NIGERIA opens a national constitutional conference today, starting what military leaders call the slow march back to elected civilian rule.
Head of state Gen. Sani Abacha, who seized power in a coup last November, said the conference would give Nigerians the opportunity to discuss their system of government and help restore credibility to the military.
But civilian opponents have dismissed the conference and organized protests to the government-led meeting after a long period of dormancy. Adding to their fervor was the arrest on June 23 on charges of sedition of Moshood Abiola, whose victory in last June's presidential poll was annulled by General Abacha's predecessor, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida.
Mr. Abiola echoes the views of many Nigerians: The constitution is not at fault but successive regimes have failed to implement it.
Since Abacha seized power, Nigeria has been isolated diplomatically by the West, branded by the United States as a drug smuggling center, and eclipsed by South Africa's peaceful transition to majority rule. The government's reversion to state-controlled economic policies has deterred private-sector investment and official aid.
The military rulers apparently hoped the conference would revive its flagging fortunes. But delays and limits on the conference's powers and scope, as well as antimilitary protests, have lowered expectations.
``Nigeria is between the gunmen [the military] and the conmen [the politicians],'' according to a recent speech by Theophilus Danjuma, who was chief of military staff in 1979, the only time the military handed over power on schedule to an elected president.
The constitutional reform process here stands in stark contrast to the South African elections.
Nigerians, who greeted last month's polling for the constitutional delegates with a mixture of apathy and hostility, look upon South Africa's transfer of power with a realization that that country can now claim the vacant title to which Nigeria has long aspired - to be the foremost black African state. Since gaining independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria has championed the cause of black majorities in southern Africa more successfully than it has resolved its own political problems.
Popular opposition to the conference is widespread.
Mr. Danjuma has formed the Middle Belt forum, representing an area of mainly Christian minority tribes who have formed the backbone of the armed forces but have been deprived of political power by the more numerous Hausa and Fulani in the far north. Minority tribes in the oil producing area, the source of 90 percent of the country's exports, say they want a conference leading to greater regional autonomy.
By early May other regional alliances had formed and called for a boycott of the conference. In the southwest, where Abiola's Yoruba kinsmen feel cheated of their turn to hold power, an assortment of veteran politicians, democracy campaigners, and retired Army officers formed the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO). They denounced the conference as a sham and demanded that the military make way for a civilian government of national unity, whose first task would be to call a sovereign national conference leading to federalism rather than centralized power under military rule.
Abiola returned from Mr. Mandela's inauguration in May and renewed his claim to the presidency on June 11, backed by NADECO. ``The so-called constitutional conference is unnecessary,'' Abiola said. ``When you have held an election, the next step should be the formation of an elected government. We have not had that.''
Gerry Gana, the information minister, has denied such charges. ``The constitutional conference is definitely not a ploy to buy time. We believe we are answering the yearnings of Nigerians,'' he said on state television earlier this year.
Abacha's Provisional Ruling Council will keep close control of the process. Aminu Saleh, secretary to the government, has made it clear that the final report from the conference will be written by a military-appointed commission. The commission will in turn report to a political bureau, to be appointed by the regime, which will draft the next constitution.
Previous constitutional conferences in Nigeria have acted as springboards for civilian political alliances that eventually became parties - when allowed by the military. Ninety of the 360 delagates attending the conference were nominated by the government, and many have figured prominently in past regimes.
The absence of younger political leaders from the delegate list has added to skepticism that this conference will follow patterns of the past and fail to address the most urgent issues.