Strikes greet handpicked government

PRO-DEMOCRACY strikes hit Nigeria's economic heart yesterday disrupting the vital oil sector and forcing a shutdown of most domestic air traffic, just a day after the swearing-in of an interim government handpicked by outgoing military President General Ibrahim Babangida.

Oil workers at Shell installations in south-eastern Nigeria walked off their jobs on Friday, a day before the strike was scheduled to begin. A skeleton staff of civilians and soldiers took over running Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos after a stoppage by ground staff and air traffic controllers. The British Airways area manager for West Africa, Andy Geary-Stevens, said the daily London to Lagos flights would continue, and that the company was providing its own ground staff.

Most domestic flights were halted on Friday night, leaving thousands of passengers stranded around the country.

The industrial action was called by the Nigeria Labour Congress and the oil workers' union, Nupeng, to protest against the interim government and the 22 August announcement of plans to introduce an expensive high-grade fuel. This was widely believed to be the first move towards lifting subsidies which make Nigerian domestic petrol among the cheapest in the world.

A battle within the military between factions loyal to General Babangida and General Sani Abacha, the Minister of Defence, over the appointment of new armed forces service chiefs and the Inspector General of Police left the outgoing military government's key army and security officials in place. A Babangida loyalist, Lieutenant-General Joshua Dogonyaro, was named Chief of Defence Staff. Another Babangida supporter, the ambitious and highly regarded commander of the key First Division in Kaduna, Brigadier-General John Shagaya, failed to get Chief of Army Staff. That went to Lieutenant-General Aliyu Mohammed, the former National Security Co-ordinator who has not been involved in the armed forces for eight years.

The unions have rejected the new administration, led by businessman Chief Ernest Shonekan, as illegitimate. They have demanded that power be handed over to a constitutional government led either by Chief Moshood Abiola, winner of the cancelled 12 June presidential elections, or Senate President Iyorchia Ayu, the highest elected official.

The strikes came after three days of stayaways called by the Campaign for Democracy shut down most of south-western Nigeria last week. Lagos remained paralysed by fuel shortages.