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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nigerian Junta Faces Dire Future

ABUJA, Nigeria -- Under pressure from a crippling month-long strike by oil workers, growing popular unrest and discussion of economic sanctions by the West, Nigeria's military rulers are facing the strongest challenge to their authority since seizing power nine months ago.

And the inability of the regime of General Sani Abacha to come to grips with its unpopularity is leading Africa's most populous nation toward what could prove to be its worst political crisis since the Biafran civil war of the late 1960s.

Although the country's biggest labor federation suspended its general strike Thursda in order to seek negotiations with the government, the oil unions, which have driven the upheaval, vowed to continue the industrial action in pursuit of democracy.

Already, the strike's economic and political damage to the regime has been severe, and remains a potent threat.

Abacha is the latest in a string of military leaders who have held power intermittently for 24 of the 34 years since Nigeria, a nation of 90 million people, gained independence. He and his predecessor, General Ibrahim Babangida, have made numerous promises to relinquish power to elected civilian leaders, but repeated disappointments have made democracy-hungry Nigerians increasingly impatient.

Riots explode almost every day in the southwestern cities of Lagos -- the country's largest with 6 million people -- and Ibadan due to the political impasse. Police in Lagos fired on peaceful protesters and battled violent youths Wednesday as Nigeria's biggest labor group joined the oil workers' strike in a bid to topple the military junta. At least five people were killed, witnesses said.

Since independence, power has been concentrated in the hands of a northern elite, and southerners are demanding their share, raising fears of potential regional conflict that could rival the short-lived secession of the eastern region of Biafra. At least 1 million people died between the time that the eastern Ibo ethnic group seceded in 1967 and created the state of Biafra and the time the rebellion was crushed in 1970.

The south is home to jailed opposition leader Moshood Abiola and most of his supporters. Abiola, a business tycoon from the Yoruba ethnic group, is widely believed -- based on incomplete results -- to have won presidential elections organized by the military in June 1993 and almost immediately annulled. Abiola, after sending conflicting signals about whether he would rally Nigeria's pro-democracy forces and demand that the election be honored, proclaimed himself president on the first anniversary of the vote.

Authorities arrested him and charged him with treason. His trial opened last week in the capital, Abuja, in a civilian court specially created by the government.

To Nigerians who had waited a year for Abiola to claim his mandate, his arrest transformed him from "a dying chicken," as one of his opponents put it, into a symbol of the struggle for democracy. On July 4, petroleum workers began a pro-Abiola strike that has virtually paralyzed Nigeria's oil-driven economy.

Nigeria, a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Companies, is Africa's largest oil producer and ships most of its petroleum to the United States. About 80 percent of government revenue comes from oil, which is concentrated in the south, and the country already carries a foreign debt of more than $30 billion.