Nigeria's Interim Leadership Threatened by National Strikes

Moshood Abiola, apparent winner of annulled elections, plans to return to Nigeria this week to appoint his own government

MAJ. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida is celebrating his retirement at a newly built mansion in his home town of Minna, Nigeria, leaving a mainly civilian interim government with no popular mandate to face the legacy of a decade of military rule in Nigeria.

General Babangida's repeated postponements of the hand-over from a military to a democratic government have left most of Nigeria's civil institutions weak and democracy still out of reach. The past 18 months of his regime have widened the country's ethnic divisions and brought the state close to bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, businessman Moshood Abiola, who was widely believed to have won the June 12 election, has proclaimed himself president-elect and taken refuge in London. He intends to return to Nigeria late this week and nominate his own government, providing once more a figurehead for the opposition to the interim government.

In his farewell speech on Aug. 26, Babangida hailed the interim arrangement - a coalition of politicians and members of the outgoing military regime - as proof of Nigeria's ability to pull back from the edge of the precipice. But to Ernest Shonekan, the new leader appointed by Babangida, the leadership of the interim government may soon feel like a slide down a slippery slope.

The enabling decree that gives the interim government its legitimacy has not yet been published, although the decree is said to have been signed by Babangida before he resigned and by Clement Akpamgbo, the attorney general, who remains in office.

Mr. Shonekan's title is head of the interim government, yet there appears to be no head of state or commander in chief of the armed forces. Since it is not a military government, it cannot rule by decree but, in accordance with the 1989 Constitution, must legislate through the two-tier House of Assembly.

Yet the interim government does not represent any one party nor command a majority in the House of Assembly.

This government must arrest the decline in the economy and restore order in the face of an indefinite nationwide strike by the Nigerian Labour Congress. Reports from the oil fields say the nation's 41 top unions, including the oil workers, began a strike Saturday. The strike has virtually stopped oil production in Nigeria, which gets 80 percent of its revenues from petroleum sales. Air traffic controllers and thousands of other workers also stayed home.

The nomination of Shonekan was intended partially as an olive branch to the alienated southwest, the Yoruba-speaking heartland of Mr. Abiola. Shonekan comes from the same town as Abiola, and his appointment may represent an attempt by the outgoing regime to divide Abiola's ethnic supporters.

The key to the survival of the 32-member interim government is Gen. Sanni Abacha, who was defense minister and chief of staff of the armed forces under Babangida. Still defense minister, but now also vice president, General Abacha underwrites the security of the new government, which can only survive with the backing of the Army.

In the Yoruba-speaking southwest of Nigeria, the militant opponents of the interim government reject it as an extension of military rule.

"The main response to this interim government is rejection," says Cima Ubani, a spokesman for the Campaign for Democracy, a coalition of about 40 trade unions and human rights groups.

"The interim government cannot supplant the mandate of the June 12 election, in which Moshood Abiola emerged as the people's choice for president. This government is not going to be accountable, and therefore it won't be able to resolve the economic problems or organize fresh elections," Mr. Ubani said yesterday.

The Campaign for Democracy believes that the electoral manipulation of the Babangida regime has left the Nigerian public apathetic and bewildered and not willing to vote for and accept another president as planned next March. They and the labor movement argue that the only appropriate course of action for the interim government is to uphold the result of the June elections, swear in Abiola, and hand over power to him as soon as possible.

Other community leaders in the southwest urge Abiola to be cautious and avoid confrontation. "Abiola is not the only one who is aggrieved by what has happened. Many of us who voted for him feel aggrieved as well," says a former chairman of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce. "But we must find a peaceful settlement."

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