Death fuels Nigerian discontent

June 19, 1998

DIPLOMATIC sources in Lagos believe that the coming weeks might see a confrontation between Nigeria's long-suffering university community and the military in the wake of the sudden death of head of state Sani Abacha.

Before his death earlier this month Abacha ordered vice-chancellors of the country's 34 universities to close their campuses for 14 days from June 1.

They may now remain shut until the August 1 presidential elections.

A western diplomat who asked for anonymity said: "Poorly paid lecturers and poorly fed students in a country that produces two million barrels of crude oil every day should lead gradually to popular insurrection if nothing is done to stem the tide towards accelerated poverty."

Students and lecturers had expected a further attack on university autonomy. The closure directive was aimed at preventing members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities and the National Association of Nigerian Students from commemorating two human rights violations: the annulment of the 1992 presidential elections, believed to have been won by Moshood Abiola, and the 1996 murder of his wife Kudiratu Abiola. Chief Abiola was not among the nine political prisoners the new military government released this week as a gesture of "national reconciliation".

Before Abacha's death students were planning to defy the order. Simbiatu Ahmed, a chemistry student at the River State University College of Technology, said: "Despite attempts by the state security agents to prevent the students from taking part in these events, we are determined to march on. Our aim, which is similar to those of Indonesian students, is to oust Abacha through mass action, just as the students removed the Indonesian dictator General Suharto."

When state radio and television announced General Abacha's death, students and other young people poured into the streets of Lagos, Ibadan and other southern cities to celebrate. In the north there was a sense of apprehension that the country might drift into chaos and anarchy if the military hierarchy does not respect the wishes of the people.

The appointment of Abdulsalam Abubakar as head of state was greeted with disappointment and scorn in the universities.

Ngoti Nkechukuu, a student at the physics department of the University of Nsukka, said: "The military has outlived its usefulness, and it is time for it to quit the scene before it is too late. The generals must retrace their steps and rethink. We, as students, should remember the golden words on Radio Kudirat International (Nigeria's opposition radio station) 'military dictatorship can never bring out the best for Nigerians'."

Both the student and lecturers' unions have reiterated rejection of the military government and put forward their demands:

* release of all political prisoners, including Moshood Abiola

* a two-year government of national unity, representing all political opinion, to be headed by Abiola

* a conference to resolve social and economic problems and to draft a new constitution

* an inquiry into the siphoning off of Nigeria's oil revenue, estimated at more than US$40 billion since the military came to power

* a special grant to all universities to revamp their deteriorating infrastructure.

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