Nigerians step up strikes

NIGERIAN labour unions planned to intensify their pro-democracy strikes today as Chief Ernest Shonekan's military-backed interim government offered an olive branch to its critics by releasing three prominent human rights activists and several journalists jailed by the former president, General Ibrahim Babangida.

The strikes, which started on Saturday, have virtually shut down the nation's 17 commercial airports. Air Force air-traffic controllers were drafted to keep open Murtala Muhammed international airport in Lagos. Some workers in the petroleum sector, source of 90 per cent of Nigeria's foreign-exchange earnings, have reportedly obeyed a strike call by the 50,000-strong oil workers' union, Nupeng, but international companies report a limited effect on production.

Chief Shonekan, who heads the unelected interim government named by Gen Babangida on Thursday, said he released Beko Ransome-Kuti, head of the Campaign for Democracy, and two lawyers, Chief Gani Fawehinmi and Femi Falana, on Sunday on humanitarian grounds. The three men were detained without trial in early July after leading demonstrations protesting at the cancellation of presidential elections on 12 June which were won by Chief Moshood Abiola.

Also freed were up to 10 journalists arrested in recent weeks, but two military decrees restricting press freedom remained in force. 'The releases could be an important indication that Shonekan may want to distance himself from the past government,' said Olisa Agbakoba, head of the Civil Liberties Organisation.

The full impact of the nationwide strike called by the Nigeria Labour Congress to demand the installation of a constitutional government and the repeal of higher fuel prices, will be known only today as the country ends a three-day holiday marking the Islamic festival of Eid-el-Mahlud.

Previous pro-democracy strikes have been limited to the south-west, home of Chief Abiola's Yoruba people. Chief Shonekan, also a Yoruba, has come under pressure from Yoruba elders to resign his new position. Most shops, markets and banks in the cities of Lagos and Ibadan have been closed since last week. Severe shortages of fuel have sparked huge queues outside service stations. The government has announced 900 per cent price increases to take effect soon.