Now Is the Time in Nigeria

This week its military leader took some steps to remove obstacles to democratic change in Africa's most populous land.

Africa's most populous country - oil-rich, tormented Nigeria - seems at last on the brink of authentic change.

There's one thing that the often opinionated people in Lagos will say these days: Porters and professors, stranded commuters and frustrated motorists, lawyers and politicians all agree that their country is at a spectacular crossroads.

It comes after five military coups, the assassination of three heads of state, and a 13-year-old promise to return the country to civilian rule. Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar this week took steps to clear the decks for a multiparty democracy. He got rid of three agencies designed to bolster one-candidate politics. He announced the release of more than 300 prisoners.

The challenge is formidable. Gen. Sani Abacha, the eighth in a series of military dictators, died in June. A month later, his nemesis - Moshood Abiola, who is presumed to have won the annulled 1993 presidential elections - died in detention. Abacha's successor, General Abubakar, is about to announce what his intentions are. When he addresses the nation, expected by the end of this week, Nigerians will know whether he indeed plans to hand a country with immense human and natural resources over to civilian rule.

"This is it - the Big One. This is where the country pulls together or falls apart," says Obi Nwakama, a newspaper reporter in Lagos.

Mr. Nwakama, a journalist with the daily Vanguard, has been waiting for this moment for most of his adult life. As a young man, he watched a nation rise out of the ashes of one of Africa's worst civil conflicts, the Biafran war of secession. With the loss of 1 million people between 1967 and 1970 came a sense of national cohesion that has remained largely unparalleled in Africa. Out of the country's ability to produce 2 million barrels of crude oil a day came a promise of greatness.

But by the end of the decade, as a seemingly endless stream of oil dollars kept flowing into government coffers, Nigeria had turned into one of the largest importers of luxury goods, and, according to international organizations, its military had become the most corrupt in the world.

When the grim results of overspending and mismanagement settled in, Mr. Nwakama watched the average income of Nigerians get sliced in half. Formerly wealthy Lagos residents turned their Mercedes Benzes into cabs as yet another coup in 1985 delivered Gen. Ibrahim Babangida to power. Along with millions of others, Nwakama waited for the transition to civilian rule. It didn't come in 1990 as promised, nor did it come in 1992. When the country held presidential elections in June 1993, Nwakama stood incredulous before a TV set as a smiling General Babangida declared the vote invalid.

Another general from the northern Hausa tribe that has ruled Nigeria for all but 10 years of its history took over. Like his predecessor, General Abacha committed himself to the restoration of democracy. But by the time he died more than a month ago, he had reneged on every promise. He jailed Mr. Abiola, the presumed winner of the vote, and maneuvered to have himself nominated by all five political parties as the only candidate for elections scheduled for August.

There was hardly any mourning for Abacha. But, when Abiola died July 7, the shock and grief of those who had been counting the minutes until his release swept the country. People took to the streets. In the 48 hours that followed, at least 60 were killed in clashes with police.

Now an eerie calm has settled over Lagos - a sprawling, chaotic city of some 10 million, the largest in Africa. A severe gasoline shortage has compounded the feeling of a city in suspended animation.

Six hundred miles to the north, in the capital, Abuja, Abubakar has been meeting with leaders of the civilian opposition. All have insisted he turn the country over to them before Oct. 1, the day Nigeria celebrates independence from Britain.

Meanwhile, speculation about the death of Abiola abounds. Nigerians seem indifferent to an internationally monitored autopsy, which said his death was from natural causes. They share a loudly advertised belief that "the president Nigeria wanted but never had" was poisoned by a military regime unwilling to free him.

By carrying the northern vote in 1993, Abiola had risen above Nigeria's ethnic divide, which pits the northern Hausa military establishment against the southern Ibos and Yorubas. "He was the only Nigerian that represented all Nigerians," Nwakama says. "And so he was killed."

Now the question is: In what direction will Abubakar take Nigeria? The general has talked of little but restoring democracy. Yet his audience, after so many disappointments, is deeply skeptical.

"He's not serious. Not one bit. He is throwing some smoke in the eyes of the international community, that's all," says Fela Falana, a lawyer and member of the opposition who has been jailed 10 times over the past 13 years. "He has been in the highest ruling body of the military since 1988 and has never shown any objection to the destruction of this country."

Abubakar has released more than 30 political prisoners and has ordered the release of hundreds more. But, Mr. Falana says, this is irrelevant: "It would have been different if he had repealed the detention law," Nigerians can be held without trial for an indefinite amount of time.

Even for those who believe Abubakar had no part in Abiola's death,two questions remain. First, who was behind the death? Most people point at Babangida. Critics say this shows lack of imagination. In his low-profile retirement, he fits the description of an autocrat scheming behind the scenes better than anyone else. "He's the one in the shadows," says a Nigerian lining up with thousands of others at a gas station. "But it's like that with the military. They have not built anything for their future. They are like a man who works for a company for 28 years and is forced to leave without compensation, without a pension plan. They don't want to go."

The second question - assuming Abubakar is willing to step aside - is will he will be able to do so against the wishes of Babangida and his circle of friends?

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