Next in Nigeria

Events are moving fast in Nigeria, Africa's most populous, and potentially most prosperous, nation. One month ago the country's dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, suddenly died. His successor, another general, has shown an un-Abacha-like inclination toward reform. But his sincerity has yet to be put to the test.

The best test, sadly, is now foreclosed. Moshood Abiola, apparent winner of a nullified 1993 national election and a political prisoner since 1994, was reportedly about to be released - a step that would have given substance to the hopes raised by Gen. Abdusalam Abubakar. But Mr. Abiola died on Tuesday following a sudden illness.

He became ill in the midst of talks with American diplomats sent to Nigeria to lobby for his release and urge a prompt transition to civilian rule. The Americans were following in the footsteps of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whose mission to Nigeria last week brought headlines that Abiola and remaining political prisoners would indeed be freed. General Abubakar had already released some two dozen others.

With Abiola's death, Nigeria's immediate future becomes cloudier. His absence leaves a leadership vacuum for democratic forces - even though he was said to be moving toward a decision not to claim the presidency denied him by military rulers in 1993. The country's tribal rivalries could now resurface, with the military, dominated by officers from the northern Hausa tribe, having the upper hand as usual.

In these circumstances, sustained diplomatic engagement is critical. General Abubakar, unlike Abacha, has been attentive to international opinion. But diplomatic pressure from the US or other Western sources has to be clearly motivated by a desire for democratic development and regional peace - not just a continued flow from Nigeria's oil wells - if a wary Nigerian populace is to be brought along.

The best outcome remains free elections this year and civilian rule. That would suitably honor Abiola.

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