Last Updated: Thursday, 18 January 2018, 15:22 GMT

Nigeria: On the Brink of Civil War?

Publisher WRITENET
Author Richard Carver
Publication Date 1 February 1996
Cite as WRITENET, Nigeria: On the Brink of Civil War?, 1 February 1996, available at: [accessed 18 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


One in every four sub-Saharan Africans is a Nigerian, making the country the most populous on the continent by far. Until 1994, when South Africa joined the African mainstream, Nigeria was the economic and political giant of the region. It is a country which has long aspired to continental leadership - for example in its quest for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Its history is unique but at the same time representative of many of the issues facing post-colonial Africa.

In common with most African countries, Nigeria was a colonial creation. Typically, many of its troubles since independence can be traced back to the formation by the United Kingdom, the colonial power, of a multi-national colonial state which superseded the deeply-rooted political entities which existed already. The civil war of 1967-1970, in which up to two million persons died, was in part a consequence of this inherited colonial state. It was also a result of a system of authoritarian military government which continues to characterize Nigeria's politics; more than 25 out of 35 years of independence have been spent under military rule.

In other respects, however, Nigeria has advantages not enjoyed by many of its African neighbours; its substantial oil wealth is the most obvious. Yet poor government has effectively cancelled out any economic benefits. Once a middle-ranking developing country, Nigeria now finds itself in a humiliating position among the 20 poorest countries in the world in terms of per capita gross domestic product.

Another advantage which has been less frequently commented upon is the strength of civil society in Nigeria. This can be explained in part by the country's very size and diversity which has limited the effectiveness of centralized authoritarian rule, but also, British "indirect rule" allowed space for the growth of political parties, an independent press, professional associations, trade unions and many other institutions of civil society. Although the political class is tainted with corruption and retains little popular credibility, other non-governmental institutions have proved surprisingly resilient under decades of authoritarian government. However, it will be argued that the present military government of General Sani Abacha, more than its predecessors, appears especially determined to deal a final blow to these structures of civil society.


The Federation of Nigeria became an independent sovereign state in 1960, after having existed as a unified political entity under British colonial rule for scarcely half a century. It is a state comprising about 250 ethnic groups, although it came to be dominated by three large regional and ethnic blocs, which was reflected in the political structure at the time of independence. The largest of these was the Northern Region, dominated by the Hausa-Fulani group, which has held political power for much of the post-independence period. The south of the country was divided between the Western and Eastern Regions, dominated by the Yoruba and Igbo respectively. Corresponding to this ethnic divide is also a religious division, with the north dominated by Islam and the south by Christianity, particularly Anglican Protestantism in the West and Roman Catholicism in the East. Such a division was encouraged by the colonial authorities, which proscribed Christian evangelizing in the North, and reinforced by a characteristic division of labour, which directed the "warlike" Northerners into the military and Southerners into commerce. None of these divisions were hard and fast: there were Southern Muslims and Northern Christians, Northern businessmen and Southern soldiers. There were also numerous smaller ethnic groups which often felt excluded by the dominant regional blocs. Still, this tripartite division represented a norm to which Nigerian politics always tended to return, and does so even in the mid-1990s, when society is much more fragmented.

A reflection of this division could be found in the fact that at the time of independence, the three main political parties were the Northern People's Congress (NPC), rooted in the Hausa- Fulani mercantile elite, led by Ahmadu Bello and Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Federation's first prime minister; the Western-based Action Group (AG) of Obafemi Awolowo; and the Eastern-dominated National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), led by Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe. Combined with an Westminster-based parliamentary model, the nature of the three-way divide was such that a coalition was always required to form a government. The initial coalition was between the NPC and NCNC uniting the North and East. In the 1964 elections, which were marred by violence and corruption, the Nigerian National Alliance - a combination of the former NPC and a splinter faction of the AG - came out victorious. The government proved deeply corrupt and political institutions became rapidly discredited. In January 1966, army officers from Eastern Nigeria launched a coup d'état, killing a number of senior civilian politicians. Although the perpetrators of the takeover insisted that there was no ethnic basis to the military takeover, the fact was that most of the officers involved were Igbo and all those killed were non-Igbo. As a result, in the weeks following the coup d'état there were riots in the North, pitting Hausa-Fulanis against members of the large Igbo diaspora in the major cities. In May 1966 Northern officers staged a counter-coup d'état. The new head of state was a young lieutenant-colonel, Yakubu Gowon, a Northerner who was neither a Hausa-Fulani nor a Muslim, but a Christian from the Middle Belt. In September and October of that year army pogroms were staged against Igbos in the North which set the stage for the rapid descent of the country into war. Led by the regional military governor, Lieutenant- Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the East declared itself as the independent state of Biafra.

Like any civil war, the Biafran war (or the "War of National Unity" as it was officially styled) was exceptional in the number of casualties. Although military fatalities probably did not exceed 100,000, up to two million Biafran civilians died, mainly from starvation. For the first time, world attention and popular disapprobation focused on a Nigerian military government. However, the Federal Government of Nigeria had the support of the major international powers - notably the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. The significant exception was France, the strongest neo-colonial presence in the region, which actively supported Biafra. This international involvement kept the war continuing for two and a half years.

After the cease-fire in 1970, the process of national reconciliation was remarkably rapid. The introduction of a 12-state system to replace the previous regional structure seemed a positive step, aside the reintegration of former Biafran army personnel in the federal armed forces. General Gowon also announced a six-year timetable for a return to civilian rule, although he subsequently rescheduled this, announcing in 1974 that the military would not hand over power on the due date. This set the tone for the 1980s and 1990s.

In July 1975 General Gowon was overthrown by his fellow officers, led by Brigadier Murtala Muhammed. Acting primarily out of a desire to restore the prestige and credibility of the military, they moved rapidly to tackle corruption and set in motion the transition to democratic rule in what is still, even 20 years later considered as a brief golden age. It was shattered in February 1976, when the newly promoted General Muhammed was assassinated by a dissident officer. However, his deputy and successor, Lieutenant-General Olusegun Obasanjo, ensured that the programme of transition to democracy stayed on course. Nigeria's Second Republic was inaugurated, as planned, on 1 October 1979.

The creation of new states within the Republic and an elaborate new demarcation of federal and state power were intended to avoid the regionalism of the politics of the First Republic. In practice, however, the parties in the 1979 elections could still be clearly identified by their regional bases of support. The First Republic politicians Nnamdi Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo re-emerged under new guises, while the narrow victor, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, a Northerner with the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), had been a prominent member of the NPC in the 1960s. At the same time in the elections of a president, Alhaji Shagari was awarded victory only after a disputed decision by the Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) involving election rules. While the constitution required that the victor win 25 per cent of the vote in two-thirds of the states. Alhaji Shagari had won that quota in 12 out of 19 states. FEDECO ruled - a decision later backed by the Supreme Court - that the 12 states would be counted as fulfilling the criteria of being two-thirds of 19. It was not an auspicious start to civilian rule.

The victories of the NPN and President Shagari in 1983 were more clear-cut, but not without allegations of massive electoral misconduct. As civilian government had proved to be corrupt and inefficient, another military takeover on 31 December 1983 won widespread popular approval. The new government, under General Muhammadu Buhari, invoked the memory of Murtala Muhammad and declared itself "an offshoot of the last military administration" - a claim which was reinforced by the public endorsement of General Obasanjo. Yet, it became rapidly apparent that the new regime was as corrupt as its civilian predecessor, but it was also autocratic and unaccountable. Rule by decree became the order of the day. Suppression of critical voices in the media became a priority and powers of detention without charge were reportedly widely used against opposition politicians, journalists and striking workers. In August 1985 General Buhari in turn was deposed by General Ibrahim Babangida. He promptly established an Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC), reversed some of General Buhari's least popular measures and, in January 1986, announced the first (of several) plans to return the country to civilian rule - initially by October 1990.


The transitional plan of General Babangida entailed the creation of a "political bureau" to receive submissions from the public about future constitutional arrangements. More than 27,000 of them were received. After the report of the political bureau had been submitted, General Babangida announced that the transition would not be completed until 1992. According to the new plan, a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution would meet in 1988, but political parties would be legalized only in 1990 in preparation for legislative and presidential elections in 1992. All former politicians, as well as members of the AFRC, were proscribed from taking part in the elections.

The result was a two-party political system. On the one hand there was the Social Democratic Party (SDP), envisaged as a moderate left-of-centre choice. The other party was the National Republican Convention (NRC), described as being moderately right-of-centre. The Government drafted both parties' manifestos and constitutions, appointed staff and funded their activities. The rationale behind this was that in the past multi-party politics had been abused by regionally-based civilian politicians who had built systems of patronage rather than being democratically accountable. In the words of one study, the Babangida government

was bent on imposing 'democracy' from the top and curtailing the country's burgeoning civil society. Indeed, the military and their advisers rejected the notion that liberal democratic traditions require at least an attempt to nurture the emergence of civic organisations.[3]

The so-called "new breed" of politicians turned out to be largely indistinguishable from previous political generations - scarcely surprising, since they were drawn from the same social and ideological background as their predecessors, depended on the same ethno-regional alliances and similarly lacked roots in popular civic structures. The development of these structures throughout the 1980s was impressive: there were now human rights groups, professional bodies, the press, trade unions and minority rights activists. Some of these bodies, like the trade unions and the independent press, had a long pedigree, while others were new creations. However, the civic resurgence of the late 1980s and early 1990s signified popular dissatisfaction with the lamentable economic failures of both civilian and military governments, as well as the ineffective and self-serving character of the political solutions on offer. These civic organizations were a vehicle for the grievances of vast sections of the population excluded from the military's "top-down" political consensus: the urban working class, the professional middle class and members of marginalized ethnic groups.

The leaders of the two parties were not easily distinguishable from their Second Republic forebears. Millionaire Yoruba publisher and businessman, Chief Moshood Abiola, was presidential candidate for the SDP; for the NRC, it was a wealthy Kaduna businessman, Bashir Tofa. When the postponed presidential elections finally took place on 12 June 1993 Chief Abiola appeared to be heading for a clear victory, but the electoral commission refused to announce the full results. Two weeks later President Babangida annulled the election provoking widespread popular protest.

The 12 June ballot was a highly imperfect, stage-managed election which could not have adequately reflected the popular will, since no free popular political organization was allowed to participate. Groups such as the Campaign for Democracy (CD), a coalition of civil society organizations, were highly critical of the military transition process. Nevertheless, to understand subsequent events, it is crucial to appreciate the symbolic importance which the 12 June process assumed, not least because Chief Abiola succeeded in garnering cross-ethnic, cross-sectoral and cross-religious support, even if he himself in the months after the election seemed reluctant to apply any pressure to the military to recognize him as elected president. A post-election Campaign for Democracy policy document explained:

The struggle to enforce the outcome of the Presidential elections of June 12, 1993 in which hundreds of Nigerians laid down their lives, limbs and liberty has been cardinal in the activities of the CD since the annulment of that election. From the onset, the CD has constantly emphasized that the June 12 [elections] went beyond the symbol of that mandate, the Babangida parties, the entire transition programme or any ethnic group or groups .... June 12 cannot be wished away despite the present ambivalence of its winners. It is a historic expression of the popular will transcending ethnic, religious and other primordial barriers.[4]4

In August 1993, in an apparent reaction to both internal and international pressure, President Babangida resigned and was replaced by an "interim" civilian-led administration under Chief Ernest Shonekan. However, few were in doubt that the military in fact remained in control and, in November 1993, General Sani Abacha seized power, a week after the Federal High Court had ruled that the interim government was illegal. General Abacha had been a key figure in both the Buhari and the Babangida coup d'états, as well as deputy to Chief Shonekan. Soon it became apparent that General Abacha's takeover meant a decisive rejection of any possibility of returning to the 12 June process - all political activity was banned, the Federal and State legislatures were disbanded and military administrators replaced civilian state governors. General Abacha established a new "transitional" process based on a constitutional conference which was boycotted by the opposition. The constitutional conference reported to General Abacha in June 1995 and provided the basis for the latest plan for transition to civilian rule, announced on 1 October 1995. The intended time-frame for this transition was three years.

Despite international outrage at the human rights abuses which characterize General Abacha's rule - notably the secret trials of alleged military conspirators and the execution of nine Ogoni minority rights activists in November 1995 - the military appears firmly entrenched in power. Nevertheless, democratic politics in Nigeria have undergone in many respects a transformation in the period since the annulled June 1993 elections. In the first place, for a whole year after the annulled elections the opposition succeeded in mounting mass popular protests against the military on an unprecedented scale. While it is true that the protests were strongest in Lagos and other mainly Yoruba cities, the opposition showed by a relative lack of ethnic or sectional division. In May 1994, a National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) was formed with a leadership composed of respected old-guard politicians. It called for the formation of a transitional government of national unity presided over by Chief Abiola. Meanwhile, the Campaign for Democracy continued to draw support from a range of civic organizations, calling for recognition of the June 1993 result. Then, in August 1995, a number of exiled Nigerians, including the Nobel Prize-winning playwright Wole Soyinka, announced the formation of the National Liberation Council of Nigeria (NALICON).

In July-August 1994, popular opposition to the military rulers of Nigeria culminated in a national strike by workers in the oil industry, prompted by Chief Abiola's declaration of himself as President of Nigeria on the first anniversary of the annulled 12 June election. He was duly arrested and charged with treason (Chief Abiola remained in detention at the time of writing).

Contrary to initial indications, the Abacha government succeeded in surviving this threat and in a direct response, disbanded the trade unions involved, and proceeded with the detention without trial, an extension of the government's legal powers and an effective clampdown on expression of criticism. These measures, combined with a series of summary trials of the fall of 1995, have created a degree of repression to which the opposition has not, thus far, found an answer. It is clear, however, that because of its arbitrary nature, the Abacha government has fostered greater unity among its critics, as well as a new creativity in methods and tactics of opposition. Whatever the outcome of the present crisis, Nigerian politics appear to have changed irrevocably.

Since the crushing of overt opposition on the streets, there have been a number of incidents which may or may not have been caused by terrorist violence. The most dramatic of these was the death in January 1996 of General Abacha's son Ibrahim in a plane crash. A previously unknown opposition group, the United Front for Nigeria's Liberation, claimed responsibility. At about the same time, hidden caches of guns and ammunition were found on the Benin border. The Government accused the Governments of Burkina Faso and South Africa of arming the opposition.[5] Earlier, in May 1995, a bomb exploded at a stadium in Ilorin during a ceremony attended by the army chief of staff, Major-General Alwali Kazir. This attack was one in a series of explosions at different targets, including the Bonny oil terminal, Murtala Mohammed airport in Lagos and an office building owned by a business associate of General Abacha. There was deep scepticism, however, in the wake of the bombings, since the immediate effect was the arrest of some 50 pro-democracy campaigners.[6] At the same time, there are sections of the pro-democracy movement which are growing impatient with peaceful opposition and are trying to apply the lessons of South Africa to their own situation - combining an externally-based armed campaign with internal mass opposition.


For all the talk about constitutions and transitional timetables, the real underlying issue is quite different. Questions such as regional, ethnic and religious balancing are undoubtedly important - especially in a country which has suffered civil war. Yet, the crucial issue can be summed up in one word: oil. It seems possible that even the bloody Biafran war would not have taken place, had the secessionist state not controlled the oilfields. It is probable that the present government would not have reacted with such ferocity to the demands of the minorities in the Niger Delta, had these not been seen as a threat to oil production. General Babangida's annulment of the June 1993 election and his refusal to cede power to the nominee of the military, Chief Abiola, was generally perceived as a last-minute reluctance to give up the fantastic rewards available to those with access to the country's oil wealth. An audit by the accountants Arthur Andersen in 1994 revealed that thousands of millions of dollars had been stolen from the revenues of the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation in the previous five years.[7]

Since the mid-1970s, Nigeria has devolved from being a middle-income developing country to one of the 20 poorest least developed countries. Per capita gross national product is estimated at around US$ 240. Inflation runs at more than 100 per cent a year. At the same time, the country's Bonny Light crude oil is of exceptional quality and highly valued on the world market. Yet oil revenues have had a negligible impact on the living standards of the ordinary Nigerian, after years of governments characterized by "corruption, bureaucratic wastage and fraud".[8] One of the most potent symbols of Nigeria under military rule has been the regular fuel shortages in one of the world's leading oil-producing countries. Ubiquitous official corruption takes its lead from the top. Since the mid-1970s - during which time it has been in power for all but four years - the Nigerian military has produced more millionaires than any other profession.[9] The speed of promotion through the armed forces is extremely rapid, as generals retire to enjoy the fruits of their period in power and younger men take their place. One effect of this is to lessen tensions within the officer corps. Although there are junior officers who feel that their seniors have not acted in conformity with their high-stated ideals, there also appears to be a sense that they will not have to wait long for their share of the spoils.

The corruption directly encountered by the ordinary Nigerian or visitor - involving the police officer, soldier or bureaucrat demanding "dash" - may follow the moral lead of the generals but it is also motivated by poverty. The siphoning off of oil revenues has left the state grossly underfunded, with its employees underpaid and basic services neglected. In addition and as a consequence, Nigerians are plagued with crime, ranging from the drug syndicates which have gained notoriety internationally to the armed robbers who threaten the country's major cities.[10]

Each successive military government comes to power deploring the lack of ethical standards in public life and stating the need for public order. Yet, it is under military rule that corruption, crime and the decay of ordinary life have become endemic.


The culture of lawlessness itself seems to take its cue from the successive military governments. Since 1983, the military has effectively suspended the Constitution not only as it affects the right of citizens to choose their own government, but also in many other aspects which it does not find congenial. The military has ruled by decree, with most decrees containing ouster clauses which effectively preclude any legal challenge. Indeed Decree No. 13 of 1984 explicitly excluded civil procedures in the courts to challenge anything done under or pursuant to a government decree.[11] Decree No. 1 of 1983 had already suspended substantial parts of the 1979 Constitution, including the right to personal liberty.[12] Decree No. 55 of 1992 stated that decrees took precedence over the Constitution.[13] Finally, Decree No. 12 of 1994 removed all court jurisdiction in relation to government action or any attempt to uphold the chapter of the 1979 Constitution relating to fundamental rights - prompting the resignation of the civilian Attorney-General, Olu Onagoruwa, who said that this and other decrees had been promulgated without his knowledge.[14]

Decrees cover all sorts of matters affecting fundamental rights, including the power to detain without charge, the suspension of habeas corpus, restrictions on the press and suspension of the jurisdiction of the independent judiciary.[15]

Many criminal cases are now tried not in the courts, which have a long history and reputation for independence, but in tribunals of various sorts, the Civil Disturbances Special Tribunals (established under Decree 2 of 1987) being the most notorious of them all. These tribunals consist of government-appointed individuals and are constituted to deal with specific cases. There is no right of appeal from their decisions. The fact that the tribunals are directly answerable to the military government leads to all sorts of other procedural abuses. The most celebrated case was the trial of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni activists in Port Harcourt in the fall of 1995, in which nine of the accused were found guilty of murder and subsequently executed by hanging. Prosecution witnesses claimed to have been bribed to testify and a senior military officer attended conferences between the defendants and their lawyers.[16] At a similar tribunal in 1993 dealing with cases arising out of religious conflict in Kaduna State, the predominantly Muslim tribunal waited until its most prominent Christian member was absent before reaching decisions.[17]

The cases of some 43 alleged conspirators against the Abacha government were heard in secret by a military tribunal in 1995. Those accused comprised not only serving military personnel, but also retired officers including the former head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo, and civilians such as the chairman of the Campaign for Democracy, Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti.[18] The Federal High Court in Lagos ordered the tribunal not to prosecute Dr Ransome-Kuti, who was accused of distributing the defence statement of one of those convicted by a military tribunal in July 1995. "The offences claimed to have been committed by my client are not in any Nigerian statute books or in any military decree," his lawyer told the court. However, Dr Ransome-Kuti had already been convicted in secret. The Government simply ignored the ruling of the High Court.[19]


The fundamental instrument of military rule has been the State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree No. 2 of 1984, amended by Decree No. 11 of 1994. Under these decrees, the Chief of the General Staff or the Inspector General of Police may order the detention without charge or trial of any person considered a threat to the state for an initial period of three months. In practice, there is no review after this period and successive governments have regarded the decree as being infinitely renewable.[20]

Since June 1993 thousands of pro-democracy activists have been detained without charge, many of them for a year or more. However, as a report of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative points out, the largest number of arbitrary arrests is of ordinary people, often for non-political activity. It cites accounts that in 1994 at least 2000 such people were detained: "Most detainees are not charged with a crime and are released after varying periods, sometimes after being subject to beatings and abuse. There are credible reports of torture."[21]

Amnesty International reported that, between June 1993 and late 1994, perhaps as many as 200 protesters had been killed by security forces in the course of pro-democracy protests.[22] This figure did not take into account killings by the military in the course of operations in Ogoni (see below). In July 1994, for example, police shot dead at least 20 protesters during demonstrations in Lagos and Ibadan. In August 1994, at least 12 people were unlawfully killed by security forces in Benin City and Ekpoma. Some reports suggested that as many as 180 may have been killed.[23]

6.1 Political Forces

Although General Abacha announced a limited legalization of political activity in June 1995, this has made no apparent difference in the unremitting suppression of opposition political forces. The most celebrated political prisoner is Chief Abiola, the presumed winner of the June 1993 election. He was arrested in June 1994 and charged with treason after he declared himself to be president of Nigeria. Although his alleged offence was committed in Lagos, he continues to be held in Abuja where a new Federal High Court was created to try him - in contravention of international standards. Moreover, he has not been brought to trial, despite being held for nearly two years. The Government defied a court order to release him on bail in November 1994 and failed to pay him damages awarded for the illegality of his initial arrest and detention. Chief Abiola is in poor health and has been denied access to his family and doctor for long periods. Indeed his personal physician, Dr Ore Falomo, has himself been detained for publicizing Chief Abiola's plight.[24]

Most of those imprisoned for political reasons are detained without charge, including two of Chief Abiola's aides, Fred Eno and Prince Ademola Adeniji-Adele. After the formation of NADECO in 1994, a number of its leaders were detained, including 71-year-old Chief Anthony Enahoro and Chief Cornelius Adebayo. They were released after several months. NADECO's secretary-general Ayo Opadokun, also arrested in 1994, remains in detention without charge, as does Sylvester Odion-Akhaine, arrested in January 1995.[25]

Most detentions of political activists are short-term. But the threat of harassment, poor conditions and torture are a never-subsiding form of intimidation. For example, in June 1995, Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin, NADECO's 87-year-old leader, was briefly detained along with 50 supporters arrested during a private meeting at his home.[26]

Greater international attention has focused on the fate of 43 people convicted by a secret military tribunal for crimes connected with an alleged attempted coup d'état in early 1995. It seems questionable whether any such coup attempt actually took place. It is also indubitable that the trial of those accused of involvement failed to meet the most basic standards of fairness under international law, since they were held in secret and before an administrative tribunal. Some defendants were reportedly tortured and they were not informed of the charges against them. They also did not have lawyers of their choice, and had no right of appeal. Many of those found guilty were sentenced to death - sentences which were only commuted by General Abacha in October 1995 after widespread international appeals. Among those convicted were the former head of state, General Olusegun Obasanjo, and his former deputy, Major-General Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, the latter being also a prominent member of the Government's own constitutional conference. Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti and Shehu Sani of the Campaign for Democracy were also among those convicted, along with four journalists who had been responsible for early stories about the tribunal's hearings: Christine Anyanwu, Kunle Ajibade, George Mbah and Ben Charles Obi.[27]

6.2 The Press

The fate of the four journalists imprisoned by secret military tribunal is indicative of the broader travails of the independent press in Nigeria. Unlike most of sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria has an extensive press with a long history of independence. This extends back to nationalist papers such as the West African Pilot and the Nigerian Tribune, founded in the 1930s and 1940s. Today, there are more than 100 newspapers and magazines, with half the country's daily papers in private ownership. Ever so, the state has extended its stake in the press considerably in the post-civil war period. Thus the Daily Times has moved from being a highly independent and often critical voice become essentially a mouthpiece of the Government. Nevertheless, many independent papers such as those belonging to the Guardian and Concord groups continued throughout the 1980s to provide credible and independent reporting and commentary.[28]

The privately-owned press lost credibility during the Second Republic because of most papers' rabid and uncritical partisanship towards the political parties. One of the Buhari military government's first measures was Decree No. 4 of 1984, which outlawed any publication which was embarrassing to public officials, whether or not the facts contained in it were true. Cases were heard by a specially constituted military tribunal. General Babangida's government repealed this decree, but there were already more than 40 laws on the statute book regulating the press and in practice the environment grew even more restrictive. A 1988 decree attempted to make all publications and individual journalists subject to a government-controlled licensing procedure. This failed only because journalists and newspaper proprietors refused to co-operate.[29] In 1993, after annulling the June elections, the Babangida government promulgated another decree laying down stringent licensing requirements.[30]

The practice of banning newspapers and other publications is a relatively recent one in Nigeria. The military governor of the Western State attempted to ban two newspapers during the civil war, only to be overruled by the High Court.[31] Apart from one banning order by General Obasanjo in the late 1970s, it was not until the late 1980s that the proscriptions began in earnest. In 1995, it was estimated that 33 newspapers and nine news magazines had been proscribed or shut down in the previous eight years.[32] In 1994, for example, the Government imposed a one-year ban on 20 titles published by the Concord, Punch and Guardian press groups. The ban on the Concord publications was not surprising - their proprietor is Chief Abiola - but the Guardian ban was somewhat more so, since their owner, Alex Ibru, was a Government minister at the time. The reason for the ban, as with most such moves, was that the Guardian newspapers had a reputation for sober and accurate reporting, especially on the internal politics of the military government.

However, the most serious attacks on freedom of expression have been directed at individual journalists. In a 1986 case which still haunts the Nigerian journalistic profession, Dele Giwa, editor of the independent magazine Newswatch, was killed by a parcel bomb. Days earlier he had been interrogated by security officials. He had apparently been working on a story implicating the wife of a senior military official in drug smuggling.[33] More recently - and especially since June 1993 - the independent press has been under almost permanent siege, with journalists often arrested and their offices under threat of attack. On 31 December 1995, for example, the offices of The News and Tempo were hit by an arson attack.[34] Only days earlier, security officials had attempted to search the offices of Tell magazine in Lagos.[35] The magazine's editor, Nosa Igiebor, had already been arrested and 20,000 copies of the magazine confiscated.[36] Vendors were arrested for possession of Tell or Tempo.[37] In February 1996, Alex Ibru, publisher of the Guardian newspapers, narrowly survived an assassination attempt. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by a previously unknown group calling itself the Revolutionary Movement for Hausa-Fulani Interest.[38] The assassination attempt was reminiscent of the murder in October 1995 of Chief Alfred Rewane, a prominent member of the democratic opposition, in an attack which was described at the time as being purely criminal in intent.[39]

A number of banned publications continue to operate on a "guerrilla" footing, with their journalists in hiding. Photographs of "guerrilla journalists" are broadcast on state-run television with appeals to the public to hand them over. Tempo and The News, for example, operate from secret headquarters.[40]

Even foreign journalists in Nigeria - of whom there are generally few - are becoming increasingly vulnerable. Paul Adams, correspondent of the London Financial Times, was arrested in Ogoni on 4 January 1996 and held for a week. He was charged with possession seditious material.[41] An earlier Financial Times correspondent, William Keeling, was expelled in 1991 after he had written about alleged misuse of windfall oil revenues in the wake of the Gulf war.[42]


As the case of the press, Nigeria has a strong and well-developed trade union movement whose history stretches back well before independence.[43] On 4 July 1994, manual workers in the oil industry went on strike in protest at the Government's arrest of Chief Abiola and suppression of the opposition. The manual workers union, the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), was later joined by the white collar union, the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN). The Government initially stated that the strike did not affect oil exports, but later admitted that exports were down by about 25 per cent. However, after the strike it was reported that the loss could have been between 30 and 40 per cent with the largest producer, Shell, losing about half its production.[44]

On 3 August 1994 the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), representing 40 unions and 3.5 million workers, called a general strike which was promptly called off when the government promised to release Chief Abiola. Instead, however, the government on 18 August dissolved the leaderships of the NLC and the oil unions, replacing them with appointed administrators and ordering the workers to end their strike. By the beginning of September, the strike had effectively collapsed and a number of senior union officials were arrested.[45] Most were released in late 1995, but Frank Kokori, secretary general of NUPENG, remained in detention without charge in early 1996.

6.4 Human Rights Monitors

Unlike the trade unions and the press, Nigeria's human rights groups are a recent development, with the earliest and largest, the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), dating from the mid- 1980s. However, these groups - which also include the Constitutional Rights Project, the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), the National Association of Democratic Lawyers and Human Rights Africa - have rapidly gained a reputation for accurate reporting and political impartiality.[46] They have also, inevitably, been a target for government repression. Beko Ransome-Kuti of the CDHR has been frequently arrested, as has Femi Falana of the NADL and independent human rights advocate Chief Gani Fawehinmi. Others, such as Olisa Agbakoba, founding president of the CLO, have had their passports confiscated. Nigerian human rights activists often find themselves unable to travel openly in and out of the country (a fate also suffered by the writer Wole Soyinka, who had both his Nigerian and United Nations passports confiscated in 1994).[47]

In 1995, as the military government came under increasing international pressure, the repression of human rights monitors intensified. Several prominent human rights advocates were arrested in the weeks before the second anniversary of the June 1993 election, including Olisa Agbakoba and Alao Aka-Bashorun, chairman of the Democratic Alternative and former president of the Nigerian Bar Association. They were released without charge after short periods of detention.[48] Others arrested a few weeks later, including the CLO executive director Abdul Oroh and the head of Human Rights Africa, Tunji Abayomi (who is also General Obasanjo's lawyer), remained in detention without charge in early 1996.[49]


It seems to have become a truism that Nigerian politics has been dominated by the hegemony and competition of the three major ethnic blocs: Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo. Equally, it is commonplace to note that the "tri-ethnic hegemony" has been shattered ever after the civil war.[50] While this is an overstatement, it is certainly true that the past three decades have seen an increase in the leverage enjoyed by smaller groups such as the minorities in the Niger Delta, minority groups in the Middle Belt and Northern minorities such as the Kanuri.

There are several problems in identifying precisely the significance of the ethnic element in Nigerian politics, not least the difficulty of definition. Language appears a key indicator in many instances. For example, and most importantly, the pastoralist Fulani and the agriculturalist or urban Hausa are defined as a single group by virtue of using the Hausa language, although they were only united after a victorious Fulani jihad (holy war) in the early nineteenth century. Differences in social organization are clearly also important, with most areas of Nigeria having developed sophisticated and centralized political systems, such as the Yoruba city-states, prior to colonization. Also, as discussed below, religion has often proved a crucial defining factor. For example, it would be virtually impossible to disentangle the ethnic and religious elements of the Hausa-Igbo conflict in the North, especially Kano. Similarly, in southern Kaduna State the ethnic conflicts between Hausa and Kataf have been defined by the Muslim-Christian religious divide.[51]

In part, the growth of ethnic identity can be ascribed to the increasing role of patronage at the

level of both the national and local state. According to the author of one study,

By 1975 ethnicity had infected every aspect of national and sub national life in every corner of the country. A culture of ethnicity had truly taken root. Every issue was perceived in ethnic terms. Practically every public actor expected others to be motivated by ethnic considerations and to act accordingly; and everyone in turn acted out an ethnic role of one sort or another.[52]

More recently, the deepening crisis has contributed towards a retreat into explicitly ethnic or regional political organizations such as the Northern Elders Forum, the Yoruba Leaders Forum, the Eastern Forum, the Southern Forum and the Middle Belt Forum, as well as the emergence of ethnic minority rights campaigns, especially in the Niger Delta. This retreat into ethnicity also has a very physical dimension. In the aftermath of the June 1993, elections many groups moved back to their ethnic homelands, believing that the country to be on the verge of disintegration.[53]

Ethnicity can be most surely described as a function of the multiple identities which most Nigerians enjoy. The strength of the institutions of civil society has meant that Nigerians have perhaps been less inclined than many Africans to define themselves primarily, or at least solely, in terms of their ethnicity. The extent to which individuals define themselves in ethnic terms may also depend upon whether "their" ethnic group is in or out of power, as well as upon class relations within that group.[54] The high degree of urbanization in Nigeria may have diminished ethnic identity, although some writers argue that until recently ethnic rivalry has been a largely urban phenomenon, since rural people did not often come into contact with their ethnic rivals.[55]

These problems of definition are one reason why estimates of the number of ethnic groups vary widely. The largest number of groups tend to be in the Niger Delta and in the Middle Belt, where there are between 50 and 100 groups, of which the Nupe and the Tiv are the most important. Equally, while the Yoruba are a clearly defined ethnic bloc, in terms of language and common political history, they are divided into seven sub-groups with a history of animosity towards each other. During the civil war, for example, Yoruba unity was far from assured and the Biafran cause had some support in parts of the Western region.[56]

7.1 The Ogoni

The best known of the smaller ethnic groups which have begun to press their claims in recent years are the Ogoni. The Ogoni, in common with a number of other groups from the Niger Delta, have a well-articulated grievance over the despoliation of their home area in the course of oil exploitation since the 1950s. They argue that they are too small to benefit politically and economically from the federal structure, and that they have not received income from oil revenues or been compensated for environmental damage.[57] Their grievances are directed not only against the current federal military government but also against their larger neighbours, notably the Igbo. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Ogonis' most notable leader, Ken Saro- Wiwa, was a Federal Government official during the Biafran secession.[58]

In 1990, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) was established with widespread popular support, launching an "Ogoni Bill of Rights" as its manifesto. It called for "political autonomy" for Ogoni within the Nigerian Federation, including the right to control and use a fair proportion of oil resources for economic development. MOSOP has been inaccurately portrayed by the military government as an organization seeking secession from the federation. From 1993 onwards, MOSOP embarked on a campaign of mass popular protest which was also the signal for an escalation of government repression in Ogoni. MOSOP activists were repeatedly arrested and, in one incident, 11 people were injured when troops opened fire on a demonstration called to protest against the laying of a new oil pipeline.[59]

However, the main form taken by government repression was the manipulation of ethnic rivalry between the Ogoni and neighbouring groups, including the Andoni, the Okrika and the Ndoki. The clash with the Andoni, which degenerated into violence in July 1993, followed the decision by MOSOP to boycott the June 1993 presidential election (a decision which also split MOSOP, leading to the resignation of its president and vice-president and the assumption of leadership by Ken Saro-Wiwa). The Andoni leaders claimed that Ogonis blocked roads preventing Andonis from returning home to vote. They also alleged that Ogonis had attacked Andonis in the course of demonstrations against the government and oil companies. MOSOP, for its part, alleged that the military authorities encouraged and took part in Andoni attacks against MOSOP in retribution for the election boycott - a claim which has subsequently been proved correct, notwithstanding the validity of the Andoni claims. On 7 July 1993 fighting occurred at the Kaa waterfront market which spread to Ogoni and Andoni villages with the loss of over 400 lives. Several villages were destroyed. On 9 July, Andonis attacked a boat ferrying Ogonis back from Cameroon, killing some 200 of them.[60]

In October 1993, a Government-sponsored peace agreement was signed, although Ken Saro- Wiwa did not participate. The Government-appointed negotiator, Professor Claude Ake, condemned the agreement and commented:

I don't think it was purely an ethnic clash, in fact there is really no reason why it should be an ethnic clash and as far as we could determine, there was nothing in dispute in the sense of territory, fishing rights, access rights, discriminatory treatment, which are the normal causes of these communal clashes.[61]

Human Rights Watch interviewed soldiers who claimed to have taken part in Andoni raids on Ogoni villages in 1993. Residents of Kaa said that men in uniform were among the Andoni fighters who attacked their villages in August 1993.[62]

Clashes between Ogoni and Ndoki in April 1994 followed a similar pattern. It was alleged that security forces encouraged Ndokis to attack Ogonis over a long-standing land dispute. Some 20 people died and at least eight Ogoni villages were destroyed. The security forces followed the Ndoki attackers into Ogoni, burning down more villages.[63]

On 21 May 1994, four senior non-MOSOP Ogonis were killed, including Chief Edward Kobani, former vice-president of MOSOP who had resigned over the June 1993 election boycott. The authorities arrested the president and vice-president of MOSOP, Ken Saro-Wiwa and Ledum Mitee, detaining them for eight months before charging them with the killings. Three other persons were convicted.[64] Given the unreliability of the evidence against them, it remains an open question whether, as MOSOP has alleged all along, the killings were in fact instigated by the military in order to sow division within the Ogoni community and provide a pretext for further repression. A Nigerian Government memorandum written shortly before the killings by Major Paul Okuntimo, chairman of the Rivers State internal security task force reportedly recommended a "ruthless military operation" in order to suppress opposition to the activities of Shell in Ogoni. The document called for military sabotage of oil company equipment - which could then be blamed on Ogoni activists - the "wasting" of political opposition and the use of "psychological" tactics and surveillance to justify turning Ogoni into a military zone.[65] Regardless, there was a massive escalation of military operations in Ogoni. The Rivers State Internal Security Task Force was reinforced and embarked on a series of raids on Ogoni villages in which they beat, raped, detained and killed ordinary Ogoni. At least 50 Ogoni were killed and some 600 detained between May and June 1994. Major Okuntimo reportedly boasted of his proficiency in killing people, while the Rivers State military administrator, Lieutenant-Colonel Dauda Komo, publicly justified the use of terror to force the Ogoni into submission.[66]

A total of 15 men stood trial before a Civil Disturbances Special Tribunal in Port Harcourt in connection with the killing of the four Ogoni chiefs in May 1994. Nine, including Ken Saro- Wiwa, were sentenced to death and hanged on 10 November 1995 despite international appeals. The tribunal was nominated by the military government and those convicted had no right of appeal against the decision and sentence - which was carried out less than two weeks after the tribunal's verdict. A detailed report by a senior British observer at the trial, Michael Birnbaum QC, documented the numerous abuses of law and procedure.[67] The latter stages of the trial coincided with a new military clampdown in Ogoni. Nineteen more Ogoni activists currently face trial in connection with the same killings.[68]

Any hope that increased international concern about Ogoni would moderate the behaviour of the military was dispelled on 4 January 1996, the annual Ogoni Day celebration, when soldiers opened fire into a peaceful demonstration in Borri, killing six. Many others were beaten and arrested. Later that evening the military raided several villages and the following day broke up Borri market.[69]

7.2 Other Delta Minorities

Although the Ogoni have been the best organized and most vocal of the Niger Delta minorities, they have not been the only ones to protest against environmental damage and their exclusion from the political process. A number of other South-Eastern minorities have followed the precedent of MOSOP and organized pressure groups. These include the Izon (or Ijaw), the Ogbia and the Ikwerre. Other communities, including the Igbide, the Irri and the Uzere, have organized ad hoc protests against the operations of the Shell oil company, while the Southern Minorities Movement, which groups 28 ethnic groups from a number of south-eastern states, has also been vocal. However, as in the Ogoni case, the security forces have responded with excessive force, including killings and arbitrary detention. The escalation of conflict in the Delta region was sparked by an incident at Umuechem in October 1990. Mobile police attacked a group of demonstrators protesting peacefully at Shell's premises, killing some 80 and subsequently destroying or seriously damaging 495 houses. A judicial commission of inquiry found that the police had displayed "a reckless disregard for lives and property". It recommended payment of compensation and prosecution of the officers responsible, although the authorities have complied with neither recommendation.[70]

In November 1993, police dispersed a peaceful protest outside the Agip oil terminal in Brass using tear-gas followed with severe beatings. Demonstrators were forced to flee by swimming through a mixture of oil and water in a drainage ditch. In February 1994, soldiers detained leaders of the Nembe Creek community accused of theft, publicly beating them with guns and knotted rope and stabbing them. They later opened fire on protesters demanding the release of the leaders. Later the same month, soldiers also opened fire on a peaceful protest at the main Shell compound in Port Harcourt.[71]

7.3 The Jukun-Tiv Conflict

The long-running conflict in the predominantly Jukun town of Wukari in the Middle Belt appears indicative of the way in which ethnic conflicts have been exploited for political purposes. The Tiv are a significant minority group in Wukari, as are the Hausa. Their predicament also illustrates the dangerous influence of "traditional" authorities on the political process. Chiefs and traditional rulers are an important element of the system of government - essentially a continuation of colonial "indirect rule". Because they play this role of a quasi- government, all residents in a given area are expected to owe obedience to (and pay tribute to) a traditional ruler, regardless of whether they are of the same ethnic group. Thus the Tiv and Hausa in Wukari owe allegiance to the Jukun traditional ruler, the Aku-Uka.[72]

The Tiv and the Hausa are historic allies in the attempts to legitimize control of land and access to economic life in the area. However, under the First Republic the Jukun and Hausa both supported the Northern People's Congress, while the Tiv supported the United Middle Belt Congress. There was widespread conflict between the NPC and UMBC, which manifested itself in Wukari in Jukun-Tiv confrontations. By the time of the Second Republic the Jukun and the Tiv were supporting the same political party, the NPN. However, there was internal tension within the NPN because of what the Jukun considered to be preferred treatment of the Tiv in Wukari on the part of the government. The end of civilian politics, however, signalled a revival of the Tiv-Hausa alliance against the Jukun.[73]

Open violence erupted again in 1990 over internal disputes between Tiv and Jukun factions within the NRC. Several people died and much property was destroyed. Matters escalated in 1991 over the issue of the creation of new states. The question was whether Wukari should be part of the new Taraba State, with a Jukun majority, or Benue State where the Tiv were the largest group. Further violence erupted in December 1991 after a Jukun victory in the Wukari local government elections. Tivs argued that a Jukun candidate had been elected head of the local government only because many Tivs were not registered to vote because they had been displaced in the fighting. In June 1992, the only woman member of the Taraba state assembly, a Jukun, was assassinated. The Jukun blamed the killing on the Tiv and two villages were burned and 20 people killed in reprisal. Up to 5,000 people were reported to have been killed in the clashes and a further 80,000 displaced.[74]

A number of accounts suggest that the mobile police acted in complicity with Jukuns in burning down Tiv villages and that the government did nothing to stop them. Despite the high number of casualties and the scale of the displacement, the Government delayed for months before sending in the army to restore order (which they seem to have done even-handedly).[75]


Ethnic divisions have often proven most explosive when they coincide with religious fault- lines. The religion with the most followers in Nigeria is Islam, which dominates especially in the North, where it has been present since the eleventh century. In 1963, a national census found that 47 per cent of Nigerians were Muslims, 35 per cent Christians and 18 per cent adherents of local indigenous faiths. Aside from the question of whether this was strictly accurate - there was probably a tendency to overestimate the number of Muslims, the figures conceal the important divisions within both Christianity and Islam[76] and leave out of account important subsequent shifts. One is the spread of Islam in the northern part of the Middle Belt, especially among the middle classes who see it as a route to social and political advancement.

The Roman Catholic church is dominant in Igbo-speaking areas, Protestantism and local syncretic churches such as Aladura in Yoruba areas. However, the more northerly Yoruba areas have had a strong Muslim presence since the nineteenth century.[77]

Islam in northern Nigeria has historically been dominated by Sufi brotherhoods. In recent years, however, sects have arisen to challenge this dominance. The best known of these has been the Maitatsine cult, founded by a mystical preacher from Cameroon, who mobilized the marginal urban poor, especially migrant workers, against the Muslim religious and political establishment. In December 1980, a Maitatsine uprising in Kano led to 11 days of rioting which was suppressed by the military with the loss of more than 4,000 lives. Throughout the 1980s, there continued to be bloody and intermittent pro-Maitatsine disturbances: in Kano in July 1981; in Maiduguri and Kaduna in October 1982; in February 1984 in Gongola and again in April 1985.[78]

Maitatsine is the best known of the Muslim fundamentalist groups, but by no means the only one. A group called Yan Izala was founded in Zaria and Kaduna in the 1960s in opposition to the Sufi brotherhoods and also took part in the unrest of the early 1980s.[79] Although the strength of Maitatsine declined in the late 1980s, its place has been taken by other groups. The latest of these is the Muslim Brothers, a group of young radicals which is gaining ground in Kano after breaking away from the Zaria-based pro-Iranian preacher Ibrahim Zakzakhy. It is they who appear to have played an important role in stimulating Muslim-Christian conflict in Kano in recent months.[80]

Christian-Muslim rivalry has long been latent and has become increasingly overt in recent years. It was an undoubted factor in the build-up to civil war in 1966, with anti-Igbo pogroms in the North encouraged in part by radio broadcasts reporting alleged anti-Muslim atrocities in the South. In 1977, to general dismay of the Christians, some Muslims began to press for an extension of Koranic shari'a law from state legal codes in the North to the entire federal system. In 1986, Nigeria became a member of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), in an apparent rejection of its identity as a secular, multi-confessional state it had claimed to be previously.[81]

The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) was established in 1976 as a counterweight to the growth of political Islam and came to prominence in the mid-1980s in the debate over Nigeria's membership of the OIC. This politicization of the religious debate led inevitably to a hardening of the divisions, with for example the leader of one radical Islamic group, Abubakar Gumi of the Izala, proclaiming in 1990 that Muslims would not accept a Christian president.[82]

The politicization of religion has been accompanied by violence at the grass roots level. In 1987 at least 12 people died and churches were burned after clashes between Christian and Muslim students at the College of Education in Kafanchan, Kaduna State. The violence spread to Zaria, Katsina and Kano.[83]

In April and May 1991, Igbo Christians in the North were the principal victims of violence and attacks on property perpetrated by the Izala and other fundamentalist Islamic groups in Katsina and Bauchi. In October the same year, the Izala launched anti-Christian riots in Kano to protest against the presence there of a German fundamentalist evangelist. Several hundred people died.[84]

In December 1994, Gideon Akaluka, a young Igbo trader, was arrested in Kano after his wife allegedly used pages from the Koran as toilet paper for their baby. A group of Muslims seized him from police custody, killed him and beheaded him, walking around the city parading his severed head. The Muslim Brothers appear to have been behind the incident, which raised serious questions about police impartiality.[85]

This was followed by further violence in Kano in May 1995, which led to the death of 17 people. A subsequent commission of inquiry recommended the prosecution of those responsible but made no findings about the religious or ethnic causes of the violence. After the May 1995 violence, pamphlets circulated in Kano calling for non-Muslims to flee the area before they were engulfed in "calamity".[86] The Christian Association of Nigeria later reported that many Christians had been expelled from their homes and shops, while a church minister was killed.[87]

8.1 Zango-Kataf[88]

The conflict in Zango-Kataf in southern Kaduna State illustrates the explosive mix of religious and ethnic rivalry, as well as the highly partial approach of the authorities which has succeeded in inflaming conflict.

The town of Zango-Kataf is an enclave of mainly Muslim Hausa-Fulanis in an area dominated by the mostly Christian Katafs. Tension between the two communities has been long-standing. In February 1992, rioting broke out over a local government decision to move the market from a Hausa area to one dominated by Katafs. Sixty people died. Worse rioting broke out in May, apparently after Kataf attacks on the Hausa community. The violence spread to Kaduna, where it was mainly directed by Hausas against Christians. Several churches were burned down and Christian ministers killed. The official death toll was 300 but unofficial estimates were as high as several thousand. Over 60,000 people fled their homes.

The official response to the violence was to arrest several hundred Katafs, most of whom were held without charge. Six prominent Katafs, including Major-General Zamani Lekwot, a former ambassador, were charged with complicity in the riots before a specially constituted Civil Disturbances Special Tribunal. The prosecution withdrew its case, but the accused were rearrested by security agents as they left the court. In September 1991, they were charged again, with a total of 14 people being sentenced to death by two Civil Disturbances Tribunals, including Major-General Lekwot. The hearings had all the same defects as the tribunal which heard the case of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni activists, since they were constituted under the same law. In this instance, the Government commuted the death sentences to five years' imprisonment.


Nigeria's internal crises can only be fully understood in the context of its role as a regional power. Successive Nigerian governments have aspired to continental leadership, with the ultimate aim of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The emergence of South Africa under Nelson Mandela's presidency as Africa's moral leader has undermined that ambition and goes some way towards explaining the rivalry between the two countries. In truth, however, Nigeria's leadership claims have looked questionable for many years. In West Africa, successive Nigerian military regimes have appeared to promote a continuation of military rule against the democratic tide, being the main foreign backer of, successively, the government of Master Sergeant (later General) Samuel Doe in Liberia, Captain Valentine Strasser in Sierra Leone and Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh in the Gambia.[89]

Nigeria's backing for these Anglophone military leaders, and its prominent role in the Economic Community of West Africa State (ECOWAS), has been constantly contested by the Francophone states of the region. In this they have had strong French support, a legacy of France's support for Biafra in the civil war as well as its attempts to thwart Anglophone hegemony in the region. Interestingly enough, this alignment of forces has shifted in recent months, with France taking advantage of the growing distance between Nigeria and the United Kingdom and the United States to improve relations with General Abacha's government.

9.1 Border Disputes

For the past two years, Nigeria has faced a serious crisis with Cameroon over possession of the Bakassi islands. In February 1994, there were skirmishes between Nigerian and Cameroonian troops on the islands which then settled into an uneasy stand-off, with periodical explosions into violence.[90] In September 1994, a surprise attack by Nigerian soldiers on Cameroonian troops reignited the dispute. Ten Cameroonians were killed according to Nigerian military sources.[91] The Nigerian Government was angered at what it saw as the "internationalization" of the conflict, with the deployment of increased numbers of French troops in Cameroon, although both, the French and Cameroonian authorities, denied that there were any French troops on the islands.[92]

The dispute over possession of Bakassi dates back to the Berlin conference of 1885, when the area was divided between the British colony of Nigeria and German Kamerun. The German colony was divided between British and French administration after the First World War. The dispute resurfaced in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the British-administered Cameroons federated with the French-administered Cameroun at independence. Nigeria claimed the English-speaking part.

Cameroon claims that Nigeria ceded Bakassi under the 1975 Maroua Accord, but the Nigerians say that they never ratified the accord.[93] In December 1994 the Secretary-General of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), Salim Ahmed Salim, offered to mediate in the dispute, although this has not prevented periodic flare-ups in Bakassi.[94] In August 1995, for example, one Nigerian soldier was reported to have been killed and there were several casualties on the Cameroonian side.[95]

Although the Bakassi issue is the most potentially explosive border dispute, it is not the only one. In July 1995, the Government of Chad accused Nigerian troops of occupying disputed islands in Lake Chad after the failure of border talks. Chad and Nigeria are in dispute over a number of islands, including Kangalom and Tetewa. Nigeria is also in dispute with Cameroon over islands in the lake.[96]

9.2 Liberia

Nigeria's role as a regional power is most visible in the leading role it has played in the Economic Community Cease-fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) in Liberia. In August 1990, the ECOWAS governments decided to create a peacekeeping force in Liberia, although at that stage the country was deep in conflict and the main purpose of the intervention was to prevent the rebels of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), backed by Côte d'Ivoire and several other Francophone governments, from seizing Monrovia. The military backbone of ECOMOG has always been Nigerian, as well as its operational and political leadership. President Babangida was alleged to have had long-standing business dealings with President Doe of Liberia.[97] Be that as it may, the achievement of ECOMOG was to secure a Government-controlled zone around the capital where life retained a semblance of normality. Ironically, given the strenuous efforts by the Nigerian military government to suppress the institutions of civil society at home, the ECOMOG zones of Liberia were the only areas where such institutions could function at all.[98]

However, ECOMOG has been repeatedly accused of partiality in its dealings with the various Liberian factions. In its determination to prevent an NPFL victory, ECOMOG gave tacit support, including arms, to rival factions such as the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) and the United Liberation Movement (ULIMO).[99] Both the NPFL and independent observers alleged that Nigerian ECOMOG aircraft attacked civilian targets, such as hospitals, the Catholic Relief Services food warehouse in Buchanan, a relief convoy at the Ivoirian border town of Gbinta - as well as markets and crowded streets in Kakata, Gbarnga and Kollila.[100] On 18 April 1993, Nigerian jets attacked a convoy carrying medicine and vaccines for the Belgian organization Medecins sans Frontières (MSF).[101]

The signing of a new peace agreement in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, in August 1995, marked a new departure in some respects, although it was Liberia's thirteenth peace agreement since the civil war began in 1989. It was spurred by a fear on all sides, including the Nigerian Government, that the United Nations would withdraw from Liberia unless agreement was reached. It also represented the first fruits of new regional alliances which saw a rapprochement between Nigeria and France, with Nigeria prepared to countenance an NPFL presence in the transitional Liberian Government in exchange for French diplomatic support at a time of growing international isolation.[102]


The prospect of another civil war in Nigeria does not appear impossible, if for no other reason than the fact that there has been one before. However, an excessive preoccupation with the future risks giving insufficient attention to the ills of present-day Nigeria, other than as indicators for what may happen later. Nigeria has the advantages of vast natural wealth, a rich and politically sophisticated history, an abundance of human talent and a vibrant civil society. Yet poor government has transformed it from a potential continental leader to a brutal and poverty-stricken pariah. Its administration is corrupt and inefficient. Its citizenry is plagued by violent crime. Religious divisions are increasing, as is ethnic fragmentation. The environment is under threat. The rule of law is all but destroyed and any critics are in danger of arbitrary measures which undermine their fundamental rights. In other words, things are bad enough already.

It is possible to measure up the present situation against the build-up to war in the mid-1960s. There are several factors today which are similar to, if not worse than, the situation in the 1960s. The quality of governance, for example, has certainly declined. Religious tensions, which played an important part in the Biafran secession, are deeper. However, certain key developments make war less likely. First, the very process of ethnic fragmentation has to some extent broken up the three large ethno-political blocs of the 1960s. The new assertiveness of the Delta minorities, in particular, has transformed the political character of the old East. Perhaps even more importantly, one ethno-political unit, the North, has established a virtual monopoly over the armed apparatus of the state. A war requires two sides and it is difficult to see, in the present situation, who would play the role analogous to the one played by the Igbo officer corps in the 1960s in a civil war in the 1990s. While there are likely to be many divisions within the army and military coups can certainly not be ruled out, for the most part these are within the "North" and are therefore much less likely to spill over into general armed conflict. However, these same factors increase the risk of localized conflict.

Moreover, in some instances - Rwanda and Burundi are examples - the fact of past conflict generates fear and contributes to the likelihood of pre-emptive action which may reignite hostilities. In the more complex Nigerian situation, by contrast, the echoes of civil war serve as an awful warning to all sides and probably lessen the possibility of a recurrence.

Another factor which seems to be lessening the risk of open conflict is a healthy scepticism on the part of the Nigerian public. Even the militant urban population of the Yoruba cities, which has been most prominent in the opposition to General Abacha's government, seems disinclined to lay down their lives on behalf of Chief Abiola or any other politician. Outright conflict is only likely if the military leadership were to succeed in uniting the North behind it and persuading its supporters of the threat of from the South. However, it seems improbable that the Yoruba-speaking areas of the country will again unite behind a Northern-led military government; the experiences of the last few years go too deeply for that. The Delta minorities will also not support the Northern military as they did during the civil war; nor will the Igbos for historical reasons. So the political coherence of the North is probably the crucial factor and there are strong reasons for considering that it would not be prepared to go to war for General Abacha, or any other general for that matter.

The most immediate danger in Nigeria is a different one. It is that the present political impasse - which has been essentially unchanged since 1983 - will continue for the foreseeable future. The past dozen years have seen catastrophic economic decline and growing political conflict and human rights abuse. In recent months they have also seen the beginnings of urban terrorism, whose authorship is often unclear, with a series of bomb outrages, the assassination of Chief Alfred Rewane, the death of Ibrahim Abacha in a plane crash and the February 1996 attack on the publisher Alex Ibru. Unless there is a decisive break, this decline will continue.

In October 1995, General Abacha announced a three-year timetable for transition to civilian rule. The following month, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Auckland, New Zealand, proposed an alternative timetable of two years and suspended Nigeria from Commonwealth membership. Yet, timetables in Nigeria have historically never been followed. Moreover, the Nigerian opposition is largely united in the view that any new transitional timetable must take into account the 12 June 1993 election. The precise role of the victor of the June 1993 election, Moshood Abiola, is open to debate. However, an Abiola presidency would be anathema in the North, while many Southern pro-democracy campaigners fear that Chief Abiola is an unreliable standard bearer for civilian rule, especially while he remains in custody. Opposition sentiment seems to be coalescing around the view that an interim government of national unity is needed to supervise the transition and certainly no one in the opposition believes that the military should ever again be trusted to organize its own exit from politics.


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BBC Summary of World Broadcasts.

"'At least 50' Arrests Reported Following Ilorin Explosion". 5 June 1995, quoting Kenya News Agency [Nairobi]. 2 June 1995.

BBC Summary of World Broadcasts.

"Nigerian Official Reports Clashes with Cameroon Troops in Bakassi Peninsula". 16 August 1995, quoting Radio France Internationale. 15 August 1995.

Bienen, Henry.

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Birnbaum, Michael.

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Bourgault, Louise M.

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Cohen, Robin.

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Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.

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Constitutional Rights Journal [Lagos].

Bayo Oloyede. "The Constitutional Basis of Press Freedom in Nigeria". July-September 1993.

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Guardian [London].

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Guardian [London].

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Guardian [London].

"Born of Oil, Buried in Oil". 4 January 1995.

Guardian [London].

"Nigerian Troops 'Killed and Tortured' Tribe which Opposed Shell Operation", 14 January 1995.

Guardian [London].

"Lagos Court Challenges Army", 4 August 1995.

Guardian [London].

"Nigerian 'Hate' Campaign Threatens Soyinka's Life". 2 February 1996.

Guardian [London].

"Jailed Ogonis Plead for Help". 5 February 1996.

Human Rights Watch/Africa.

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Human Rights Watch/Africa.

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Human Rights Watch/Africa.

Nigeria: Threats to a New Democracy: Human Rights Concerns at Election Time. New York, June 1993.

Human Rights Watch/Africa.

Liberia: Waging War to Keep the Peace: The ECOMOG Intervention and Human Rights. New York, June 1993.

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Independent [London].

"Beheading Increases Tension in Nigeria". 16 August 1995.

International Freedom of Expression Exchange.

"Nigeria: 'The Classic' Journalist Obi Ben Charles Detained; Two Others Remain in Detention". 26 June 1995 (Greennet).

International Freedom of Expression Exchange.

"Nigeria: Journalists Chris Anyanwu, Ben Charles Obi and George Mbah Reportedly among 40 Sentenced in 'Coup Plot' Trials". 17 July 1995 (Greennet).

International Freedom of Expression Exchange.

"Nigeria: Authorities Amend Sentences of Four Journalists". 27 October 1995 (Greennet).

International Freedom of Expression Exchange.

"Nigeria: Continued Concern for at least Nine Writers and Journalists who Remain in Detention". 27 October 1995 (Greennet).

International Freedom of Expression Exchange.

"Nigeria: Police Assault and Detain Four Photojournalists at NADECO Rally". 22 December 1995 (Greennet).

International Freedom of Expression Exchange.

"Nigeria: Police Arrest Vendor for Possession of 'Tempo' and 'Tell' Magazines". 22 December 1995 (Greennet).

International Freedom of Expression Exchange.

"Nigeria: 'Tell' Magazine Editor, Nosa Igiebor, Arrested". 27 December 1995 (Greennet).

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International Freedom of Expression Exchange.

"Nigeria: 'Financial Times of London' Journalist Arrested in Ogoniland". 9 January 1996 (Greennet).

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"Conspiracy of Silence?" and "Nigeria to Blame". May 1993.

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5 January 1996.


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8 February 1996.

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"End of Civil War?" and "Uneasy Road to Peace", 28 August 1995.


The views expressed in the papers are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of UNHCR.


[1] The following section is drawn mainly from T.C. McCaskie, "Nigeria: Recent History" in Africa South of the Sahara (London: Europa, 1989); United States, Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, Nigeria: A Country Study (Washington DC, 1992); W.D. Graf, The Nigerian State: Political Economy, State, Class and Political System in the Post-Colonial Era (London: James Currey, 1988); Okwudiba Nnoli, Ethnicity and Development in Nigeria (Aldershot: Avebury, 1995)

[2] This section draws upon Julius Ihonvbere and Olufemi Vaughan, "Democracy and Civil Society: The Nigerian Transition Programme, 1985-1993" in John A. Wiseman (ed.), Democracy and Political Change in Sub-Saharan Africa (London: Routledge, 1995); Human Rights Watch/Africa, Nigeria: On the Eve of Change: Transition to What? (New York, September 1991); and annual reports of the Civil Liberties Organization [Lagos], as well as sources cited separately

[3] Inhonvbere and Vaughan, p. 78

[4] The Task Ahead of the Nigerian People, (Lagos, December 1993), cited in Ihonvbere and Vaughan, p. 85

[5] Africa Confidential [London], "Nigeria: Who's Killing Who?", 2 February 1996

[6] Africa Confidential [London], "Bombing Campaign", 9 June 1995; BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, "'At least 50' Arrests Reported Following Ilorin Explosion", 5 June 1995, quoting Kenya News Agency, 2 June 1995

[7] Africa Confidential [London], "Nigeria: Juju Economics and the Oil Barons", 18 February 1994

[8] Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Nigeria - Stolen by Generals (London/New Delhi, 1995), p. 4

[9] United States, Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, p. 299

[10] Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, p. 20

[11] Ibid., p. 16

[12] Ibid., p. 18

[13] Michael Birnbaum, Nigeria: Fundamental Rights Denied (London: Article 19, June 1995)

[14] Amnesty International, Nigeria: A Travesty of Justice: Secret Treason Trials and Other Concerns (London, October 1995), AI Index AFR 44/23/95

[15] Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, pp. 16-23

[16] Birnbaum; Human Rights Watch, Nigeria: The Ogoni Crisis, New York, July 1995; Amnesty International, Nigeria: The Ogoni Trials and Detentions (London, September 1995), AI Index AFR 44/20/95

[17] Civil Liberties Organization [Lagos], Annual Report 1992 (Lagos, 1993; Human Rights Watch, Nigeria: Military Injustice: Major General Zamani Lekwot and Others Face Government-Sanctioned Lynching (New York, March 1993) and Nigeria: Threats to a New Democracy: Human Rights Concerns at Election Time (New York, June 1993)

[18] Amnesty International, Nigeria: A Travesty of Justice

[19] Guardian [London], "Lagos Court Challenges Army", 4 August 1995; Amnesty International, "Urgent Action - AFR 44/15/95", 9 August 1995

[20] Amnesty International, Nigeria: Military Government Clampdown on Opposition (London, November 1994), AI Index: AFR 44/13/94, p. 4

[21] Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, p. 11.

[22] Amnesty International, Nigeria: Military Government Clampdown, p. 16

[23] Ibid., pp. 16-17

[24] Amnesty International, Nigeria: A Travesty of Justice

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Amnesty International, Nigeria: A Travesty of Justice; Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative; International Freedom of Expression Exchange, "Nigeria: Journalists Chris Anyanwu, Ben Charles Obi and George Mbah Reportedly among 40 Sentenced in 'Coup Plot' Trials", 17 July 1995 (Greennet)

[28] Richard Carver, Truth from Below: The Emergent Press in Africa (London: Article 19, 1991), pp. 50-51; Louise M. Bourgault, Mass Media in Sub-Saharan Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), pp. 154-156

[29] Carver, pp. 51-52

[30] Constitutional Rights Journal [Lagos], "New Decree to Muzzle Nigeria's Independent Media", July-September 1993

[31] Media Rights Bulletin [Lagos], "Shutting Down the Press: The Practice of Newspaper Closure & Proscription in Nigeria", June 1995, pp. 1-2

[32] Ibid., p. 2

[33] Carver, p. 15

[34] International Freedom of Expression Exchange, "Nigeria: Arsonists Set Fire to Publishing House", 3 January 1996 (Greennet)

[35] International Freedom of Expression Exchange, "Nigeria: Nigerian Authorities Pressure Nosa Igiebor to Reveal Sources", 3 January 1996 (Greennet)

[36] International Freedom of Expression Exchange, "Nigeria: 'Tell' Magazine Editor, Nosa Igiebor, Arrested", 27 December 1995 (Greennet).

[37] International Freedom of Expression Exchange, "Nigeria: Police Arrest Vendor for Possession of 'Tempo' and 'Tell' Magazines", 22 December 1995 (Greennet)

[38] Reuters, 8 February 1996 (Greennet)

[39] Voice of America, 7 October 1995 (Greennet).

[40] Sunday Times [London], "Editors Defy Nigerian Reign of Fear", 24 December 1995

[41] International Freedom of Expression Exchange, "Nigeria: 'Financial Times of London' Journalist Arrested in Ogoniland", 9 January 1996 ([Greennet); Reuters, "Nigeria Adjourns Trial of British Journalist", 22 January 1995

[42] Reuters, 8 January 1996 (Greennet)

[43] Robin Cohen, Labour and Politics in Nigeria (London: Heinemann, 1982).

[44] West Africa [London], 12 September 1994

[45] Amnesty International, Nigeria: Military Government Clampdown

[46] International Human Rights Internship Program and Swedish NGO Foundation for Human Rights, The Status of Human Rights Organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa, (Washington DC and Stockholm, 1994), pp. 150-158

[47] Guardian [London], "Nobel Prize-Winner has Passport Seized on Trying to Leave Nigeria", 4 November 1994

[48] Amnesty International, Nigeria: A Travesty of Justice

[49] Ibid.

[50] Cohen, p. 28

[51] Nnoli; United States, Library of Congress, Federal Research Division; McCaskie

[52] Nnoli, p. 179

[53] Ibid., p. 208

[54] Gerhard Maré, Ethnicity and Politics in South Africa (London: Zed Books, 1993)

[55] Nnoli, p. 215

[56] Nnoli, passim; United States, Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, pp. 97-99.

[57] Africa Confidential [London], "Nigeria: Ken and the Soja Boys", 17 March 1995; Guardian [London], "Born of Oil, Buried in Oil", 4 January 1995; Human Rights Watch, Nigeria: The Ogoni Crisis

[58] Ken Saro-Wiwa, Sozaboy (London: Longman, 1994)

[59] Birnbaum; Human Rights Watch, Nigeria: The Ogoni Crisis; Nnoli, p. 198

[60] Nnoli, pp. 198-220; Human Rights Watch, Nigeria: The Ogoni Crisis; Amnesty International, Nigeria: Military Government Clampdown

[61] Cited in Human Rights Watch, Nigeria: The Ogoni Crisis, p. 12

[62] Human Rights Watch, Nigeria: The Ogoni Crisis

[63] Ibid.

[64] Birnbaum

[65] Guardian [London], "Nigerian Troops 'Killed and Tortured' Tribe which Opposed Shell Operation", 14 January 1995; Inter Press Service, "Nigeria: Oil Giant Urged to Support Ogonis Against 'Death Squads'", 16 January 1995 (Greennet)

[66] Amnesty International, Nigeria: Military Government Clampdown

[67] Birnbaum

[68] Guardian [London], "Jailed Ogonis Plead for Help", 5 February 1996

[69] Nigerian Democratic Movement, "Eyewitness Report - Ogoni Day 1996 in Nigeria", 9 January 1996 (Greennet); Reuters, 5 January 1996 (Greennet)

[70] Human Rights Watch, Nigeria: The Ogoni Crisis

[71] Ibid.

[72] Nnoli, pp. 196-198; Human Rights Watch, Nigeria: Threats to a New Democracy

[73] Nnoli, p. 196

[74] Human Rights Watch, Nigeria: Threats to a New Democracy

[75] Ibid.

[76] United States, Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, pp. 120-128

[77] Ibid., pp. 123 and 128

[78] Nnoli, p. 206; United States, Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, p.303; Niels Kastfelt, "Rumours of Maitatsine: Note on Political Culture in Northern Nigeria", African Affairs, Vol. 88, No. 350 (January 1989), pp. 83-90

[79] Nnoli, p. 206; United States, Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, p.303

[80] Independent [London], "Beheading Increases Tension in Nigeria", 16 August 1995

[81] United States, Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, p. 224; Nnoli, p. 204

[82] Nnoli, pp. 205-206

[83] United States, Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, p. 304

[84] Nnoli, p. 207

[85] Independent [London]

[86] Agence France Presse, "Pamphlets Call on Non Moslems to Leave Kano", 16 June 1995 (NEXIS)

[87] Agence France Presse, "Nigerian Christians Petition Government in Religious Row", 18 June 1995 (NEXIS); Associated Press, "Muslim Radicals Threaten Holy War in Northern City", 19 June 1995 (NEXIS)

[88] This section is drawn from Civil Liberties Organization, Annual Report, 1992; Nnoli, pp. 195-196; Human Rights Watch, Nigeria: Threats to a New Democracy and Nigeria: Military Injustice.

[89] Africa Confidential [London], "Commonwealth: Anathema in Auckland", 17 November 1995

[90] Africa Confidential [London], "Nigeria/Cameroon: Blundering into Battle", 15 April 1994

[91] Associated Press, 15 September 1994 (NEXIS)

[92] West Africa, 28 February and 7 March 1994

[93] West Africa, 7 March 1994

[94] West Africa, 26 December 1994

[95] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, "Nigerian Official Reports Clashes with Cameroon Troops in Bakassi Peninsula", 16 August 1995, quoting Radio France Internationale, 15 August 1995

[96] Reuters, "Chad Says Nigerian Troops Occupy Disputed Islands", 25 July 1995 (NEXIS)

[97] New African [London], "Conspiracy of Silence?" and "Nigeria to Blame", May 1993

[98] International Human Rights Internship Program and Swedish NGO Foundation for Human Rights

[99] United Nations, Seventh Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia, S/1994/1167, 14 October 1994

[100] Africa Watch, Liberia: Waging War to Keep the Peace: The ECOMOG Intervention and Human Rights, June 1993; Guardian [London], "Defiant Taylor 'Will not Surrender'", 27 March 1993

[101] Reuters, 19 April 1993

[102] West Africa [London], "End of Civil War?" and "Uneasy Road to Peace", 28 August 1995

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