Nigerian Military Wins Another Round


FRESH from breaking a damaging two-month strike by oil workers, the military regime in Nigeria has moved quickly to strengthen state powers.

New decrees strip the courts of the power to challenge the government's authority, extend the term for detention without charges from six weeks to three months, and proscribe three independent daily newspapers.

Three other decrees outlaw elected national executives of the Nigeria Labor Congress and two oil unions; the officers were replaced last month with administrators appointed by the Labor Ministry to help break the strike.

The end of the strike has left opposition groups -- retired Army officers, aspiring politicians, democracy campaigners, and labor unions -- divided and leaderless. And the economy is in tatters.

By contrast, the government has emerged from the challenge stronger. A purge at the highest levels of the armed forces and the public sector has placed people loyal to military leader Gen. Sani Abacha in key posts. The government has its own administrators in the unions and is engineering new political parties at a constitutional conference attended by loyalist politicians.

But opposition groups challenging the government's legitimacy have not given up. The Lagos-based Campaign for Democracy says the judiciary decree makes little difference as the government has never respected court rulings.

Two of the three banned newspapers had already been temporarily shut down by police, and all were based in the southwest, where opposition to the government is strongest. The Guardian has been critical of military rule but is respected as the most objective daily in Nigeria; National Concord is owned by Moshood Abiola, the winner of the June 1993 annulled presidential elections; and the third paper, the Punch, was accused by the government of being biased in Mr. Abiola's favor.

Although all Nigerian federal government decrees should be signed by Justice Minister Olu Onagoruwa, he has denied any involvement in these latest measures and described them as ''obnoxious.'' Mr. Onagoruwa is one of four civilian ministers from Abiola's Yoruba tribe in the southwest. The ministers claimed support for democracy before joining General Abacha's government last November and have come under increasing pressure from their kinsmen to resign.

In a press conference in Lagos on Wednesday, Onagoruwa was careful not to blame Abacha but ''certain bureaucratic forces'' for promulgating decrees outside the authority of the state. He described the moves as a ''prescription for anarchy.''

Opposition groups also are challenging the government's prosecution of Abiola in the high court in Abuja, the capital. Abiola was arrested on treason charges for declaring himself president in June on the anniversary of his unofficial victory in the 1993 elections. He is reported to be in ill health, and faces another hearing Monday.

If the government now is acting with renewed confidence, its position looked weak in the early days of the oil strike. The arrest and charges of treason against Abiola brought different groups together in a common desire to rid the country of military rule. They demanded that Abacha hand over power to Abiola and rejected the government's constitutional conference, which began the day after Abiola's arrest in late June, as a device to legitimize its tenure of power.

During August, the strike cut production by more than a quarter of its nearly 2 million barrels a day of crude oil, Nigeria's only major export, and severely disrupted fuel distribution nationally. Most of the lost production was at the onshore operations of Anglo-Dutch Shell. Offshore producers suffered far less, and Chevron's operation increased output by 12 percent, according to industry sources.

The oil workers became isolated in the struggle against the military. Strikes in other sectors of the economy were short-lived or haphazard, and the movement to end military rule has lacked political leadership, despite strong popular support, especially in Abiola's native southwest.

The government has proved that tough tactics can keep it in power, but these are unlikely to advance its pursuit of a broadly accepted political program. The grievances felt by the Yoruba ethnic group in the southwest and the minorities in the oil-producing areas toward an increasingly rigid and northern-dominated military regime are as deep as ever.

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