Nigerian Unions Raise Stakes In Standoff With Military Regime

Effort to engineer democracy shaky amid protests over trial

AS trade-union strikes disrupt the economy and challenge the legitimacy of the regime, Nigeria's military rulers face a dilemma: whether to suppress opposition or use restraint amid rising protest over the treason trial of the winner of the annulled 1993 presidential election.

Moshood Abiola, who was arrested on June 23, is expected to appeal for bail today in a high court in Abuja, while in another part of the capital, the government-run constitutional conference debates a ``democratic'' future that would exclude Mr. Abiola.

The conference is to decide new methods for choosing Nigeria's political leaders and for allocating national revenue.

While the government may succeed in riding out the storm, its claim that it plans to steer Nigeria from crisis to a well-founded democracy in the shortest time are beginning to look shaky.

``The Nigerian military has never succeeded in designing a transition to democracy; it is unlikely ever to succeed,'' said Professor Claude Ake, a respected political commentator, after the latest coup d'etat.

A group of former ministers and retired Army officers recent-ly described the regime's plan to teach civilians democracy ``as fraudulent as it is insulting.''

Gen. Sani Abacha, who seized control in a coup last November, has a reputation for ruthlessness. He warned Nigerians that, as the new head of state, he would deal severely with opponents.

For the first six months in power, he cajoled and compromised potential opponents amid a mood of public apathy. But when Abiola declared himself president on June 12th - the anniversary of the presidential poll - he was arrested and charged with treason.

While the conference delegates do not appear to support Abiola as they debate the transition to democracy, events elsewhere in Nigeria may overtake them. NUPENG, the militant oil workers' union, went on strike 10 days ago demanding Abiola's release and the end of military rule. Oil is the life-blood of the economy and accounts for 90 percent of Nigeria's foreign earnings.

The strike has almost stopped distribution of fuel in the big cities and threatens to choke Lagos, the commercial capital. The disappearance last week of union leader Frank Kokori helped to persuade the senior oil industry staff union, PENGASSAN, to join the strike; 17 trade unions have threatened to strike over Mr. Kokori's apparent arrest.

The strikers are demanding that the government ``resolve urgently the political crisis'' by upholding the result of last year's presidential election and restore other democratic structures dissolved last November. PENGASSAN is also protesting the loss of 3,000 jobs the first half of this year, which it blames on the government's failure to fund its 60 percent share of the joint ventures. Striking oil workers refused yesterday to meet with government officials offering to discuss their demands.

Next Tuesday, the executive of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) will meet in Kaduna to decide whether to call a general strike.

``We are entering a critical phase,'' says Olisa Agbakoba, chairman of the Civil Liberties Organization and a leader of last year's pro-democracy campaign, which helped to force Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida out of power.

``Paschal Bafyau, the NLC general secretary, has always been a government man and is trying to avert a strike, but I think there could be a majority for the strike,'' he said in Lagos Tuesday.

Even without the NLC decision, the strike is hitting hard in Lagos and the southwest, the Yoruba-speaking homeland of Abiola. Lagos, the base for nearly half Nigeria's industry, is grinding to a halt. The electricity supply, always erratic, has dropped due to lack of gas for the power stations, public transport has almost disappeared, and it is hard to tell whether banks are closed because the staff are on strike or cannot get to work.

The most critical element is the PENGASSAN strike. Shell, Chevron, and Mobil, which produce Nigeria's 2 million barrels of oil a day, say output in the first three days of the strike has been normal, but admit that it is only a matter of time before production drops.

The oil companies are stopping exploration and all other activities not essential to production, and are concentrating their remaining staff - mainly expatriates and senior Nigerian management - on maintaining output.

Ports are also closed by a dock workers' strike, and there have been many local labor disputes over health and education issues.

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