AN exodus from Nigeria's big cities before the start of large-scale political protests yesterday underscores the underlying fear of ethnic conflict here. Just two decades ago, this country set about repairing the divisions of the Biafran civil war, in which one ethnic group attempted to secede.
Once again, as a scheduled restoration of civilian rule on Aug. 27 draws near, a political crisis threatens to divide north from south. Since the military annulled the June 12 presidential elections, southern Nigerians have become increasingly suspicious that the Hausa-Fulani majority in the north will not accept the southerner who apparently won the elections.
But opposition leaders warn that rising tensions stem from Gen. Ibrahim Babangida's unwillingness to hand over power to civilians.
"This is not the south versus the north, the problem is that Babangida just does not want to give up power," said Moshood Abiola, the unofficial winner of the June election.
Most of the military elite who have run Nigeria for 19 of the last 23 years experienced the Biafran civil war, in which an estimated one million people lost their lives in the 1960s when the Ibos of south-eastern Nigeria, flush with newly found oil reserves, tried to secede. The regime has claimed to be the country's strongest force for unity, but the crisis engendered by the departure of the military now threatens to bring the country closer to partition.
The stand-off between Babangida and Chief Abiola began as a struggle between civilians and the military, but soon began to arouse old ethnic divisions. Babangida, like most Nigerian leaders since independence in 1960, is a soldier from the north, while Abiola is a wealthy businessman from the Yoruba homeland of the southwest, the economic heart of the country that contains Lagos, the main city and former capital. Missed opportunity?
Had Abiola, who ran with the Social Democratic Party (SDP), toured the country after the June 12 ballot, making speeches in northern towns and thanking people for voting for him, he would have become a national leader, says an SDP official from the north. Supporters, including prominent northern politicians, flocked to Abiola's house in Lagos after the vote. "Instead he stayed at home, too frightened or too narrow-minded to venture out," the official says.
Abiola is in the US lobbying for his claim to be the next president, but the SDP national executive has already agreed to form an interim government of unelected civilians appointed by Babangida in return for the end of military rule on Aug. 27. Abiola is not among those whom the military would approve as interim head of state.
The Campaign for Democracy, a loose association of civil rights groups, denounces the interim government as a sell-out of democracy by the politicians of the two Army-created parties - the SDP and the National Republican Convention.
But the campaign sees a plus side. "Babangida's maneuvering has achieved in the past two months what we have been trying to do for the past six years - he has politicized Nigerians," says Olisa Agbakoba, a civil liberties lawyer and leader of the Campaign for Democracy. Leaving Lagos
For the past few weeks buses leaving Lagos for the east and north have been fully laden as people take their dependents and belongings to the safety of their homelands.
Civilian protests in July turned violent. As this week's three-day protest approached, the Hausas, Ibos, and other minority groups living in the southwest felt threatened and began to leave.
"We were not harrassed at all last month" says Sarkin Baare, a Hausa leader in Lagos. "I think the reason for the fear is the rumors people have been spreading that on a certain day in August, war will break out in Nigeria. That is why people are running home."
The majority of the Ibos say they would like to see Abiola installed as president, but they do not see this as a cause to die for. "During the Biafran war, if the Yorubas had backed us instead of allying with the northerners against us, the country would already be split and this would not be happening," said a motor mechanic from Imo state near Enugu.
"There is no quarrel between us and the Yoruba," says an Ibo trader in Lagos who sent his family east. "But we just don't feel safe here. My people suffered the most in the Biafran war."
Perhaps the most influential man outside active politics in Nigeria is Olusegun Obasanjo, the only president who has given up power freely and the general who accepted the surrender of the Biafran forces in 1970. His priorities are to avoid civil war first and get the military out second.
"I want to appeal to Nigerians. This is not an ethnic or religious issue ... it is an issue of the soldiers of fortune and their cohorts against the rest of Nigerians and Nigeria.
"The interim government is not the best or even the fourth best solution to our problems but if it is the only way to get Babangida to leave, then I think we have to take it" he says.