An African giant on the edge of the abyss

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These were supposed to be the heady days of a return to democracy in Nigeria, the close of more than 10 years of military rule. Chief Moshood Abiola, the Muslim tycoon who won the country's first presidential elections in a decade, should have been basking in the unprecedented mandate he won across ethnic and religious lines, and preparing to take office on 27 August.

General Ibrahim Babangida's military government decided it was not to be, and in effect staged a coup before the final results of the 12 June polls were announced. Even Chief Abiola's harshest critics have trouble believing the government's explanations that fraud and court cases challenging the elections, notably brought by a pro-military group, forced its hand. Although Chief Abiola was Gen Babangida's personal friend and had received the military's clearance to contest the polls, in the end he was viewed by security and army officers as a maverick who could not be trusted to refrain from probing human rights abuses and corruption; who could not, in effect, be controlled.

Twenty-three years of on-and-off military rule in Nigeria have turned the usual relationship between the army and civil society on its head. In most countries, even those run by Communist parties, the armed forces are meant to be subordinate to civilian governments, but in Nigeria it is the other way around. Vice-President Augustus Aikhomu confirmed as much when he said that senior officers just would not accept Chief Abiola's presidency.

The ruling National Defence and Security Council followed its cancellation of the elections, judged by Nigerian and international observers as the most free to have taken place, with a series of twists and turns that have landed Nigeria in an ever-deepening crisis with no end in sight. Ethnic tensions, which were eased by the election of Chief Abiola, a Yoruba chief who won support both in the Christian south and Muslim north, have intensified in the wake of the violent post- election demonstrations in Lagos. They are likely to soar even higher today when three days of pro- democracy strikes and protests are due to begin.

Chief Abiola, who secretly flew to London last week amid claims that his life was in danger, is still abroad, lobbying Western governments for support. Some of his supporters believe he panicked, and will not soon return. If he does, the government appears to be making a case for his arrest by charging that he left the country illegally and has since met military officials involved in an aborted coup d'etat in 1990.

The generals' current plan is to form an unelected, military-controlled interim government staffed by civilians and soldiers, which will rule by decree until new elections late next year. The proposal that the governing council chairman be a civilian means that the only way for Gen Babangida to remain in office would be to exchange his khaki for civilian garb. Even if he does, the interim administration is unlikely to win the acceptance of the public at large, especially in the south-west, home of Chief Abiola's Yoruba people.

Civilian supporters of the idea include some politicians who hope that the elimination of Chief Abiola could clear their path to next year's presidential elections. Others believe that cutting a deal with the military is the only way to avoid a repeat of the 1967-70 civil war, which could rip apart the weak fabric of a country that has 90 million people and 250 ethnic groups.

The country's complex cultural and religious mosaic, courtesy of British colonial engineers, explains much of the division in the opposition and the two army-backed political parties that were initially designed to promote unity. Chief Abiola's Social Democratic Party has, in effect, split. The Campaign for Democracy - an umbrella of student, women's and human rights groups - is strong in Lagos and south-western Nigeria, but its influence wanes the farther north it goes. Among those demanding that Chief Abiola be installed as president, the line between a deep belief in democracy, and Yoruba and southern chauvinism is often a blurred one.

Such divisions benefit the military, which continues to rule as an armed political force. 'It is like being on a airplane that has just been taken over by hijackers,' said one senior magazine editor. 'You do not want to compromise with the gunmen, but the prime concern is to land the plane, so there is no choice but to give in.'

The state-run broadcast media have launched a campaign full of warnings about seditious and subversive documents, and the military has threatened to impose a state of emergency if anti- government strikes and protests get out of hand. Western countries, especially the United States and Britain, have drawn the army's ire for 'meddling' by imposing limited sanctions and demanding that Gen Babangida live up to the promise of handing over power to an elected government on 27 August.

Leading pro-democracy activists have been detained without trial on charges of conspiracy and sedition. The military has gone to war with the privately owned press by closing down five media houses, including Chief Abiola's Concord group, and two others are publishing underground.

It was not always so. Nigeria was once the pride of Africa - though never as much as many Nigerians believed. The continent's most populous nation was a major oil exporter, its universities attracted students and professors from around the world, and its writers, such as Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, and musicians, such as Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade, won international acclaim.

Since then, poor leadership, both civilian and military, has dragged the country to the edge of the abyss with breathtaking speed. Today many Nigerians are ashamed of their country. In Western and Asian capitals, Nigeria has become synonymous with drug trafficking and corruption.

Western and Nigerian investment has halted, pending the outcome of the crisis, and negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and Western creditors on rescheduling the dollars 29bn ( pounds 20bn) foreign debt are frozen.

Fuel shortages in Africa's biggest oil producer are endemic in Lagos, the massive commercial centre of six million people, and have reached epidemic proportions in the north. Drivers often have to sleep overnight in their cars at petrol stations awaiting the arrival of those fuel supplies that have not been smuggled across the country's borders, where prices are many times higher.

With each passing day the queues of Nigerians at the visa offices of Western embassies lengthen. Highways out of Lagos and some other major cities have been clogged with vehicles bearing ethnic minorities, who fear an impending storm of political violence will engulf them, to their home villages and towns.

Few analysts believe the new interim government will last long, whether or not Gen Babangida decides to stand aside, and will depend on the military for its survival. It is generally regarded as an extension of military in civilian clothing. The only political force that won a popular mandate, Chief Abiola, may not be able to return. Dark, dark days lie ahead.