LAGOS, NIGERIA — A HAND-SCRAWLED message in red, painted across a wall in Lagos - ``Free Gani'' - is one of the few visible reminders of the arbitrary power the military exercises. Gani Fawehinmi is an outspoken Nigerian lawyer who never hesitates to criticize the military regime. He was held for four months earlier this year under harsh prison conditions, without trial, under the controversial ``Decree 2,'' which allows such incarcerations. Then, suddenly, he was released in mid-October.
Last May, when students in southern universities rioted over living conditions and government austerity measures, the military cracked down. After forcefully putting down the riots, the regime's State Security Service (SSS) searched the country for student instigators who had escaped. The government reported a death toll of 22, compared with unofficial reports of more than 40.
``People forget, this is a military government,'' says a senior civilian Nigerian official. ``No matter how benevolent, it's a military government.''
One Western diplomat states bluntly that Nigeria is ``a military dictatorship. ... It's relatively benign, but less benign than before the May riots.'' Its power is backed up by a large SSS apparatus that extends throughout the country, he added.
Still, the judicial system is ``largely free,'' the diplomat said. Ruling Gen. Ibrahim Babangida even claims that military leaders may be held accountable by the court for misdeeds.
One Nigerian civilian grudgingly describes General Babangida as a master of coups - a master at making them and at avoiding one that might throw him out the way he threw out his predecessor, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, quickly and without bloodshed, in August 1985. Babangida is also said to have maneuvered a behind-the-scenes coup in which General Buhari overthrew the civilian government of Shehu Shagari on Dec. 31, 1983.
A number of Nigerian civilians interviewed said that this military regime's human rights record, though far from perfect, is better than that of past military governments. An academic from Eastern Nigeria refused to comment however, saying he was ``afraid'' to speak out.
The government is under strong criticism from human rights groups to do better. The Nigerian Bar Association has called for the abolition of Decree 2, the detention-without-trial law. Nigeria's Civil Liberties Organization has called for the release of detainees.
The military has allowed Nigerians a relatively free and vigorous press. But as one senior editor points out, the military controls the allocation of newsprint, making publishers leery of going too far in their criticism. And the military does arrest journalists.
Three years ago, Dele Giwa, the well-known editor in chief of the Nigerian weekly magazine Newswatch was killed by a letter-bomb parcel. Though the killer was never found, strong public suspicions persist that the government's own security personnel might have been involved in silencing the outspoken editor.
The government strongly denies this, but doubts remaining three years after the killing indicate a continuing mistrust many Nigerians feel toward their government.