Rumours of war force hundreds to flee Lagos: Ethnic minorities leave Nigerian capital

RUMOURS of war are everywhere at the crowded bus and taxi depots in central Lagos, where hundreds of northern and eastern Nigerians have begun to gather each morning to flee to their villages.

Many ethnic minorities in Lagos, such as the Hausa and Kanuri people from northern Nigeria and Ibos from the east, fear that despite Lagos's calm a new wave of unrest could explode if military president Ibrahim Babangida reneges on his promise to relinquish office to an elected civilian successor next month. Up to 100 people died last month in violent pro-democracy rallies.

'If the President refuses to hand over on August 27 there will be a civil war in Nigeria,' said Udoka Okoli, 29, a spare parts dealer from the Niger river city of Onitsha, scene of one of the key battles of the 1967-70 civil war. 'Onitsha is my place. If there is a war I feel OK there, not here in Lagos.' Mr Okoli sent his wife and six children back to Onitsha five days ago. He was waiting to board a bus yesterday.

General Babangida, backed by a handful of military and security officers, cancelled the 12 June presidential elections because of alleged fraud in the primaries and chaos in the judicial system. International and Nigerian observers described the polls as the freest in the country's 33-year post-independence history.

But Gen Babangida has refused to recognise the victory of Moshood Abiola, who would have been the first candidate from the south-west, home of the Yoruba people, to be elected to govern Nigeria, a country of 250 ethnic groups and 90 million people.

Instead he has called a new election for 14 August, which Chief Abiola's Social Democrats, one of the two army-backed political parties, has threatened to boycott. 'We do not want fresh elections,' said Mr Okoli, an Ibo. 'The last election was clear to everyone.' Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize winning author, has called for peaceful pro-democracy protests on the day of the vote.

Both Mr Okoli and Abdullahi Gashua, a 44-year-old bus driver from the north-eastern state of Yobe, voted for Chief Abiola in the June election. But they fear that future ones could degenerate into violence and looting, traditionally carried out by unemployed thugs known as 'area boys'. And when there is trouble in mainly Yoruba Lagos, they say, ethnic minorities suffer most. 'During the riots, the Yorubas attacked Ibo, Hausa and Kanuri shops,' he said. 'If they would have attacked Yoruba shops too, it would have been all right, but they only attacked us.' Mr Gashua, a Kanuri, sent his family away from Lagos last week and was to follow them last night.

Chief Michael Otedola, the governor of Lagos, has sought to calm ethnic minorities by assuring traditional leaders of their peoples' safety. Many people were afraid, he admitted. 'The impression that trouble is looming ahead and therefore people should send their families away from Lagos is not a good omen.' Chief Abiola, too, pledged to follow the road of peace. 'We will pursue the solution to this political impasse in such a way that lives and properties will be safe,' he said at the weekend.

People like Mr Gashua fear the worst. 'We do not feel wanted here,' he said.