Nigerians Wary As New Regime Makes Promises

TWO weeks after the military toppled its puppet civilian government and recaptured power, public outcry in Nigeria has given way to an uneasy resolve to watch and wait. Gen. Sanni Abacha, the military strongman who led the coup, so far seems to be gaining, if not the country's confidence, at least some time.

Leading critics of military rule, including some staunch supporters of Moshood Abiola, the winner of the annulled June presidential poll, have joined the new military regime. International criticism has been temporarily stilled.

Many Nigerians, encouraged by the diversity in the new Cabinet and promises of a constitutional forum, now express hope that General Abacha will sweep out the last vestiges of former military leader Gen. Ibrahim Babangida's regime, install a democracy, and jump-start the flagging economy.

``The real struggle in Nigeria is still to suppress the power of Babangida,'' says a Yoruba banker here. ``Abacha is the only man strong enough to do the job ... and that is why we support this new regime.''

Abacha has moved quickly to strengthen his position. His 33-member Cabinet accommodates tribal loyalties and pro-democracy opponents. Babagana Kingibe, who was Mr. Abiola's running mate in the June poll, is Abacha's new foreign minister. The Cabinet also includes a pro-democracy campaigner and the publisher of the Guardian, the leading independent newspaper.

Although Abacha has swept aside all democratic institutions, he has called for a constitutional forum in January. He has removed 17 Army officers and nine brigadiers loyal to General Babangida, and has established an economic team that observers hope could begin to restore Nigeria to solvency.

The United States Embassy says the new Cabinet includes ``democratically minded prominent Nigerians.'' The US government is ``considering'' its position, which involves limited sanctions against military cooperation and a suspension of fresh aid.

But some observers remain cautious. The Campaign for Democracy, for example, has dismissed Abacha's claim to reform as a ploy to ``hijack and distort our original concept of a national conference and use it to rubber-stamp an unpopular regime.'' The human rights organization is waiting to see if the constitutional conference set for January produces the regional autonomy and multiparty democracy it has been demanding.

Abacha is no stranger to power. He played a key role in the 1983 military takeover by Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, and was the right-hand man to Babangida, who ousted General Buhari two years later. After Babangida annulled the June democratic elections, he set up the the hapless interim government in August under former industrialist Ernest Shonekan. Abacha used his post as defense minister under Mr. Shonekan to neutralize Babangida's lingering influence and reshuffle the military. Protests in Lagos over a 600 percent increase in gasoline prices weakened the government, and the military seized control ``to save the nation from chaos.''

Some military analysts believe Abacha may have taken control to forestall a counter-coup by military forces loyal to Babangida.

Abacha has put together an economic team which, if allowed free rein, could achieve the reforms that the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and Western donors are seeking.

The prospect of much-needed debt relief has receded with the change of government less than two weeks before the IMF was due to help prepare for a shadow medium-term program agreed to with international donors.

Nigeria has not made payments on the greater part of its $30 billion external debt for two years and is in arrears by nearly $60 billion. Leading creditors, including Britain, France, Japan, and the US, want to reschedule the debt service, which is worth one-third of foreign exchange earnings, but on condition that the government account for its oil revenues and check corruption in public office.

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