WORKMEN have been sprucing up the execution grounds outside Kirikiri maximum-security prison in Lagos, Nigeria's business hub. The weeding and refurbishing may be routine, but it doesn't do much for the serenity of a group of officers inside, who are under arrest for allegedly plotting to topple the government last month.
Nigerians say the coup scheme, whether real or a government invention, exposes jagged rifts in the armed forces. If those divisions come to the surface, the country's most powerful institution, and Africa's most populous state, may be in for a jolt.
Coups are nothing new for this oil-rich nation. Nigeria's military has ruled for 25 of the past 35 years. It has launched nine coups, five of them successful, since independence from Britain in 1960.
It looked like Nigeria was edging back from military rule in June 1993, when civilian businessman Moshood Abiola appeared to win a landslide victory in the presidential elections.
But strongman Gen. Sani Abacha refused to accept the victory, annulling the elections. He took power in November 1993 and arrested Mr. Abiola when he declared himself president on the anniversary of the elections. Mr. Abiola has been detained ever since.
In protest, union members shut down key sectors of the economy in a series of strikes last summer. And support for Abiola's release has even come from Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who visited Abiola in his cell last week.
General Abacha's regime may be the most repressive this country has endured in 25 years of military rule. Democrats and dissidents have been arrested, the media muzzled, and rule of law suspended. Observers worry that the political crisis is unleashing dangerous tensions between Nigeria's many ethnic and religious groups, which could gnaw at the ties that bind this diverse nation.
The stakes are getting higher. In recent days government leaders have said their security reports implicate former ruler Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, one of the country's elder statesmen, in the supposed putsch. General Obasanjo has been under arrest since March, but until now authorities had refused to specify the reason for his detention.
Guilty verdicts could silence some of the regime's potentially most threatening critics. Gen. Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, who was Obasanjo's No. 2 in the 1970s, is reportedly among the prisoners at Kirikiri prison. Obasanjo and Yar'Adua have been vocal advocates for a quick return to civil government.
Nigerians like human rights attorney Gani Fawehinmi say if the regime punishes the alleged coup plotters with no convincing evidence, it could tap a military powder keg.
''Don't forget that the constituency of this regime is the barracks,'' Mr. Fawehinmi said. ''If you fake a coup attempt that did not exist, you create a serious mistrust in the barracks. Then there will be trouble. If people are unlawfully killed there can be an explosion, there can be greater violence than was ever envisaged by the government.''
The regime's second-most-powerful leader, General Oladipo Diya, denied the sentencing of supposed coup plotters would exacerbate regional and ethnic tensions in the armed forces.
''When a coup is planned and you have a cross-section of the country, officers from all parts of the country, involved in this plot you cannot say that there is anything like disunity, there is not disunity whatsoever,'' Diya told the Monitor.
''It could be an ambitious man, and all he [would have to] do is find as many people as possible who are ambitious like himself to start thinking of a coup.''
Internal Affairs Minister Baba Gana Kingibe says the net has been cast widely.
''The guilty and innocent all find themselves mentioned and roped in,'' Mr. Kingibe told the Monitor. ''But the government is very conscious of the fact that the wheat should be sorted out from the chaff, and appropriate action be taken for the chaff.''
Nigerians say ''appropriate action,'' in this case, might be execution by firing squad for some of the officers.
It would not be the first time firing squads have been active in Nigeria. More than 50 people were executed after two failed coups in 1986 and 1990 against General Ibrahim Babangida, the country's former military ruler who was in charge when the presidential election was annulled in June 1993.
General Abacha says a government-organized group, the constitutional conference, is hammering out a schedule for a move to civilian rule. His No. 2, General. Diya, says although the armed forces haven't followed through on similar promises before, he expects the military will turn over power at the bidding of the conference delegates.
Staunch supporters of Abacha like Foreign Minister Tom Ikimi, say the military strongman shouldn't be forced to announce exactly when he plans to step down.
''He [Abacha] doesn't want to give times or dates he can't fulfill,'' Ikimi said.
''The military have not done very well in the way of credibility in the past, but we have come and assured the nation that the constitutional conference will be a way of moving the country forward,'' Diya said.
But opposition activists say the constitutional forum spends exorbitant amounts of time in recess and is a mechanism to buy time for the regime.
Beko Ransome-Kuti, who heads the antigovernment Campaign for Democracy says the delegates' willingness to delay the transition to civilian rule, gives the military regime confidence. So does a steady supply of revenue from the sale of the country's oil.
''This government might not shift easily. They seem deaf to protest and meet it with a heavy hand,'' Ransome-Kuti said. ''They have a lot of money to play with from the oil. So if the country is paralyzed or not, they are not particularly concerned.''
''People don't go into power here for service, they go to make money, that's all. This is an African syndrome. If you're starting from that level, it's going to be a long time before you get a scent or even a sniff of democracy,'' says Fran Kuboye, a Lagos artist.
Nigerians are not expected to broadly protest the execution of soldiers -- even if the shootings are on trumped-up charges. Still, Nigerians like Fawehinmi argue that calling in a firing squad would further destabilize the military's fragile ruling coalition and leave a mark on society.
''The nation is in a terrible haze of political perception. Nobody knows precisely what is happening,'' Fawehinmi said. ''This is very dangerous for the government, dangerous because the constituency of this government is the military, and the military is in bad shape.''