Nigerian Vote Moves Populous African State Closer to Civilian Rule New Rules Encourage Parties, Candidates to Develop National Appeal

Article excerpt

IN the dirt yard of a primary school here on Saturday, civil servant Alhaji Ahmed J. Bawa helped Nigeria take another big step from military rule toward democracy - by standing still.

Following Nigeria's unusual, military-directed system of voting, Mr. Bawa and millions of other Nigerians lined up behind posters of their candidates to be openly counted in an election for the new National Assembly.

Official results showed yesterday that the liberal Social Democratic Party (SDP) had gained control of the house of representatives and was near a majority in the senate, but the election may have been more significant because political parties appealed to voters across religious, regional, and tribal boundaries.

It is uncertain what the parliament can do until the military hands over power, as promised, in January. Meanwhile the country will hold one more election, for president, on Dec. 5; primaries for the race begin in August.

Judging by returns from the National Assembly vote, in which the country's two political parties carried constituencies in most regions, the two presidential candidates will also have to make national appeals.

In the past, voting in Nigeria has often been a question of north against south, Muslim against Christian, one major tribe against the other, says Tonnie Iredia, a senior federal election official. Such divisions, magnified during heated and sometimes violent elections, tended to pull Nigeria apart. But the old voting trends "have been broken by the new political system," says Mr. Iredia, of the government-appointed National Election Commission.

The new pattern is one of "liberalism vs. conservatives," says Omo Omoruyi, director general of the Center for Democratic Studies, a government agency based in the new Nigerian capital, Abuja.

With only two parties in Nigeria at present - the limit set by Nigerian head of state Gen. Ibrahim Babangida - each party is forced to campaign for votes all over the country, regardless of religion and tribe. The SDP won control of the 593-member house and needed only two more seats to dominate the 91-seat senate, official results said.

According to another civil servant in Abuja, "everyone is struggling to get your vote. They {the candidates} forgot about religion," he said, asking not to be named.

The new voting pattern does not mean, however, that Nigeria has overcome tribal and religious differences, says Mohammed Abdulrahi, a businessman in Abuja, about an hour's drive from this town. "We still look at politics as do or die," he says.

Saturday's election was peaceful. But some candidates or officials chosen in previous elections during the transition have been attacked or threatened. Elections have been held for local and state government, including governorships.

The military has yet to define its relationship to the newly elected National Assembly. …