Nigeria's opportunity

The fact that Nigeria completed a series of controversial elections this month with its territorial integrity intact comes close to being miraculous. Whether the disputed victory of Olusegum Obasanjo - to be sworn in as president in May - will strengthen or shake the faith that Nigerians have shown in a democratic solution to their problems depends largely on what he does with his opponents.

He should consider bringing them into a government of national unity. That would begin the urgent business of national reconstruction and rehabilitation of the most basic social services, given the country's devastated condition.

As recently as 10 months ago, Nigeria teetered on the edge of the abyss of violent internal turmoil caused by the strong-arm tactics of its late military dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha. His death last summer cooled the political atmosphere - bringing the release of most political prisoners and increased civil liberties. Credit largely must go to the courageous Nigerian civic groups that campaigned, at great risk, for democracy. But credit must also go to Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, Abacha's successor, whose statesmanlike response to the nation's political agony led to the speedy transition from military to civilian rule.

The haste with which Nigeria moved from military tyranny to rickety local, state, and national elections could end up causing President Obasango's first big problem. It took South Africa - the continent's truly democratic miracle - four years of painstaking constitutional negotiations before it held its landmark 1994 elections. And those elections were essentially a symbolic confirmation of a power-sharing arrangement - between racial, ethnic and regional parties - agreed upon previously.

But Nigerians were so disgusted with the corruption and debauchery of the military that no credible leader could have suggested negotiations that left the Army in charge of the people's business - even for an interim period. The ethnic, religious, and linguistic mix in Nigeria is far more diverse and complex than South Africa's. Nigeria surely could have used an inclusive national conference, discussion on ethnic representation, some atonement for past wrongs by the military, and repatriation of billions of dollars stolen by the military.

But not to worry. That opportunity has now arrived, and Mr. Obasanjo should seize it.

By all accounts the elections were characterized by irregularities. But to most objective observers, a more honest election wouldn't have affected the outcome. The Obasanjo administration should begin by acknowledging these wrongs, overhaul the electoral machinery, and prepare for a national constitutional convention that would bring both the disaffected parties and his supporters into the fold. Nigeria needs a transitional government of national unity to pave the way for a negotiated constitutional change that reflects Nigeria's ethnic mix and interests.

A government-vs.-opposition contest should be avoided at all costs, because it might invite a military takeover.

Though Obasanjo is an ethnic Yoruba, the most solid base of opposition to him was in Yorubaland and the Niger delta states. The Yoruba loathe his dalliance with Northern Nigerian military leaders and were angered by his failure to support the winner of the aborted 1993 election - Moshood Abiola, also Yoruba. The Niger delta hosts the oil drilling companies that produce 90 percent of the national wealth. But its people have been neglected and exploited by military governments and the oil companies. The Obasanjo administration would do well by starting negotiations with the Yoruba - immediately addressing delta community grievances and offering his election opponent, Olu Falae, a government post.

Time is not on the president's side, and the treasury is empty.

But a solution can be found in Nigeria by Nigerians themselves, preferably through an inclusive national consultative forum. To the extent that they wish to help, Westerners - always eager to advise Africans - ought to let Nigerians take the lead and respect the outcome.

*Michael Chege, a Kenyan, is the director of the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

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