Influencing Nigeria's Democracy

US officials run up against limits to their capacity to encourage respect of elections

NIGERIA'S two-month political crisis took a new turn when President Ibrahim Babangida, who seized power in 1985, reportedly offered to resign Aug. 17.

It had been widely expected that General Babangida would give up his military title and continue to rule as a civilian in order to satisfy his promise of restoring civilian rule by Aug. 27. Therefore, it was not immediately clear whether his offer to resign would satisfy Nigerian and international calls for democratization.

Responding on Aug. 16 to unconfirmed reports of Babangida's resignation offer, the US State Department said, "We welcome any concrete indication from Babangida that he will turn power over to an unhindered civilian government...."

The apparent winner of Nigeria's presidential elections, Chief Moshood Abiola, who fled to Britain, recently visited the United States, where he appealed for support in his bid to be declared winner of the June 12 presidential elections - annulled by the military government.

But while Mr. Abiola's appeals on Aug. 6 found sympathetic ears on Capitol Hill, the State Department was more cautious. US supports election process

"We have made no commitment to support Abiola personally," said a State Department official. "The US supports the elections and process leading toward democracy, but we do not support individuals per se."

On the Hill, however, Rep. Donald Payne (D) of New Jersey called for tough US sanctions against Africa's most populous nation. "This is similar to Haiti - the military said the election is nullified," said Mr. Payne at a hearing of the House Africa Subcommittee. "Haiti is more in our sphere of influence, but the principle is the same."

Payne said Abiola, a multimillionaire businessman, had told him that his life had been threatened for insisting he be declared the next president. Abiola had then received an emergency visa from a US embassy and slipped out of Nigeria.

Payne proposed an embargo by the US and the United Nations on the nearly 2 million barrels of oil Nigeria exports daily, mostly to the US, and a freeze on the assets of Babangida and others in the military.

George Moose, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told the subcommittee that the US has cut off military aid since the June 12 elections were annulled, and "should a civilian government not be in place in Nigeria on Aug. 27 [as the military has promised], the United States may be obliged to take additional steps."

But Mr. Moose did not endorse the proposals to embargo its oil and refused to "rule in or out" any future measures in support of democracy.

Indeed, the refusal of Nigeria's military government to heed US calls to respect the apparent 2-to-1 victory by Abiola in the election can be seen as a sign that Africa is far more difficult to influence than Latin America. When leaders or militaries in Peru, Guatemala, and Venezuela recently moved against democracy, swift action by the US and the Organization of American States made them back down and begin to restore democracy.

But when Babangida suspended the elections, troops killed 100 pro-democracy demonstrators, and several independent newspapers were closed.

The Organization of African Unity, meanwhile, was largely silent. Nigeria even expelled a US diplomat who called the suspension "unacceptable," and the information minister accused Britain and the US of interference in its internal affairs.

A senior US official noted that Nigeria is simply so big - with more than 100 million people - that few African governments are willing to criticize it.

Speaking after the hearing, Moose rejected the view that Nigeria's abortive elections are a sign that Africa is beyond the reach of the administration's democracy initiatives. "Progress in Africa has been rather remarkable considering where we were four or five years ago," he said. "At least a dozen nations will have, in the next year or so, some kind of election to head down the path of democratization."

But Moose noted that elections do not a democracy make: "African leaders say: 'Yes. We can have an election. But our cultures are not tolerant.' They are asking for our help to strengthen the institutions that are essential to make democracy work." Few in military benefit

Jim Woods, deputy assistant secretary for African affairs at the Defense Department, said only a small percentage of the military receives the benefits of control over the government, but these are likely hostile to Abiola because he might investigate their reported ties to corruption.

Some military hostility also comes because Abiola is a southerner of the Yoruba tribe, while, traditionally, the military is run by the northern Hausa tribe. But most of the junior officers voted for Abiola, and the military has developed a professional culture that is unlikely to fracture along ethnic lines, Mr. Woods said.

Holly Burkhalter, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, praised the Clinton administration for "not just speaking out" to protest the canceled elections but also canceling commercial and government-to-government arms sales. "The big question now," she said, "is whether the World Bank and International Monetary Fund will be willing to reschedule Nigeria's $30 billion debt."

Last month, the political crisis triggered a three-day riot in Lagos that left more than 100 people dead. And last week, a general strike shut down the city for three days, causing deep fear of instability. A million Nigerians died in the Biafran War in the 1960s - as ethnic Ibos tried to separate from the Yorubas and Hausas.

"Most people believe it's better to slow down the progress toward democracy than have a civil war," Woods said.

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