Pro-democracy activists split on ethnic lines

July 24, 1998

UNIVERSITIES in southwest Nigeria voluntarily closed for a week mourning the death of Moshood Abiola, detained winner of the 1993 presidential election.

Security forces maintained extra vigilance on other campuses to forestall student solidarity protests at his death in custody.

There are growing fears in the university community that the military hierarchy, which has held power for of the 37 years of independence, is not ready to surrender power without imposing its form of democracy.

"If that happens, we will be back to the barricades," warned Soji Aderemi, a chemistry student at the University of Jos and executive member of the National Association of Nigerian Students.

Students and lecturers in different parts of the country are divided in their views on the restoration of democracy, reflecting ingrained ethnic divisions.

Typical of pro-democracy campaigners in the south, Toye Olorode, a botanist at Obafemi Awolowo University at Ile-Ife, said that the military should convene a national sovereign conference where all ethnic groups and democratic forces and organisations would discuss Nigeria's problems.

The strongest supporters of this proposal are students and lecturers from the oil-producing minority states of Niger Delta and southeast regions of Nigeria. They are unanimous that crude oil, contributing about 95 per cent of the economy, has never been used to improve the working and living conditions of oil-producing areas.

"Ken Saro-Wiwa advocated this type of conference. That was the only reason he was executed," said Lucky Johnson, a petroleum student from Ogoniland at the Federal University of Technology at Port Harcourt.

"Many of us who hold degrees in petroleum-related subjects cannot find jobs, while less qualified Nigerians from a given section of the country are given jobs and fat salaries because of their parents' ethnic origins and religious ties with influential members of the military hierarchy. This must stop. If not, the country will explode."

But there is opposition to a national sovereign conference in the northern universities. They feel that the outcome might have adverse political and economic consequences for the northern elite, which controls the army.

Rather than waste time with a new conference, the major decisions of the 1995 constitutional conference should form the basis for putting the country on a solid democratic base, said Unman Abraham, a law lecturer at Ahmadu Bello University. He accused supporters of the demand for a national sovereign conference of trying to install a confederacy. The only problem left is for the military to return to the barracks after organising legislative and presidential elections, he said.

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