Nigeria's Turmoil

August 14, 1994

The strike in Nigeria's oil fields is curtailing production and threatening exports and foreign exchange. The bank strike in Lagos is shutting down daily commerce in the metropolis. Power and water are intermittently cut off in many neighborhoods. The price of staples is soaring.

These are all political protests against the military government of General Sani Abacha for suppressing last year's presidential election and trying its undoubted winner, Moshood Abiola, for treason. It may well be the people, not the rulers, who suffer from such protests, but it is the people who are mounting them.

General Abacha took a calculated risk that he could get away with it. So far, it hasn't worked. Nigerians clearly want a more pluralist and representative government than that of a military clique narrowly defined in geographic and religious terms.

Nigeria might be considered another unworkable amalgam of dissimilar peoples that imperial Britain invented, like Iraq, but its people are showing that they have outgrown the simple strong-man role. It no longer suffices or does justice to the great talents and diverse heritages of the country's 90 million people.

The former strong man, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, gave in to the democratic impulse and then welshed. When he wavered, General Abacha took over. The only proper grounds on which to nullify the election of Mr. Abiola is that General Babangida limited candidacies to those he approved, including Mr. Abiola. Others should have been allowed to campaign for votes.

The only ground on which to deny Mr. Abiola the reins of power now would be to hold, instead, another election open to all comers.

Attempted mediations by Jesse Jackson, as President Clinton's emissary, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus would have gotten General Abacha off the hook. But he rebuffed them. Too bad. The Nigerian army is playing a responsible role in trying to restore legitimate government to Liberia. But its leaders are playing an irresponsible role in trying to deny legitimacy in their own country, where more and more of the people are demanding it.

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