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Nigerians Wait, and Hope for Change

New military ruler was sworn in June 9. It's unclear if he'll support reform.

By Compiled from wires / June 10, 1998



ABUJA, NIGERIA

Nigeria's new head of state may be more likely to hand the country back to civilian rulers than his predecessor was, observers say.

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Gen. Abdusalam Abubakar was sworn in as military ruler June 9 after the death of dictator Sani Abacha. He was expected to indicate soon whether the regime intended to go ahead with presidential elections planned for Aug. 1 and to go through with promised political reforms.

General Abacha, who died June 8, seized power in 1993 after presidential elections were canceled. His death is an "incredible opportunity" for the West African nation to return to democracy, says Nobel Prize-winning playwright Wole Soyinka, an outspoken opponent of military rule who fled Nigeria in 1994.

Abacha leaves behind a country in disarray, its natural oil wealth plundered by only the latest in a long line of dictators.

Since independence from Britain in 1960, Africa's most populous country has only had 10 years of civilian rule.

Under Abacha, Nigeria's $4.45 billion in oil-export revenues did little to ease the staggering poverty in a country where rural villages go without electricity, clean water, or medical clinics.

Legacy of a dictator

By contrast, Abacha lived in a world of opulence in a capital, Abuja, he ordered built from nothing at a staggering cost.

In his time, Abacha jailed thousands of critics, opponents, and pro-democracy activists, including president-elect Moshood Abiola, who still languishes in jail. Meanwhile, Nigerians watched in confusion as their leader helped defend democracy away from home.

In Sierra Leone, Abacha was hailed as a friend to democracy when his army helped restore that country's elected government earlier this year.

But then, Nigerians are quick to point out, theirs is a country that imports what it has (oil) and exports what it doesn't have (democracy).

Nigeria's 107 million people now must watch and wait to see what's in store from their ninth army ruler.

Little is known about Abubakar, who is commander in chief of the armed forces, outside of his military career. He is described as a "quiet Muslim." One reason for his rise to the top is thought to have been his reluctance to stand in the limelight.

While other officers came and went - some directly to jail - Abubakar was able to maintain his senior position throughout Abacha's time in office.

Some observers say the new ruler is more likely than his predecessor to hand over the reins to a civilian government.

Sources close to Abubakar say that he was not enthusiastic about Abacha's candidacy for the August 1 election.

Call for reform

The United States, Britain, and the European Union as well as representatives of the Nigerian opposition called June 9 for democratic reforms and the return to civilian rule.

Washington hopes that a new democratically legitimized government would follow free elections, State Department spokesman James Rubin said. Freeing of all political prisoners is part of the process of democratization, he said.

Nigeria's main opposition group, United Action for Democracy, rejected Abubakar's ap- pointment June 9 and said it would go ahead with demonstrations planned for June 12.

"We are under no illusion that by Gen. Sani Abacha's death military rule has come to an end ... the struggle against military rule in all its guises and disguises will continue with renewed vigor," a UAD statement said in the opposition stronghold of Lagos.

Opposition Nigerian politicians called on the military junta to release president-elect Abiola.

His daughter, Wura Abiola, told the BBC: "We are filled with hope and apprehension.... There is a vacuum of rulers in the country, but there are clear leaders in Nigeria. Unfortunately, they are incarcerated at the moment. The first thing we expect is for our leaders to be freed."

Ken Wiwa, son of the executed human-rights campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa, said in an interview with the BBC: "One hopes that democracy will have a chance to establish itself." Abacha was "merely a symptom of the malaise in our country."