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Nigeria’s Election Hopes Burn

February 26, 1999

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) _ They say it started with a match, lit in anger by a jealous wife.

Within minutes, giant flames were leaping across the roofs of shacks perched on the edge of a sewage-filled lagoon, turning the clapboard walls and the meager family belongings inside to cinders.

Commuters zooming by on a monstrous overhead freeway braked to gawk at the human tragedy unfolding just days before democratic presidential elections billed as Nigeria’s finest moment after years of misery imposed by successive military regimes.

Before the inferno died down, 1 1/2 hours after it began Wednesday afternoon, about 150 one-room dwellings _ each housing a family in the desperately-poor shantytown of Ebutte-Agoro _ were transformed into heaps of ashes and twisted corrugated iron.

Whatever election excitement that may have been harbored by the residents of this already forsaken corner of Africa’s largest city were also destroyed.

The fire department, which Lagos residents say usually budges only for those with friends in high places, never came to help. Neither did the police, although some officers were among the curious onlookers on the highway who shook their heads, or laughed, at the sight of villagers throwing buckets of water on 40-foot flames.

In short, the people of Ebutte-Agoro have only themselves.

``No government will ever help us, whether military or civilian,″ said Laro Balogun, a 35-year-old military cook whose house was among those burned to the ground.

Balogun, his six children and two wives now share the sawdust floor of a nearby lumber mill with hundreds of neighbors who are also suddenly homeless. He wonders how he will rebuild _ the government has not paid his salary in two months.

On Thursday, old men, women and children scraped through the smoking ruins of their simple homes in search of anything _ a tin pot, a spoon or a hammer _ that may have survived the fire.

On a charred piece of metal, a cluster of women pooled together stocks of food, a few oranges, some fish and bread, contributed by the survivors and a few people living nearby who were spared by the blaze.

Perhaps the only good news was that no one was killed or injured.

Olanbori Ajamlekoko, the owner of several shacks whose own home escaped the flames when the wind suddenly changed direction, said she did not have the money to rebuild.

``I do not know what will happen to the tenants. They will either have to wait or move,″ she said.

The shantytown’s chieftain, Tunde Ogunyemi, of the Yoruba tribe that dominates southwestern Nigeria, said many of the village’s dugout canoes, used by fisherman to ply the murky lagoon waters for declining stocks of crab and fish, were on shore during the blaze and could not be saved.

``How will we provide for our children now?″ Ogunyemi asked.

The impoverished majority of this West African nation of 110 million people have been courted by both presidential candidates in Saturday’s elections, yet the leaders have remained vague about how they will help the masses.

Both presidential contenders, former Finance Minister Olu Falae and retired Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, issue bold promises of free education and health care that leave out details on specifics.

Reports of vote stuffing and ballot-buying _ reportedly for as little as a dollar per vote in December’s local government elections _ have disenchanted some voters.

Ogunyemi said that before the fire he could not decide which leader to vote for. But after local politicians representing the presidential candidates didn’t bother to come by to offer sympathies, he made up his mind.

``I will not vote,″ he said. ``They are not interested in me and my family so I am not interested in them.″

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