Nigeria Reclaims Democracy

One of Africa's giants, Nigeria, is on track toward a political turnaround that could give fresh hope to the whole continent. The coming presidential election, Feb. 27, will be crucial.

Nigeria's new leader will have to knit together a perennially fractious country, still tense from the latest siege of harsh, corrupt military dictatorship, which ended last summer with the sudden death of Gen. Sani Abacha. The general who stepped in as caretaker, Abdulsalami Abubakar, has shown an admirable determination to hand power back to civil authorities. Only 10 of the 39 years since Nigeria's independence have been spent under civilian rule.

The election's front-runner is Olusegon Obasanjo, who has had the distinction of being the only Nigerian military ruler ever to voluntarily transfer power to a civilian, back in 1979. Mr. Obasanjo is saying the right things - assuring representation to all parts of the nation, and vowing to root out corruption. But his military background - though relatively benign - could hurt him in southern regions that have suffered under the heel of an Army dominated by northerners. His own Yoruba ethnic group is particularly leery of Mr. Obasanjo's past.

The Feb. 27 winner will face a long list of national priorities: Assuring people in all regions that their voices will be heard in the capital, Abuja; soothing the deep resentments in the Niger River delta area, whose residents feel they've been cheated out of economic rewards from local oil production; ending the official larceny that has sapped the country's economy; reviving a potentially prosperous agricultural sector.

Nigeria's long-term stability is critical, regionally and globally. International observers will help assure a fair election. Among them will be former US President Jimmy Carter and former Joint Chiefs chairman Colin Powell. Local, regional, and national assembly elections have set the stage for a well-run presidential contest with better turnout. Believers in democracy everywhere pray for a successful, and permanent, transition in Nigeria.

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