Religion Underlies Coup Attempts in Nigeria, Sudan

Both countries have Muslim leaders, and face ongoing tension. CIVIL CONFLICT: RELIGION AND POWER

RELIGIOUS conflict lies behind the attempted coups this week in Africa's two giants - Sudan and Nigeria. Monday's abortive coup in Sudan, geographically the largest country in Africa, comes after nearly seven years of civil war. The conflict is over power-sharing between the Muslim-dominated government and southern rebels who are mostly Christian or traditional (animist) believers.

But the coupmakers are most likely Muslims unhappy with the government's failure to end the war.

A group of Sudanese Army officers tried to dislodge military dictator Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who himself seized power in a coup last June. They apparently were put down within a few hours, after failing to gain access to the state radio and military headquarters.

Since coming to power, the Bashir government has imposed a series of fundamentalist Muslim restrictions, which extend to Christians.

This has disturbed not only non-Muslims but many Muslims who would prefer to see the government reach a negotiated settlement to the war with southern rebels.

The rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) claims it will not agree to a government under Muslim law.

While a desire for a Muslim state appears to be the motive behind some of the al-Bashir government moves, Sudanese critics allege the regime tried to use the claim of protecting Muslim rights as a way of staying in power - and getting military aid from such fundamentalist Muslim countries as Iran.

Mr. Bashir has also been strongly condemned by human rights groups, which charge that the government and its supporters have detained and tortured large numbers of alleged critics of the government, including many Muslims. Rights groups also complain of the government's suspension of the Constitution and the parliament, and the detention of politicians and trade union activists.

An alleged coup attempt last month precipitated the arrest of many opponents of the regime. Reports said that 35 people were detained in connection with that coup attempt, including the former prime minister's son.

This week's coup attempt is likely to be followed by an even harsher crackdown on opponents of the regime.

Like Sudan, Nigeria is headed by a Muslim dictator. And like Sudan's military leader, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida seized power in a military coup in 1985.

Sunday's attempted coup in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, is the latest sign of growing discontent by Christians at what appears to be the expanding political power of Muslims.

A group of military officers engaged government forces in several hours of fierce fighting in Lagos, the capital. A close aide to Gen. Babangida was reportedly killed. But the rebels apparently failed to get into the main military headquarters.

There were some reports of shootings in other parts of the city, but no immediate signs that the rebellion spread to areas outside of Lagos.

However, some civilian cars in Ibadan, some 90 miles to the north, were seen sporting green leaves, apparently in sympathy with the rebels.

The middle-ranking officers involved with the coup announced, during a brief takeover of the state radio, that they represented the majority Christian parts of the country. They called for dividing Nigeria into two countries - one predominantly Christian, the other predominantly Muslim - by ``excising'' the five northern states of Sokoto, Kano, Bauchi, Borno and Katsina.

The strident language used by the rebels recalled Nigeria's 1967-70 conflict, when the eastern region of the country tried to secede from to form an independent Republic of Biafra.

Last December, Babangida, replaced several high-ranking Christian officials with Muslims. This ignited riots by Christians in several cities.

Following the put-down of this week's coup attempt, Babangida renewed his promise to return Nigeria to civilian rule by late 1992.

But if he doesn't offset a growing perception among Christians that they are being squeezed out of political power, the transition to civilian rule is not likely to be a smooth one.

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