Africa's future on view in Nigeria's elections

Feb. 20, 27 polls show regional linchpin's tortuous path from militaryto civilian rule.

Last Saturday Marquis Olasuro showed up to vote in his boxer shorts. Without a word he slapped his voter's registration card on the desk and waited for the official at the polling station in downtown Lagos to tick his name off a list.

"The first time, I wore a suit and a tie," said the real estate developer, a trifle embarrassed. "That was December."

December was when Nigeria began its tortuous transition toward democracy after nearly three decades of military rule. Success in this extraordinary step for Nigeria could be an example for other African states.

The stakes are high. Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation. One out of every four Africans is Nigerian. Alone in a volatile region, this country of 120 million holds the key to the stability and prosperity of half a dozen neighboring countries - war-torn Sierra Leone among them.

Nigeria is a major oil producer, America's fifth-largest supplier of crude, with $12 billion a year in oil revenues. If any African country can be expected to make the leap into a first-world economy in the next few decades, according to analysts, Nigeria can.

Roughly 40 million Nigerians have voted in local and state elections. Last Saturday they queued up again to pick the 109 senators and 360 House representatives that will make up the new national assembly.

This coming Saturday, a final round of voting will determine which of two presidential candidates will ferry Nigeria from its military past to its democratic future.

The results of last Saturday's parliamentary elections, according to observers, will provide an accurate indication of who will lead Nigeria into the new millennium - and how radical a break from the past the new civilian government can be expected to make after it takes over from Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar in May.

Last Saturday's vote will also help determine how far the south's federalist agenda will make it under the new civilian administration. Technically, Nigeria is a federation of 36 states. In reality, however, power has been concentrated at the center for decades.

"We are watching the Senate race, says Abdul Oroh, a Lagos-based human rights activist. "If the south wins a majority, you can be sure it will push hard for federalism."

Having long controlled the country's vast oil reserves in the south, and being poor in natural resources, the north has little desire to implement federalist reforms that would place the states in control of the wealth they produce.

DESPITE the million campaign posters proclaiming the existence of single candidates, the elections focused exclusively on the three political parties currently vying for power. All but one of 50 people interviewed in Lagos said they had no idea of the names of the candidates they were voting for in the Senate and the House.

"I'm voting AD [Alliance for Democracy]," said Micheal Bimpe, a hairdresser. Asked why, she said, "Because it's the Yoruba party."

At roughly 25 million, the Yoruba of Nigeria's southwestern region are the largest ethnic group in Nigeria, followed by the Ibo in the southeast and, in the north, the Hausa-Fulani - who merged under Islam centuries ago and have ruled Nigeria under different guises, including the military, for most of its history.

Of the three parties, the AD is the most tribal-oriented, having emerged and developed as a force determined to bring the Yoruba to power after decades of political and economic domination by the Hausa-Fulani. Analysts say it stands little chance against the People's Democratic Party (PDP), largely believed to have been selected by Nigeria's ruling oligarchy to protect its interests at a time they are most threatened.

Partly because of the financial resources it was able to muster, the PDP boasts the broadest political base and a candidate, retired Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, who is a Yoruba and might consequently succeed in breaking up the Yoruba vote. He is also Nigeria's only former military ruler to have voluntarily relinquished power.

The All People's Party (APP), an acrimonious coalition of the Ibo and Hausa-Fulani, comes last, in terms of both financial means and political appeal.

Attempts to merge the AD and the APP to counter General Obasanjo's PDP in Saturday's presidential elections failed at the last minute after months of often bitter negotiations, leaving the AD's presidential candidate, Chief Olu Falae, at a severe disadvantage.

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