NIGERIANS are on the threshold of a transition to democracy, but they have come this far and been turned away before.
One question dominates this country's politics: Will President Ibrahim Babangida keep his promise to hold elections on June 12, or postpone the transition for the fourth time in three years?
General Babangida, who took power in a military coup in 1985, reaffirmed this week that the armed forces were committed to handing over power Aug. 27, calling skeptics "choristers of the military-will-not-go tune."
But a military decree issued in April increased the powers of the Army-backed National Electoral Commission to put off the presidential polls, worrying some proponents of democratic rule.
Nigeria's Committee for the Defense of Human Rights called the measure "part of the grand design for perpetual clinging on to power by the military."
"If anything the decree has confirmed people's cynicism about the whole transition program," said Niyi Akintola, a lawyer and former politician.
The military decree followed word that the government planned to lift Nigeria's domestic fuel price subsidy, which brings the price of gasoline down to a little more than 10 cents a gallon, on June 1. But with tensions running high before the polls and the possibility that the move would cause riots, the government backed down and said it would postpone lifting the subsidy.
Another decree on May 6 declared it an act of sedition, punishable by death, to disrupt the government or the "fabric of Nigeria." The decree came shortly after a scathing attack on Babangida's rule in the local press by former head of state Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, and after renewed calls for a national conference to decide the future of the federation of Nigeria.
Two political parties are contesting the presidential elections - the National Republican Convention (NRC), which is slightly right-wing, and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which is slightly to the left. Both are creations of the Babangida regime, which banned all previous political groups in the 1980s and promised to foster a new breed of civilian politicians free from the corruption of the last civilian regime from 1979-83.
But with little difference in ideology or tradition to distinguish the two parties, money, patronage, and clan loyalties remain the criteria for election. Many Nigerians regard the two parties as artificial, and the large number of young people who have never known a general election are cynical about their choices.
Last December, Babangida annulled the results from earlier presidential primaries because, he said, the use of an open ballot led to blatant vote-rigging.
Fresh conventions at the end of March produced two Muslim candidates, both close to Babangida, both wealthy businessmen, and both without direct government experience. Bashir Tofa, the NRC candidate, emerged from obscurity in the northern city of Kano, one of Nigeria's traditional centers of political power.
His SDP rival, Moshood Abiola, a Muslim from the mainly Christian southwest, made his fortune during the 1970s through contracts with International Telephone and Telegraph to install a large part of Nigeria's telephone system, which is notorious for inefficiency.
Campaign speeches by both candidates have promised solutions to economic problems, and patriotism is the keynote. But Nigerians say no civilian government can tackle years of mismanagement and ethnic rivalry without making hard decisions that have been ducked for years.
Despite its huge natural resources - oil among them - Nigeria has slid into the World Bank's low income category. Per capita income has fallen from $1,000 in 1980 to under $300. Inflation is running at nearly 100 percent, and the naira has depreciated sharply. Gross domestic product has been shrinking since mid-1992.
Breakdowns in oil refineries and distribution and rampant smuggling into neighboring countries have reduced the government-owned petroleum corporation to "a state of incipient chaos" according to a recent report by foreign oil companies based in Nigeria. Racketeers can buy a tanker load of subsidized fuel for $2,000 and sell it across the border for $60,000, while motorists in the northern and eastern regions can only buy fuel, if at all, at 10 times the official price.
Nigeria's population of about 88 million contains more than 250 ethnic groups, and Nigerians tend to vote along regional lines. The Hausa-Fulani group in the mainly Muslim northern region controls more than half the country, and since independence in 1960, they have been the dominant political force despite the greater economic development of the south. Poverty, official corruption, and low education standards are helping Islamic fundamentalism to take root in the north.
Christian leaders have warned that tension between Muslim and minority-Christian communities in the north could result in widespread violence. More than a dozen prisoners convicted of inciting riots face death sentences after violence in Kano, Bauchi, and Kaduna during the past two years that left thousands dead.
Babangida has said he is looking forward to retirement. If he keeps his word on Aug. 27, he will be only the second head of state in Nigeria's 33 years of independence to step down voluntarily. The only other man to do it, Mr. Obasanjo, recently emerged from his chicken farm in the southwest and urged Babangida to follow his example.