NIGERIA, Africa's most populous nation, has provided the continent with its latest lesson on establishing constitutional rule: Repressive conditions before and during an election will always yield undemocratic results.
As labyrinthine as recent events have been, the country's transition fiasco was not surprising. The military created the only two parties, vetted candidates for elections, then banned most of them. It created a National Assembly, then limited its authority to ceremonial rules. After postponing the presidential election three times, it let people vote, only to forbid the winner from being officially announced. Finally it annulled the results and forced the country to accept an interim government. During this period the country's military ruler, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, silenced dissenting voices and undermined institutions essential to democratic rule.
If Nigeria is to hold successful elections and act as the democratic model for the continent in the future, it must reverse the legacy of the Babangida regime. Free and fair elections in 1994 demand that the rights of free expression, association, and assembly be upheld. The August 1993 decrees, which virtually gutted the independent press by imposing exorbitant registration fees and penalties, must be repealed.
While the transitional government has started releasing some members of human rights groups who were critical of the military's transition, it too often lets them go on Monday and jails them again on Thursday. Protecting the rights of these groups would be a significant step toward establishing democratic practice.
The independence of the Nigerian judiciary and the rule of law must also be restored. Both were severely undermined by Decree No. 2 of 1987, which created special tribunals to hear sensitive cases and prohibited any review of their decisions by the judicial system.
Fair elections will demand the scrapping of expansive, vaguely worded repressive legislation, such as the Treasonous Offenses Decree of 1993. It calls for the death penalty for anyone engaging in acts, speeches, or publications capable of disrupting the fabric of the country.
The acts of intimidation by the security forces, in particular the Nigerian police, must also be curbed by establishing accountability. If not, the credibility of the next election will be undermined and another low voter turnout will result.
Among the most positive lessons to be learned from recent events is the potential influence of a civil society. The newspapers that published banned election results, the strikes by trade unions, and the candlelight vigils by human rights groups all served notice that the next Army officer dreaming of sitting in the president's office will face determined opposition. If these groups develop a national constituency, just silencing Lagos in the future will not be enough for a regime to retain power.
This cannot be overemphasized. The most damaging implication of Babangida's rule has been that Nigerians cannot rule themselves through democratic means, that no one, in a population of over 90 million people, is capable of guiding the country. To reinforce this, Babangida weakened the authority of civil institutions, undermined their national standing, and prevented the emergence of any potential national leaders. If this situation continues, Nigeria will be doomed to an endless cycle of ill-equipped civilian administrations and military interventions.
WHILE Nigerians will be the ones to deliver democracy in 1994, the international community has a role to play in the elections. The West must learn that dispatching a smattering of observers for a week or so to ensure a free election will not guarantee democracy. Responsible election monitoring begins well before polling day and goes on well after. Failing to strengthen the institutions that make democracy work renders the effort futile. Another focus should be on creating an environment where all the rights necessary to hold free and fair elections are demanded. Human rights groups are critical to this process. Promoting and protecting their freedoms will be a big step toward ending Nigeria's and Africa's endless swings between representative government and dictatorship. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by amil to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.