Riots Test Nigerian Government

Christian-Muslim unrest is seen as linked to poverty and political disputes, not religion. DEMOCRATIC TRANSITION

SPORADIC outbursts of violence in Nigeria's main city, Lagos, in the past few days have intensified pressure on the military government after it established tough new internal security measures this week.

President Ibrahim Babangida on Monday announced the formation of a national guard that will be deployed in the event of further violence. The move comes a week after religious and ethnic clashes in the northern city of Kaduna left up to 400 dead.

The week before, protesters in Lagos clashed with police for two days before calm was restored; at least 11 people were killed in a riot sparked by fuel shortages.

General Babangida said the riots would not affect the Army's program of transition back to civilian rule, due to be completed on Jan. 2, 1993. He promised to compensate residents of Kaduna state who lost property and prosecute those arrested. Tension and poverty

Human rights groups say the new security measures do not address the economic and political causes of the unrest.

"The underlying causes of the protest and tension in the country are the severe hardship, deprivation, and poverty sweeping across the country and plaguing the generality of the citizenry," the Lagos-based Constitutional Rights Project said in a statement.

Nigeria is the 13th poorest nation in the world, with a per capita income of $250, down from $1,000 in 1980. Population growth, at 3 percent, is outpacing food production and creation of new jobs.

Violence broke out on May 17 in the Kaduna village of Zangon-Kataf, when Christians attacked Muslim farmers as part of a ongoing conflict over the relocation of the town's market, which led to violence in February.

Among the dead in Kaduna city were at least three Christian priests. Four churches and a Muslim center were burned. But the leaders of the faiths deny that the conflict is religious.

The Rev. Peter Jatau, Kaduna's Roman Catholic archbishop, blames the Muslims for the killings but says the issue is political. "It seemed a planned thing, done with the knowledge of people in authority," he says. "There are ... rumors of people being trained militarily and of people coming from other parts of the country to create trouble."

Power lies at the heart of the conflict, despite its religious appearance, Western diplomatic sources say. Zangon-Kataf is a largely Christian community. But political decisionmaking there is dominated by Muslims, as the village is in the traditional domain of the Muslim emir of Zaria, Alhaji Shehu Idris.

The Christian Kataf have fought sporadic battles to have their superior numbers recognized in the political hierarchy. But a Muslim is always appointed to lead their community.

The power of local issues to ignite violence on both religious and ethnic lines is the most serious test the military government faces. Diplomatic observers believe the outbreaks of violence have created the worst crisis the government has faced since a 1990 attempted coup led by junior Army officers resisting the transition to civilian rule. Resistance to change

"The recent violence was not religious, ... it was [sparked] by lower-ranking people in the Army and police who don't want the military to hand over power," says Kaduna's most controversial Muslim leader, Sheikh Aboubacar Gumi, founding leader of the fundamentalist Izala sect.

"[Muslim] bodies were brought to Kaduna [by the Army] in order to encourage people to start fighting. The people who did this are not working against Islam, they are working against politics," he says.

Archbishop Jatau also says bodies of Muslims were brought to Kaduna city by the Army to encourage an angry response among Muslims.

Kaduna's police chief acknowledged that among the 247 people arrested after the rioting was Maj. Gen. Zamani Lekwot, a former military governor of the Rivers state in Nigeria.

The government last year increased the number of states to 31 in a bid to fuse regional differences within the federal structure. This has been met with complaints by ethnic groups seeking their own states to govern.

Last week the government banned organizations that draw support from selective states or interest groups. Announcing the ban, the justice minister, Clement Akpamgbo, said "the aim of breaking down narrow ethnic barriers in our search for credible leadership for the country can be completely destroyed if the unprogressive activities of these associations are allowed to continue."

Babangida's plan for democracy is an attempt to avoid the corrupt, imbalanced systems that have come and gone since independence from Britain in 1960.

Two parties, the Social Democratic Party and the National Republican Convention, were created, financed, and staffed by the government in 1990. Their creation came after the Army's decision to lift a ban on multiparty politics resulted in what it regarded as the return of the corrupt civilian politicians. Rise of the fallen?

The "old breed," however, will be allowed to campaign in December's presidential election, opening the way for a return of the same people Babandiga ousted in a 1985 coup.

If this happens, government critics say, the ensuing chaos would force a return to military rule, which they contend is what Babangida wants.

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