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Nigerian Lawmakers Concerned About Deployment of Military

Nigerian lawmakers want to know who authorized a deployment of troops without the knowledge of the country's acting commander-in-chief.

Nigerian presidents always have troops lining the nearly 30-kilometer drive to Abuja's airport.

They were there again last month when Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua returned after midnight from treatment in a Saudi hospital. But Acting President Goodluck Jonathan knew nothing of his return. Information Minister Dora Akunyili said she heard about it on television.

Because of the president's extended illness, Acting President Jonathan is currently the commander-in-chief of Nigerian armed forces, including those soldiers who were deployed along the airport road without his knowledge.

That has raised concern among some members of parliament about who is commanding Nigerian troops. And it comes at a time when senior officers have repeatedly warned soldiers to stay out of politics, mindful of the instability surrounding President Yar'Adua's illness in a country that has had half-a-dozen coups since 1966.

Ruling-party parliamentarian Patrick Obahiagbon asked about the deployment on the floor of the National Assembly this week. The House immediately went into closed session.

When it was over, Obahiagbon spoke to reporters about his concern.

"Three-hundred soldiers deployed in the middle of the night conveyed in about 25 vehicles with weapons given to them in the wee hours of the night. Supposing the soldiers decided to have a change of mind. And the C-in-C was unaware," he said.

Nigeria's Trade Union Congress wants a public hearing into who ordered the deployment of soldiers without orders from the Commander-in-Chief, saying it is worried that troops trained to respect regimented authorities could act irresponsibly.

Military chiefs briefed lawmakers in private this week about the incident. A parliamentarian who was present for that briefing says the Brigade of Guards was deployed without informing the acting president because those soldiers are responsible for protecting the president and his family, so commanders explained there was no need to notify Mr. Jonathan.

Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Abdulrahman Dambazzau was at that briefing. He says soldiers will not be drawn into a political dispute.

"It is a difficult period for everybody, but we believe that it is a political thing. We are not politicians. We are military professionals and we are determined to remain so," said Dambazzau.

The deployment of troops without his knowledge has raised questions about Acting President Jonathan's command of the military. But the strong reaction to that deployment by some of his cabinet members, including Information Minister Akunyili, may have further eroded support among those who still back President Yar'Adua and believe Mr. Jonathan's supporters are over-reacting to a ceremonial detachment of troops showing respect to an ailing leader.

Ibrahim Mark, the general secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association, says some of the acting president's supporters have made the situation worse.

"He has not been able to control these people. So people now will look at him with suspicion. Is he the one authorizing this or authorizing that? I think the information managers in the presidency are not doing too well. We are hearing a cacophony of voices. Nobody seems to be in charge. It is like we are fed with rumors. Nobody seems to talk authoritatively," he said.

Military leaders told lawmakers this week that some politicians have approached them about again taking power in Nigeria, but they have pledged their support to the government currently led by Mr. Jonathan.