Nigerian Vote Moves Populous African State Closer to Civilian Rule

New rules encourage parties, candidates to develop national appeal

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IN the dirt yard of a primary school here on Saturday, civil servant Alhaji Ahmed J. Bawa helped Nigeria take another big step from military rule toward democracy - by standing still.

Following Nigeria's unusual, military-directed system of voting, Mr. Bawa and millions of other Nigerians lined up behind posters of their candidates to be openly counted in an election for the new National Assembly.

Official results showed yesterday that the liberal Social Democratic Party (SDP) had gained control of the house of representatives and was near a majority in the senate, but the election may have been more significant because political parties appealed to voters across religious, regional, and tribal boundaries.

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It is uncertain what the parliament can do until the military hands over power, as promised, in January. Meanwhile the country will hold one more election, for president, on Dec. 5; primaries for the race begin in August.

Judging by returns from the National Assembly vote, in which the country's two political parties carried constituencies in most regions, the two presidential candidates will also have to make national appeals.

In the past, voting in Nigeria has often been a question of north against south, Muslim against Christian, one major tribe against the other, says Tonnie Iredia, a senior federal election official. Such divisions, magnified during heated and sometimes violent elections, tended to pull Nigeria apart. But the old voting trends "have been broken by the new political system," says Mr. Iredia, of the government-appointed National Election Commission.

The new pattern is one of "liberalism vs. conservatives," says Omo Omoruyi, director general of the Center for Democratic Studies, a government agency based in the new Nigerian capital, Abuja.

With only two parties in Nigeria at present - the limit set by Nigerian head of state Gen. Ibrahim Babangida - each party is forced to campaign for votes all over the country, regardless of religion and tribe. The SDP won control of the 593-member house and needed only two more seats to dominate the 91-seat senate, official results said.

According to another civil servant in Abuja, "everyone is struggling to get your vote. They [the candidates] forgot about religion," he said, asking not to be named.

The new voting pattern does not mean, however, that Nigeria has overcome tribal and religious differences, says Mohammed Abdulrahi, a businessman in Abuja, about an hour's drive from this town. "We still look at politics as do or die," he says.

Saturday's election was peaceful. But some candidates or officials chosen in previous elections during the transition have been attacked or threatened. Elections have been held for local and state government, including governorships.

The military has yet to define its relationship to the newly elected National Assembly. Nigeria's government seems likely to remain a dictatorship - although the government includes civilian elements - until the military steps down in January.

If the handover of power by the military occurs, as most Nigerians interviewed think it will, Africa's most populous nation will join the growing number of other African states that have moved from dictatorship - civilian or military - to more democratic forms of government.

Nigeria is making the change in its own, unorthodox fashion.

One example is the military's creation of the two parties, the National Republican Convention (NRC) and the SDP. The military also shaped their platforms, which General Babangida says makes the NRC "a little to the right," and the SDP "a little to the left."

The result of such instant platforms is sometimes curious. Here in Suleja, Bawa was in an NRC voting line because the NRC, he says, is "for common people." Peter Nwammadu was in an SDP line because, he said, with prompting from a friend, SDP is the "party for the poor."

"The programs of the two are essentially the same," says Mr. Abdulrahi. Professor Omoruyi adds: the "personality [of the candidate] counts more than the party." Nigerian election officials call the military's creation of parties and platforms "directed democracy."

"Call it anything, as long as you have a civilian government next year," says another Nigerian, Kunle Olajide, a medical doctor and an SDP candidate for governor of Ondo state who defeated in his party's primary. "When we get there [to civilian rule] we'll start to fashion it [the political system] in the orthodox way," he says.

The new civilian regime could amend the military-drafted Constitution to allow for more than one political party. But the Constitution's provisions make amendments difficult.

Another unusual feature of the transition to more democratic institutions is the controversial method of voting. Lining up to be counted in the open instead of voting in secret was adopted by the military government to minimize the kind of massive fraud that has marred many past elections.

"I like the open voting," says Musa Abubakar, a trader in this town, as he sits on a cement block in the school yard, waiting to line up for the vote. Asked how his wife and two voting-age children would vote he said, "They must follow me. They have the same opinion."

Critics say voter turnout, which has been running at about 30 percent in the recent transitional elections, is held down by the open voting. They say this method intimidates employees and family members from voting independently of employers and heads of family.

And businessman Abdulrahi says many Nigerians aren't voting because they see no point, since they believe the military will just come back to power as soon as the civilian government makes serious blunders.

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