Nigeria's Jailed Symbol

DO Nigerians finally have their own Nelson Mandela?

Possibly. In a message smuggled out of his prison cell and printed in Lagos newspapers earlier this week, Moshood Abiola termed the military government a ``cabal determined to defy the popular wish of the Nigerian people'' but also said he felt no malice toward them.

``I pledge to rededicate my life to attainment of justice and democracy as well as bringing out Nigeria from the doldrums of poverty, ignorance, and squalor,'' he wrote.

Mr. Abiola, who won a democratic election for president in June 1993 and has asked to be allowed to take office, was charged with treason and jailed seven weeks ago by the military junta headed by Gen. Sani Abacha.

Strikes by oil workers and educators, statements by influential Nigerians such as Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka, as well as protests and sabotage, indicate nationwide support for Abiola and distrust of General Abacha, who is viewed as a particularly repugnant example of the corrupt military leaders who have dominated most of post-independence Nigeria's political history.

The fears are that an impasse is crystallizing between northern, Muslim-oriented tribes who have traditionally played a strong role in the military, and the Yoruba tribe of the southwestern region, including Lagos, the largest city and the business and economic center.

Abiola, although a Muslim as well, is a southwestern Yoruba. His sizable personal wealth gives him some immunity from the back-room political maneuvers that have corrupted so much of politics in the country.

General Abacha took control in November of last year, the latest in a cycle of military coups and sham civilian governments. Abacha has promised elections, but Yorubas are unlikely to participate with Abiola's legitimate victory still denied.

A start in breaking this cycle would be to release Abiola and offer him the leadership role in a transitional government that would also represent northern interests. A date for the next elections could be guaranteed.

Whether General Abacha is capable of this sensible step, and will turn away from a future otherwise headed toward civil disorder and economic ruin, is unclear. Perhaps it will take others in the military hierarchy who have a clearer vision.

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