NIGERIA'S military regime over the weekend lost the latest round in a test of nerves with the civilian opposition when it failed in its bid to release jailed presidential claimant Moshood Abiola on its own terms.
The Army junta, whose days seem numbered, confronts a coalition of opposition groups - including the country's oil-worker unions - which is gaining ground by passive resistance and nationwide strikes.
On Friday, the high court granted bail to Mr. Abiola on condition that he not disrupt the stability of the nation, address political rallies, talk to the press, nor travel abroad.
Abiola rejected the bail and remains in jail, according to his aides in Lagos. Abiola, the apparent winner in the aborted presidential election of June 1993, declared himself president on the anniversary of the vote this year and was arrested and charged with treason.
He has become a standard-bearer for an opposition that spans a broad range of interests linked by the conviction that 11 years of military rule must come to an end.
The Campaign for Democracy wants a sovereign national conference to tackle weaknesses in the political system, minority tribes want a better share of the national wealth, industrialists and professionals in the south want a free market economy, and radicals in both the north and south want a new political order.
While economic collapse is the opposition's strong card, the government now seems intent on promoting ethnic divisions as a way to divide the loose coalition. The country is divided into three major ethnic groups that have wrestled for power since 1960, when the country broke from British colonial rule. But these ethnic divisions are not the prime cause of the present political crisis.
A decade of falling living standards and collapsing social services have brought anger and frustration in Nigerians close to the surface. A military-devised political system, in which the government created two new parties to lead the country back to civilian rule ended with the aborted 1993 vote. Frustrations are now directed at the government of Gen. Sani Abacha, who seized power last November and has wiped out any semblance of democracy.
Abiola and his fellow Yorubas from the economically dominant southwest have grown tired of the political overlordship of the far north. Northern officers have dominated the regimes that have ruled the country for 24 of 34 years of independence, strongly influenced by the conservative Hausa and Fulani hierarchy in the mainly Muslim north.
Now the middle belt of Nigeria and the minority tribes in the oil-rich southeast are rising up against the uneven distribution of power and wealth. Last week's general strike by the national unions was only effective in the southwest, and the government has begun to portray the crisis as an ethnic struggle. Tension in Lagos between Ibo traders, who continue to work, and gangs of Yorubas trying to stop them, led last week to several killings. Moderate Ibos blame Emeka Ojukwu, a former leader of the Ibos in the disastrous Biafran civil war of nearly 30 years ago, for inflaming the violence with a recent anti-Yoruba speech in Abuja's constitutional conference.
Community leaders, including Nobel prize-winning author Wole Soyinka, have appealed for restraint from all sides. The Yorubas believe that with the oil workers and southwestern branches of some other trade unions solidly behind the protest movement, the government is living on borrowed time.
The Nigeria Labour Congress will decide today whether to continue its general strike. If it backs down without Abiola's release, it will be seen as a sellout to the government. But the strike is likely to continue in the southwest.
Prominent northern politicians and foreign mediators like the Rev. Jesse Jackson are telling General Abacha that Abiola's release would ease the tension. But this would involve some loss of face for a military junta that is not accustomed to giving way to civilians.
Abacha's response to the crisis alternates between a war of words and repression - such as treason charges and the drafting of paramilitary police from the north to quell the riots among Yorubas and Ibos in Lagos.
The government's propaganda initially played down the political crisis as a local problem in Lagos, a claim rejected even by prominent northerners. ``If Lagos is sick, all Nigeria gets sick'' said a former senator from the northern political center, Kaduna, last week. ``No business in the north can operate when the banks and the ports in Lagos are shut.''
A month-long strike by oil workers has cut crude oil production, the source of over 90 percent of Nigeria's exports, by at least 20 percent.