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The 'Nigerian Factor' Awaits the General

Popular code word for apathy could turn swiftly to action if new military leader delays word on civilian rule.

Two o'clock in the morning in downtown Lagos, and the 30-man band is still warming up. The crowd has been waiting since midnight. When the lead musician finally saunters on stage at 3:20 a.m., he's greeted by good-natured applause. "Sorry for the delay my brothers and sisters," he says, "It's the Nigerian factor."

This "Nigerian factor" is often cited as Africa's most populous country waits for its present ruler, Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, to outline his plans for Nigeria's transition to civilian rule. The "Nigerian factor" is the reason that - in the face of what critics believe will amount to little more than smoke thrown in the eyes of the international community - the country may either submit to several more years of military rule or come apart at the seams.

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The "Nigerian factor" is Intended to mean everything from a concert's three-hour delay to the inability to purchase a gallon of gasoline on the streets of the world's sixth-largest oil producer. The "Nigerian factor" covers all that is rude, contradictory, or downright paradoxical about this society of roughly 120 million - the largest in Africa. It also serves as a reminder of all that is good - and could be great - in this country of vast human and natural resources.

"Nigerians have become docile. As long as they are fed once, not three times, a day, they'll take whatever comes their way," says Olawale Fapohunda, a human rights lawyer. "Look at this petrol shortage! Did anyone say anything? We produce 2 million barrels a day!"

In the case of the gas shortage, he says, the "Nigerian factor" translates into the self-centered formula of "as long as I'm all right, everything is all right."

Yet the same all-encompassing, chaos-engendering factor could very well produce a different result in a country where virtually every member of Nigeria's vocal opposition - lawyers, politicians, journalists, and human rights activists - has spent time in jail.

Rather than encourage apathy, the "Nigerian factor" could play into Nigerians' intolerance of a system that they feel has left them without a democracy for all but 10 years of their country's history.

A public brawl between two good friends, the general state of decay of Nigeria's telephone lines, even the inability to rid the country of a military establishment widely believed to be the most corrupt in the world - are all attributed to the "Nigerian factor."

"Look at what this country has," says Abdul Oroh, the secretary of the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), a human rights group. "It has oil, a lot of oil. It has educated people. There are more Nigerians with PhDs than any other country in Africa. And look at us: We let one man destroy us."

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The reference is to Gen. Sani Abacha, the dictator whose death at the beginning of June gave way to collective displays of euphoria. Wole Soyinka, Nigerian winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, described General Abacha as a "murderous imbecile" and his entourage as "a gang of assassins and torturers." The moody force behind three successful coups, Abacha came to power in 1993.

Under his rule, some 7,000 Nigerians were jailed and the winner of an environmental prize, Ken Saro Wiwa, was executed during a summit of the Commonwealth States. "The gall!" says Mr. Oroh, throwing his hands in the air. The "Nigerian factor," some would add, taken to its extreme.

"What we have in this country is an awareness of who we are, and how great we can be," Mr. Oroh says. "You press the wrong button at this time, and the country will go up in flames."

Secessionist grumblings have already started in the Western part of the country, the one dominated by the large, unruly Yoruba tribe. To the east, the Ibos are openly talking about secession for the first time since the Biafran war for independence, largely fought by the Ibos, claimed a million lives at the end of the 1960s.

"Getting rid of Abiola was the worst thing any military regime could have brought upon itself," says Ayo Obe, the head of the CLO. "Now the logic of ethnicity will prevail."

Moshood Abiola, the figurehead of Nigeria's struggle to restore civilian rule, died in detention two weeks ago. He had transcended the country's ethnic divisions when 14 million people from all parts of Nigeria voted for him in the 1993 presidential elections, which the military establishment declared invalid. His death was, not surprisingly, attributed by some to the "Nigerian factor." Expressing, as it does, a measure of self-reproach bordering on self-disgust, the "Nigerian factor" turned events inside out.

The blame for Chief Abiola's death was placed not on the military, but on the people who had voted for him. Only a country as "irresponsible" as Nigeria would let its elected leader die in jail, the thinking ran.

"Where were we?" says Mr. Fapohunda. "When he died, everyone went out on a rampage. But for four years, where were we? We should have started agitating then, and maybe we would have saved him."

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