Leading Article: A cynical use of civil war fears

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The Independent Online
AGREAT deal is at stake in Nigeria, where the response to yesterday's pro-democracy strike call showed a split between the economically vital south- western region and the rest of the country. With 90 million people and 250 ethnic groups, Nigeria is Africa's most populous and culturally complex country. If its ruling National Defence and Security Council, headed by General Ibrahim Babangida, had accepted the results of the 12 June general election, democracy would have taken a huge stride forwards, not just in Nigeria but in Africa as a whole.

Instead, General Babangida annulled the election on the spurious grounds of widespread irregularities, and after much shilly-shallying proposed the creation of an interim government. Since the military would feature prominently in this, there are widespread fears that it would be little different to General Babangida's council - and that the resulting tensions could lead to another civil war.

It is far from clear why General Babangida decided to reject the June election results, since he had licensed the two participating parties, written their charters, and had been a friend of the acknowledged victor, Chief Moshood Abiola, a Muslim southerner who none the less won a mandate across ethnic, geographical and religious lines. It is possible that the general himself was prepared to make way, but his military hardliners were not - perhaps for fear of revelations of the corruption over which they presided.

Chief Abiola is at present abroad, and some of the less robust members of his party have decided to co-operate in the proposed interim government. In the present vacuum, the country's democratic forces find themselves in a dilemma. Although the military's rejection of the election results has itself created the threat to Nigeria's social fabric, the governing council is shamelessly using fears of a second civil war to justify remaining in control.

To whip up those anxieties, it has even been showing film of the 1967-70 civil war, in which an estimated 2 million people died when the Ibos of eastern Nigeria tried to set up their own state of Biafra. Any active protests by pro-democracy forces are likely to be used by the military to justify their claim to be the protectors of national unity. Hence yesterday's passive stay-at-home.

The scaremongering has not been in vain. Many members of ethnic minorities, whether in the north or south, have been heading for their home villages and towns. The main potential split is between Chief Abiola's people, the Yoruba, who dominate in the south-west and its main cities of Lagos, Ibadan and Ife, and the rest of the country.

It is worrying that it was only in this region that yesterday's call to all workers to stay at home proved effective. As we report today, life went on relatively normally in most of the rest of the country. General Babangida is likely to be more impressed by the threat of a strike by workers in the vital oil sector, virtually the sole source of Nigeria's foreign-

exchange earnings, should the military not disengage from politics, as long promised, on 27 August. All such damage can be easily averted. Instead of making more promises, General Babangida should fulfil his commitment to hand over on that date - to the victor of those June elections.