Nigerian Military Takes Reins Again


NIGERIA'S brief experiment in civilian rule came to an abrupt halt late Wednesday when a top general ousted the president installed by former military leader Gen. Ibrahim Babangida just three months ago.

But it remains unclear whether Gen. Sani Abacha, the defense minister and once General Babangida's right-hand man, intends to take the reins of power or steer the country toward elected civilian rule. The interim government of Ernest Shonekan was never popular, but General Abacha faces a populace battered by economic decline and years of official corruption, and bitter over the military's annulment of elections last June.

``The mood of the civilians is very hostile to the military,'' says Prof. Abdullahi Mahdi, a noted Muslim scholar from northern Nigeria. ``The military seems to have outstayed its welcome.''

``I think it's a disaster,'' says Olusegun Obasanjo, the last military president to hand over power freely. ``If this in another military takeover, there could be more changes soon.''

Nigeria has had military rule for all but about 10 years since independence in 1960. When Babangida was forced to retire on Aug. 26 under pressure from his own military colleagues, he installed Mr. Shonekan. But the interim government was never more than a front for the military, and made little progress toward a civilian solution to Nigeria's political stalemate. Many analysts say that Abacha, who was the key to ousting Babangida, has been the real power broker since August.

THE shift back to military rule comes at a moment of both political and economic crisis in Nigeria. Shonekan had found the coffers empty when he took over and the state-owned Nigerian Petroleum Cooperation riddled with debts. When he raised oil prices last week by 600 percent - they had long been held at a government-subsidized low rate to avoid political turmoil - widespread strikes broke out. Local government councils have been dissolved, the National Assembly has yet to pass a law, and the state governors are striving to hold on to their jobs.

``The situation we have is that of a crisis,'' says Osita Okokwo, a Nigerian engineer from eastern Nigeria. ``I think there is a danger of the country disintegrating. Nothing is working now.''

Any government that reduces oil prices and brings the strikes to an end is likely to gain some support, at least temporarily. But the mood of many Nigerians is in favor of a return to a democratically elected civilian government.

For many, that means Moshood Abiola, the man who won the annulled June 12 vote.

``We had a free and fair election in June and they overruled it,'' says Beko Ransome-Kuti, leader of the Campaign for Democracy, a nonpartisan group that has consistently opposed military rule.

Some Nigerians still argue that the military should stay in power long enough to clean up the political and economic mess.

``One may say that the intensity of demand, or call for [Abiola's] mandate is waning,'' says Olotunji Oketunbi, a writer for the Nigerian newspaper Guardian Express. ``Nigerians don't normally have the spirit of persistence. After a little bit of time, they just shrug their shoulders. What we want is peace.''

The interim government did not provide peace, he says, referring to the strikes over the oil-price hikes.

But many Nigerians blame the military as the puppet master behind the now-resigned interim government. ``The impression we have is that Shonekan was not really in charge; the military was there,'' Mr. Oketunbi says.

He says there are divisions within the military, with some supporting civilian rule and others against it.

One senior military official, speaking anonymously, told the Monitor that the armed forces should stay in the barracks. The military is not trained to run the economy, he said.

``Babangida has destroyed the credibility of the military,'' says Ajao Mojeed, a publisher of law books in Lagos.

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