Nigerians Celebrate the End Of Year of Living Dangerously

Despite promise of elections, military rule saw turmoil, killings, poverty

'The riddle of this country," says Nigeria's former head of state, Ernest Shonekan, "is that we should be so rich yet we remain so poor." Mr. Shonekan, who led an interim civilian government in 1993, now chairs Vision 2010, a committee backed by the military government. The regime is trying to draw up a plan to end poverty and instability in Africa's most populous, oil-rich nation.

Vision 2010 is one of several government-sponsored initiatives launched this year for which government ministers complain they have received little credit from an outside world that they say persistently seeks to believe the worst.

Relations between the West and Nigeria soured in 1993 when the military seized power after elections regarded by most international monitors as free and fair. They further plummeted after the execution in November 1995 of minority rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa - a move that prompted the country's diplomatic isolation.

The chief of general staff, Lt. Gen. Oladipo Diya, slams European countries for "colonial attitudes" and for seeking to interfere in Nigeria's internal affairs. Minister for Special Duties Alhaji Wada Nas accuses Washington and others of working with exiled opposition groups to sow discord and terror in the country.

Information Minister Walter Ofonagoro points to the progress of the planned transition to civilian rule. Five political parties have been legalized, with a series of local and state elections scheduled for this year. A number of human rights activists have also been released from detention. The economy is improving, with new roads and schools being built. In the region, Nigeria played a pivotal role in efforts to bring peace to Liberia.

All, however, is far from well in a nation that calls itself the Giant of Africa. "Nigeria's Year of Woes" shouts the headline in local news magazine Tell, while Punch prefers "Over at Last" to describe 1996, a year which saw an unprecedented rise in political killings and incidents of terror.

Most notably, there was the mysterious plane crash in January in which the son of Nigeria's military ruler, Gen. Sani Abacha, was killed, followed by the assassination in May of Kudirat Abiola, wife of the imprisoned opposition leader Moshood Abiola.

Two bombs in the commercial capital, Lagos, earlier this month fueled speculation that some shadowy force - government officials blame exiled opposition groups, while such groups in turn accuse elements within the state - is at work.

In addition to the uncertain security environment, new doubts have also emerged about the credibility of the military's declared intention to transfer the government to civilian rule by October 1998.

"I don't know anyone who could name these five parties Abacha has allowed," says one retired minister. "They have no policies and no legitimacy. The whole thing is a sham."

Even by the regime's own reckoning, the transition timetable is slipping. Local elections and a new census, originally scheduled for completion by 1996, have been pushed back to March.

"This delay can be accommodated," insists one member of the National Electoral Commission. "We will get back on schedule." Evidence to support such conviction is, however, slim. Preparations for elections have barely started, while political parties appear preoccupied with their own internal problems.

And while Finance Minister Anthony Ani lists his achievements of the past year - bringing down inflation and stabilizing the value of the local currency - economic hardship for ordinary Nigerians is escalating.

With the price of food, especially meat, steadily increasingly beyond the buying power of many Nigerians, there has been a booming trade in animal hides by people desperate to put something in the cooking pot. The situation has become so acute that the government recently declared its fears for the country's leather industry.

Western diplomats are quite concerned about the situation. "Abacha has dealt pretty effectively with all his opponents," concedes one diplomat, "but nobody, maybe not even the general himself, seems to know where it is all heading. And in a country like Nigeria, that uncertainty is a recipe for trouble."

It is a judgment with which Shonekan and others who plan for a brighter future by the year 2010 would vigorously disagree.

"What we want," says the former head of state, "is to change the whole dynamic by which Nigeria is governed. We must release the energies of the private sector. I am fully confident that the current administration is ready to relinquish the state's direct involvement in the management of vital sectors of national life, even the oil industry."

Others are less sure. "Perfect vision is 20/20," notes one academic in Lagos. "But right now there are only lies, deceit, and hypocrisy. What the generals offer is only 2010, a blurred and faulty vision."

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