Strike threat puts the heat on Babangida: Karl Maier in Lagos senses a stiffening resolve that Nigeria's President must bow to the will of the people and step down

NIGERIA begins a critical week today as President Ibrahim Babangida faces growing pressure from unions, pro-democracy groups, Western countries and even army officers to quit on Friday as promised and hand over to a civilian government.

Absent from the scene will be Chief Moshood Abiola, winner of the 12 June presidential elections, which were annulled. Yesterday he said that, on the advice of supporters, he had cancelled plans to return to Lagos this week but remained confident that he would be inaugurated as president.

'Politicians should not be in a position to foment bloodshed and trouble,' he said by telephone from London. 'When a bad wind is blowing, the sensible thing is to bow one's head and let it pass.'

Gen Babangida was expected to announce details of his proposed interim government, made up of civilians and soldiers, and install it by Friday, the eighth anniversary of the palace coup which brought him to power. But the plan has already been rejected by human rights groups united under the umbrella of the Campaign for Democracy, the powerful National Labour Congress (NLC) and the nation's oilworkers' union.

The oilworkers and the 3.5 million- strong NLC plan to strike if the military does not return to the barracks, while pro-democracy groups have threatened to renew stayaway protests which shut down Lagos, the nation's commercial hub, and most of south- western Nigeria earlier this month. The oilworkers' stance is critical, since Nigeria earns 90 per cent of its foreign exchange from petroleum exports.

International pressure continued as Canada on Friday joined Britain, the European Community and the United States in imposing limited sanctions on Nigeria. The Canadians said that Nigerians were no longer eligible for military and police training and that Ottawa had cancelled a visit next month by Nigerian civilians and military personnel to a strategic-studies institute.

Military analysts said Gen Babangida's grip on the armed forces was slipping. At a recent briefing for high- ranking officers, proposals to install Gen Babangida or another senior officer as head of the interim government were soundly rejected. The focus of opposition within the ruling National Defence and Security Council was said to be the Defence Minister, General Sanni Abacha, who with Gen Babangida led the 1985 coup.

In recent weeks Gen Abacha has urged the rank and file not to let themselves be used to subvert the constitution, and reportedly blocked an attempt by Gen Babangida to force the resignation of a senior commander considered too close to Chief Abiola. Most analysts rule out a coup attempt against Gen Babangida, who is protected in his presidential villa in Abuja by the elite Brigade of Guards. The nearest troops are the First Division, stationed in Kaduna, 100 miles away, and who are commanded by Brig John Shagaya, one of Nigeria's most highly regarded officers but considered a Babangida loyalist.

Pro-democracy groups accuse the government of planning to increase the price of fuel today to spark unrest. Gen Babangida has repeatedly said he would not hand over power in a climate of disorder.