Nigeria's Transition to Democracy Proceeds, but Without Centerpiece

An unelected interim government is set to take over, but the annulment of elections still reverberate

NIGERIA'S dictator, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, apparently still plans to end a decade of military rule by handing over power to an interim government on Aug. 27. But the vital part of his carefully orchestrated transition to democracy - an elected civilian president - will not be in place.

General Babangida's six-year march toward civilian rule has created several new states in the Nigerian federation, installed two-tiered legislatures at national and state levels, elected civilians to govern the states, and established two national political parties. According to the plan, one of these parties was to produce the country's next president.

Last week, however, the military elite blocked the final stage, the swearing-in of Moshood Abiola, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) candidate. Mr. Abiola won an unofficial majority in the presidential election held here on June 12.

The government annulled the elections, barred Abiola from running for office again before it hands over power, and then threatened to dissolve every democratic institution it had built. Despite mass protests against the manipulation of democracy that brought Lagos to a halt last week, the civilian political parties agreed to work out a compromise whereby they keep their jobs and form an unelected interim government that the military will accept, but that excludes Abiola.

During negotiations over the weekend, there were signs of discord over the interim government.

Some factions of the SDP still believe that the proposal is a sell-out. The rival National Republican Convention (NRC) is arguing for equality in the proposed government.

The Sultan of Sokoto, the head of Islam in Nigeria, made a rare political speech on July 8 in support of the June 12 election results. "There is no other route away from national catastrophe than swearing in Moshood Abiola on Aug. 27," he said.

But politicians support the compromise. "We had no choice. The government, the parties, and the ordinary people were on a collision course," says Amos Idakula, the SDP's spokesman, explaining why they supported the idea of an interim government. "It is a makeshift arrangement, but it will allow the military regime to evaporate at last. Then the interim government must decide what to do next."

The supporters of Babangida's transition program believe he has a sense of his place in history. He seized power from another military regime in 1985, and pledged to create new civilian leaders who were free of corruption. After three postponements in three years, a carefully managed series of party elections produced two wealthy Muslim candidates who were friendly with the president but had no government experience.

The government ignored accusations of blatant vote buying against both Abiola and his rival, Bashir Tofa of the NRC, and pressed ahead with a presidential campaign that most Nigerians regarded with suspicion and apathy until the last few days before the polling.

The victory of Abiola in the June polls caused the military to stop the transition after coming closer than ever to a democratic handover. Abiola's opponents within the inner circle of the military regime might have underestimated his support until the last minute or simply have had second thoughts about leaving power.

Between periods of indecision, presidential statements halted the release and then annulled the results of the polls. In a hastily written and rewritten speech on state television, the president declared that both candidates were unfit for office and would be banned from running in new polls due by the end of July, leaving the final details of his six-year transition program obscure.

The decision saddened the already disillusioned Nigerian public and drew swift condemnation and limited military sanctions from allies such as the United States and Britain.

Babangida secured the backing of the security forces for a compromise: to hand over power on schedule but exclude Abiola. The civilian political class, who had not been consulted throughout this military power struggle, were skillfully brought into line by the president.

The government's opponents cite Babangida's actions as proof that he never intended to install a democracy. Others say the president's military clique of northerners persuaded him not to let power shift to a civilian from southern Nigeria.

The politicians claim that it was the only way the military could step down without losing face.

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