Nigeria seeks to purge government. To end corruption, politicians banned in coming elections

``Throw the rascals out.'' Many disgruntled voters around the world have used their ballots to get rid of corrupt politicians. In December, Nigeria will begin doing so as a matter of policy. In one of the boldest efforts by any nation to eliminate government corruption, Nigeria's military government has banned most past and present political office holders from running for election until after the elections set for 1992. Many key appointed officials - former and current - are also banned, as are those who now hold military offices. This includes head of state Gen. Ibrahim Babangida.

In a series of elections over the next five years, civilians will be elected to local, state, and federal offices. The first election under the new ban - one for local officials - is set for Dec. 12. In the last, scheduled for 1992, a civilian president will be chosen and the military will relinquish power. The idea is to give newcomers - hopefully honest people - a head start in government.

The ban is a radical response to public corruption which has become deeply ingrained in Nigeria in its 27 years of independence. In 1975, then head of state Yakubu Gowon sacked 10,000 civil servants - many of them for alleged corruption. Election fraud was one of the reasons given by the military forces that ousted Shehu Shagari after his reelection in 1983. And following his ouster, a shipload of illegally imported tires addressed to the former attorney general was found in Lagos harbor.

The ship of state has not been sinking under the weight of this corruption, but neither has it been making much forward progress, by most assessments.

The 1985 coup that brought General Babangida to power was the latest in a series of military takeovers since Nigeria's independence in 1960. If the military ruler does hand over power in 1992, it will mark the nation's third attempt at civilian rule.

In announcing the ban in September, Babangida chastised past governments - both civilian and military - for the increase of corruption. He cited ``massive rigging of elections'' and mismanagement of the economy.

``A lot of people are happy about the ban,'' says a Western diplomat. But ``the argument that in five years all is going to be nice is naive.'' And it could be seen as a ``violation of human rights'' of those banned, he adds.

The ban ``makes the wrong assumption'' that changing leaders will improve things, says professor Alfred Opubor, former head of the department of mass communications at Lagos University. There is no guarantee the next crop of elected officials will be ``the virtuous people.''

The heart of the matter, he says, ``is not the electee but the elector. We need to make democratic politics sensible and important to our people.'' He recommends schools step up civic education. And he criticizes the lack of voter education available - which amounts mostly to whatever can be culled from local news media - and the short time given for voters to consider candidates and get registered for the upcoming elections.

A key question for this and later elections is whether qualified candidates will emerge, according to most Nigerians interviewed. ``The banning may pain some people, but others will step in,'' says Professor A.N. Mohammed, vice-chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. ``Hopefully people will choose the right people for the right jobs and tend away from corruption.''

Reactions to the ban vary. Some Nigerians say it should have been broader: Some politicians will find loopholes. Some people feel it is too broad: it will throw out good and experienced politicians along with bad ones.

There is also a general consensus that the ban won't be effective unless voters stop supporting corruption in government and quit selling their votes. Already there are reports that some voters are registering more than once for the coming elections.

Second of two articles. The first ran Nov. 12.

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