Nigerian Politicians Gather, Cautiously, To Talk Democracy

NIGERIA has taken a beating on the world stage for its hangings of political activists last month and its persistent refusal to return to civilian rule. But a meeting of politicians today in Lagos provides a faint glimmer of hope that a peaceful transition to democracy is still possible.

The meeting will be the first national summit of politicians since the last transition program to democracy was abandoned in 1993. It also is expected to be the first political gathering that the government has not stage-managed since strongman Gen. Sani Abacha grabbed power two years ago.

General Abacha has announced a three-year program to return Nigeria to civilian rule. But neither the military regime nor civilian politicians know how to take the first step.

Expelled from the Commonwealth, isolated diplomatically, facing a resolution at the United Nations condemning its record, and the subject of a bill in the United States Senate, Abacha's government has seen its international status hit an all-time low.

One way to answer critics is for the government to stick to its detailed transition program unveiled in October.

Under the program, the next few months will see an end to the ban on politics and the formation of political parties.

The international community, especially the Commonwealth, is pressuring Nigeria's military regime to shorten the transition timetable from three to two years.

The Abacha government is concerned that civilian politicians here will take up this call.

But politicians are stepping lightly. ''The military has a program. We should tell them that we expect them to stick to it rigidly,'' says Abel Ubeku, a presidential candidate in the last transition program and now the secretary of the Committee for National Conciliation, one of the main groups expected to take part in the meeting in Lagos today.

''We can advise. But if there is an element of confrontation, they will get upset, and the program could go off course again,'' Mr. Ubeku says.

The government is worried: Its main fear is that the summit will follow an agenda set by the People's Consultative Forum, a political group that represents mainstream opinion in the Yoruba-speaking southwest, the hub of the economy. The PCF has links with the National Democratic Forum that backed strikes last year for the release from jail of Moshood Abiola, who was considered the legitimate winner of the June 1993 presidential election.

These politicians boycotted the constitutional conference last year, arguing that Nigeria does not need a new constitution, merely an end to military rule.

The regime's worries are probably exaggerated. At least six leading political groups have not yet jelled into parties and do not have a national spread. Their funding has been disrupted by the arrest of leading political figures as a deterrent to any confrontation with the military.

The politicians are understandably cautious. Two of the leading figures of the All Nigerian Congress, a powerful group of conservative politicians from the mainly Muslim north, Adamu Ciroma and Umaru Shinkafi, were banned over alleged vote-rigging in the presidential primaries in 1992. A third leading figure in the group, Bamanga Tukur, was unceremoniously sacked as industry minister in March.

The last transition program, under former President Ibrahim Babangida, exhausted the Army's credibility through delays and disqualification of leading contenders before the 1993 presidential election was annulled.

The poll's unofficial winner, Mr. Abiola, is facing trial for treason after declaring himself president. The politicians and trade-union leaders who backed him in last year's protest strikes are in exile or jail.

This year, Abacha has dealt with opponents even more harshly. In July, a secret military tribunal convicted two leading campaigners for an early end to Army rule: former president Olusegun Obasanjo and his one-time deputy, Shehu Yar'Adua.

In November Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa, who campaigned for minority rights in the Niger Delta, was found guilty of murdering rival chiefs in 1994 and hanged along with eight others despite international protests.

The Ogoni issue is not going away. Nineteen more Ogonis are charged with the murders and will face the same tribunal that convicted Mr. Saro-Wiwa and sentenced him to death.

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