Africa's huge, harsh land of hope

Rich in oil and people, Nigeria tastes freedom, faces old-guard power, on way to civilian rule in May.

Often described as Africa's greatest hope, Nigeria is currently attempting its fourth official transition to democracy since independence from Britain in 1960.

The sudden death of Gen. Sani Abacha in June put an end to the country's darkest period in nearly three decades of mostly military rule and opened the way for reform. Gen. AbdusalamI Abubakar, Nigeria's new military ruler, has promised to hand power over to an elected president on May 29.

Expectations are high. As Africa's most populous country and a major oil producer - the United States' fifth-largest supplier of crude - Nigeria has a potential for growth that remains largely unparalleled in Africa.

A radical change has already taken place on the human rights front, as acknowledged by observers who nevertheless believe the jury is still out on the overall performance of General Abubakar and his associates.

Now the press is free to criticize, and political activists are able to express their opinions without fear of incarceration. In a recent visit to Nigeria, the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights, Soli Sorabjee, referred to "positive" change and said Nigeria was on its way to recovery.

But the political transition in itself will do little to change Nigeria's destiny, analysts say.

Much will depend on how genuine the power shift will be - whether it will succeed in unseating the dominant northern oligarchy that has long controlled the Nigerian Army - and to what extent the country's new leadership will address Nigeria's need for local governance and a decentralized state.

In the run-up to February's presidential elections, preparing for the May turnover to civilian government, nine political parties are officially registered. But the political debate has remained focused on the differences between the north and south.

On the surface, no division in Nigeria is easier to account for.

The north is dry and full of dust from the Sahara.

The south has rivers and the dense forests of the tropics.

In the north, every corner hides a minaret and the crescent moon symbol of Islam.

In the south, religions overlap and sometimes merge, rivers have spirits, war has its own god.

To the average southerner - preparing to vote in the first civilian presidential elections after 15 continuous years of military rule - the north looms darkly in the distance as a conglomerate of interests whose only objective is power.

Interestingly, the north has never produced a block vote. In the 1993 elections, which were annulled by the military, northerners voted massively for a candidate from the south, Moshood Abiola, because he was a civilian. Mr. Abiola was detained after proclaiming himself president. He died in jail last July.

In the three elections prior to 1993, presidential candidates from the north carried only some of the northern states. The north's ability to rise above tribal considerations makes it an unknown quantity in February's presidential elections.

"What we want is an innocent leader, a fresh face," says Omar Mohammed Kaduna, a small-business owner in Kano, the largest city in the north.

So far, there are no such fresh faces. The leading candidate, Olusegun Obasanjo, is a retired general who ruled Nigeria from 1976 to 1979, the only military head of state to willingly transfer power to an elected civilian government. This, and his jailing by General Abacha, lends him a sheen of credibility that may help his campaign cut across the country's four tribal zones: the wind-scoured land of the Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Yoruba-dominated southwest, the Ibo-dominated southeast, and the ethnically fragmented delta of the Niger River.

As a southerner, Mr. Obasanjo can claim a lack of affinity with the discredited northern military establishment he served for two decades. A suspicion often voiced, however, is that he was handpicked by the military to represent and protect its interests at the time they are most threatened. Recently, Obasanjo has come under fire for refusing to disclose the source of a $1.2 million contribution he made to his party, the People's Democratic Party.

The rule of Abacha - five years in which more than 7,000 activists were jailed and hundreds more went into exile - has made the military extremely unpopular with all but a tiny northern aristocracy. The latter ruled the north for centuries and, ever since the discovery of oil in the Niger delta, has prospered on government contracts.

As local elections in December draw near, severe unrest in the oil-producing delta has forced military and civilians alike to acknowledge a need for local governance with tax-raising ability. Nigeria is a federation of 36 states, but power has always been centralized.

Decades of mismanagement and corruption have left areas like the delta, which produces 90 percent of Nigeria's wealth, in a state of abject poverty.

"The only solution is to give people control over part of the resources their land produces and the only way to do that properly is through an effective system of local government," argues a Western diplomat.

The reshaping of Nigeria's Constitution - drawn in 1995 under Abacha but never released - is set for after the February elections. If the issue of decentralized power is not properly addressed, observers say, the delta will erupt into violence such as the country has not seen since the 1960s Biafran war for independence claimed a million lives.

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