A general who stepped down but didn't fade away

Nigeria's former military ruler backs the front-runner in Saturday'selection, and some think they know why.

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On the brink of Nigeria's watershed presidential election Saturday, the influence of money and military men recalls a nation's troubled past - and raises questions about its future under civilian rule.

A prime example: Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, who gave a rare interview last week in which he spoke of his controversial relationship with the front-runner, retired Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo.

Six years into his voluntary retirement as Nigeria's military ruler, General Babangida is still many Nigerians' favorite villain. He became ruler in 1985 after a coup and stepped aside with some reluctance in 1993, having just voided the results of a presidential election.

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Since then Babangida has been rarely seen or heard. Yet hardly a day goes by without his name appearing in Nigeria's newspapers, often in reference to episodes of alleged past corruption. Rumors of fantastic accumulated wealth - estimated at $31 billion - still dog him, as they did his successor, Gen. Sani Abacha, whose death last year in June opened the way for Nigeria's current transition to democracy.

Now the suspicion is that Babangida has used his wealth to buy a few more years of power for himself and the northern Nigerian Hausa-Fulani elite that he is said to represent. The candidate he supports, General Obasanjo, emerged victorious from the People's Democratic Party (PDP) nominating convention two weeks ago and is poised to win Saturday's election.

Analysts believe Obasanjo's victory at the polls would delay the effective transfer of power to civilian hands but would not stop it. A democratic apparatus has been put into place - state and national representatives have already been voted in.- and the pressure on the northern oligarchy to loosen its hold on power is expected to grow stronger with time.

The question many put forth is how Obasanjo as president would react to the pressure - whether he would resist it or turn it against Babangida and the same military establishment that jailed Obasanjo allegedly for criticizing Abacha for unusual brutality.

Opinions diverge sharply. Some argue that Babangida's clout, combined with that of the so-called northern cabal, will prevent Obasanjo from maneuvering in any direction. Others believe Obasanjo - who was tried in secret by a military tribunal in 1995, sentenced to 25 years in jail on charges of treason and released only after Abacha's death last year - suffered such humiliating treatment at the hands of the military that he will use the tools of democracy to his own advantage, thus settling a score.

"Obasanjo is a stubborn goat, and he is known for never forgetting an insult," says Innocent Chukwuma, a political activist based in Lagos, "He's been wronged by the same people pretending to support him and he has not forgotten that."

Babangida himself denies any connection to Obasanjo other than one born of true friendship and past collaboration.

"I was one of his boys," Babangida, who was a junior officer under Obasanjo, modestly offered in last week's interview. Obasanjo, he added, "is a patriot ... those of us who had the privilege to serve under him believe that his credentials will stand him out."

Obasanjo's credentials are indeed strong. He is the only military ruler to have voluntarily handed over power to a civilian administration (in 1979). For that, he was made a Grand Commander in the Order of the Federal Republic.

His release by Nigeria's current head of state, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, shortly after Abacha's death, came as no surprise. Nor was there any surprise when Babangida showed up at Obasanjo's doorstep only a few hours after his homecoming.

"Babangida went to see Obasanjo to offer him the presidency. Before pitching his tent he must have considered that Obasanjo would never have destroyed the institution that raised him," says Abdul Oroh, the executive director of the Civil Liberties Organization, a human rights group based in Lagos.

"We talked about how best we could move the country forward, that's all," Babangida said. He added that there had been no talk of protecting "anyone's interests," let alone the military's. He said:

"The military knows its days are over ... they realize that changing governments through coups d'etat is no longer fashionable ... By virtue of their education, they know that getting on the radio and announcing a coup no longer works."

Babangida's unsung accomplishment over the last decade had been the transformation of the military academies across Nigeria into places of real learning, with compulsory courses in history, political science, and management.

"We have a military that is highly educated, not like the '60s when they barely had degrees," he said. That in itself, observers say, will help preserve the northern hegemony over the Yoruba of the southwest and the Ibo of the southeast better than any crude putsch. In his terse assessment of Abacha's seven-year reign, Babangida acknowledged that the military's previous disposition nearly brought about its downfall. "If Abacha had not died, I predicted a lot of agitation, The pressure was building ... we were headed for a breaking point," he said.

THE breaking point has been averted, the military is evolving, and for that reason Festus Okoye, a human rights lawyer, believes that "Obasanjo will come and go, while Babangida will stay."

Analysts and Western diplomats have also noted that Obasanjo's campaign appears to have been so heavily financed by Babangida that evidence to that effect would be unearthed at the first sign of enmity.

"Even if Obasanjo had been clean, which is possible, all the money Babangida dumped [at the PDP nominating convention] will make it impossible for him to turn his back," Olawale Fapohunda, a Lagos-based human rights lawyer said.

"People in glass houses can't throw stones."

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