Hope, and Holes, in Words From Nigeria's General

Promise to restore democracy wins plaudits. But some wanted a pledge to share power among ethnic groups and regions.

You can have Monday morning quarterbacks for a Monday evening speech. That's what Nigerians - not to mention governments far from Africa - are proving as they second-guess the long-awaited onward-to-democracy speech by military ruler Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar July 20.

Many Nigerians were figuratively hopping up and down at the omission of one word everyone was waiting for: federalism, or power sharing, as two main ethnic groups talked of secession.

The US State Department's response was measured: "At first glance this is a welcome step in the direction of the kind of credible transition toward democracy that the international community has been urging," said spokesman James Rubin.

Across the Atlantic, there was talk of lifting European Union sanctions on Nigeria.

Back home in Nigeria, the reviews were mixed. Was General Abubakar's 20-page script really what it seemed, a scenario for his own decline and fall? And with a civilian replacement by a date certain: May 29, 1999?

It was the fourth time in eight years that millions of Nigerians had sat in front of their TV sets and listened to their military leader of the moment promise steps toward a new day.

The murmurings about secession among the Ibos to the east and the Yorubas to the west were not seen to be answered by Abubakar's appeals for calm and national unity. The failure to address the issue of federalist reform was cited by many as proof of the general's bad faith, even as the broadcast to Africa's most populous and oil-rich nation was taken by many as confirming his earnestness.

"It is not surprising to us that Abubakar would gloss over the federalist issue," says Udenta O Udenta of the Eastern Mandate Union, a political movement representing Nigeria's eastern constituency. "The military in Nigeria stopped being a national Army in 1966. They have concentrated power and wealth from Nigeria's oil in the hands of the northerners. If you were to address people's federalist concerns and distribute power evenly, the center would lose its gravity."

The northern Hausa military establishment has ruled Nigeria for all but a decade of its history. Opposition leaders say this group has abused power to hoard billions of dollars in oil revenues.

The oil is concentrated largely in the southern regions, and southern pro-democracy movements have long insisted that a federalist system that gives states the power to manage their own resources is the only way to effectively tackle the issue of a fair distribution of wealth.

Pro-democracy leaders have warned that the failure to put a federalist system in place could lead to war.

Those second-guessers had some other thoughts about the speech, in which:

Abubakar ordered the release of all political prisoners - but did not abrogate the country's detention laws. Under these, people can be held without trial for an indefinite time.

He dissolved Nigeria's five political parties - but then announced new ones would need to register with an electoral committee of his own making.

He promised a new constitution - but then explained its ratification would be up to the Provisional Ruling Council, whose 19 members he would personally appoint.

Finally, observers noted, he spoke at length about major economic adjustments he would make, conveying the impression he intended to stay around much longer than nine months.

The general's supporters take another line. The detention laws, they have said, would be automatically annulled by the new constitution, which was drafted in 1995 but never promulgated.

Only a handful of people have ever seen the text. But, according to a Lagos-based diplomat who has, it is as good a constitution as anyone could hope for. Abubakar's predecessor, the late Gen. Sani Abacha, kept it hidden because it undermined his plans to stay in power, the diplomat says.

"For one thing, it creates what is called 'the sixth zone,' " the diplomat says, meaning a system by which Nigeria's different ethnic groups would succeed one another to power, ensuring a fair participation in the political process.

For years Nigeria has been ruled by Army commanders from the northern Hausa ethnic group.

As for the electoral committee, Abubakar's supporters argue, all it would need to meet the test of fairness is a sizable contingent of civilians. The economic talk, they add, was both to show concern for the disastrous state of Nigeria's economy and to address the issue of reforms.

"I take the point that Abubakar may be honest and may wish to disengage, but he's not alone in the process," says Olisa Akbakoba, who is the founding leader of one of Nigeria's three main pro-democracy groups, United Action for Democracy.

By extending the transition period past the six-month mark, Mr. Akbakoba argues, Abubakar may have set himself up. The concern, he says, "is that the process will be hijacked" by a tight clique of top Army officials determined to stay on.

Among them is Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, who ruled from 1985 until the annulled elections of 1993. He is widely believed to have the greatest interest in obstructing any serious transition to democratic rule.

"Now Babangida has all the room he needs to maneuver," says Abdul Oroh, executive secretary of the Civil Liberties Organization, a human rights group.

The result of neglecting the federalism issue in Abubakar's 40-minute speech, pro-democracy leaders have warned, could be an ethnically based drive for secession, with each group fighting to carve out its own space.

For years Yoruba and Ibo leaders have cited the case of the Ogoni minority in the Niger River delta, where a large part of Nigerian crude oil is extracted. "It's their land, and they have never seen a penny," Mr. Oroh says.

"We are looking at a fractured federation," he adds. "Abubakar has trivialized our concerns by denying us the sovereign national conference we had asked for precisely to address the issue of federalism.

"We are not going to push the ethnic agenda," he adds. "But we can't prevent other people from doing so. And they will. It's only a matter of time."

After years of mismanagement and corruption, most leaders of civilian opposition are beginning to wonder if there is an alternative to the language of guns.

"Loyalty to the idea of Nigeria as a nation has dwindled considerably," Oroh says. "The majority of people don't see why they should stick to a system that has taken everything away from them."

Opposition groups had asked for a civilian national conference with power to draft a new federalist constitution. In his speech, Abubakar gave no reason such a conference could not take place, an omission that gave hope to these groups.

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