Nigerian General Appears to Prepare for Civil Rule: Abubakar Sets Election Dates, Frees Prisoners

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From all outward appearances, Nigeria's latest military ruler, Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, is moving firmly toward civilian rule and has won support from the United States, the European Union and some of his own countrymen in the process.

The unanswered question, however, is whether the military men who brought him to power after the death of Gen. Sani Abacha in June are finally willing to open the doors to Nigeria's major ethnic and political constituencies long on the sidelines.

Men in uniform from the north have ruled Nigeria for 28 of the 38 years of its existence as an independent nation. In the last 13 years two of them, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and Gen. Abacha staged a charade of returning the country to civilian rule, raising hopes abroad and internally for democracy while perpetuating their rule.

In less than four months, in contrast, Gen. Abubakar has freed scores of political prisoners, discarded Gen. Abacha's heavily criticized program for return to civilian rule, and set early and firm deadlines for elections and the transfer of political power.

He has also promised to privatize state enterprises and to remain engaged as premiere peacekeeper of West Africa.

"Everybody is fed up with the military. This time there can be no turning back from the road to civilian rule," said Sola Saraki, a possible presidential candidate in the election scheduled for Feb. 27.

Mr. Saraki is in Washington this week with a delegation from a new political association, the All People's Party, waiting to be registered as a party eligible to compete in the election.

Probably few Nigerians are as fed up with military rule as Chief Gani Fawehinmi, who heads the Joint Action Committee of Nigeria, an umbrella group of 61 pro-democracy and human rights organizations. He has been in more than a score of prisons in the past several decades.

"Abubakar is traveling the same road as his predecessors, giving the impression of changing things while continuing to retain power," he said in an interview with The Washington Times late last week.

When the new military ruler took over, Chief Fawehinmi immediately called for a surrender of power by the military no later than Oct. 30, a deadline set by Gen. Abacha.

The chief, a founder of the National Conscience Party, asked that the soldiers be replaced by civilians representing the six "zones" of the country, which are in reality the rough ethnic boundaries of the country. Some zones are marked by the predominance of one ethnic group while others contain many smaller ethnic minorities.

According to Chief Fawenhimi's plan, once the civilians are selected, they would organize a sovereign national conference to draw up a new constitution and lead the country through national elections.

Gen. Abubakar has rejected this proposal on grounds that it would replace one set of non-elected officials with others who are also not elected.

The suspicions of yet another military-orchestrated process to restore civilian rule is the deepest, or at least the most vocal, among the Yoruba of Nigeria's southwest.

This reflects in part the influence over the south by the Hausa and Fulani emirs for nearly two centuries.

Of Nigeria's 107 million people, the Yoruba make up about 22 percent, roughly the same number as the Hausa. The Fulani constitute about 11 percent, while the southeastern Ibo account for about 18 percent. …