WITH each step Nigeria's military strongman, General Ibrahim Babangida, takes to escape from the political crisis sparked by last month's cancelled presidential elections he lands deeper in it.
The young general who swept into power in a palace coup in 1985, promising radical political and economic reform in one of Africa's most chaotic countries, has found it difficult to avoid becoming the latest symbol of a dictatorship blocking the return to democracy.
Fierce opposition has forced Gen Babangida to rely almost exclusively on military decrees, detention of pro-democracy advocates and threats to tame the press to have his way. The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that it had no jurisdiction, because of a military edict on Monday, to hear a case challenging the cancellation of the 12 June election victory of the Social Democrats' Chief Moshood Abiola.
One of the two military-created political parties, the Social Democrats (SDP); Gen Babangida's old friend the Sultan of Sokoto, Ibrahim Dasuki, and former military heads of state Olusegun Obasanjo and Muhammadu Buhari, all oppose his plan to hold new presidential elections on 14 August. Labour unions, student groups, medical associations and even market women in Lagos, the commercial centre, are in the opposition camp.
The SDP has refused twice to meet the National Electoral Commission to discuss the new election schedule. Its officials have been given until today to do so. 'We will not welcome, encourage, participate in or assist any purported fresh presidential election in our states during this transition period,' said 14 governors, members of the SDP, after a meeting in Kaduna. 'Any such election can only lead to disputation, crisis, chaos and national catastrophe.'
New polls, said Gen Obasanjo this week, would be 'an exercise in futility' that could spark 'conflagration in the country'.
The only other legal party, the National Republican Convention (NRC), supports new elections. Its candidate, Bashir Tofa, lost to Chief Abiola in the annulled elections by a 42 per cent to 58 per cent margin.
The government has stood fast, with the Information Secretary, Uche Chukwumerije, threatening action against the vocal local press and declaring that 'the cancellation of the June 12 poll is final and irrevocable. Any politician encouraging their supporters to think to the contrary is misleading them along the path of self- delusion.' So far, however, no candidates have presented themselves for the new polls, and few observers believe an election could take place in southwest Nigeria, where Chief Abiola's Yoruba people dominate.
Gen Babangida's once formidable bank of supporters has dwindled to his close security advisers, key army commanders and a shadowy group of businessmen and former politicians in the Association for a Better Nigeria (ABN), who have campaigned for the military to stay in power. Even a top ABN official, Abimbola Davis, fled the country last week after charging that senior officials in the Babangida administration had conspired with the Association to undermine the return to democratic rule. Government officials have denied Mr Davis's allegations, and a statement issued on Wednesday purportedly signed by him said he had spoken under duress.
Several documents circulating in Lagos have alleged the direct involvement of senior government officials and their close relatives in oil- and drug-smuggling.
Detention of vocal critics, such as the human rights activist Beko Ransome Kuti, and military decrees have provided some breathing space. Among the four decrees published on Monday was one which repealed a previous army edict outlining the programme for transition to civilian rule. It has disturbed critics by its omission of 27 August, Gen Babangida's promised date of departure.
'This new decree and the continuing acts of bad faith by the military clearly proves beyond doubt that Babangida never planned to hand over,' said the Constitution Rights Project, a human rights group.
KARL MAIER in Lagos
Friday, 23 July 1993