Now Is the Time in Nigeria
This week its military leader took some steps to remove obstacles to democratic change in Africa's most populous land.
Africa's most populous country - oil-rich, tormented Nigeria - seems at last on the brink of authentic change.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
There's one thing that the often opinionated people in Lagos will say these days: Porters and professors, stranded commuters and frustrated motorists, lawyers and politicians all agree that their country is at a spectacular crossroads.
It comes after five military coups, the assassination of three heads of state, and a 13-year-old promise to return the country to civilian rule. Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar this week took steps to clear the decks for a multiparty democracy. He got rid of three agencies designed to bolster one-candidate politics. He announced the release of more than 300 prisoners.
The challenge is formidable. Gen. Sani Abacha, the eighth in a series of military dictators, died in June. A month later, his nemesis - Moshood Abiola, who is presumed to have won the annulled 1993 presidential elections - died in detention. Abacha's successor, General Abubakar, is about to announce what his intentions are. When he addresses the nation, expected by the end of this week, Nigerians will know whether he indeed plans to hand a country with immense human and natural resources over to civilian rule.
"This is it - the Big One. This is where the country pulls together or falls apart," says Obi Nwakama, a newspaper reporter in Lagos.
Mr. Nwakama, a journalist with the daily Vanguard, has been waiting for this moment for most of his adult life. As a young man, he watched a nation rise out of the ashes of one of Africa's worst civil conflicts, the Biafran war of secession. With the loss of 1 million people between 1967 and 1970 came a sense of national cohesion that has remained largely unparalleled in Africa. Out of the country's ability to produce 2 million barrels of crude oil a day came a promise of greatness.
But by the end of the decade, as a seemingly endless stream of oil dollars kept flowing into government coffers, Nigeria had turned into one of the largest importers of luxury goods, and, according to international organizations, its military had become the most corrupt in the world.
When the grim results of overspending and mismanagement settled in, Mr. Nwakama watched the average income of Nigerians get sliced in half. Formerly wealthy Lagos residents turned their Mercedes Benzes into cabs as yet another coup in 1985 delivered Gen. Ibrahim Babangida to power. Along with millions of others, Nwakama waited for the transition to civilian rule. It didn't come in 1990 as promised, nor did it come in 1992. When the country held presidential elections in June 1993, Nwakama stood incredulous before a TV set as a smiling General Babangida declared the vote invalid.
Another general from the northern Hausa tribe that has ruled Nigeria for all but 10 years of its history took over. Like his predecessor, General Abacha committed himself to the restoration of democracy. But by the time he died more than a month ago, he had reneged on every promise. He jailed Mr. Abiola, the presumed winner of the vote, and maneuvered to have himself nominated by all five political parties as the only candidate for elections scheduled for August.