Nigerian Elections Mark Final Run to Civilian Rule

Despite vote for legislators tomorrow, critics say the military government has failed in its democratic and economic reforms

IN a narrow, downtown street near a 147-year-old mosque, scores of Nigerians shouted their party slogan - "Progress" - to the accompaniment of blasting trumpets and hand-held drums. It was a last-minute rally before Saturday's critical election for a national assembly, as Nigeria nears the end of a five-year transition from military to civilian rule.

If all goes reasonably well during the vote, the country's estimated 88 million people will move to within one election of full civilian rule by January 1993. A presidential ballot is scheduled for December, as the last step in a regime-designed transition in which all previous political parties were outlawed and two parties, created by government decree, were permitted to contest the vote.

But as the transition apparently draws to a close during a period of growing instability, some Nigerians worry that the military regime may not keep to the timetable, or if it does, that it will be dumping a host of unsolved problems onto the plate of a new civilian government.

Analysts note that economic decline, corruption, human rights violations, and ethnic and religious tensions await the incoming civilian government.

Africa Watch, a human rights group based in the United States and Britain, claimed in an April 21 report that the Nigerian military has failed to show "respect for freedom of speech and freedom of association."

Government corruption remains rampant in Nigeria, Western diplomats say.

Also complicating the transition process are tensions persisting among Nigeria's many ethnic and religion groups. In May, for example, riots between Christian and Muslim ethnic groups over political issues shook the northern city of Kaduna and some nearby areas.

They were followed by riots in Lagos, sparked by fuel shortages and poor living conditions. "[The military government] weathered that storm, but I'd be very cautious about saying this country is stable," says a Western diplomat.

Gen. Ibrahim Babangida seized power in a bloodless coup in 1985. Within a year he announced his regime would guide the country toward civilian rule, a transition scheduled to be completed in 1990. But with the handover process running two years late, and the economy failing, some critics charge the military is reluctant to release power.

"We're not so sure [the military] will leave," says a Nigerian civil servant, who asks not to be named.

General Babangida contends his controversial economic reforms had to be made. A long-term structural adjustment program was instituted in 1986 - at the request of the International Monetary Fund - which aimed to reduce dependence on imports and encourage noninflationary growth. More recently, Babingida devaluated the naira in March.

Nigerian officials point to growth in agricultural production as a result of the reforms. But critics, including Nigerians and Western donors, say average income and living conditions have deteriorated; Nigeria's foreign debt exceeds $30 billion.

"We all know they [the military] have not solved the economic problem," notes a Nigerian economist, who asks not to be identified.

One of the main obstacles to economic revitalization, Western diplomats say, is government corruption. Nigerian official Tony Iredia says, however, "There is no known case of an allegation [of corruption] that the [military] government has not looked into." He says, for example, that the military governor of Borno State was removed from office for "misapplying public funds."

In the election process, the military's limiting of political parties to only two has drawn considerable criticism. But A. B. Borisade, an official of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), sees a possible positive outcome on tribal differences. He says the limitation has forced ethnic groups to cooperate and build coalitions.

The regime's heavy hand is being felt in other ways. In the run-up to tomorrow's ballot, the military-appointed National Electoral Commission (NEC) has disqualified several participants, including the SDP primary winner for the Senate from central Lagos.

Altogether, 28 primary winners from SDP and the other party, the National Republican Convention, were dropped by NEC this week. The commission refused to explain its reasons for the disqualifications.

A Western diplomat calls the NEC's routine refusal to make public its reasons for disqualifying candidates "capricious - one more example that due process is not very well understood" by the Nigerian military rulers.

In an interview, NEC Commissioner for Lagos Alhaji Abubakar Bello says the transition program has failed to curb the political influence of wealthy Nigerians.

"I know there's a lot of people still spending to get ... votes," he said. "But people are getting wise," he added. Voters increasingly are voting their minds, even if they accept money to vote a particular way, says Commissioner Bello.

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