LAGOS, NIGERIA — THE closure by Nigeria's security forces of five newspapers last month has raised the stakes in the battle to control public opinion as this country approaches a long awaited handover to civilian rule on Aug. 27.
The suppression of the independent press exemplifies the government's reining in of civil liberties and indicates the level of tension the impending transition is creating here.
Nigeria's military ruler, President Ibrahim Babangida, has promised for years to leave power but has delayed three previous planned departures. This time he annulled a June presidential election that international observers declared free and fair, but has since arranged for an interim coalition of civilian politicians to conduct future elections.
Nigeria has a large private sector press, mainly based in Lagos, the country's largest city. Since a decree by the regime in late July denying the courts jurisdiction over the handling of the transition program, and the arrest on treason charges of three civil liberties leaders - Beko Ransome-Kuti, Femi Falani, and Gani Fawehinmi - the press has been one of the few remaining avenues for opposition to the government.
After General Babangida seized power in a coup in 1985, he won public favor by lifting anti-press decrees made by his predecessor, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Buhari.
But his honeymoon with the independent press was brief. In 1986, the weekly Newswatch was temporarily shut down after alleging that the government had a hand in the assassination of its editor, Dele Giwa.
Since then, most daily national papers have been shut down for a period. Arrests of editors and reporters have been common.
The latest closures mark a stronger assault on press freedom than anything in the Buhari regime, and were preceded in late June by a decree enabling the government "to proscribe or seize and confiscate any publication if it contains any article or material which is likely to disrupt the process of democracy and peaceful transition to civil rule."
The main casualty was the Concord group of daily and weekly newspapers owned by Moshood Abiola, a millionaire businessman who is widely believed to have won the June presidential polls. He has been excluded from the interim government that is to take power this month, and the regime has barred him from running in future elections. Yesterday Abiola arrived in Washington to press his case with US officials.
The government has also sealed off the offices of an independent daily, the Punch, and two government-owned papers, the Sketch and Observer. All of these papers fiercely opposed the cancellation of the elections, upheld the cause of Abiola, and highlighted the civilian deaths during the protests in early July that brought Lagos to a standstill until soldiers restored order. All three are also located in the southwest, where Abiola's Yoruba tribe is dominant.
The most damaging reports have been in the weekly newsmagazines, which have produced detailed analyses of the motives behind the stalling of the transition program and of divisions within the military hierarchy.
The weekly Tell was impounded earlier this year after an outspoken interview given by former head of state Olusegun Obasanjo, who called Babangida "Nigeria's biggest problem." The offices were recently sealed off, and the editorial staff are being sought for arrest.
Another weekly, the News, has been banned and its staff are in hiding from the police while producing a new tabloid called Tempo, which sells about 50,000 copies a week, and has intensified its campaign against the government. The News' editorial team produced a special report in the weekly Concord last April on the president's handling of the economy, which led to the dismissal of the editor.
The dread of civil war has been one of the themes the government has used in its propaganda war to win acceptance for the annulment of the June elections, the first to be held in Nigeria in a decade. Nightly broadcasts on state-run television reassure Nigerians that they can forge a great nation if they rise above ethnic and religious divisions, which proved so costly in the Biafran civil war in the 1960s.
Abiola was the first southern Nigerian to win a general election and the first Nigerian to gain widespread support throughout the country. The squelching of the election results convinced many southern Nigerians that the northerners, who have dominated government since independence in 1960, refused to give up power.