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Crackdown Stifles Anti-Government Protests in Nigeria - 2004-05-03


Nigerian police have stopped anti-government rallies in major cities when protesters tried to go ahead despite a police ban. In the commercial hub, Lagos, police fired tear gas and wielded clubs to disperse thousands of protesters who gathered near main government buildings calling for President Olusegun Obasanjo to resign.

Police also seized a vehicle carrying march organizers from civil society groups and reported at least 25 arrests.

In the capital Abuja, heavily armed security forces cordoned off areas where opposition supporters were planning to gather, such as the parade ground Eagle Square. Riot police then blocked roads to truckloads of protesters on main arteries, and they used tear gas near an outdoor market where thousands gathered in the morning hours.

Police also fired tear gas on a five-vehicle motorcade carrying political opposition leaders planning to address the marchers, forcing the vehicles to turn around.

Police had banned the planned march, saying its timing was inappropriate following an alleged national security breach within the armed forces in March, which is under investigation.

The executive director of the non-governmental Civil Liberties Organization, Chima Ubani, who took part in the march in Lagos before it was broken up, said he was not surprised. "The action of the police is very consistent with the character of the police. We were not expecting any different. This was the way we were treated during the time of military dictatorship, and we are still facing the same kind of treatment. For us the actions of the police simply confirm that we still have a very undemocratic government in place and that is why the demand for its resignation remains up," he said.

Human-rights activists and opposition leaders say last year's re-election of President Obasanjo and several other polls were rigged and that these elections should all be re-organized. International monitors said there was widespread fraud as well as voter intimidation during the April 2003 elections, but they say that overall, the results reflected the will of Nigerians.

Political analyst Tunde Martins agrees and says most Nigerians are tired of disruptive anti-government rallies. "It is the view of many Nigerians that such mass rallies are being hijacked by hoodlums, by street boys, who now go about vandalizing public property and extorting money from innocent Nigerians, and they believe that peace cannot be guaranteed with such mass rallies," he said.

Mr. Martins says opposition parties should focus instead on court cases that are pending against the outcome of last year's elections. The opposition and human-rights groups say they are doing so, but that at the same time they also want the right to protest publicly.

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