Nigeria tries to keep lid on bubbling election ferment

Nigerian President Shehu Shagari is trying to ensure that next year's national elections - only the third since independence in 1960 - go smoothly.

But Nigerians, whose history includes many violent chapters, worry that the President's efforts will face severe tests.

Local police have failed to stem a rise in violent crime in urban centers, and some Nigerians wonder whether they will be able to control potential outbreaks of violence at election time without the Army's aid.

So far Shagari is acting quickly to put a lid on political problems. Recently , opponents of his National Party of Nigeria charged that a two-week voter registration program last month was designed to reduce eligible voters in areas where the NPN was weakest. Soon afterward, the President announced registration would be reopened.

And in a recent Independence Day speech from the new federal capital of Abuja , Shagari expressed hope that the campaign would be conducted calmly. He also made an important gesture there by decorating Chief Obafemi Awolowo, leader of the Yoruba-dominated United Party of Nigeria, with the order of the federal republic. The UP chief, after being favored to win, finished second to Shagari in 1979 elections.

Those elections ushered in a US-style democracy after 13 years of military rule, and Shagari appears to be very aware that Nigeria's democratic experiment is at stake.

Chief Awolowo is almost certain to run against Shagari again. He has been the Nigerian leader's harshest and most persistent critic. Opponents point to a long list of failures of the NPN-led government - particularly in the economic sphere - but they have been largely unable to crack the personal popularity of the soft-spoken leader.

Whatever the administration's shortcomings, Western diplomats in Lagos credit Shagari, a Muslim from the north of Nigeria, with having been the first national figure to transcend deep regional and religious divisions.

The opposition parties are in disarray, which may be helping Shagari politically. The four opposition groups tried early this year to overcome some of their differences and form an alliance against the NPN, but sources say cooperation among the members - many of whom are battling one another in local elections - is likely to be spotty. Shagari himself is leaving the more virulent jabs at the opposition to his subordinates.

Preoccupation with possible election year violence is probably not misplaced, in the opinion of knowledgeable Western and Nigerian sources. A European oil worker who recently spent several months in Warri says the Nigerian staff and oil workers speak openly of the likelihood that outbreaks may occur.

''They told me there would be violence, no question about it,'' he says.

Perhaps more telling is the opinion of knowledgeable Nigerians who have tended in the past to minimize the threat to stability raised by rioting.

''Elections,'' one Nigerian emphasizes, ''are a terrible time for us.'' He recalls the widespread violence in elections that precipitated the military takeover in 1966. ''If we get through the next one all right, I'll know that democracy has come to stay in Nigeria,'' he says.

But if violence erupts, such as that in the north in Kano in December 1980, when 2,000 people died, the Army would undoubtedly be called in.

''No one wants the military back [in power],'' says one observer. ''But if there's violence . . . people might just want peace, and so would welcome the Army back.''

The military has shown no taste for returning to power, and several high-level officers have spoken out against a political role for the armed forces. But officials are obviously taking the threat of violence seriously.

Despite what many see as the danger of relying too heavily on the Army to keep peace, the election commission chairman has suggested the military might be called on.

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