LAGOS, NIGERIA — AMID doubts about the military's intentions, Nigerians are about to make their third and most important attempt at civilian democratic rule.
Eager presidential candidates crisscross Africa's most populous country, meeting voters eager for change. The candidates contact traditional chiefs and elders, still influential in politics.
But beneath the excitement of street rallies and town meetings lie some sober questions: Will the two-party system engineered by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida be strong enough to solve Nigeria's deep-rooted economic and ethnic problems? Or will the Third Republic ultimately succumb to corruption and mismanagement, and fall in a military coup as its predecessors did in 1966 and 1983?
"I believe this is the last military government," says Alhaji Issa Kaitu, a respected Muslim leader in the northern town of Kaduna who knows President Babangida personally. Nigerians "are tired of military rule," he says.
Others disagree. "The only institution in the country that is very solid is the military," says a Western diplomat. Examples of instability, he says, include the May riots here over fuel shortages and worsening economic conditions, as well as the subsequent fighting between Christians and Muslims in Kaduna.
Babangida, who seized power in 1985, has promised to relinquish power to a civilian government Jan. 2, 1993. Earlier this month the country elected a new National Assembly. Presidential primaries begin Saturday; a final election is scheduled for Dec. 5.
The incoming president will face "many issues which have been brushed aside by the military," says Olatunji Dare, chairman of the editorial board of the Guardian, a leading independent newspaper based in Lagos.
Mr. Dare says such issues include whether Nigeria should have a strong or weak central government in relation to the 30 states, how much federal revenue states should receive, and how north/south religious and ethnic rivalries can be reduced.
Dare says the main questions are whether the two-party system imposed by Babangida is best for Nigeria, and whether the military should be strong or limited.
Babangida has structured a transition program aimed at forging alliances among Nigeria's ethnic, religious, and regional rivals. In addition to creating the two political parties, he drew 30 new states last year to address regional differences. The military also has imposed rigid election rules, including one disqualifying candidates the government determines to have been corrupt.
But Nigerian and international human rights groups say the regime has failed to curb corruption, including in the military, and to improve the economy. Critics say Babangida has been largely unsuccessful in cutting Nigeria's $34 billion external debt. Such conditions, they say, could allow the military to return to power, as it has done twice before.
Indeed, keeping the military in the barracks after the hand-over to a civilian government has proven difficult in West Africa. Despite the trend toward democratization that began in the fall of 1989, militaries have been quick to intervene if their country falters.
Togo's military head of state, Gnassingbe Eyadema, is now blocking the democratic reforms he agreed to last year. In Sierra Leone, the military overturned an elected civilian president in May, citing corruption and economic problems.
Babangida has openly talked of caring for the welfare of the Army, a clear reference to keeping the ranks content so they will not be tempted to charge back into power on the slightest pretext. He has ordered the renovation of military barracks and the purchase of a fleet of new cars for senior officers.
A Western diplomat says senior military officers he has spoken with are willing to give the civilian government a chance. But middle-rank officers, who often stage the coups in Africa, remain an unknown variable, he says.
Nigerian human rights leaders say the best way to ensure the longevity of the new civilian government is to address the nation's problems in a national conference. Such a forum would probably take place after the transition. Journalist Dare agrees. "The real transition will come after Babangida has left."
Adamu Ciroma, a presidential candidate of the National Republican Convention, one of the two established parties, says a priority for the next president is "to prove to Nigerians that he is not there to feather his own nest." Both government and private corruption have been pervasive, he contends.
"The fundamental problem we have is to restore confidence in the election process," says Humphrey Nwosu, chairman of the government-appointed National Electoral Commission. Lack of faith in previous civilian elections is "what brought in the military again."
Sen. Kofoworola Bucknor-Akerele of the Social Democratic Party and the only woman in the new National Assembly, elected July 4, says the first task of the new civilian government is to "turn around the economy. People are no longer able to have three square meals a day, and even the one square meal is a problem," she says.
Despite the challenges, a Western diplomat here sees hope. "If this country can elect a leader who is straight, and runs a tight ship, there's no reason why [Nigeria] can't move ahead.