Nigeria's Next Steps

WHEN opposing parties in an emerging democracy form an interim government, it is often called a government of reconciliation.

But in Nigeria the interim government agreed to yesterday by the country's two legal political parties and its military strongman, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, contains at least as much potential for divisiveness as for reconciliation. The result in Africa's most populous nation will depend in large part on how seriously the parties' leaders take the goal of democratic rule.

The agreement, in which both parties would form an interim civilian government, comes at the end of a week that saw violent protests against the military regime for nullifying presidential elections held June 12. Despite low voter turnout, many Nigerians viewed the balloting as a significant step toward a return to civilian rule.

Unofficial results gave Social Democratic Party candidate Moshood Abiola a clear lead over National Republican Convention candidate Bashir Tofa in a vote that was judged fair by international observers. General Babangida had promised to turn the government over to civilian rule on Aug. 27.

This week Babangida gave the parties a choice: Hold new elections at the end of July or form an interim government without new elections. Given Babangida's history with elections, they chose to form a government. In so doing, they apparently excluded Mr. Abiola from power.

The arrangement does not fulfill anyone's notion of a democratic process. It remains dictated by the military. It also gives the National Republican Convention a much stronger voice than it would have had if the elections results had been respected.

This could lead to resentment among supporters of the Social Democrats, especially with Abiola sidelined. The result could be a weak government rife with squabbling, which leaves the military as the power broker.

Even if all goes smoothly, the military is likely to remain a player in the country's politics for a time. But if two parties fail to keep the transition on track and interparty strife to a minimum, the prospects for democracy will remain uncertain.

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