Nigeria's Leaders Keep Mum as Bombs Target the Military

IS IT THE OPPOSITION - OR FROM WITHIN?

"Just what is going on this country?" asks Sadia Boyelide, an eyewitness to the latest in a series of unprecedented bomb blasts to rock Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria. "We are used to crime and corruption and poverty, but nothing like this," she says.

Security has been tightened up at military installations and other prominent buildings across Africa's most populous nation in response to the explosion earlier this week that left five soldiers dead and nine in a critical condition. Twenty others were injured when the device was detonated, apparently by remote control, early Tuesday morning as a military bus passed a barracks in the city.

"Our investigations are still continuing" says Col. Godwin Ugbo, spokesman for the Army. "All thinking human beings should condemn this act of terror."

No credible claim of responsibility has been made for the blast, which follows two bomb attacks last month apparently targeting Col. Muhammad Marwa, the administrator for Lagos state and a close associate of Nigeria's military head of state, Gen. Sani Abacha.

Officials have maintained silence over the crisis, avoiding all direct comment about who they believe may be behind the attacks and leaving the police and military to promise renewed efforts to catch the perpetrators.

Acts of violence last year were linked by the government to groups opposed to General Abacha, who seized power in 1993 after the Army annulled elections widely regarded as free and fair by international observers.

Two weeks ago Chief Tom Ikimi, the foreign minister, accused the United States of backing such groups and of failing to share intelligence information about terrorist activity. The US State Department last month issued a bomb warning to Americans in Nigeria.

Wole Soyinka, a Nobel-laureate writer and opposition activist, has denied involvement in the violence, but has also refused to condemn it. "The military has come to power through violence and maintained itself in power through violence," he says. "Now they are reaping what they have sown."

Opposition groups such as the National Democratic Coalition say government accusations are meant to mask its failure to catch the culprits and as a pretext to curb opposition activities.

Speculation has flourished as to who may be behind the bombings and the purpose of the campaign.

"If it is the radical opposition, they're showing an organizational capacity and a technical sophistication completely out of character with their previous activities," says one diplomat in Lagos. "It's [just] as likely to be someone within the security establishment. Abacha's plans for political and economic reform challenge many vested interests. He has no shortage of enemies," the diplomat says.

Abacha has promised the military will hand over power to a constitutional, civilian government by October 1998. But the transition is already three months behind schedule and has been widely criticized for lacking credibility and legitimacy.

"I couldn't name for you the five parties they have allowed to compete for power," says one official from a former military government. "None of them stand for anything except not confronting Abacha. Some of them even want him as their presidential candidate. The whole exercise is a sham."

At the same time, the proposed departure of the military from positions of privilege it has enjoyed since 1983 - and for 26 of Nigeria's 36 years of independence - may irk some officers who have yet to enjoy the benefits of power.

Furthermore, plans for economic reform, including the privatization of the country's 2-million-barrels-per-day oil industry, may alarm those eager to preserve key economic powers within government.

"I think the government genuinely doesn't know how to respond" to the bombs, says a diplomat in Lagos. "There's no history of terrorism here. Perhaps they hope the problem will just go away."

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