gen Babangida to relinquish power to a civilian government. Gen Babangida's retirement indicated that Gen Abacha had won the day, military analysts said. But a faction loyal to Gen Babangida was demanding yesterday that Lieutenant-General Joshua Dogonyaro be named chief of the defence staff and that Brigadier- General John Shagaya, the ambitious and highly regarded commander of the First Division in Kaduna, be appointed army chief.

The appointments are the key to the military's future role in ruling Nigeria. The new interim government, headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan, a businessman, was expected to establish two advisory bodies, the National Defence Council and the National Security Council, as provided by the 1989 constitution. The service chiefs would be a dominant force on the defence council, which many observers believe would be the power behind the scenes of the unelected interim administration.

The oil workers' strike, combined with planned walkouts by the transport workers' union, could severely disrupt fuel supplies and commerce, especially in south-western Nigeria where three days of pro-democracy stayaways have already left the city of Lagos, the commercial hub, with grave petrol shortages.

Reaction to the new interim government has been slow, with many questions about who would command the armed forces and the future of the National Security Co-ordinator, Brigadier-General Halilu Akilu, and the Security Adviser, Lieutenant-General Aliyu Mohammed, left unanswered.

'There is no substitute for an elected government, but in the sense that we want to get rid of a dictator, this is one road for that,' a former head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo, said yesterday. 'To gain credibility it must move immediately to release the human rights activists and journalists in detention and send a message to the National Assembly to repeal the laws banning newspapers.'

But the confusion about who is Nigeria's head of state was illustrated in the London High Commission yesterday where a picture of Gen Babangida still hangs in reception.

(Photograph omitted)