Nigeria's new leader seen as last resort before political chaos

Nigeria's new leader, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, is the country's last resort against collapse into political and economic chaos, say some observers. The former chief of Army staff recently seized power in a bloodless coup, the country's sixth since gaining independence from Britain 25 years ago. The coup came amid growing unrest in the Army and the reported failure of a plot by radical junior officers last July.

``If Babangida fails to reverse the country's economic and political decline, then the next coup is likely to be both bloody and bitter with the whole system turned upside down,'' diplomatic and business observers say.

General Babangida has accused the former military regime of Maj. Gen. Muhammad Buhari, of being ``too rigid and uncompromising'' and failing to halt the economic decline. The Buhari government, greeted initially with great euphoria, had become highly repressive and unpopular by the end of its 20-month rule.

Babangida, though involved in the last five military takeovers, has not until now taken a prominent political position. He was a key figure in supressing the abortive 1976 coup in which Gen. Murtala Muhammad was assassinated. He was also one of the leaders of the coup bringing the military back to power in 1983.

Babangida, described as a ``soldier's soldier,'' stern on duty but sociable off, is likely, observers say, to be more flexible than his predecessor.

He announced the abolition of an unpopular military decree which protected the government against criticism by allowing it to muzzle the press.

He also promised to overhaul the Nigerian Security Organization accused of abusing its powers. The organization was believed to be behind the abortive attempt in July 1984 to kidnap and extradite from Britain Alhaji Umaru Dikko, a former transport minister.

That affair strained relations between Britain and Nigeria. In an effort to improve relations, British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe visited Lagos last week.

Babangida has also promised that members of the former civilian administration held in detention for the past 20 months would be brought to trial.

He also spoke of the need to break the 21/2-year deadlock in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $2.5 billion loan to support a three-year economic adjustment program. The most sensitive of the various ``adjustments'' would be a 60 percent devaluation of the Nigerian currency. Previous leaders had opposed devaluation to which the Nigerian public is also hostile in view of the large price increases that would result.

It is now argued that an IMF deal would lessen rather than increase austerity as it would give the government access to new finances. These include a World Bank loan of some $1 billion, possibility of new commercial loans following rescheduling of medium-term external debt estimated at some $12 billion, and resumption of medium-term cover by export credit guarantee agencies.

With the oil market, which provides 95 percent of the country's export earnings, likely to remain depressed and Babangida's condemnation of oil counter-trade deals, Nigeria needs to reach agreement with the IMF to solve its financial crisis, analysts say. Babangida must move quickly before his coup loses momentum and he becomes identified with the country's problems, they add.

Babangida is known to have been highly critical of the ``arrogant and autocratic'' style of the strong man of the previous regime, Maj. Gen. Tunde Idiagbon, now under house arrest in Lagos.

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