Nigeria's `Democracy by Fiat' Comes Slowly

Military rulers attempt complicated transition to civilian rule by 1992 - including the creation of two new parties. MILITARY-SPONSORED POLITICAL CHANGE

YOU have to look hard to find signs that Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, is ruled by the military. On the streets you don't see tanks, and seldom military jeeps. Police are everywhere, but not soldiers. Yet despite its unobtrusiveness and its reputation as ``benign,'' Nigeria's military cracks a whip often enough to keep people off-balance. (See story below).

Nigeria's military rulers are attempting a complicated transition of the nation's political system from military rule to civilian control by 1992. Existing parties have been banned from state and national elections in 1990 and 1992, and two new political parties are being created almost overnight.

This is the third attempt at democratic rule in a country ruled by the military for 20 of its 29 years of independence. Nigeria's first civilian government collapsed in 1966 amidst anarchy and more than 2,000 deaths in riots, following corrupt elections. The second civilian government ended in 1983 amid economic collapse, shortly after elections marred by charges of massive fraud.

If the transition works, ``we'll never be back,'' a military official told the Monitor. ``We'll stay in the barracks.''

Nigerians are holding their breath. ``We're hopeful, because people are tired of military government,'' says S.Olu Agbi, a dean at Ondo State University. ``But whether it's possible in the realm of practical politics for government to decree two political parties and draw [party] constitutions which, they [the military leaders] say, are `a little to the left and a little to the right,' I have my own doubts.''

``It's the sincerity of the government that people doubt at the moment,'' he added.

The question Professor Agbi and many other Nigerians are raising is whether the military will keep its promise, or find an excuse - such as failure of the two new parties - for keeping control.

Similar hopes - and doubts - about a successful transition to civilian rule were expressed in numerous Monitor interviews in the capital Lagos and Ondo state in the southwest and in the city of Sokoto, Nigeria's Muslim center in the Northwest.

Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria's military ruler, calls himself president, though he has never been elected. He is, according to many Nigerians, ``a politician in military uniform.'' He listens to a wide variety of civilian leaders. But some Nigerians accuse military leaders of being isolated, especially from the urban poor.

In 1986, General Babangida, who has initiated a tough set of economic reforms, first announced his intention to relinquish power to civilians in 1990. In July 1987, he broke that promise, saying the transition could not be completed until 1992.

Today, as many people are skeptical whether Babangida will step down, a lawyer from eastern Nigeria says that Babangida would be ``pushed aside'' if he tried to stay. An academic in Sokoto agrees, saying a ``palace coup'' by his own military would likely occur if he tried to stay beyond 1992. Other Nigerians suggest there would be widespread riots by civilians.

Many Nigerians doubt that the new political leadership that Babangida claims he is seeking - free from the corruption of previous governments - can be found.

Local, state, and federal elections will lead up to the 1992 election of a civilian president.

Babangida has rejected the applications of all political parties that wanted to run in these polls, saying that those parties were too tied to ``money bags'' - the influential rich.

Instead, he ordered the creation of the Social Democratic Party and the National Republican Convention. They will be set up by the military but run by civilians. Recently, Babangida presented the new parties' platforms, saying they represented a synthesis of the interests of currently banned parties.

All past holders of elected or key appointed offices, including the current military leadership, have been prohibited from future political activity.

The model for the two-party system is the United States - as the cover of the Nigerian weekly Newswatch put it, ``Enter Democrats, Republicans.''

But the speed with which Nigeria is trying to set up the system is all its own.

Richard Ikiebe, an official of Nigeria's Ministry of Information, says, ``If we don't hand over power in 1992, people in the West will say: `The military is despotic. They want to stay in power.''' But the government only wants to turn power over to a ``new breed'' of civilian leaders, he adds.

That's the rub.

Can Nigeria's military avoid reigniting civilian political rivalries based on the criteria of the past - tribe, religion, geography, or wealth? The attempt to do so has set off sparks of excitement among Nigerians.

Chike Onwude, a civil servant says he's excited about politics here for the first time in years.

But a Yoruba economist (the Yorubas are one of Nigeria's three main tribes, along with Hausa-Fulani and Ibo) contends that ``apathy is at its peak,'' especially among the literate. He complains that the way the government is forming the parties is ``dictatorial.''

The plan simply won't work, says a senior Nigerian journalist in Lagos, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution against his newspaper. He says that squeezing the three dominant tribal groups and two dominant religions - Muslim and Christian - into two parties is asking for trouble.

But Muslim politician Muhammad Arzika, national chairman of the now-banned Peoples Solidarity Party, says the new parties will be based ``ideologically'' instead of by tribe, religion, or geography, requiring that Muslims, Christians, and various tribes cooperate to form nationwide parties to try to win control in the National Assembly.

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