- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 27, 2001

GBEJI, Nigeria It has won plaudits for foreign peacekeeping efforts, but Nigeria's army is becoming feared at home after village massacres and the heavy-handed suppression of religious and ethnic unrest in five cities.
Soldiers are drawn steadily into the sectarian turmoil that has plagued Africa's most populous nation since President Olusegun Obasanjo's 1999 election ended more than 15 years of military rule.
The massacre of hundreds of villagers in late October has raised concerns about how much control Mr. Obasanjo, himself a former military ruler in the 1970s, wields over the troops in coup-prone Nigeria.
"Is the chain of military command being obeyed?" asked Ogaba Oche, a political analyst at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs. "This is a question that the president should answer."
Mr. Obasanjo's government faces a complex web of ethnic, religious and regional divisions that have bedeviled all previous civilian governments.
Since winning independence from Britain in 1960, Nigerians never have seen an elected leader last in office more than four years. Generals have carried out seven successful coups over the years, capitalizing on public anger about corruption, violence and political wrangling to install dictatorships.
Nigeria's latest sectarian violence includes Muslim-Christian fighting in cities that has killed at least 5,000 people, and perhaps twice that many, according to some estimates.
In rural areas, tribal bloodletting is on the rise. An attack by ethnic Tiv militants that killed 19 soldiers reportedly led to army retaliation against at least seven villages in the eastern Benue state.
During an Oct. 22-24 rampage, soldiers rounded up and gunned down hundreds of unarmed men and a few women and children, mainly Tivs. Troops also burned houses, schools, clinics even police stations.
Mr. Obasanjo ordered a judicial inquiry into the violent episode, yet suggested the soldiers responsible for the killings "may have been defending themselves."
Tiv leaders accuse the defense minister, Theophilus Danjuma, of ordering the killings and say soldiers long have been hostile to Tivs in their dispute with ethnic Jukuns, rivals in a two-decade-long fight over land rights.
Mr. Danjuma, a Jukun who publicly has blamed Tivs for the ethnic conflict, denied ordering the massacre.
Soldiers also are enforcing curfews and other judicial measures in five cities where religious fighting has razed entire neighborhoods. The cities Jos, Kaduna, Kano, Makurdi and Warri have an estimated combined population of more than 6 million.
Mr. Oche, the political analyst, said Nigerian troops have been sent on peacekeeping missions to such places as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Bosnia-Herzegovina to prevent ambitious officers from seizing power in Nigeria.
Now, he and other observers worry, the interventions in crises at home could kindle ethnic and religious differences within the military itself.
Two weeks after the Benue massacre, a soldier who was apparently drunk gunned down seven Muslim worshippers after a cleric refused orders to stop preaching in a taxi park near an army base in the city of Kaduna, where Nigeria's religious rioting began last year.
"Nigerians are afraid of divisions in the military pushing our trained soldiers to take sides," Mr. Oche said. "On a large enough scale, it could unstick the glue holding Nigeria together."
Regional divisions also are tugging at Nigeria, which is a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. Politicians are calling for increased powers and oil revenues to be given to state and local governments, an idea Mr. Obasanjo's government is resisting in fear of boosting the influence of regional leaders, many of whom have hired tribal and religious militias to fight rampant crime.
A few politicians even have spoken of regional separatism a prospect that Mr. Obasanjo's government has labeled "treason."
"What is happening in Nigeria shows we aren't really a nation, just a lot of individual nations juggled together," said Beko Ransome-Kuti, a prominent human rights activist in Lagos.
Even the central government is not immune from the effects of regional feuds. Justice Minister Bola Ige, 71, was fatally shot Sunday evening when four gunmen burst into his home in Ibadan, Osun state, apparently in connection with a conflict between the state governor and his deputy.
As police helicopters whirled overhead and army troops patrolled the ground, Mr. Obasanjo and members of his Cabinet flew to the capital of the southwestern state to pay their respects to the grieving family. Earlier, the Nigerian president held talks with the feuding Osun governor and deputy governor.
Last week, an Osun state legislator, Odunayo Olagbaju, was bludgeoned to death outside his home in the city of Ife, provoking riots there. Five persons were reported killed. Mr. Olagbaju had been a supporter of Osun Deputy Gov. Iyiola Omisore.
A few days before Mr. Olagbaju's killing, Mr. Ige reportedly escaped a mob attack in Ife in which his hat was knocked off and his glasses broken. Mr. Ige was widely regarded as one of the main backers of Osun Gov. Bamidele Adebisi Akande.
He was also one of Nigeria's most outspoken campaigners for democracy and founder of the Alliance for Democracy, one of the country's three registered political parties.
Despite fresh memories of corrupt and brutal military juntas, recent instability has prompted a few Nigerians to talk nostalgically of the days when the army squelched freedoms and factional fighting.
"We never saw this kind of bloodshed even when Abacha was in control," lawmaker Gabriel Suswam said, referring to the late dictator Sani Abacha, whose death in 1998 paved the way for the return to civilian government.
Although Mr. Obasanjo's government has initiated badly needed reforms of telecommunications, water and power infrastructure that were left to decay by successive dictators, average people often see little reason to celebrate democracy.
"I prefer the military to a civilian government. I can see no difference in democracy, except that we have all this violence," said Kafilat Ibrahim, a 24-year-old sales clerk.

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