Since they are illegitimate to begin with, dictators rarely know when it's time to leave. Witness Nigeria's reigning autocrat, Gen. Sani Abacha. Since seizing control in 1993 he has often promised a transition to civilian rule. In practice, he has systematically jailed, exiled, or executed leading opponents of his one-man regime.
Predictably, the current round of elections in Nigeria is turning into a rubber stamp for the general's ambitions. The five political parties allowed by the government have uniformly endorsed General Abacha for president, with balloting scheduled for Aug. 1.
Average Nigerians, however, have every reason to want an alternative to the general. The country's economy has disintegrated over the past five years. Motorists queue endlessly for gasoline, though Nigeria is among the world's largest producers of petroleum. The country's currency, in the 1970s valued higher than the US dollar, is now worth barely a cent. Corruption is endemic, starting at the top with Abacha and his henchmen, who amass fortunes at the country's expense.
The dictator's security apparatus keeps a lid on protest. But Nigerians' true feelings were dramatically displayed during the April 25 legislative voting. Most people boycotted the election, with reports of zero turnout in parts of Lagos, the largest city. Anti-Abacha groups have taken heart, calling for strikes and a boycott of the August balloting as well.
Nigerians brave enough to challenge Abacha deserve support from abroad. Pro-democracy broadcasts, training for democracy activists, and beefed up economic sanctions - all can help prod the general to realize his time is over.