Nigerians Choose Civilian President, Amid Apprehensions

NIGERIA'S elections mark the country's greatest progress toward a transition to democracy in a decade of military rule. But relief over the smooth running of the polls is mixed with apprehension about the months ahead.

Moshood Abiola, the candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), appeared to have won on June 15, although the results have not been announced officially. With polling results known in 14 of Nigeria's 30 states, Mr. Abiola had won 11 and had received 4.4 million votes to 2.3 million secured by his opponent, Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRC).

The next president must win a simple majority of votes cast and at least one-third of the votes in 20 states.

In the past three years, President Ibrahim Babangida's military regime has delayed the transition three times. If General Babangida hands over power as scheduled on Aug. 27, it will be the start of an uphill struggle for an inexperienced civilian government. The country's economy has been in a steep decline in recent years.

Abiola has solid support among Nigeria's Yoruba people, who predominate in five southwestern states, but he has also won Mr. Tofa's home state of Kano and taken a southeastern state the NRC was expected to win.

The National Electoral Commission (NEC) has not said when it will announce the final results after collating all the state returns in the federal capital Abuja, but a result was expected by the evening of June 15.

Both political parties are the creation of Babangida's military regime and are part of his guided, if halting, transition to democracy. The parties' manifestoes, written by the NEC, identify the SDP with welfare policies and the NRC with more right-wing policies, but there is little ideology or tradition to separate the parties. Both Abiola and Tofa are very wealthy businessmen with no direct government experience.

Patronage rather than policy is the means of persuasion in Nigerian politics, and tribal and religious loyalties are important influences. Partly because of their choice of candidates, the SDP is seen as the party of the mainly Christian south and the NRC as representing the mainly Muslim north, although both Abiola and Tofa are Muslims. The north has dominated Nigeria's government and armed forces for most of the country's 33 years since independence.

There have been only two brief periods when the executive head of state was a southerner, and in neither case was the leader elected to office. The last southerner in power was retired Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, who is also the only president so far to have handed over power freely, in 1979.

The brief presidential campaign was notable mainly for election jingles and a televised debate between the candidates rather than for original policy statements.

Of the two candidates, only Abiola is a national figure. Until this April, Tofa was virtually unknown to most Nigerians. Abiola rose to prominence in the 1970s as vice-president for the United States multinational IT&T in Africa and the Middle East. He has since devoted some of his fortune made in that period to building up a news publishing business, promoting pan-African causes, and being a benefactor throughout Nigeria. He has acquired more than 250 chieftaincy titles in the process.

His success is partly due to the SDP's image as the party of the poor in a country where poverty is spreading. Economic recession and sharp currency devaluation in the past 18 months are beginning to hit hard. And the NRC bears many similarities to the last civilian party to hold power, the National Party of Nigeria, which was ousted in a military coup in 1983.

But Abiola is also seen as the more independent of the two candidates, a self-made man who has his own agenda. Although both candidates are close to Babangida and others in the military hierarchy, Abiola's southern heritage distances him from the northern military clique.

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