Nigeria's Opportunity

Optimism is a scarce commodity in Nigeria. But the sudden death of the country's brutal dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, presents Nigerians with new options - including the possibility of an actual transition to democracy.

Such a transition was promised by General Abacha. His every action, however, reinforced dictatorial rule. That tendency was seen, most recently, when all five political parties in Nigeria named the general their choice in presidential elections scheduled for Aug. 1. Abacha wasn't about to loosen his grip on power.

Following the dictator's demise, military leaders named Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, Abacha's defense minister, as the new head of state. It's unclear, as yet, whether this general will make good on promises to move toward civilian rule, or try to extend the Army's political dominance. Nigeria's armed forces themselves are said to be divided over this issue.

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The moment is ripe, certainly, for other nations and international organizations to weigh in heavily on the side of democratic reform. Western industrial powers, led by the US, can make clear their willingness to help rebuild the tattered Nigerian economy, if a transition to democracy is clearly under way. African neighbors, especially South Africa, can serve as guides and mediators in the move back to democratic institutions.

Nigeria has had brief interludes of legitimate, civilian government in the 38 years since colonialism ended. The election of 1993 was judged free and fair - before the military squelched its results, leading to Abacha's dark reign. The people of this most populous, and potentially prosperous, African nation are overdue for an opportunity to prove they can forge a brighter future free of dictatorship's leaden hand.

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