IN nullifying this month's presidential election, Nigeria's military government justified its action on the dubious grounds that lawsuits prompted by the vote made a "ridiculous charade" of the balloting.
What has made a ridiculous charade out of the elections, which were judged free and fair by international observers, are the government's refusal to abide by the outcome and its dissolution of the National Election Commission, the government panel responsible for returning the nation to democracy.
Wednesday's annulment and dissolution marked the fourth time in three years that the nation's leader, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, has shifted the schedule for a return to civilian rule. He had promised to return the country to civilian rule by Aug. 27.
The June 12 vote had been delayed by a series of lawsuits. Plaintiffs included the Association for a Better Nigeria, which consists of wealthy business leaders, politicians, and military officers who back the regime. Last week the ABN won a court order preventing the election council from releasing the election results - despite General Babangida's pre-election assertion that the courts could not be allowed to interfere with the election process.
At the time of the court order, Social Democratic Party candidate Moshood Abiola held a significant lead over Bashir Tofa, of the National Republican Convention. Mr. Abiola was the first national candidate whose support cut across ethnic and religious lines. A Yoruba chief and a Muslim, Abiola comes from the southern, Yoruba-dominated part of the country. The region's residents have long resented the domination of national politics by the Hausa-Falani, who live mainly in the north.
In response to Lagos's action, the United States and Britain have lodged strong diplomatic protests. Both have suspended relatively small amounts of aid and are working with other European and African countries to develop a more coordinated response. Further options could include freezing assets and visas for those in power, in addition to reviewing proposals to restructure Nigeria's external debt. These should be pursued.
Ultimately, pressure must come from Nigerians. Human rights groups in the country are calling for strikes. Yet voter turnout for the election was only 37 percent. Disillusionment and cynicism may be the biggest threat to a return to civilian rule.